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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Congar on Essentialism in Aquinas

Any attempt to present him [Thomas] as an ‘essentialist, that is, as being conscious of and as affirming first of all the common divine essence, and only secondarily the Persons in that essence, would be to betray the balance of his theology.  Such an interpretation should no longer be possible since the appearance of the studies by A. Malet, H.F. Dondaine, E. Bailleux, M.-J. le Guillou and others.  This interpretation has all too frequently been based on the fact that Thomas’ study of the Trinity of persons in the Summa is preceded by a study of the divine essence.  Surely, however, it is hardly possible not to proceed in this way from the point of view of teaching? Is this procedure not justified in the economy of revelation itself?  Did John Damascene not begin with the unity of ‘God’?  Thomas had a very lively sense of the absolute character of God, his transcendence, his independence and his sufficiency.  In his mystery, which is both necessary and absolute, God knows and loves himself.  He communicates his goodness with sovereign freedom in the free mystery of creation and of the ‘divine missions’ through which creatures, who are made ‘in his image’, are included in that life of knowledge and love and are in this way ‘deified’. (Yves Congar, I Believe in the Holy Spirit, pp. 116, 117)

Most of this flies in the face of Karl Rahner’s assertions in The Trinity (See pp. 16, 17) that the medieval-Latin tradition of beginning with the divine essence before discussing the Persons sets up an abstract metaphysical God who is impersonal and altogether different from the God of the Bible.

The Emergence of the Principle Corresponds to the Emergence of Creatures

When Thomas Aquinas wrote his commentary on Peter Lombard’s Sentences he placed God at the center and everything else in relation to Him, emanating out in creation and returning in final glorification.  Jean-Pierre Torrell explains the organizing ratio of this plan:

If we do not remember the biblical affirmation of God as the Alpha and Omega of all that is visible and invisible, this plan may seem only a rather flat assertion.  We do not perceive all its depth until we grasp the organizing ratio that gives it its intelligibility. Thomas sees the ratio in the fact that the creation – the emergence of creatures from God, the principle – finds its explanation in the fact that even in God there is an “emergence of the Principle,” which is the procession of the Word from the Father. The divine efficacy that works in the creation is thus related to the generation of the Word, just as the formal cause of the grace that will permit creatures to return to God is linked to the spiration of the Holy Spirit.  More precisely and fully, we might therefore say that the divine missions ad extra are explained according to the order of the processions of the divine persons ad intra. (Torrell, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Vol. 1:  The Person and His Work, p. 43)    

This view of the Word as the Principium of all creation effects one’s understanding of grace.  Since all created things owe their being and sustenance to the Word it cannot be denied that there is an inherently gracious element in creation.  Also, viewing Thomas’s conception of the relationship between the works of the Trinity ad extra and the works of the Trinity ad intra one can have a broader appreciation for Karl Rahner’s contribution to this most important of issues – while maintaining a critical eye.  God’s creating (and recreating) work is the climax of the relationship of signus to res. “And he was transfigured before them: and his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light.” (Matt. 17:2)