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]

So, for Davenant, we should all be subject to the definitions of the ecumenical councils because of the external authority of these councils. The councils have the authority to determine what is best [bene esse] for the universal church, that is for directing the universal church away from heresy and toward its good in accordance with the Scriptures. This only applies to the first four councils though, and especially not Nicaea II (Davenant says, “Let the Papists have that idolatrous conventicle!”). So, for the sake of the bene esse of the church, says Davenant, the definitions of the ecumenical councils demand the assent of the universal church.

Robert Abbot on the Sign of the Cross

Robert Abbot (1560–1617) was Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford, bishop of Salisbury, proponent of Reformed theology, and opponent of Laudianism and Arminianism during the reign of James I. In a rather amusing incident, Abbot once preached a sermon in defense of the Puritans. Laud himself was in attendance, and as John Rushworth later recalled Abbot, seeing Laud in the audience, determined to aim his polemical canons directly at him. Laud, according to Rushworth, “was fain to sit patiently at the rehearsal of this sermon, though abused almost an hour together, being pointed at as he sat.”

One of Abbot’s most interesting works is his two volume defense of William Perkins’ A Reformed Catholike. In this work Abbot defends the great Puritan theologian against the polemical attacks of certain Roman Catholic theologians, particularly William Bishop. Though he attacks the “popery” of Bishop, Abbot only does so insofar as he believes that Bishop does not himself maintain the principles of a true Reformed Catholic, that is, the recognition and defense of what is necessary for salvation and the distinction of what is necessary from what is indifferent (adiaphoron). One example of an indifferent practice that Bishop (according to Abbot)elevates to a necessary practice is the ancient rite of the sign of the cross, which the faithful often made upon themselves and priests often performed over the holy instruments of worship.

Abbot argues that the practice is not strictly commanded by scripture, and although it is a longstanding tradition in both Eastern and Western Christianity, the abuses that have been added to the practice render it dangerous, and therefore it should be strongly curtailed for the sake of saving the church from superstition. Since it is an indifferent matter, however, making the sign of the cross should be left up to the churches to determine for themselves, he argues, a determination that he implies should be based on surveying the extent of the error and abuse surrounding the practice among the churches.

Of the signe of the Crosse … we condemne it not being taken as an arbitrarie and indifferent ceremonie, voluntarily vpon occasion accepted by the discretion of the Church, and left free to the like discretion as occasion requireth, either to be wholly relinquished, or the vse thereof to be moderated and abridged without opinion of anie violation or breach of religion towards God. So long as it was kept within compasse of being onely a matter of admonition, a token of profession, and occasion of remembrance of the name of Christ, so long there was no reason for any man to contend concerning the vsing of it. But since it hath growne from being a meere ceremonie, to be accounted as a Sacrament of grace and saluation, an instrument of sanctification and holinesse, containing a spirituall vertue and power of blessing, and ministring inward strength against our spirituall enemies, it hath concerned the godly discretion and wisedome of the Church, to vse due care to redresse those erroneous and superstitious conceipts thereof, which tend to the detriment and wrong of the faith and name of Iesus Christ. We haue receiued no commandement thereof from God, no institution of Iesus Christ, no word or warrant of the Apostles, and therefore being brought in by men, it ought to be subiect to the iudgement of the Church, and not the Church tyed to any bondage of the vse of it. Our Church therefore hath vsed her libertie in this behalfe, and though we denie not but that the signe of the Crosse were in most frequent vse, as M. Bishop saith, in the primitiue Church, yet considering it to be a thing iniurious to the faith and crosse of Christ where it is made a matter of mysticall consecration and blessing, hath discharged vs of it where it was taken in that sence; and yet that we seeme not wholly to explode that which antiquitie hath approoued, hath there retained it where it may carrie no shew of being subiect to that construction. We vse it not to our selues, to our meates and drinkes, to the water of baptisme, to the bread and wine of the Lordes Supper, or any otherwhere where it was vsed with that meaning as in Poperie it was vsed in all these: we vse it in baptisme with the application first intended, and to them which yet know not the vse of it, that that which is done to them may be a remembrance to vs, & to them also when they shall hereafter know and see the same in others, not to be ashamed of Christ crucified, and of the bearing of his crosse, but with courage and constancie to follow him whose in baptisme we haue vowed our selues to be. As touching the testimonies of antiquitie which M. Bishop alledgeth for the approuing thereof, first Tertullian and Ambrose and Cyril do simply note the vulgar vse of it, which in them and in those times we condemne not; they had their reason for the vsing, and so haue we for the leauing of it, (Abbot, The second part of the Defence of the Reformed Catholicke, London: George Bishop, 1607, pp. 1118-1119).


