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.
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Luther and Valla on The Donation of Constantine: Thoughts about Truth and History

VallaLorenzo Valla’s book debunking the myth that Constantine gave most of the Western territories to Pope Sylvester was published in 1517. By that point Conciliarists had been trying to limit the power of the Papal office for hundreds of years, and Martin Luther had already come to conclusions similar to those of the Bohemian reformer Jan Huss. However, Valla’s uncovering of the fraudulence of this document added conviction to both Conciliarist beliefs and those of the Reformers. Valla affirms:

I know that for a long time now men’s ears are waiting to hear the offense with which I charge the Roman pontiffs. It is, indeed, an enormous one, due either to supine ignorance, or to gross avarice which is the slave of idols, or to pride of empire of which cruelty is ever the companion. For during some centuries now, either they have not known that the Donation of Constantine is spurious and forged, or else they themselves forged it, and their successors walking in the same way of deceit as their elders have defended as true what they knew to be false, dishonoring the majesty of the pontificate, dishonoring the memory of ancient pontiffs, dishonoring the Christian religion, confounding everything with murders, disasters and crimes. They say the city of Rome is theirs, theirs the kingdom of Sicily and of Naples, the whole of Italy, the Gauls, the Spains, the Germans, the Britons, indeed the whole West; for all these are contained in the instrument of the Donation itself. (Valla, Discourse on the Alleged Donation of Constantine, p. 23.)

LutherMartin Luther read this book in 1520 and was both shocked and more fully convinced that the real battle in which he had already begun to take part centered upon the problem of the papacy. He tells of his surprise and anguish of discovering the truth about the forged Donation to his friend Spalatin:

I have at hand Lorenzo Valla’s proof (edited by Hutten) that the Donation of Constantine is a forgery. Good heavens! what a darkness and wickedness is at Rome! You wonder at the judment of God that such unauthentic, erass, impudent lies not only lived but prevailed for so many centuries, that they were incorporated in the Canon Law, and (that no degree of horror might be wanting) that they became as articles of faith. I am in such a passion that I scarecely doubt that the Pope is the Antichrist expected by the world, so closely do their acts, lives, sayings, and laws agree. (Letter to Spalatin, Feb. 24, 1520.)

C.S. Lewis says that rationalists are like children. When their premises have been proven false they still do not concede the argument but resort to ad hominems or the childish reply, “nuh-uh.” Rationalists also, in my experience, are bad historians. Luther’s problem with the Roman church was more than just doctrinal, as many today believe. His battle was against those who did not have the heart for Truth even though their minds seemed sharp and ripe with understanding. Luther did not want to make people merely understand his teachings on justification, he wanted those teachings to affect their hearts. When people have a reasoned desire for Truth they ask critical questions and are not afraid of the conclusions. 

The true end of sacred doctrine is to humble us and change our heart of stone to a spiritual heart. Doctrine partially fulfills our desire for Truth. Thomas said that sacred doctrine is like God’s own understanding. Unfortunately, people today tend to use doctrine either to exclude others or they treat doctrine as if it is an end in itself. Some think that if our doctrine of justification is worded correctly we will have a perfect knowledge of its truth; if not, then the gospel itself has been compromised. This produces a spirit of rationalism that seeks to strip away anything mysterious for the purpose of “clarifying” difficult teachings. If the right formulation of these doctrines is necessary for salvation then we better seek to know them perfectly. Hence, our textbooks of theology tend to look more like dictionaries. 

When we become overzealous for doctrinal purity we tend to lose all bearing on the path toward Truth, and eventually we lose all desire for Truth. Valla, though he remained loyal to the Roman Church was able to criticize the magisterium even to the point of accusing it of deliberate fabrication. Martin Luther, though not a historian, also demonstrated his desire for Truth with his call to go back to the fountain of scripture in order to reassess those doctrines that have been corrupted by the “Truth-deniers” at Rome. Of course, his ad fontes approach was not so radical that he spurned the wisdom of the church fathers or the regula fide. Luther was not a “patrist” however. When he read Valla’s book what really surprised him was the lack of concern for the Truth by the Roman vicar. This should be a reminder for those of us seeking to be Reformed historians/theologians/philosophers, etc. that (a) Truth is something to be contemplated not sealed up and stored away, (b) Truth requires investigation but not concise discursive explanation, and (c) Truth is something to be lived. Without a heart for Truth we will not know the truth, and will quite possibly try to keep others from knowing it.

