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COUNCILS AND THEIR AUTHORITY
(True authority of church councils, 1-2) 1. TWO PREFATORY REMARKS Now, suppose I grant them their every point on the church, even this would not much further their major premise. For all that is said about the church, they at once transfer to councils, since in their opinion these represent the church. Indeed, they so stubbornly contend over the power of the church to no other purpose but to bestow all they can extort upon the Roman pontiff and his entourage. But before I begin to discuss this question, I must make two brief prefatory remarks: The fact that I shall here be rather severe does not mean that I esteem the ancient councils less than I ought. For I venerate them from my heart, and desire that they be honored by all.F284 But here the norm is that nothing of course detract from Christ. Now it is Christ’s right to preside over all councils and to have no man share his dignity. But I say that he presides only when the whole assembly is governed by his word and Spirit. Secondly, the fact that I attribute less to councils than my opponents claim does not mean that I am afraid of councils, as if they supported their side and opposed ours. For as we have been amply equipped by the Word of the Lord for the full proof of our teaching and for the overthrow of all popery, and consequently there is no great need to require anything additional, so, if the matter should require it, the ancient councils would in large measure provide us enough evidence for both these. 2. TRUE AND FALSE COUNCILS Let us now speak of the matter itself. If one seeks in Scripture what the authority of councils is, there exists no clearer promise than in this
statement of Christ’s: “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them” [<401820> Matthew 18:20]. But that nonetheless refers as much to a little meeting as to a universal council. Yet the difficulty of the question does not lie in this, but in the added condition that Christ will be in the midst of a council only if it is gathered together in his name. As a consequence, it will benefit our adversaries but little to mention councils of bishops a thousand times over; nor will they persuade us to believe what they contend—that councils are governed by the Holy Spirit—before they convince us that these have been gathered in Christ’s name. Ungodly and evil bishops can just as much conspire against Christ as good and honest ones can come together in his name. We have clear proof of this fact in a great many decrees that have come forth from such councils. But this will appear later.F285 I now reply with but one word: Christ promises nothing except to those who are gathered in his name. Let us therefore define what that means. I deny that they are gathered in his name who, casting aside God’s commandment that forbids anything to be added or taken away from his Word [<050402> Deuteronomy 4:2; cf. <051232> Deuteronomy 12:32; <203006> Proverbs 30:6; <662218> Revelation 22:18-19], ordain anything according to their own decision; who, not content with the oracles of Scripture, that is, the sole rule of perfect wisdom, concoct some novelty out of their own heads. Surely, since Christ promised that he would be present not in all councils whatsoever but laid down a special mark by which a true and lawful one might be distinguished from the rest, it behooves us never to neglect this distinction. This is the covenant which God of old made with the Levitical priests, that they should teach from his own lips [<390207> Malachi 2:7]. He required this always of the prophets; we see that this rule was also imposed upon the apostles. Those who violate this covenantsF286 God deems worthy neither of the honor of the priesthood nor of any authority. Let my opponents resolve this difficulty for me if they would bind my faith to the decrees of men apart from God’s Word.