Ambrose maketh this the vse of the signe of the crosse, that thereby a Christian man euery while writeth vpon his owne forehead the contempt of death, as who knoweth that without the crosse of Christ he cannot be saued. When Iulian obiected to Christians the vse of the Crosse, Cyril maketh no more thereof but this, that they made it in remembrance of all goodnes and all vertue. Whatsoeuer they say of the crosse or of the signe of the crosse, they referre it to the faith of Christ crucified, not to the crosse it selfe, but to the inward cogitation of the benefite of his crosse. The mind marked with the crosse, saith Cyril, is plentifully fed with heauenly food, and grace of the holy Ghost: whosoeuer turneth the eyes of his mind to Christ nailed to the crosse, he shall be forthwith cured from all wound of sinne. They vsed the outward signe onely to turne the minde to the beholding of the crosse of Christ, thereby hoping to receiue comfort and defence. But Poperie hath taught men so to conceiue, as if God had giuen to the signe of the crosse some formal power to do great wonders for vs, & in this sence haue witches & charmers borowed it from them, (ibid., p. 1122).

Why Law Presupposes Nature According to Ralph Cudworth (†1688)

In his A Treatise Concerning Eternal and Immutable Morality (new version edited by Sarah Hutton, Cambridge: 1996), Ralph Cudworth defends, in a thoroughly Modern way, what one may rightly deem a classical ontology. I will offer here a review of the first two chapters of book one and will devote future posts to the remainder of the treatise. Cudworth begins Ralph Cudworthby noting that a common view throughout the ages has held that there is no natural law but only positive law, no natural difference between good and evil but only mandates established by the authority of a sovereign. Aristotle affirms that politically “honest” and “just” things seem to vary so greatly that they cannot possess any common nature. Hence, by way of clarification, Aristotle divided:

  • Politically Just things (to dikaion politikon) between
    1. Natural (physikon) – things that are the same everywhere, and
    2. Legal (nomikon) “which before there be a law made, is indifferent, but when once the law is made, is determined to be just or unjust” (Cudworth’s trans. of Ethics 1134b18-21).

Among those who deny the first among this division are Democritus, Epicurus, and more contemporaneous, Thomas Hobbes. Cudworth quotes the latter as saying, “In the state of nature nothing can be unjust; the notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice have no place; where there is no common power, there is no law; where no law, no transgression … No law can be unjust” (Elementorum philosophiae… vol. II, p. 145).

In connection with this denial of #1 are those who claim that only by the command of God in his absolute power do things become good. Cudworth singles out Ockham as one who held to this view of “an omnipotent Being devoid of all essential and natural justice” (p. 14). Some, such as Joannes Szydlovius (early 17th cent.) claim that “to love God is by nature an indifferent thing, and is morally good only, because it is commanded by God…” (Vindiciae questionum...).

Cudworth sets out in chapter 2 to prove by logical argument that commands depend upon and presuppose natures. No omnipotence, he argues,  is able to make a thing white or black without there being whiteness or blackness, and this is true whether one thinks of these as qualities (Aristotle) or dispositions of parts that beget the sensations of white or black within us (Descartes). Also, omnipotence cannot make things like or equal to one another without the nature of likeness and equality.

The reason thereof is plain, because all these things imply a manifest contradiction: that things should be what they are not. And this is a truth fundamentally necessary to all knowledge, that contradictories cannot be true; for otherwise nothing would be certainly true or false (p. 16).

By way of the Scholastics, Cudworth affirms the principle “that God himself cannot supply the place of a formal cause (Deum ipsum non posse supplere locum causae formalis).” In other words, “God” is not the nature of “justice” or “honesty” which is what would be the case if those terms were not self-referential but refer only to God’s will. Perhaps Cudworth’s clearest working principle, which one must affirm in order to avoid both logical contradiction and uphold natural rights, is that, “There is no such thing as an arbitrarious essence, mode, or relation, that may be made indifferently any thing at pleasure” (p. 17). In other words, things have their own existence and because of this they are not indifferent and thus cannot be changed at will. “For an arbitrarious essence is a being without a nature, a contradiction, and therefore a nonentity” (ibid.).

