The Church in the Articles (III): Article XXI (a)

Continuing our series on the Thirty-nine Articles and the Rev. B. J. Kidd’s commentary . . .

With Article XXI, we return to subjects already raised, either explicitly or implicitly, in treating the Articles, particularly Article VI: the authority of Councils, their connection with Scripture, and what is meant by “church.” Here indeed we get to truly irreducible differences between Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism. Several points must be kept in mind:

• As so often with the Articles, which are at times terse to the point of exasperation, the meaning of Article cannot be taken from text of the single Article alone, but from the sense of Articles as a whole, and indeed from Anglican formularies as a whole.

• The meaning of the Article here is, as often, clearer in the Latin text than in the English.

• Virtually every clause of Article XXI is negative; that is, the Article is much clearer on what does not make for an Ecumenical (or Oecumenical) council than on what does. The positive meaning of the Article must be teased out, based on its implications and its relationship with Anglican formularies as a whole.

• The Article can only be understood in connection with both the history it cites and its own immediate historical context, that is, the council that was meeting at Trent at the very time the Article was written.

Article XXI treats the authority of general councils; but before even reading past the title of the Article, we must be clear that general here does not necessarily mean Ecumenical (i.e., a council with binding doctrinal authority, or what Kidd refers to below as “really General.”), even though the term general is often used in our sources for either one, and thus a potential source of much confusion. Rather, general here refers to councils which purport to be Ecumenical when they gather ; whether or not they actually were, are, or achieve the status of, Ecumenical councils must yet be determined. In other words, in terms of Article XXI, all Ecumenical councils are general, but not all general councils become Ecumenical. And apart from the suggestion that they require a summoning by imperial authority (which, as Kidd puts it, is “a question of precedent rather than of inherent right”), the Article makes no explicit statement as to what goes to making a general council an Ecumenical one other than that its decrees be shown to be “taken out of Holy Scripture.” Instead, if we are to look for an answer to the question, “What makes a council Ecumenical?” we must once again turn to the Articles as a whole, and indeed to Anglican formularies as a whole; and we must first apply the negative definition, both stated and implied, of a council in Article XXI before we can discern what Anglican formularies as a whole suggest as a positive definition.

That Ecumenical councils have binding doctrinal authority for Anglicans is already implied in the first five Articles, which rehearse the doctrine of the first four (or six) Ecumenical councils, and their priority over the individual interpretation (“private judgment”) of the Bible is further implied by (a) their placement before Article VI on the authority of Scripture, (b) Article XX which insists that it is the Church that “hath authority . . . in controversies of faith,” and (c) the traditional requirement (from the same synod of 1571 that first required subscription to the Articles) that clergy preach “what is agreeable to the teaching of the Old or New Testament, and what the Catholic fathers and ancient bishops have collected from this selfsame doctrine.” (See “Reformed Catholicism” and the Thirty-Nine Articles.)

For American Anglicans in particular, Article XXI may seem strange, because it was in fact omitted from the Articles in American Prayer Books beginning in 1801. In its place was put the following: “The Twenty-first of the former Articles is omitted, because it is partly of a local and civil nature, and is provided for, as to its remaining parts, in other Articles.” As we will see, the meaning of its “remaining parts” is indeed filled out by other Articles. Presumably the objection to its “local and civil nature” was the reference in the first clause to “the commandment and will of princes,” something hardly likely to sound felicitous to a nation recently created out of rebellion to the British crown. However, this is to misread the Article, since the first clause does not, in fact, refer to British monarchs (as Kidd makes clear), nor does it refer to anything “local.” Rather, the reference is to the Roman (or Byzantine) imperial authority that lay behind virtually all of the early Ecumenical councils. The English text refers to “princes,” but this is an unfortunate translation of the Latin principes, singular princeps, one of the specific titles of all Roman emperors beginning with Augustus.

It may seem strange to the modern Christian that an Article of religion would insist on an imperial summons for an Ecumenical council—but in fact all the first seven councils accepted by both east and west to this day were indeed so called, because only in this manner could a council of the whole church be summoned, it being only within the power, and therefore the responsibility, of the ruler of the Christian empire (in Greek, oikoumene) to do so. Such a condition is no longer possible (and wasn’t really possible in in 1553 or 1571 either), since there were then, and are now, no more universally recognized emperors and are not likely to be any time soon; but the Articles’ authors were neither writing in an historical vacuum nor assigning universal authority over the whole Christian world to the British monarch.

