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

Continuing (after an unexpectedly long break) our series on the Thirty-nine Articles and the Rev. B. J. Kidd’s commentary . . .

For comments on the first two clauses, click here. Kidd’s commentary on Article XXI concludes with a consideration of the last clause of the Article, which limits the authority of Ecumenical or General Councils to declaring the sense of Scripture. As Kidd notes, “[t]he Article is concerned to emphasise their limitations rather than their authority.” Even then, however, the Article does not contain a doctrine of sola scriptura, either implicitly or explicitly. (Once again, the Latin text of the Article is clearer than the English.) Article XXI instead declares that the decrees of councils only have authority if they may be (possint, the subjunctive) shown to come from Scripture, not must be, or in other words unless it is possible. (Once again one suspects here a criticism of certain medieval councils and perhaps Trent as well, rather than those councils which the Articles and other Anglican formularies deem truly ecumenical.) So also Article VI, which establishes the authority of Scripture after the doctrines of the first four ecumenical councils are rehearsed in the first five Articles, declares that doctrines may be insisted upon only if, in respect to Scripture, they “may be proved thereby”, “proved” here being in the older sense of “tested” or “shown as good,” as again the Latin text indicates (deinde probari potest).

Thus neither Article VI nor Article XXI insist on a scriptural proof on the order of scientific or historical demonstration or deductive reasoning, since in questions of this sort such proof is nearly always lacking, but rather on overall Scriptural support, always bearing in mind the rule from Article XX, that no one, not even the Church, may “so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another.”

Even this, however, cannot be taken as the final word on the authority of Ecumenical Councils for Anglicanism, either in Anglican formularies in general or in the Articles in particular since, as has been noted before, Anglican formularies have either implicitly or explicitly acknowledged the authority of the doctrinal decrees of at least the first four or six ecumenical councils.

I have already written on Anglicanism and the Seventh Council, and will do so again in the near future. Suffice it to say for now that many, if not most, Anglicans have for some time now accepted de facto the decrees of the Seventh Council regarding the use of sacred images, and have at times come close to accepting them de jure. Ironically, it is the very authority that Kidd cites for rejecting the Seventh Council—the Homily “Against the Peril of Idolatry”—that sets the rule for accepting it. The Homily cites “six Councils which were allowed and received of all men.” Simply put, the Homily errs here as to a matter of history, since the Oriental Orthodox have only “allowed and received” the first three. Therefore, if “allowed and received of all men” means, as it must, received by the great churches of east and west, then there is no logical reason for rejecting the Seventh. Moreover, there is implicit here, as Kidd notes, a doctrine of reception for the authority of Ecumenical Councils, one which has serious implications for the theology (or lack thereof) behind the currently fashionable notion in the Anglican Communion of “reception” when debating the “ordination” of women or the Windsor Report. Kidd has no problem applying the term “infallible” to the decrees of councils that have been “received,” nor should he have; and, as we will see in future posts, this suggests that current notions of a “process of reception” within the Anglican Communion are an ecclesiological aberration from traditional Anglican thinking about authority within Anglicanism.

Now to Kidd . . .



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.

§ 3 states, in conclusion, the authority of General Councils. 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. This is only to re-affirm the root principle of the English Reformation, the sufficiency of Scripture in matters of faith; and the function of General Councils was never more than to declare its sense. But this is essentially the Catholic position. To S. Athanasius the merit of the Council of Nicaea is that it exactly declared the sense of Scripture. ‘Divine Scripture is sufficient above all things; but if a council be needed on the point, there are the proceedings of the Fathers: for the Nicene bishops did not neglect this matter, but stated the doctrine so exactly, that persons reading their words honestly, cannot but be reminded by them of the religion towards Christ announced in the Divine Scriptures.’* Nor is this a function of inferior moment. At the present time Christendom is hardly conscious that there have ever been differences as to those parts of the Faith on which General Councils were directly called upon to declare the sense of Scripture. The doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation, once the most disputed and still the most mysterious, are exactly the doctrines most universally accepted. It is with points that have arisen since the days when, in the undivided Church, General Councils were possible, that controversy is now mainly concerned. It rages round the constitution of the Church, the nature of the Presence and the Sacrifice in the Eucharist, and the source and character, sacerdotal or otherwise, of the Ministerial Commission. Limited as it is by Holy Scripture, nothing testifies so eloquently to the authority of General Councils as the continuance of division without them. The Article is concerned to emphasise their limitations rather than their authority. Hence it dwells on their less favorable aspects, the passions that found scope in them, and their liability to error. But they have another side. Indefectibility was not promised to Church assemblies, nor to the Church of anyone age or country, but it was promised to the Church as a whole (Matt. xvi. 18; xxviii. 20; John xiv. 26; xvi. 13). Thus, while there never was any guarantee for the inerrancy of a Council at the moment, once its decisions were received throughout the whole Church it took rank as a General Council, and its doctrine was rightly regarded as infallible. Of such, the English Church recognises ’six Councils which were allowed and received of all men.’

*Ath., de Synodis, § 6.
** Homily against Peril of Idolatry, p. 197 (ed. Oxford, 1859).


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