However, Cudworth notes, it is true that when God or a civil authority issues a command, the thing commanded becomes good when before it was indifferent, thus appearing to support the voluntarist claim that good and evil are human constructs. Even if things are bound by their natures, some claim, morality is created by the command of an authority. Cudworth responds that commands are not obligatory accept insofar as they apply to specific natures. For example, no known ruler has ever founded his authority of making commandments and others’ duty to obey them in a law of his own making.  Thus the authority of the commander must arrive from natural justice and an antecedent obligation to obey within the subjects. “Which things are not made by laws, but presupposed before all laws to make them valid ” (p. 18). For Cudworth, if there were no antecedent obligation to obey within subjects not even God himself could place any obligation on them to obey his commands “because the natures of things do not depend upon will, being not things that are arbitrarily made (gignomena) but things that are (onta)” (p. 19).

Having explained the logic of the above division between natural and legal good/evil Cudworth procedes to clarify what is known as “the Euthyphro dilemma” from Plato’s Euthyphro – Are things good because they are commanded or commanded because they are good? The answer to this dilemma, for Cudworth, depends upon a right division between intellect and will. The nature of man that does not depend upon arbitrary will is an intellectual nature. Thus, good and evil for an intellectual nature are things to which the intellect is obliged to pursue per se and others that the intellect obliges itself to pursue per accidens. This break-down may be of some help here:

  • Intellect – pursues the good by nature
    • Natural good – such things as the intellectual nature obliges to immediately, absolutely, and perpetually, and upon no condition of any voluntary action that may be done or omitted intervening.
  • Will by means of Intellect- pursues accidental or “indifferent” good and evil by a voluntary action either
      • self imposed or
      • imposed by another person
    • Positively (accidentally) good – such things as the intellectual nature obliges to accidentally upon condition of some voluntary act of another person invested with lawful authority in commanding.

Through a command of the will indifferent things acquire a new relation to the intellectual nature by falling underneath something that is absolutely good or evil. In other words, though they are commanded by the will, these indifferent things depend upon the intellectual nature of the subject supplying the general categories of good and evil under which they fall. For example, to keep faith is an obligation of natural justice. To keep faith with a particular person/entity at a specific time is a thing indifferent. However, when one makes a promise by voluntary action, that particular thing falls under the absolute category of “keeping faith” thus forming a new relation to the rational nature. Thus, natural justice for man is the intellectual nature which obliges one to obey both God and civil authority.

Subjects are not required to obey a specific civil authority merely because of a “positive” law but because the intellect naturally pursues obedience to the general office of the civil authority. Yet, even the civil authority is bound by the intellect and loses the power to command if he or she exceeds these naturally imposed bounds.

Cudworth clarifies that commands do not change indifferent things into things good per se but the obedience to a particular positive law concerning an indifferent thing can be divided between form and matter. The act of obedience to the indifferent thing which has become obligatory is material obedience while  formal obedience corresponds to the universal of yielding obedience to lawful authority.

Wherefore in positive commands, the will of the commander doth not create any new moral entity, but only diversely modifies and determines that general duty or obligation of natural justice to obey lawful authority and keep oaths and covenants, as our own will in promising doth but produce several modifications of keeping faith. And therefore there are no new things just or due made by either of them, besides what was always by nature such, to keep our own promises, and obey the lawful commands of others (p. 21).

Cudworth concludes from the above premises that if there were no intellectual nature or natural justice then nothing would be obligatory, especially not that which is supposedly begotten by a mere command of the will. One can see in this the foundation for a Western theory of innate and inalienable rights as things founded upon certain and intellectual principles. It is no wonder that a man as influential as John Locke was first schooled in the philosophy of Ralph Cudworth and nurtured through close convivial acquaintance with the latter’s daughter Lady Masham.

