Sunday, June 2, 2013

Article 21: Ecumenical Councils and Classical Anglicanism

Article 21 is perhaps the most important teaching in the Articles of Religion (besides certain fundamental Christian truths, such as the supremacy of Scripture or our justification by faith alone). It singlehandedly denies papism, conciliarism, and even congregationalism in one blow. It doesn't stop there, either, it continues to re-inforce the fallibility of general (or ecumenical) councils right after that and binds the authority of Councils to the teaching of Scripture (i.e. sola scriptura). The contents of its teaching should be thoroughly studied by all Anglicans to properly understand the authority of the Bible in the life of the Church as well as the limitations to the authority of bishops in our Church.

One thing must be mentioned before diving into the actual study of the text, the 1801 version of the Articles of Religion of the Protestant Episcopal Church includes this article in some extent but nullifies its content. I must say this was one of the most unwise decisions of our Church in the last two hundred years (including certain bishops of the past ten years). The deletion of this article first numbed the teaching of the supreme authority of the Scriptures as found in other Articles. Secondly, it provides a loophole for church papism in that it takes out the "checks and balances" for episcopal power contained therein. I believe this is the reason why the American Church was infected so completely by the Oxford Movement and unable to curb its influence.

Now, on to the text of the Article itself:
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 Article can be grouped into several sub-sections: 1) How councils are to be called. 2) The fallibility of councils. 3) How wrong decisions of councils are to be received.

How Councils are to be Called

The Article is rather plain in this regard. The Prince is to assemble the Council. This was a radical statement for the Reformers to make, even though it has much patristic support. The Bishop of Rome had usurped spiritual and temporal authority for himself in the Dark Ages and claimed that only he could assemble a general council. However, there is ample evidence that the ecumenical councils of the early churches were gathered together by the Roman emperors, such as Constantine at the first Council of Nicea.

I turn to some Anglican commentators to gather the full meaning of this clause:
The first clause on the legality of assembling General Councils would seem to us to represent a mere matter of fact.  A Council must be held in the territory of some State, and must consist of the subjects of some States.  It must, therefore, be dependent on the civil laws permitting such meetings and the movements of individual subjects.  The clause, however, was really directed against the claim of the Pope to have the power of summoning and dismissing Councils. (Boultbee)
And Beveridge states:

But if it [a controversy of faith] spread like a leprosy over the body of the universal church in all or most places, then it was always thought necessary that an universal, oecumenical, or general council, viz. a council gathered together from all or most places of the world where the church of Christ is settled, should put a period to it.  And it is these general councils which this article speaks of, determining that they may not be gathered together without the commandment and will of princes.  So that it is not lawful for particular churches to meet together in a general council without the consent and command of the particular kings and princes, which the most high God hath been pleased to set over them.

And indeed I cannot see in reason how general councils should be gathered together without the command of princes, seeing princes only have the command over all those who are to be gathered together in those councils.  * “The emperor,” saith Tertullian, “is greater than all, and less than none but the true God.”  And if he be over all, all must be under him; and if all be under him, certainly none can meet in any public place about any public business (as the works of general councils is) without his command and will.
And Griffiths Thomas:

The statement that General Councils cannot be gathered together “without the commandment and will of Princes,” has led to the enquiry why this feature was thought to be necessary.  It has been said by some that as the secular law did not allow Bishops to leave their own country and to go into other Dominions without the permission of their own Princes, the result was that without such permission no General Councils were possible.  But this is not the true explanation.  There seems to be no doubt that the requirement is due to the necessity of guaranteeing universality and a full representation, especially of the lay power.  Not only so, but it is clearly directed against any summoning of Councils by the Pope.  The Western Councils were invariably called by the Pope alone, and the Council of Trent consisted only of Bishops in union with Rome. [Collier, Eccl. Hist., VI, p. 332, represents Queen Elizabeth as replying to solicitations to send representatives to Trent: “It was not the Pope’s, but the Emperor’s privilege to call a Council.”]The requirement is also doubtless made because, as a matter of historical fact, this was the method adopted in the earliest General Councils.  They originated with Constantine, and Emperors alone summoned them.  The Popes had no power over the Councils in early ages, and even later they petitioned Emperors to gather them together.  Nor did the Popes preside at any of the earliest.  The letter of Pope Leo read at the Council of Chalcedon had deserved weight, but in no sense did it settle the doctrine.  The Pope’s power rested on false Decretals of the ninth century, which were not denied because the forgery was not discovered until the fifteenth century during the Revival of Learning.  There were other Decretals forged in the same way, and they were all included in Gratian’s Decretum.  In the thirteenth century a catena was presented to Pope Urban IV, and was accepted by Thomas Aquinas.
This establishes the antiquity of the practice and the establishment of the role of the Prince in the assembling of the Church.

