Councils and Authority

In the 39 Articles of Religion we read in Article XXI:

“General Councils may not be gathered together without the commandment and will of Princes. And when they be gathered together, (forasmuch as they be an assembly of men, whereof all be not governed with the Spirit and Word of God,) they may err, and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining unto God. Wherefore things ordained by them as necessary to salvation have neither strength nor authority, unless it may be declared that they be taken out of holy Scripture.”

The phrase “they may err, and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining unto God” is very important when discussing Protestant-Catholic and Orthodox relations.

In both the Catholic and Orthodox churches great authority is placed in the hands of Councils. Councils decide what is Orthodoxy and what is Heresy. Councils sort out truth from falsehood. Catholic and Orthodox churches descend from the ‘winning’ side in all of the major Councils and so point to them to provide their lineage of correct-belief. History is written by the victors.

It might come as a surprise to the reader to realise that by the time of the First Council of Nicaea (325 AD) there was more than one Christian ‘church’ even more than one ‘orthodox’ church. There was a Novationist Church, Donatist Church, Montanist Church and the proto-Catholic/ Orthodox Church. Representatives from the Novationist Church even attended the First Council of Nicaea.

At the First Council of Nicaea around 318 Bishops of the 1,800 bishops in the proto-Catholic/ Orthodox Church attended. Arianism was condemned in the state-backed church. This decision was then overturned in 359, at the Council of Ariminum. A new Arian Creed was also adopted by the state-backed church. Pope Liberius condemned the creed but was exiled and replaced by Pope Felix II who supported it. Pope Liberius tired of exile eventually returned having condemned Athanasius and signing a Semi-Arian creed.

Between 359 and 381 (22 years) Arianism was the official position of the state-backed proto-Catholic/ Orthodox Church. Those who disagreed met in separate congregations or lived in exile outside the boundaries of the church. The Council of Ariminum (359 AD) was a meeting of 400 Bishops. That was far more than those who assembled at Nicaea. Jerome remarked that the world “awoke with a groan to find itself Arian.” Of course modern day Catholics and Orthodox Christians say that the councils that affirmed Arianism were not real councils and they don’t accept them. If their party had won they would have accepted them! Protestants don’t accept the Council of Trent in the same way.

In 897 the Cadaver Synod met and Pope Stephen VI declared Pope Formosus posthumously guilty of perjury and of having acceded to the papacy illegally and his papacy retroactively declared null. So as a Catholic in 897 Pope Formosus was an Anti-Pope then in December 897, Pope Theodore II annulled the Cadaver Synod. The annulment was affirmed in 898 by John IX. Pope Formosus was once again considered a Pope until Pope Sergius III (904–911) reapproved the decisions made against Formosus. The Catholic Church at present considers him a legitimate Pope against the wishes of Pope Sergius III.  Between 1378 and 1417 there were multiple Popes each claiming to the be legitimate successor of St Peter. Which of the three men simultaneously claiming to be the true Pope was the right one? The Kings and Princes of Europe were divided on the issue.

The phrase “they may err, and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining unto God” is very important. Protestants believe that Popes error and Councils error. Where then should our trust be placed? – surly in the Scriptures Alone!

Augustine (354-430) knew this well saying to an Arian:

“What does “homoousios” mean, I ask, but The Father and I are one (Jn. 10:30)? I should not, however, introduce the Council of Nicea to prejudice the case in my favor, nor should you introduce the Council of Ariminum that way. I am not bound by the authority of Ariminum, and you are not bound by that of Nicea. By the authority of the scriptures that are not the property of anyone, but the common witness for both of us, let position do battle with position, case with case, reason with reason.” Answer to Maximinus, Part I

Athanasius adds:

“Vainly then do they run about with the pretext that they have demanded Councils for the faith’s sake; for divine Scripture is sufficient above all things; but if a Council be needed on the point, there are the proceedings of the Fathers, for the Nicene Bishops did not neglect this matter, but stated the doctrines so exactly, that persons reading their words honestly, cannot but be reminded by them of the religion towards Christ announced in divine Scripture” (De Synodis, 6).

He added in Contra Gentes, I:1:

“The Holy and Inspired Scriptures are sufficient of themselves for the preaching of the Truth.”

The Word of God remains steadfast.