On the Authority of Councils
I’ve been reading through John Davenant’s PRÆLECTIONES DE DUOBUS IN THEOLOGIA CONTROVERSIS (1631) which he wrote against the Jesuits’ claim of infallibility for popes and councils. Given the recent debate over the Trinity and the question of the authority of the ecumenical councils raised by many of its participants, Davenant’s remarks may be helpful. I find what he says about the external authority of councils to be particularly illuminating. He argues, in true Protestant fashion, that only Protestants truly submit themselves to the judgments of the councils (a) because we retain the right of private judgment apart from which no one could truly submit themselves to any authority, and (b) because the Papists remove the authority of the councils by giving it to the Pope – hence, ‘No Pope, no council.’ Protestants, says Davenant, recognize that the ecumenical councils, in their decrees, have the highest authority, so long as what they define and conclude is not contradictory to Scripture. He says, “We consider a general council to be the highest tribunal on earth, even though it is not infallible.” He stresses that this authority is of an external nature, pertaining to good order and the discipline of heresy, not to what must be believed for salvation. Indeed, he argues that ecumenical councils are not necessary for salvation, otherwise we wouldn’t have waited until Constantine to have one(!). I’ve translated a bit here where Davenant juxtaposes the Protestant and Roman Catholic views of the authority of councils. Note the bracketed part is my summary of the contrasted Roman Catholic view from Davenant’s perspective.
1. We therefore recognize supreme judgment, public and external, concerning the doctrines of the faith in the church militant to belong to the ecumenical council. [They say the Pope can retract the judgment of an ecumenical council]
2. We recognize all persons in the church to be subject to the ecumenical council that represents the catholic church. [They say the Pope is not subject to the mother church or ecumenical councils]
3. We say that the bishops gathered in the councils have received the highest power of judgement and the power of imposing censure for the good of the church from Christ himself. [They say only the Pope can give them this right, ergo no Pope, no council.]
4. We say that general councils can err if the fathers, in their definitions, do not follow the instruction of Christ, our highest pontiff, declared in the Scriptures. [They say councils can err if they don’t follow the Pope]