Conciliar Infallibility / Council of Constance & John Hus’ Execution

Conciliar Infallibility / Council of Constance & John Hus’ Execution May 25, 2017


Jan Hus before the Council of Constance (1883), by  Václav Brožík (1851-1901) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


My Presbyterian (OPC) friend John E. Taylor started this discussion on Facebook, in relation to my paper, Why Do Protestants Reject the Notion of “One True Church”? His words will be in blue.


Dave, the record of Old Testament councils isn’t rosy, so I honestly have a hard time over infallible councils.

I’m not counting what happened in Mizpah (Judges 21). The whole nation was gathered when they made some awful decisions and vows, and for all I know the loudmouths shouted down their leaders (but then, leadership between judges was not known for their competence).

But what about the elders who took counsel and demanded of Samuel to give them a king (1 Samuel 8:4-8)? Or the council that banned Jeremiah from the temple (Jeremiah 36:5)? Or the Sanhedrin, when they convicted Jesus of blasphemy and delivered Him over to Pilate?

I never mentioned Old Testament councils in this piece. Why do you bring this up? It isn’t an argument I made here. I do have one paper about analogies to indefectibility in the Old Testament, though.

Simple, Dave. If OT councils were prone to such colossal error, isn’t it presumptuous to say that church councils are exempt from same?

Don’t you think it’s a little different in the new covenant, after Jesus’ death on the cross for us, with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit?

They thought so at the Jerusalem council, since it makes reference to the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete guiding them (“it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us”: Acts 16:28, RSV). Jesus said:

John 16:13 (RSV) When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.

Protestants have far less faith than Catholics. We think God is big enough to guide and protect His Church (and councils of said Church) from error: as well as individuals who seek to follow Him. Why would God do otherwise? Why would He want hundreds of millions to be left on their own?

I have plenty of faith to believe the Council of Constance was wrong to revoke its safe conduct pledge to John Hus.

As to the safe-conduct of the emperor, we must distinguish,. . . between the arrest of Hus at Constance and his execution. The former act was always accounted in Bohemia a violation of the safe-conduct and a breach of faith on the emperor’s part; on the other hand they knew well, and so did Hus, that the safe-conduct was only a guarantee against illegal violence and could not protect him from the sentence of his legitimate judges.

(Catholic Encyclopedia, “Council of Constance”)

Safe conduct didn’t mean that no one could ever be tried or executed for heresy.

In any event, whether right or wrong (I am no fan at all of executions for heresy), this has nothing to do with doctrinal decisions of a council, made binding on the entire Church. The council didn’t even grant the safe-conduct. And it was not bound to it, in the event of someone being a heretic.

You yourself have noted that the Synod of Dort, held by Calvinists to condemn Arminians, was not always a perfectly saintly undertaking. King David had a man murdered, so that he could commit adultery with his wife. But that didn’t stop God from making an eternal covenant with him. The question of sin and the question of inspiration (Bible writers) and infallibility (popes and councils) are separate ones.

Like a good Protestant polemicist, you immediately switch the discussion from grand, broad issues (whether the Holy Spirit guides Christians into truth: individually and collectively) to particulars (whether Hus’ execution proves that councils cannot be infallible). This is always the game: never discuss the important, crucial questions of premise and foundations for views.

Deal with the larger presuppositional issues first . . . But Hus will not suffice to shoot down Catholic ecclesiology, as shown.

I was fully confident you’d excuse the Council.

I didn’t excuse the killing of Hus; I simply made the point that this had no bearing on infallibility of councils. Safe-conduct was distinct from that.

All Christians in those days believed in execution of heretics. Luther and Calvin killed plenty of Anabaptists. I don’t like that past anymore than you do, but it has to be discussed fairly and intelligently, not as merely “gotcha” talking-points.

But keep frittering away with non sequiturs, if that’s all you have. You’re not forthrightly addressing the issue, which is shown very clearly in the Jerusalem Council’s appeal to the Holy Spirit: demonstrating that the apostles and elders felt themselves to be under God’s special protection and guidance. I’m interested in biblically grounded discussions of what is true and false in Christian doctrine.