Calvin: To Obey the Church Is to Obey Christ

Ronald Wallace notes that the response of the believing individual to the Church is seen by Calvin as identical to responding to Christ.  This is affirmed by Calvin in his Commentary on Isaiah 45:14:  

When he says that the Israelites shall be victorious over all the nations, this depends on the mutual relation between the head and the members.  Because the only begotten Son of God unites to Himself those who believe in Him, so that they are one with Him.  It frequently happens that what belongs to Him is transferred to the Church which is His body and fulness. In this sense, rule also is attributed to the Church, not so as to obscure by haughty domination the glory of her Head, or even to claim the authority which belongs to Him, or in a word, so as to have anything separate from her Head; but because the preaching of the Gosel which is omitted to her is the spiritual scepter of Christ, by which He displays His power.  In this respect no man can bow down submissively before Christ, without also obeying the Church, so far as the obedience of faith is joined to the ministry of doctrine, yet so that Christ their Head alone reigns, and alone exercises His authority.

Therefore, the ministry of the church is the ministry of Christ.  When the church pronounces forgiveness of sins Christ does the same.  This does not mean that the Church functions ex opere operato but that it signifies the reality of Christ’s invisible work, and God, as Calvin says in numerous places, does not deceive us with empty signs. 

Liturgical Theology

[In baptism] the infant, a silent preacher of the doctrine of St. Paul, cannot even appear to be performing a work of righteousness, it only “suffers the divine love.”  The child of nature’s womb has first of all to be re-formed in the Church’s womb, elevated to the point of being able to have a relationship of life with Christ and through him with the whole human family.  This is a dramatically anti-Pelagian gesture in which individual helplessness is met and mended in solidarity with others. (Peter A. Kwasniewski, “Aquinas on Eucharistic Ecstasy,” Nova et Vetera [Winter 2008])

Faith and Eucharist: Aquinas and Calvin In Harmony

I recently presented (in class) a study concerning the placement of Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin within Henri de Lubac’s historical scheme (in his Corpus Mysticum). I concluded that they were men of there times but that they both retained a strong ecclesiology.  I also concluded the following:  Neither Thomas nor Calvin believed Christ’s presence to be confined to the Eucharist.  Both men saw the faith of the believer and the unity of the Church through the Holy Spirit to be the reality behind the sacrament.  Both considered Christ’s presence to be beyond comprehension, thus only with spiritual anatomy (i.e. Thomas’ spiritual eyes and Calvin’s spiritual mouth) can believers commune with the divine reality.  Neither affirmed a physical presence or even a local presence, and both adamantly agreed that only through faith can one truly partake of Christ.  The main source of disagreement is the doctrine of transubstantiation.  Calvin understood it as “that fictitious transubstantiation for which today they fight more bitterly than for all the other articles of their faith.” (Institutes, IV.17.13)  However, it remains to be shown that Calvin had the particular teaching of Aquinas in mind or whether he sought an answer to those common beliefs of Medieval Catholics, who were perhaps influenced by the different theories of Scotus and Ockham.  In his Institutes Calvin argues against those “Papists” who hold to a local presence of Christ and the annihilation of the substance of the bread – two ideas that Aquinas believed to be erroneous.  It is also interesting to think what Calvin might judge of Catherine Pickstock’s reading of Aquinas on transubstantiation – that his reliance on the esse/essentia distinction transcends that of substance/accidents.

de Lubac on Communion

Being in communion with someone means to receive the body of the Lord with them. Being united with the saints in the Church and participating in the Eucharist, being part of the common Kindgdom, and sharing in the holy mysteries go together in tandem and it can be said that they are one and the same thing. (Corpus Mysticum, p. 21)

St. Augustine: The Church as Sign

‘They drank,’ he [Paul] said, ‘of the spiritual Rock that followed them, and that rock was Christ.”  Thus the bread, thus the drink.  The rock was Christ in sign; the real Christ is in the Word and in flesh …. But this is what belongs to the virtue of the sacrament, not to the visible sacrament; he that eats within, no without; who eats in his heart, not who presses with his teeth …. Believers know the body of Christ, if they do not neglect to be the body of Christ.  Let them become the body of Christ, if they wish to live by the Spirit of Christ. None lives by the Spirit of Christ but the body of Christ …. I call that a spirit which is called the soul; that whereby it consists that you are  man, for you consist of soul and body. And so you have an invisible spirit and a visible body …. My body of course lives by my spirit.  Would you also then live by the Spirit of Christ?  Be in the body of Christ …. He that would live has a place to live … Let him draw near, let him believe; let him be embodied, that he may be made to live.  Let him not shrink from the compact of members …. And thus He [Christ] would have this meat and drink to be understood as meaning the fellowship of His own body and members, which is the holy Church in his predestinated, and called, and justified, and glorified saints and believers.  (Lectures on the Gospel According to St. John 6:41-59).