(Defects of pastors render their councils fallible, 3-7) 3. THE TRUTH CAN ALSO SUPPORT AND ASSERT ITSELF IN THE CHURCH WITHOUT AND AGAINST THE “PASTORS” They suppose that the truth does not abide in the church unless there is agreement among the pastors; and that the church itself exists only if it becomes visible in general councils.F287 Yet this is far from having always been true, if the prophets have left us true testimonies of their times. In Isaiah’s day, there was a church at Jerusalem which God had not yet forsaken. But of the pastors he thus speaks: “His watchmen are all blind, and know nothing; they are all dumb dogs, they cannot bark. Lying down, they sleep, and love sleep.... And the shepherds know and understand nothing; they all look to their own way” [ <235610> Isaiah 56:10-11 p.]. qn the same way Hosea says: “The watchman of Ephraim is... with God, a fowler’s snare... and hatred in God’s house” [<280908> Hosea 9:8 p.]. There, by ironically joining them with God, he teaches that theirs is a vain pretense of the priesthood. The church also endured to the time of Jeremiah. Let us hear what he says of the pastors: “From prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely” [ <240613> Jeremiah 6:13]. Again: “The prophets are prophesying lies in my name, since I did not send them, nor did I command them” [<241414> Jeremiah 14:14]. And lest we should be too prolix in quoting his words, let our readers consult what he has written in the whole twenty-third [<242301> Jeremiah 23:1 ff.] and fortiethF288 chapters. At that time, from another quarter, Ezekiel no more gently inveighed against the same ones. He says: “A conspiracy of her prophets in the midst of her is like a roaring lion tearing the prey.... Her priests have done violence to my law, and have profaned my holy things; they have made no distinction between the holy and the common” [<262225> Ezekiel 22:25-26]; and the rest that he adds in this sense. Similar complaints appear in the prophets again and again; in fact, nothing else recurs more frequently there [<230914> Isaiah 9:14; 28:7; 29:10; <240208> Jeremiah 2:8, 26; 5:13, 31; 6:13; 8:10; 13:13; 14:14; 23:1; 27:9; etc.]. 4. DEJECTION OF THE PASTORS FORETOLD This, someone will say, may have prevailed among the Jews: our age, however, is free from such great evil! Would, indeed, that it were! But the
Holy Spirit has declared that it will be otherwise. For Peter’s words are clear: “As there were,” he says, “false prophets among the ancient folk, so also among you there will be false teachers, secretly bringing in destructive heresies” [<610201> 2 Peter 2:1 p.]. Do you see how he predicts that danger threatens, not from the common people, but from those who boast the title of teachers and pastors? Moreover, how often did Christ and his apostles foretell that pastors would pose the greatest dangers to the church [<402411> Matthew 24:11, 24; <442029> Acts 20:29-30; <540401> 1 Timothy 4:1; <550301> 2 Timothy 3:1 ff.; 4:3]? Indeed, Paul plainly shows that Antichrist will sit in no other place than the temple of God [<530204> 2 Thessalonians 2:4]. By this he means that the terrible calamity of which he there speaks will come from no other source than from those who will sit as pastors in the church. And in another passage he shows that the beginnings of that very great evil were already almost at hand. For when he addresses the Ephesian bishopsF289 he says, “I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them” [ <442019> Acts 20:19-30]. Since the pastors could become so degraded in such a short time, how much corruption could a long succession of years bring among them? And, not to fill many pages in reciting them, we are warned by examples from almost every age that the truth is not always nurtured in the bosom of the pastors, and the wholeness of the church does not depend upon their condition. It was indeed fitting that they be executors and keepers of the peace and safety of the church, since they were appointed for its preservation; but it is one thing to render what you owe; another, to owe what you fail to render. 5. THE NEED TO JUDGE THEM WITH DISCRIMINATION Still, let no one understand these words as if I meant to undermine the authority of pastors, in general, rashly, and without distinction. I am only warning that discrimination is to be made among these pastors themselves, lest we also immediately regard as pastors those who are so called. But the pope with the whole troupe of his bishops, for no other reason except that they are called pastors, having shaken off obedience to God’s Word, tumble and toss everything at their pleasure. And meantime they strive to
persuade us that they cannot be bereft of the light of truth, that the Spirit of God dwells continually in them, that the church subsists in them, and dies with them. As if there were now no judgments of the Lord to punish the world today with the same kind of punishment that he once visited upon the ungratefulness of the ancient folk: that is, he struck the pastors with blindness and dullness [<381117> Zechariah 11:17]. Nor do these utterly stupid men realize that they are singing the same song that those once sang who were fighting against God’s Word. For thus did Jeremiah’s enemies array themselves against truth: “Come, and we shall make plots against Jeremiah, for the law shall not perish from the priest, nor counsel from the wise, nor the word from the prophet” [<241818> Jeremiah 18:18]. 6. THE TRUTH CAN ALSO STAND AGAINST COUNCILS Hence it is easy to answer that other objection concerning general councils. That the Jews had a true church under the prophets cannot be denied. But if a general council of priests had then been convened, what semblance of the church would have shown itself? We hear that God announced not to one or another of them, but to the whole order: “The priests shall become mute and the prophets astounded” [<240409> Jeremiah 4:9 p.]