The Reformation’s rediscovery of sola scriptura reset both the authority of the Church (Article 20) and the authority of General Councils (Article 21) to their proper status. Article 20 makes it very clear that Anglicanism affirms the supreme authority of Scripture: “It is not lawful for the Church to ordain anything that is contrary to God’s Word written….it ought to not decree anything against the same”. The Church remains under the authority of Scripture, neither above it nor equal to it. Article 21 states that it was only because of the authority of Scripture that councils were granted an authority commensurate with their fidelity to the Scriptures.
XXI—Of the Authority of General Councils
General Councils may not be gathered together without the commandment and will of Princes. 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 sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining unto God. 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.
This article dates from 1553, with some minor changes in 1563/71. Two influences of the time suggest its inclusion. The first is that at the time of the Reformation an effort was made to call a general council. Luther, Cranmer, and Calvin all had done so. The second reason is to reply to Pope Paul III’s convening of the Council of Trent in 1545. Trent’s convocation was already irregular, lacking the command of the Holy Roman Emperor and failing to gain the French crown’s support (which would suggest a reason why “commandment and will of princes” is placed here). Since Trent’s purpose was to counter the Reformation, Protestants were not invited. Despite the irregular convocation and absence of Protestant and Eastern Christian churches, the council proclaimed itself a general and ecumenical council and anathematized those who held to reformed views of justification and the sacraments. Therefore article 21 is one application of the principles underlined in article 20.
Anglicans have always understood that the term “general council” to be those so-called “ecumenical” councils of the early church. Thus, we can see how Cranmer's Reformatio Legum (1552) accorded great honor and dignity to the first four councils:
Although we freely grant great honour to the councils, and especially to the ecumenical ones, yet we judge that all of them must be placed far below the dignity of the canonical Scriptures, and even among the councils themselves we make a huge distinction. For some of them, such as the special four, Nicaea, first of Constantinople, Ephesus, and Chalcedon, we embrace ad accept with great reverence. And we make the same judgment with regard to many other which were held later on, in which we see and confess that the most holy fathers determined many things, in a most serious and godly manner, concerning the blessed and highest Trinity, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, and the redemption of mankind procured by him. But we do not regard them as binding on our faith except in so far as they can be proved out of the Holy Scriptures. For it is most obvious clear that some councils have occasionally erred, and defined things which are contrary to each other, partly in our legal actions and partly even in faith. Therefore the councils are to be studied with honor and Christian reverence, but at the same time they are to be tested against the godly, certain and right rule of the Scriptures.
It is also important to notice how the Reformatio sets the condition for later councils in greater detail that helps us understand that last sentence of article 21. When the church fathers determined matters of the Trinity, the person of Christ, and salvation in a “most serious and godly manner” (the inference is by the due consideration of Scripture, the source of godliness), then the later councils are to be affirmed. Thus, the other formularies rejected the councils which authorized the veneration of images at Nicea II (781) and the compulsory clerical celibacy of Lateran I (1123). But the double procession of the Holy Spirit (filioque) doctrine of the council of Florence (1439) and the council decisions of Constantinople II (553) and Constantinople III (680-1) concerning Christ’s person that reaffirmed Chalcedon, were retained.
Although the Renaissance and Reformation concept of the "prince" hold little influence today, and the probability of another General Council remote, we should take note of the fallen nature of mankind that underlines the reality of past councils. Because all the ordained and lay leaders seated in our Anglican assemblies, synods, conventions, and colleges of bishops remain fallen. Anglicans ought to be wary of hastily declared decisions or “promptings of the Spirit” that overturn affirmations by early councils that have submitted to the scriptural scrutiny that our historical formularies have confirmed. The recent history of the Anglican Communion’s dissolution concerning human nature and sexuality or the cursory way the Anglican Church of North America has made the filoque an optional doctrine are two examples. Another concern has been the total failure in the application of discipline against those who have rejected scripturally faithful council decisions, not solely regarding the rejection of the decision, but in the rejection of the sole authority of the Scriptures that undergirds that decision.
Anglicans must be clear: the church is not ultimately built on councils and synods, but “on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone” (Ephesians 2.19). There are no creedal or canonical teachings that contain any saving truth found outside of the Scriptures. Indeed, the saving truths of conciliar creeds and canons only derive their force from the Scriptures.
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For previous articles in this series, see:
- One God in Trinity, Trinity in Unity (Art. 1)
- The Incarnation and Atonement (Art. 2)
- The Work of Christ (Arts. 3-4)
- The Holy Spirit (Art. 5)
- The Rule of Faith: Part 1 (Art. 6)
- The Rule of Faith: Part 2 (Art. 7)
- The Rule of Faith: Part 3 (Art. 8)
- Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude: Part 1 (Art. 9)
- Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude: Part 2 (Art. 10)
- Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude: Part 3 (Art. 11)
- Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude: Part 4 (Art. 12)
- Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude: Part 5 (Arts. 13-14)
- Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude: Part 6 (Art. 15)
- Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude: Part 7 (Art. 16)
- Grace Alone! (Art. 17)
- Christ Alone! (Art. 18)
- The Visible and Invisible Church: Part 1 (Art. 19)
- The Visible and Invisible Church: Part 2 (Art. 20)