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.

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.

Ratzinger on Modern Exegesis

It is here interesting to note that Lutheran exegetes have a more pronounced tendency to rely more heavily on their “fathers” (Luther, Calvin) and to include them as actual discussants in their endeavors to grasp the meaning of Scripture than their Catholic counterparts who appear largely to agree that Augustine, Chrysostom, Bonaventure and Thomas have nothing to contribute to modern exegesis. (Communio, 1986).