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.

Idolatry in Israel and the Church.

John Calvin famously said:

“From this we may gather that man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols…Man’s mind, full as it is of pride and boldness, dares to imagine a god according to its own capacity; as it sluggishly plods, indeed is overwhelmed with the crassest ignorance, it conceives an unreality and an empty appearance as God.” – Institutes, 1.11.8

Idolatry plagued the story of Israel just as it has at times plagued the story of the Church. In Israel’s story we read how Aaron pressurised by the Israelites in the wilderness formed a golden calf for them in Moses’ absence. Many scholars today suggest that the Israelites did not think that the calf was Yahweh their god but rather imagined him standing upon it. Many ancient near eastern images show a god standing on the back of a bull.

calfsThe Israelites in this view saw the calf like the ark, an object upon which the presence of Yahweh rested. The difference however was that God had instituted the ark whilst the calf was condemned as an idol. They were guilty of loving the right thing (Yahweh-God) but in the wrong way (calf idol). This mistake would be repeated. When the United Kingdom split into Israel in the north and Judah in the south Jeroboam the northern King made two calves of gold which he placed at Bethel and Dan, declaring, “It is too much trouble for you to worship in Jerusalem. Look, Israel, these are the gods who brought you out of Egypt!” (1 Kgs 12:28). Like Aaron it is possible that Jeroboam might have seen himself as an orthodox worshipper of Yahweh and that the calves he had created where simply the footstools of God. God however condemns the action once again. Were the Israelites once again guilty of loving the right thing (Yahweh-God) but in the wrong way (calf idols)? They thought that what they were doing was ok but it was not.

The central commandment that was meant to govern Israelite faith, life and worship was:

Exodus 20:3-5 (NLT)
“You must not have any other god but me. You must not make for yourself an idol of any kind or an image of anything in the heavens or on the earth or in the sea. You must not bow down to them or worship them, for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God who will not tolerate your affection for any other gods.”

The Israelites were told:
• No other elohim but Yahweh.
• No idols.
• No bowing before images/idols.
• No worshiping/serving the images/idols.

We are told the reason “I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God who will not tolerate your affection for any other gods.”

Many Christians assume that the first commandment “You must not have any other god but me” means just what we mean by the word ‘god’ and the attributes that we as 21st Century westerners assign to that term. The truth is that many Old Testament scholars consider Elohim ‘god’ to be a place of residence term rather than carrying the baggage and attributes that we now ascribe to the word ‘god’. The word elohim is applied to Yahweh the Christian god, his divine council (Psalm 82), foreign gods like Molech (1 Kings 11:33), the spirits of dead people (1 Samuel 28:13), demons (Deuteronomy 32:17), and angels (Genesis 35:7). Elohim therefore refers then to any and all inhabitants of the unseen realm.

The story of Israel and Judah is the story of idolatry. King Solomon built the Temple of Yahweh but 1 Kings 11:5-8 (NLT) says:

“Solomon worshiped Ashtoreth, the goddess of the Sidonians, and Molech, the detestable god of the Ammonites. In this way, Solomon did what was evil in the Lord’s sight; he refused to follow the Lord completely, as his father, David, had done. On the Mount of Olives, east of Jerusalem, he even built a pagan shrine for Chemosh, the detestable god of Moab, and another for Molech, the detestable god of the Ammonites. Solomon built such shrines for all his foreign wives to use for burning incense and sacrificing to their gods.”

For over 200 years the shrines remained in place until King Hezekiah closed them. The shrines were not shut for long however as Manasseh reopened them. It was not until the days of Josiah 50 years later that they were finally torn down. Once again the Kings who followed Josiah turned back to idolatry. As John Calvin said “man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols”.

Even whilst Jesus was alive there were those who sought to give the Virgin Mary an inappropriate place. We read in Luke 11:27-28 (ESV):

“As he said these things, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts at which you nursed!” But he said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!”

Women in the crowd sought to place Mary in a special position and Jesus shot them down. He said “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” May we be those who heard the word of God and keep it!

As Christianity spread across the Mediterranean the Council of Elvira that took place between 295-302 or 306-314 in Canon 36 decreed:

“There must be no pictures used in churches: Let nothing which is adored or worshipped be painted on walls.”

Whilst pictures can be useful especially for catechists there were many in the church who did not want converts to use images in a wrong way.

Returning for a moment to the first commandment “You must not have any other god but me”. Since the word of ‘god’ elohim is used also for the disembodied spirit of the dead prophet Samuel in 1 Samuel 28:13 it follows then perhaps all the saints in heaven likewise being disembodied spirits of the dead fall under the condemnation of the first commandment. It therefore follows that the other condemnations proceed from the first. If you are forbidden from having any other elohim but Yahweh then we must not bow, worship at or serve any image/idol of Mary or the saints. Why? “I, Yahweh your God, am a jealous God who will not tolerate your affection for any other elohim.”

We must always be careful that “ecclesia reformata et semper reformanda secundus verbum Dei” that is, the church, having been reformed, must continue to be reformed according to God’s Word. May we be those who hear the word of God and keep it! May we hold fast to the commandments of God knowing that he is a jealous God who will not tolerate our affections for any other inhabitant of the unseen realm. Let us hold fast to 1 Corinthians 10:6-7 “Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not be idolaters as some of them were”.

ANE images from here.