Recent site activity

Ecclesiology‎ > ‎

On the Authority of Councils in Martin Luther by Drake Shelton

 
         The Reformation of the 16th century, though grateful to the preceeding generations and conscious of the centuries of believers passed by, based the rejection of Patristic innnovation and superstition on a commitment to divine revelation respecting final epistemic authority. The imperious attitude of many modern day Presbyterians was old hat to the Reformers of the 16th century who had listend to such ignorant presumptions from the Papal Church who argued so abusively from Church history. The 21st century Reformed movement has reacted to the anabaptist revolution of the late 19th and for the most part of the 20th century to find themselves imperious. As a previous member of a fundamentalist Baptist Church, I can empathize with the problems inherit in the "Me and my Bible" attitude of the Fundamentalists. However, we must demonstrate great balance and control when living in a society so dominated with the Fundamentalist movement that we begin to deny principles that the Fundamentalist and Reformed systems share. This over-reaction to the Fundamentalist movement has convinced many Reformed men into an "Ancient" mindset that is harmful to the Reformed movement. While making attempts to correct ancient errors, Martin Luther, the great German Reformer understood that root epistemic issues must be dealt with in order to construct a scriptural theology based on Sola Scriptura. One such issue was the authority of councils. Luther stated,
 
"Ah, Lord God! what are councils and conventions but grasping and vanity, wherein men dispute about titles, honors, precedence, and other fopperies? Let us consider what has been done by these councils in three hundred years; nothing but what concerns externals and ceremonies; nothing at all touching true divine doctrine, the upright worshipping of God, or faith." (Table Talk, OF COUNCILS, DXVII)

          Luther was well known for his criticisms of the councils, the contradictions of them with the Roman papacy, and his sole devotion to Sola Scriptura. In reference to the feigned confidence and authority of the early councils, Luther says,

"so finely do those asses of bishops understand what the Gospels and the councils are! And if these four chief councils do not intend to make or establish anything new in the way of articles of faith, and cannot do so, as they themselves confess, how much less can such power be ascribed to the other councils, which must be held of smaller account, if these four are to be called the chief councils." (Works of Martin Luther Volume 5, Lindemann Press, On the Councils and the Churches, pg 242)

          I was struck when I read Luther's construction on the authority of councils and how similar if not identical his attitude was toward the Calvinist regualtive principle. Here is Luther's list of authorities the councils have and I have underlined those sections I find similiar if not identical to the Calvinist regualtive principle.


                                                    "First, A council has no power to establish new articles of faith...

Second... A council has the power, and is bound, to suppress and condemn new articles of faith according to Holy Scripture and the ancient faith...

Third, A council has no power to command new good works...

Fourth A council has the power, and is bound, to condemn wicked works that are contrary to love, according to the Scriptures and the ancient way of the Church, and to rebuke the individuals who are guilty of them...

Fifth A council has no power to impose upon Christians new ceremonies

Sixth... A council has the power, and is bound, to condemn such ceremonies according to the Scriptures, for they are unchristian and set up a new idolatry, or service of God that God has not commanded, but forbidden...

Seventh...A council has no power to interfere in worldly law and government...

Eigth A council has the power, and is bound, to condemn attempts of this kind and new laws, according to the Scriptures

Ninth A council has no power to make statutes or decrees that seek nothing else than tyranny, that is, statutes which give the bishops authority and power to command what they will and make everybody tremble and obey...

Tenth A council has power to appoint some ceremonies, provided, first, that they do not strengthen the bishops’ tyranny! second, that they are needful and profitable to the people and provide a fine and orderly discipline and way of life. Thus it is needful to have some days and also some places for people to assemble; likewise definite hours for preaching, distributing the sacraments, and for praying, singing, and praising and thanking God."

                                                      (Martin Luther Volume 5, Lindemann Press On the Councils and the Churches, 243-251)

          Though the tenth passage mentions making new ceremonies, the context seems to be agreeable to the days of thanksgiving etc. in the Westminster Directory for Public Worship.

          In conclusion, Luther was not a Restorationist (Most anabaptists think this way) as all Reformed people should avoid as well. We ackowledge the Ancient Church to have been the visible body of Christ, yet the more specific promises are given to the invisible Church as has been proved by Reformed theologians over the centuries. After reading through the Seven Ecumenical Councils and their history this past year I find myself scratching my head wondering why any Protestant would submit his conscience to these things. My imperious Protestant friend, I ask you to study the history of the early councils. Read how Nestorius was condemned for refusing to call Mary the "Mother of God", a doctrine rejected also by Protestants, and then slandered and misrepresented for centuries. Read how Cyril of Alexandria bribed the court in Ephesus to have Nestorius condemned. Read how Jovianus was condemned at Rome and Milan and banished for his denial of angelic virginity. Read how the iconoclasts were condemned for refusing to participate in idolatry. Protestantism has no allegiance but to Scripture and the silly notion that certain Reformed theologians (I used to think like this myself) have is that Church history, Augustine, Luther, Calvin and the Puritans already thought of everything and so we just need to read them because no new theological reformations need to take place. Now, most new stuff is trash and that's admited by me, but the exact same notion was prevelant in the days of the Reformers when people like Peter Ramus and William Ames stepped on the scene and said, "O by the way, the epistemic structure of the Church as a whole is wrong." (My paraphrase of the overturn of Thomist Scholasticism) Let's not make the same mistakes. Let's know our stuff and feel a real obligation to know the giants of the past, but to keep in mind, these are men and they made big mistakes as will we. The rejection of an imperious attitude comes in handy when the visible Church is falling apart around us and we wonder where God is. The cords of death will not prevail over the invisible Church!

Semper Reformanda


Comments