. Also: “The law will perish from the priest and council from the elders” [<260726> Ezekiel 7:26 p.]. Also: “The night shall be vision for you, and darkness your divination; the sun shall go down upon the prophets, and the day shall be black over them” [<330306> Micah 3:6 p.]. Come now, if they had all been assembled together, what spirit would have presided over their assembly? We have a notable example of this thing in the council convened by Ahab [<112206> 1 Kings 22:6,22]. Four hundred prophets were present. But because they convened with no other purpose than to flatter the wicked king, Satan is sent by the Lord to be a lying spirit in the mouths of all. The truth is there, by the vote of all, condemned: Micaiah is condemned as a heretic, beaten, and cast into prison [ <112226> 1 Kings 22:26-27]. The same happened to Jeremiah [ <242002> Jeremiah 20:2; 32:2; 37:15 ff.] and to the other prophets [cf. <402135> Matthew 21:35; 23:29 ff.]. 7. EXAMPLE FROM <431147> JOHN 11:47 But one example, more memorable than the rest, will suffice for all. In that council which the high priests and Pharisees convened at Jerusalem against
Christ [ John 11:47], what was lacking as far as outward appearance is concerned? For unless a church then existed at Jerusalem, Christ would never have taken part in the sacrifices and other ceremonies. A solemn convocation takes place; the high priest presides; the whole priestly order is present. Yet Christ is there condemned, and his teaching cast away [<402657> Matthew 26:57 ff.]. This deed proves that the church was by no means embraced within that council. Yet, our opponents assert, there is no danger of such a thing happening to us. Who has assured us of this? For to be unconcerned in so important a matter is culpable neglect. But when the Holy Spirit prophesies expressly through Paul’s lips that an apostasy is coming [<530203> 2 Thessalonians 2:3]—which cannot come unless the pastors are the first to forsake God—why are we here willfully blind to our own destruction? Accordingly, we must by no means admit that the church consists in the assembly of the pastors, whom the Lord nowhere assumes to be forever good but has declared will sometimes be evil. But where he warns of peril, he does so to render us more wary. (Departing from Scripture, councils have deteriorated, but even those of Nicaea and Chalcedon were defective, 8-11) 8. THE VALIDITY OF CONCILIAR DECISIONS What then? You ask, will the councils have no determining authority? Yes, indeed; for I am not arguing here either that all councils are to be condemned or the acts of all to be rescinded, and (as the saying goes) to be canceled at one stroke. But, you will say, you degrade everything, so that every man has the right to accept or reject what the councils decide. Not at all! But whenever a decree of any council is brought forward, I should like men first of all diligently to ponder at what time it was held, on what issue, and with what intention, what sort of men were present; then to examine by the standard of Scripture what it dealt with—and to do this in such a way that the definition of the council may have its weight and be like a provisional judgment, yet not hinder the examination which I have mentioned. Would that all kept that moderation which Augustine enjoins in the third book against Maximinus! When he wishes to silence in a few words this heretic contending over the decrees of councils, he says: “I ought not to
throw up against you the Council of Nicaea, nor you against me the Council of Ariminum as prejudging the matter. For I am not subject to the authority of the second, nor you to that of the first. Let matter contend with matter, cause with cause, reason with reason, by Scriptural authorities, not those peculiar to either one, but those common to both.”F290 Thus councils would come to have the majesty that is their due; yet in the meantime Scripture would stand out in the higher place, with everything subject to its standard. In this way, we willingly embrace and reverence as holy the early councils, such as those of Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus I, Chalcedon,F291 and the like, which were concerned with refuting errors— in so far as they relate to the teachings of faith. For they contain nothing but the pure and genuine exposition of Scripture, which the holy fathers applied with spiritual prudence to crush the enemies of religion who had then arisen. In some of the later councils also we see shining forth the true zeal for piety, and clear tokens of insight, doctrine, and prudence. But as affairs usually tend to get worse, it is to be seen from the more recent councils how much the church has degenerated from the purity of that golden age. I do not doubt that even in these more corrupt times the councils had their bishops of a better type. But the same thing happened to them that Roman senators of old themselves complained of—senatorial decrees were badly framed. For so long as opinions are counted, not weighed, the better part had often to be overcome by the greater. They have surely put forward many impious opinions. And it is not necessary here to collect instances, either because it would take too long or because others have done this so diligently that not much can be added.F292 9. COUNCILS AGAINST COUNCILS Need I then recount how councils disagreed with councils? And there is no ground for anyone to murmur against me that of the two that disagree one is not legitimate. For by what shall we judge such a case? By this, unless I am deceived, that we shall determine from Scripture which one’s decree is not orthodox. For this is the only sure principle on which to distinguish.