A Practical Impetus for the Aristotelian Renaissance in 17th Century England

During the days of Richard Hooker, England was experiencing a time of intellectual revival. For decades the various faculties of Oxford and Cambridge had experienced a decline, not only in matriculation of students, but in the intellectual creativity of their instructors. The time between Erasmus and Bacon is often seen as a veritable Dark Ages. This decline came in part from the rise and fall of the various Tudors, particularly Mary, and partly from the comprehensive reshaping of society that was the Reformation. Yet, under Queen Elizabeth, England once again experienced a Renaissance of learning. During this renewal, exemplified by men such as William Shakespeare and Edmund Spencer, there was also a revamped interest in the corpus of Aristotle; and this Renaissance of Aristotelianism may need some explanation.

In 1593 and Richard Hooker had just published his now famous Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity in which he explained to the more radical wing in the Anglican Church why it is not necessary for every nation to imitate Geneva’s ecclesiastical polity. In defending Anglican polity and the ability of human reason to guide the affairs of the civic realm, Hooker relied on Aristotle’s method. But, he did not really have much of a choice in the matter. Every man is a product of his time. All of Hooker’s theological predecessors were Aristotelian in some form, whether they be Medieval such as Thomas and Scotus, Reformed such as Vermigli and Jewel, or the divines who preceded him at Corpus Christi College such as William Cole and John Rainolds.

Hooker was also influenced by the writings of Plato (as Torrance Kirby has demonstrated) and one of his contemporaries, Everard Digby, was the first English Neo-Platonist of the Seventeenth century; Digby’s Theoria Analytica popularized the Neo-Platonic texts of Proclus and the Cabala and later inspired the Platonism of the Cambridge Platonists. Yet, even with the advent of Neo-Platonism and Renaissance Humanism, Aristotelianism remained the foundation of the liberal arts curriculum at Oxford and Cambridge. Charles Schmitt explains the very practical reason for this, a reason that still held sway in the mid-1630s:

If arts education was meant to be reasonably comprehensive and to embrace the range of reliable knowledge, were there alternatives to the Aristotelian synthesis? The writings of Bruno were certainly not systematic enough for teaching purposes. The new philosophies of Telesio or Patrizi were possibilities, but neither covered a significant portion of the range of subjects to be taught. The same could be said of ancient works such as those of Plato or Pliny. The approach to knowledge produced by the sixteenth-century humanistic movement was curiously one-sided, with whole areas of positive knowledge left unaccounted for. The new synthesis of Gassendi, of Descartes, of Newton, were all in the future, if by only a few years or decades. . . In short, Aristotelianism still was the best comprehensive philosophy available. When genuine and useful alternatives did emerge a few decades later, they were taken up rather quickly by the universities of England. (Schmitt, John Case and Aristotelianism in Renaissance England, p. 44)

John Case is another example of an English Aristotelian of this time period, one who has received little attention aside from Schmitt’s work. Case is one of the first in England to use the notion of the prisca theologia gleaned from the Corpus Hermeticum. According to Schmitt, he was the most widely read Aristotelian from the 1550s to the 1650s, thus setting the intellectual climate for Bacon and Herbert of Cherbury. Case, just as Hooker, used a variety of sources but was an Aristotelian at heart. As Schmitt notes, Case as well as other English educators at this time used the sources that were available (i.e., Aristotle) to build the curriculum by which they sought to perfect the next generation because those sources were available and all encompassing.

One lesson in historical interpretation to learn from this is that the primacy of a certain philosophical system for a certain body of people at a certain time does not always indicate a staunch loyalty for that particular system. (By “staunch loyalty,” I mean a loyalty for a particular way of systematizing truths vs. a loyalty toward the pursuit of the truth itself) Usually that system just happens to be the best option at the time. When new ideas correct or add greater clarity to the old ones, new curricula are formed out of necessity. The corpus of Aristotle continued to supply the basis of college curriculums even after the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century until more updated and modern systems arrived that were capable of replacing it.

A Reformed Education in Renaissance England


The following letter is from a young Swiss student Conrad ab Ulmis, writing to one of his sponsors John Wolfius. At the time of this letter Martin Bucer had been dead one year, Bishop Cranmer was busy completing the first Prayer Book, and Peter Martyr was at Oxford lecturing on the Epistle to the Romans. Merely one year later King Edward dies and is promptly succeeded by  Mary Tudor and the Reformation in England seems all but lost. But, in the mean time there was a renaissance of classical education at Oxford, as exemplified by this letter.