Nevertheless, the purpose of the Article cannot be to suggest that an emperor’s summons alone was what made a council Ecumenical, because, as Kidd makes clear, there were plenty of general councils summoned by emperors that are now judged (and indeed were so judged soon after they met) as heretical rather than Ecumenical, such as the infamous council of Ariminum in 359; and insisting that it would be Ecumenical if the emperor that summoned it were himself orthodox is an exercise in circular reasoning. Rather, the clause concerning emperors must be taken as implying not a positive, that imperial authority alone makes for an Ecumenical council, but rather, by making a point from history—that all of the early Ecumenical councils were convoked by emperors—a negative, namely that papal authority alone does not. Why? Because the authors of the Article in 1553 were writing with an eye towards the papal synod meeting at that very time, the council of Trent. To quote The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church,

According to present RC canon law (CIC (1983), cans. 337-41, 749) the Pope alone has the right to convene an Ecumenical Council, to preside over it (in person or through deputies), and to approve its decrees. As the oecumenicity of a Council is now held to depend on the co-operation of the Pope, the Conciliar theory that there can be an appeal from the Pope to a Council is inadmissible.

This is the definition of an Ecumenical Council which Article XXI stands against. An imperial summons cannot be the sufficient cause of an Ecumenical Council, because general councils summoned by emperors can and have erred, as the Article states; and the historical context of Article XXI, written while the council of Trent was meeting, makes it clear that, if summons by an emperor is not a sufficient cause, neither is summons by a Pope. Nor, according to Article XIX, is it the Pope’s final approval that guarantees the true ecumenicity of a council (since “the Church of Rome hath erred . . . in matters of faith”). Thus, as to what makes a council’s doctrine binding, there are only two possibilities left, one which is stated explicitly in Article XXI—conformity to Scripture—and one which is implied, namely reception by the universal church. Why the latter? Because conformity to Scripture is itself a matter of faith concerning which, according to Article XX, “the Church hath authority.” Indeed, the very position of Article XXI, “Of the Authority of General Councils,” comes immediately after Article XX, “Of the Authority of the Church,” thus implying that it is not a particular Bishop, nor even a local or national church, but instead the entire church catholic that ultimately judges the ecumenicity of a council.

But enough by way of introduction. I have again broken up Kidd’s comments into two posts, and I will have more to write on councils, their number and reception in the second. For now, let Kidd speak . . .



De auctoritate Conciliorum Generalium. (§ 1) Generalia Concilia sine jussu et voluntate principum congregari non possunt. (§ 2) Et ubi convenerint, quia ex hominibus constant, qui non omnes Spiritu et verbo Dei reguntur, et errare possunt, et interdum errarunt, etiam in his quae ad normam pietatis pertinent. (§ 3) Ideoque quae ab illis constituuntnr, ut ad salutem necessaria, neque robur habent neque auctoritatem nisi ostendi possint e sacris literis esse desumpta.

Of the authority of General Councils. (§ 1) General Councils may not be gathered together without the commandment and will of princes. (§ 2) And when they be gathered together, forasmuch as they be an assembly of men, whereof all be not governed with the Spirit and word of God, they may err and sometime have erred, even in things pertaining unto God. (§ 3) Wherefore things ordained by them as necessary to salvation have neither strength nor authority, unless it may be declared that they be taken out of Holy Scripture.

(i) Source.—Composed by the English Reformers, 1552-3.

(ii) Object.—Art. 21, standing as it does between one that treats ‘Of the Authority of the Church,’ and another that repudiates certain doctrines, as ‘Of Purgatory,’ etc., put forward on that authority, serves as the natural sequel to the one and the necessary introduction to the other. The authority of the Church, as the position of the Article implies, is normally expressed through General Councils; but, as its text goes on to affirm, the doctrines sanctioned by Councils claiming to be General cannot be accepted unless brought to the test of Holy Scripture. There is thus no intention to disparage the authority of such Councils as were really General: a point which is further established by the structure and the historical affinities of the Article. As with other Articles, its main statement is reserved for its final clause, which simply affirms that, in matters doctrinal, a council has no function beyond that of declaring the sense of Holy Scripture: and again, the Reformatio Legum, which proceeded from the same hands as the Articles under Edward VI, professes that we reverently accept the four great Ecumenical Councils, and defer to the decisions of many later synods.

There was, however, a special object in defining the degree of this deference at the time. A council, claiming to be Ecumenical, was sitting at Trent: and the English Divines, by pointing out that it was merely an assembly summoned by the Pope and confined to bishops of the Papal obedience, i.e. neither free nor representative, rid themselves by anticipation of any responsibility to it.

(iii) Explanation.—The Article makes three statements as to § 1 the right of convening, § 2 the fallibility of, and § 3 the authority of, General Councils.