It is now about nine hundred years since the Council of Constantinople, convened under the Emperor Leo, decided that images set up in churches should be pulled down and smashed. A little later, the Council of Nicaea, which the Empress Irene, in hatred toward the first council, assembled, decreed the restoration of images.F293 Which of these two shall we acknowledge as legitimate? The latter, which gave images a place in churches, has subsequently prevailed among the people. But Augustine says that this practice involves an ever-present danger of idolatry.F294 Epiphanius, of a previous period, speaks much more harshly, for he states that it is unlawful and abominable for images to be seen in the churches of Christians.F295 Would they who speak thus approve this council if they were alive today? But if the historians tell the truth, and the acts themselves are believed, not only the images themselves but also their worship was approved there. It is obvious that such a decree emanated from Satan. What about the fact that, in perverting and mangling the whole of Scripture, they show that it was a laughingstock to them? This I have made abundantly clear above.F296 However it may be, we cannot otherwise distinguish between councils that are contradictory and discordant, which have been many, unless we weigh them all, as I have said, in the balance of all men and angels, that is, the Word of the Lord. Thus, we accept Chalcedon, but reject Ephesus II, because in it the Eutychean heresy was confirmed, which Chalcedon condemned.F297 Holy men have judged this matter solely by Scripture, and we so follow them in judgment that God’s Word, which shone before them, may now shine before us also. Now, let the Romanists go and boast (as they are accustomed) that the Holy Spirit is fastened and bound to their councils. 10. HUMAN FAILINGS IN THE COUNCILS Still, in those ancient and purer councils one may count something lacking. For either otherwise learned and wise men who were present, occupied with the business at hand, did not foresee many other things; or some things of lesser importance escaped them, occupied as they were with graver and more serious matters; or simply, as men, they could be deceived through lack of skill; or they were sometimes borne headlong with too much feeling. Of this last (which seems hardest of all), there is a notable example in the Council of Nicaea, whose eminence has been recognized by
the consent of all with highest reverence, as it deserved. For when the chief article of our faith was there imperiled, the enemy Arius was ready for battle, and they had to fight with him hand to hand, so it was of greatest importance that there should be agreement among those who had come prepared to fight Arius’ error. Despite this, heedless of such great dangers, even forgetful of gravity, modesty, and all civility, they let slip the battle that was in their hands, as if they had purposely come there to do Arius a favor. They began to revile one another with internal dissensions, and to turn against one another the pen which ought to have been wielded against Arius. Foul recriminations were heard; accusatory pamphlets flew back and forth; and the contentions would not have ended until they had stabbed and wounded one another if the Emperor Constantine had not interfered. He, professing that an inquiry into their life was a matter beyond his competence, chastised such intemperance with praise rather than with blame.F298 In how many respects is it likely that other councils which followed this also failed? This matter needs no long proof. For if anyone reads through their acts, he will note many defects there—not to mention things more serious! 11. HUMAN FALLIBILITY IN THE COUNCILS Leo, the Roman pontiff, does not hesitate to charge the Council of Chalcedon (which he admits to be orthodox in doctrines) with ambition and unadvised rashness. Indeed, he does not deny that it is legitimate, but he openly declares that it may have erred.F299 Perhaps someone will think me foolish because I labor to show such errors, since our opponents admit that councils can err in those matters which are not necessary to salvation.F300 But this is no superfluous labor! For even though, being compelled, they confess it by mouth, still, when they thrust upon us the decision of every council, on whatever matter, indiscriminately as an oracle of the Holy Spirit, they require more than they had originally assumed. In doing this, what do they affirm but that councils cannot err; or if they err, it is not lawful for us to discern the truth, or not to assent to their errors? And I intend merely to show what can be the inference from this, that the Holy Spirit so governed the otherwise godly and holy councils as to allow something human to happen to them, lest we should put too much confidence in men. This is a much better opinion than that of Gregory of