Now, the implications of what this assertion mean are much more limiting in the scope of the power of the Pope and bishops. Firstly, this Article gives us the rationale why we do not accept the Lateran Councils, for example, where transubstantiation was declared to be the doctrine of the Church. These councils were not gathered under the authority of any Prince but only under the "authority" of the Pope, which he gathered for himself over the ages. Because of the theology of this article, councils gathered together without the will of Princes are not to be accepted (such as the medieval, Roman councils). Secondly, the article denies the bishops authority to assemble together independently to make doctrine. As the article condemns papism, it equally condemns conciliarism, a popular concept amongst some these days. The bishops have no inherent authority to change the teaching of the Church as it is based upon Holy Scripture.

2. The Fallibility of Ecumenical Councils

The next important question dealt with in this Article is the nature of the authority of councils that are lawfully called and assembled. The Romans and Easterns believe that ecumenical councils are infallible. However, this is not Anglican teaching. The Article clearly states that councils are fallible (as does the preceding article). An assembly of men, even if they be bishops, can never be infallible. The only infallible document available to us is the Holy Scriptures, because they are God-breathed. Councils, even of bishops, do not possess that kind of authority. The decisions of councils can only be counted as truthful when they agree with the teaching of Scripture.

Boultbee continues in discussion of the acceptance of the decisions of some councils:

A question of considerable importance remains.  Although the inherent authority of the councils has been thus rejected by the Church of England, it may be asked whether she has not acknowledged the validity of some of their decisions.  In other words, whether she has not exercised her independent and coordinate authority [Arts. xx and xxxiv.] and decided that the dogmatic decrees of certain Councils are in accordance with the word of God and therefore binding upon herself.  To this it must be replied that there is no ecclesiastical formula of the Church of England, now in force, containing such a decision.  The first Article of Henry VIII (1536) recognized the judgments of the first four Councils against heresies.  But that document, as it is well known, has no authority and is in many respects in direct opposition to the Thirty- nine Articles.  The Reformers of Edward’s reign spoke with great respect of the four great Councils.  The “Reformatio Legum Ecclesiasticarum” declares that we reverently accept the four great Ecumenical Synods; but this document also has no authority.  All this, then, and more which might be quoted, falls short of recognition by our Church.  There was, however, in addition to this, a recognition to a certain extent of the four Councils in the Act of Parliament [1 Eliz. cap. i. 36.] which restored the supremacy over the Church to the Crown.  Authority having been given to the Crown by that Act to exercise its supremacy by means of commissioners appointed by letters patent under the general seal of England, the proviso was added that such commissioners should “not in any wise have authority or power to order, determine, or adjudge any mater or cause to be heresy, but only such as heretofore have been determined, ordered, or adjudged to be heresy by the authority of the Canonical Scriptures, or by the first four General Councils, or any of them, or by any other General Council wherein the same was declared heresy by the express and plain words of the said Canonical Scriptures, or such as shall be ordered, adjudged, or determined to be heresy by the High Court of Parliament of this realm with the assent of the clergy in their convocation.”
This relates to the teaching that only those decisions of Councils which agree with the teaching of Scripture are to be accepted in the Church. To this end, the Church of England has generally accepted the teaching of the first six ecumenical councils, the first four in particular, and the teaching regarding the Trinity of the next two. The seventh council, the second of Nicea, is repudiated by our Church (see A Homily against the Peril of Idolatry and the Superfluous decking of Churches) as being idolatrous and contrary to God's Word.

3. How Wrong Decisions are Handled 

 The last question dealt with is the response we should to erroneous conciliar decisions. What should we do in response to erroneous decrees? As the Article says, we should regard these decisions as having "neither strength nor authority, unless it may be declared that they be taken out of holy Scripture." This is why the Church of England utterly rejected the seventh council as promoting idolatry in the worshipping of false idols instead of the living God. This applies to current days as well, when some of the Churches of the Communion are propagating false doctrines. The Christian must reject them and subsequently ignore them as having no strength, since they contradict the teaching of God's Word written.

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