Greeting. As I never entertained a doubt but that it was my duty to write to you, as my preceptor, some account of my studies; though I wrote last month at the house of Joshua Maler, my dear friend, and one too who has a great respect for you; yet as I have at this time changed my course of study, I have thought fit to write to you again. Receive therefore a brief account of my studies. I devote the hour from six to seven in the morning to Aristotle’s politics, from which I seem to derive a twofold advantage, both a knowledge of Greek and an acquaintance with moral philosophy. The seventh hour I employ upon the first book of the Digests or Pandects of the Roman law, and the eighth in the reconsideration of this lecture. At nine I attend the lecture of that most eminent and learned divine, master doctor Peter Martyr. The tenth hour I devote to the rules of Dialectics of Philip Melanchthon de locis argumentorum. Immediately after dinner I read Cicero’s Offices, a truly golden book, from which I derive no less than a twofold enjoyment, both from the purity of the language and the knowledge of philosophy. From one to three I exercise my pen, chiefly in writing letters, wherein, as far as possible, I imitate Cicero, who is considered to have abundantly supplied us with all instructions relating to purity of style. At three I lean the institutes of civil law, which I so read aloud as to commit them to memory. At four are read privately, in a certain hall in which we live, the rules of law, which I hear, and learn by rote as I do the institutes. After supper the time is spent in various discourse; for either sitting in our chamber, or walking up and down some part of the college, we exercise ourselves in dialectical questions. You have now a brief account of my studies, with which I think you will be pleased. Do you take care, in the first place, to preserve your health, and in the next place, to address me occasionally by your letters; for you can hardly conceive how much pleasure I shall derive both from their elegance and agreeableness. Solute for me those most honourable ladies, your wife and mother. Farewell. Oxford, March 1, 1552.

Your pupil,

John Conrad Ab Ulmis

Reason and the Authority of Scripture in Richard Hooker and John Calvin

Richard HookerThe typical Reformed understanding of Richard Hooker’s “three-fold chord” of authority states that Hooker created a hierarchy that began with reason, then tradition, and the authority of Scripture is placed at the bottom. I was taught, as many others have been, that this theology was a precursor to Enlightenment philosophy. Once reason is established as the ground of faith, then the articles of the faith become tainted with all manners of erroneous doctrines. Paul Avis explains that Hooker did not believe that reason validates faith, rather the opposite is true:

Except in its fundamental gospel, scripture is not self-explanatory; it requires the application of reason. In defending himself against the charge of Walter Travers at the Temple Church that he had introduced scholastic distinctions and rational subtleties into the exposition of scripture, Hooker explained what he meant by reason. He meant not his own individual reasoning capacity, but ‘true, sound, divine reason . . . reason proper to that science whereby the things of God are known; theological reason, which out of principles in scripture that are plain, soundly deduceth more doubtful inferences’ and brings to light the true meaning of the ‘darker places’ of scripture (III, p. 594f). (Paul Avis, Exploring Issues of Authority in the Spirit of Richard Hooker; available here.)

Thus, it is only out of scriptural principles “that are plain” that reason functions to shed light upon certain doubtful texts. This fact places Hooker within the tradition of “faith seeking understanding,” so conspicuous in Augustine and Anselm. This concept of reason is also perfectly agreeable with the thought of John Calvin, particularly chapter VIII of book I of the Institutes entitled “SO FAR AS HUMAN REASON GOES, SUFFICIENTLY FIRM PROOFS ARE AT HAND TO ESTABLISH THE CREDIBILITY OF SCRIPTURE.” In this chapter Calvin affirms that Scripture is “not sustained by external props” such as reason; yet, we may use reason to prove the authority of Scripture. 

[O]nce we have embraced it [the authority of Scripture] devoutly as its dignity deserves, and have recognized it to be above the common sort of things, those arguments [from reason]  – not strong enough before to engraft and fix the certainty of Scripture in our minds – become very useful aids. (Institutes, I.8.1.)

Thus, for Calvin and Hooker, reason is not the foundation of revelation. Rather, reason reveals that which is hidden or unclear within revelation. These hidden truths may not be discerned by those who lack faith because the Scriptures “breathe something divine.” (ibid.) In order to have this sort of understanding through reason, one must first believe. Those who place reason over revelation as a higher authority treat the instrument as the foundation. Reason does not establish the truths found within the Scriptures. It reveals those truths that have already been established by divine authority.