Nazianzus, that he never saw a good end to any council.F301 For when he asserts that all without exception have a bad end, he does not leave them much authority. There is now no need to make separate mention of provincial councils, since it is easy to estimate from general councils how much authority they ought to have eto frame articles of faith and to receive whatever doctrine pleases them. (We must not obey blind guides; decisions of later councils faulty in the light of Scripture, 12-14) 12. NO BLIND OBEDIENCE But our Romanists, where in defending their cause they see that all help of reason forsakes them, resort to this last and miserable evasion: even though these men themselves be stupid in mind and counsel, and utterly wicked in heart and will, still the Word of the Lord abides, which bids men obey their rulers [<581317> Hebrews 13:17]F302 Is this so? What if I deny that they who are of this sort are really rulers? For they ought not to claim for themselves more than Joshua had, who was also a prophet of the Lord and an excellent shepherd. But let us hear with what words the Lord appointed him to his office: “This Book of the Law shall not depart out of your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night.... You shall not turn from it to the right hand or to the left; then you will direct your path, and understand it” [<060108> Joshua 1:8,7 p.]. They, therefore, will be our spiritual rulers who turn aside from the law of the Lord neither this way nor that. abut if we must accept the teaching of all pastors whatever without any doubting, what was the point of the Lord’s frequent admonitions to us not to heed the talk of false prophets? “Do not,” he says through Jeremiah, “listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you; for they teach you vanity, and not from the mouth of the Lord.” [<242316> Jeremiah 23:16.] Likewise: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves” [<400715> Matthew 7:15]. John also would vainly exhort us to “test the spirits to see whether they are of God” [<620401> 1 John 4:1]. Not even the angels are exempt from this judgment, much less Satan with his lies [<480108> Galatians 1:8]! But what is this saying: “If a blind man lead a blind
man, both will fall into the ditch” [ Matthew 15:14]? Does this not sufficiently declare that it is very important what sort of pastors should be heard, and that not all are to be heard indiscriminately? There is consequently no reason why they should frighten us with their titles so as to drag us into sharing their blindness. For we see, on the contrary, that the Lord took particular care to alarm us, so that we should not allow ourselves to be led into others’ error, masked under any name whatsoever. For if Christ’s answer is true, all blind guides, whether they are called high priests, or prelates, or pontiffs, can do nothing but hurtle their partners with them over the same precipice. Accordingly, no names of councils, pastors, bishops (which can either be falsely pretended or truly used) can prevent our being taught by the evidence of words and things to test all spirits of all men by the standard of God’s Word in order to determine whether or not they are from God. 13. THE ACTUAL SIGNIFICANCE OF COUNCILS FOR THE INTERPRETATION OF SCRIPTURE Since we have proved that the church has not been given the power to set up a new doctrine, let us now speak concerning the power which they claim for it in interpreting Scripture. We indeed willingly concede, if any discussion arises over doctrine, that the best and surest remedy is for a synod of true bishops to be convened, where the doctrine at issue may be examined. Such a definition, upon which the pastors of the church in common, invoking Christ’s Spirit, agree, will have much more weight than if each one, having conceived it separately at home, should teach it to the people, or if a few private individuals should compose it. Then, when the bishops are assembled, they can more conveniently deliberate in common what they ought to teach and in what form, lest diversity breed offense. Thirdly, Paul prescribes this method in distinguishing doctrines. For when he assigns the distinguishing of doctrines to the separate churches [cf. <461429> 1 Corinthians 14:29], he shows what should be the order of procedure in more serious cases—namely, that the churches should take common cognizance among themselves. And the very feeling of piety so instructs us that, if anyone disturb the church with a strange doctrine, and the matter reach the point that there is danger of greater dissension, the