§ 1 affirms that the right of convening General Councils belongs to the civil power. They may not be gathered together without the commandment and will of princes. This was certainly the authority by which the six councils, generally accepted as Ecumenical, were assembled. The Council of Nicaea in 325 was summoned by the Emperor Constantine: and even the plan of such a gathering was probably his own. The Council of Constantinople in 381 was convened by Theodosius I to deal with the errors of Macedonius. The Council of Ephesus, which met in 431 to condemn the Nestorian heresy, was called together by his grandson Theodosius II. The Council of Chalcedon, assembled in 451 to put down Eutychianism, at the request of Pope Leo the Great addressed to the Emperor Marcian, who formally convened it. In 553 the second Council of Constantinople was summoned by Justinian, in the course of the Monophysite controversy: and in 680 the third Council of Constantinople met at the bidding of the Emperor Constantine Pogonatus, and condemned Monothelitism.

Thus every Council, which can claim recognition as Ecumenical, was ‘gathered together’ at ‘the commandment and will of princes.’ Upon the decadence of the Roman power in the West, the Pope became the legatee of the imperial right of summoning councils: but, when he also came to be regarded as the successor of S. Peter and spiritual head of the whole Church, his right acquired additional sanction on that ground. At length, however, the decline of the Papacy led men to call in question its sovereign claims: and when, with the growth of the great nations of Western Europe into sovereign states, imperial authority was exercised by each monarch for himself, the right to have a voice in the summoning of Councils was at once claimed for the civil power as part of it. Probably no more than this was in the mind of the framers of Art. 21: for, in the previous reign, the Convocation of Canterbury had expressed itself to this effect: ‘We think that neither the bishop of Rome nor any one prince. . . may, by his own authority, . . . summon any general council, without the express consent . . . of the residue of Christian princes, and especially such as have within their own realms and seignories imperium merum, that is to say, of such as have the . . . supreme government . . over all their subjects.’ It is a question of precedent rather than of inherent right. In the sixteenth century the civil power, when it wished to secure itself against papal pretensions, reverted to ideals drawn from the practice of later Roman, or earlier medieval, emperors, chief among which was the imperial right to summon Councils. lmperial authority being now, as it were, in commission, it was argued that this prerogative was in commission too.

In the present age, were a General Council possible, the states of the civilised world would be more likely to act on the principle that the interests of religion were no concern of civil government. But as they have the power, and by precedent might claim the right, to intervene, it is still true, though somewhat of an academic truth, that General Councils may not be gathered together without the commandment and will of princes.

§ 2 asserts the fallibility of General Councils; but it ‘must be understood,’ as Bishop Burnet justly observed, ‘of councils that pass for such.’ They may err, and sometime have erred, even in things pertaining to God. Two propositions are made here, that councils, when assembled, are (1) liable to err, and (2) have actually erred.

(1) It might have been thought that God, having entrusted His Church with a revelation of supreme moment, would have taken care that a body summoned to represent the whole Church would be protected from possibility of error. But this is not so: and the mechanical theory of conciliar infallibility is of later growth. In the fourth century ‘the very continuance of the Arian controversy, subsequent to the Council of Nicaea, is enough to shew that no such ideas of the finality of a General Council as are now current were then held in the Church.’* The language of the orthodox leaders at that time points to the same conclusion. S. Athanasius, with all his veneration for ‘the great and holy synod,’ maintains that it is not to be preferred before the earlier, but local, Synod of Antioch in 269, nor is that to be preferred before the Council of Nicaea; since both alike did nothing new, but fell back upon the words of those who went before them.** So too Pope Julius, while contending that ‘a General Council ought not to be set aside by a few individuals,’ declares that it is within the power of one Council to revise the decisions of another, and refers to the Council of Nicaea as having laid down this principle.*** Accredited theologians then expressly declined to attribute to General Councils any inherent authority. In other words, they recognised that they may err.

(2) That they sometime have erred is mere matter of history. Not only were Councils, such as that of Ariminum in 359, which met with all the appearance of truly representative numbers, actually betrayed into making havoc of the faith, but others, lawfully called and widely attended, were repudiated by contemporaries and revised by subsequent synods. For instance, the Council which met at Ephesus in 449 to acquit Eutyches was immediately denounced by S. Leo as ‘no court of justice, but a gang of robbers,’**** and its decisions were reversed at the Council of Chalcedon, 451. The Article is thus amply justified in its statement that neither the formal convocation of a Council, nor its numbers, can ensure to it rectitude of proceedings or immunity from error. It should be noted that the statement, thus effectually grounded, was aimed, in all probability, at certain mediaeval synods, which, while commonly taken for General Councils, were representative only of Latin Christendom, and were responsible for the promulgation of mere errors, such as the dogma of Transubstantiation, which was first imposed by the Lateran Council of 1215, and was afterwards reaffirmed at Trent.

* Dr. Collins, Bishop of Gibraltar, on The Authority of General Councils.
** Cf. Ath., de Synodis, §§ 43, 46, 47.
*** Cf. Julius’ letter in Ath., Apol. c. Ar.., §§ 22, 25.
**** ‘Latrocinium,’ Leonis Ep. xcv. 2.


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