churches should first assemble, examine the question put, and finally, after due discussion, bring forth a definition derived from Scripture which would remove all doubt from the people and stop the mouths of wicked and greedy men from daring to go any farther. Thus, when Arius rose up, the Council of Nicaea was summoned. By its authority it both crushed the wicked efforts of that ungodly man, restoring peace to those churches which he had troubled, and asserted the eternal deity of Christ against his sacrilegious teaching. Then, when Eunomius and Macedonius stirred up new tumults, the Council of Constantinople provided a like remedy for their madness.F303 At the Council of Ephesus, Nestorius’ impiety was overthrown. From the beginning, then, this was the ordinary method of maintaining unity in the church whenever Satan began any machinations. But let us remember that not every age or place has men like Athanasius, Basil, Cyril, and such vindicators of true doctrine, whom the Lord raised up at that time. Indeed, let us ponder what happened at the Second Synod of Ephesus, where Eutyches’ heresy prevailed,F304 and that man of holy memory, Flavian, with some other godly men, was cast into exile, and many misdeeds of this sort committed. That happened because Dioscorus, a quarrelsome man of very evil character, and not the Spirit of the Lord, presided. But, you say, the church was not there. I admit it. For I am quite convinced that truth does not die in the church, even though it be oppressed by one council, but is wonderfully, preserved by the Lord so that it may rise up and triumph again in its own time. But I deny it to be always the case that an interpretation of Scripture adopted by vote of a council is true and certain. 14. FALSE EVALUATION OF CONCILIAR DECISIONS ON THE PART OF THE ROMAN CHURCH But the Romanists aim at another goal when they teach that the power of interpreting Scripture belongs to councils, and without appeal. For, in calling everything ordained in councils “interpretation of Scripture,” they misuse this as pretext. Not one syllable of purgatory, of intercession of saints, of auricular confession, and the like will be found in Scripture.F305But, because all these things have been sanctioned by the
authority of the church, that is (to speak more accurately), received by opinion and use, every one will have to be taken as an interpretation of Scripture. And not that only: but if a council decides anything—even if Scripture cries out against it—it will have the name “interpretation.” Christ bids all drink of the cup which he proffers in the Supper [<402627> Matthew 26:27-28]. The Council of Constance forbade it to be given to the laity but willed that the priest alone drink it.F306 What is so diametrically opposed to Ghrist’s institution they would have men consider “interpretation.” Paul calls the prohibition of marriage the hypocrisy of demons [<540401> 1 Timothy 4:1-3]; and in another passage the Spirit declares marriage holy and honorable in all [<581304> Hebrews 13:4]. Their subsequent prohibition of marriage to priests F307 they demand to be regarded as a true and genuine interpretation of Scripture, when nothing more alien can be devised. If anyone dare open his mouth in opposition, he will be adjudged a heretic, because the decision of the church is without appeal; and it is unlawful to question whether its interpretation is true. Why should I inveigh against such shamelessness? For to have shown it up is to have conquered it. I wittingly pass over what they teach on the power to approve Scripture. For to subject the oracles of God in this way to men’s judgment, making their validity depend upon human whim, is a blasphemy unfit to be mentioned. I have already touched on the matter above.F308 Nevertheless, I shall ask this one question: If the authority of Scripture is grounded in the approval of the church, the decree of which Council will they they cite on this point? They have none, I believe. Why, then, did Arius allow himself to be overcome at the Council of Nicaea by testimonies drawn from the Gospel of John?F309 For he was—according to these men—free to reject them, since no approval of a general council had preceded. They bring forward as evidence an ancient list, called “canon,” which they say came from the judgment of the church. But I ask once more, in what council was that canon promulgated? Here they must remain mute. However, I should like to know furthermore what sort of canon they think it is. For I see that it was little agreed on among ancient writers. And if what Jerome says ought to have weight, the books of Maccabees, Tobit, Ecclesiasticus, and the like, are to be thrown back into the rank of Apocrypha. This the Romanists cannot bear to do.F310