Bertrand L. Conway, in his work, The Question Box (New York: Paulist Press, 1929 revised edition, 436-437) provides a further Catholic response to this time-honored false accusation against the Council of Constance:

The Council of Constance never granted a safe-conduct to Huss . . . The Council sets forth the ordinary teaching of canon law, that a prince’s safe-conduct in no way prevented the ecclesiastical authority from trying and judging a heretic.

Huss left Prague, as he admits himself in three letters, without any written safe-conduct. The Emperor, Sigismund, however, granted him an escort of Bohemian nobles to ensure his safety on his way to the Council . . .

No one at the time believed that the Emperor’s safe-conduct gave Huss a right to return to Prague, if he were condemned by the Council. There are many letters extant of the Emperor, the King of Aragon, the Bohemian nobles, and even of Huss himself, proving that the safe-conduct protected the bearer from all illegal violence on his journey, but that it did not free him from the consequences of justice.

It is true that in two letters Huss asserts that the Emperor did promise verbally “to send him back safe and sound to Bohemia.” But Huss is either lying, or he mistook the meaning of the Emperor’s words. “Such a promise,” as Palacky says “would not only have been beyond the Emperor’s rights and competence, but also beyond his power” . . .

The Jerusalem Council gives ONLY the claim that they made the right decision THAT TIME. You read into the text if you presume all future infallibility – the way some assumed St. John the Apostle would not die:

John 21:21‭-‬23 (ESV) “When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?” Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!” So the saying spread abroad among the brothers that this disciple was not to die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he was not to die, but, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?”

Moreover these are hardly “non sequiturs”. Your council infallibility position falls like a house of cards at ONE council error. The emperor was angry when Huss was arrested despite the safe conduct. Whether he thought it was covenant breathing skullduggery is another matter.

Speaking of Huss, I’ve looked for the list of alleged heresies Constance condemned him for. Do you have them?

That’s what we get in Scripture regarding ecclesial government: prototypes. Obviously there wasn’t time enough in the 40-50 years of the writing of the New Testament, to get examples of many more councils (even one more). But we have one, and what it shows us is a model that is very much like what Catholics believe about ecumenical councils, and very unlike Protestant dogma that councils aren’t unconditionally binding (Acts 16:4).

There’s no way out of this for the Protestant, and so we get the rather poor reply you give us: “The Jerusalem Council gives ONLY the claim that they made the right decision THAT TIME.”

But of course you don’t follow your own trepidations about the number of examples in Scripture, when it comes to your own ecclesiology. You guys think you see presbyterian government in the New Testament (but it’s so sketchy that Christians believe in many different forms of Church government) and so you follow that for “all future” times.

It’s only when you see Catholic models in Scripture that you descend to this cop-out of “it’s only once!”

The fact remains that Paul proclaimed the teaching of the council all over the place as binding (i.e., hierarchical, overarching, universal authority). That is not Protestant ecclesiology: no way, shape, matter, or form. It says that no council is infallible; only Scripture is.

In fact, the Jerusalem Council was so infallible, that virtually all Christians have followed its ruling ever since: we don’t require circumcision (we have baptism instead) and we don’t follow Jewish dietary laws. That all came about through that council (just as the canon of Scripture came through Catholic councils as well, and you guys have no cogent reply to that conundrum, either).

I’m not gonna keep going down the rabbit trail of talking about Hus; sorry. I dealt with him enough to show that he poses no refutation of the Catholic view of binding councils.

With the precedent of three (at least) GREATLY FLAWED councils in the Old Testament, I marvel at your position, given there is no explicit statement that a council dominated by Apostles was going to set an entirely new precedent for the future.

As for dietary law, I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve taken people to Acts 10 to give express warrant for saying it was a new ball game then – BEFORE the Jerusalem Council. And Paul hammered the Galatians over the circumcision matter in mind-numbing detail. So you have plenty of doctrinal redundancy in the NT without jumping to your extra-biblical dogmas about subsequent councils.

I see, so you are content to go with Peter the first pope (one man) seeing a vision about the cleanness of all foods, as the basis of the new norm for diet. That fits fine with Catholic eclesiology. And then the council confirmed the same thing, via holy men consulting together with the aid of the Holy Spirit. No contradiction there. The contradiction is in you running down the council but extolling Pope Peter as your sole authority on the matter.  We’re “both / and”; y’all are constantly “either / or”.

But if it had already been known and observed by everyone (it wasn’t, because the book of Acts in its entirety was not yet known), then why does the text say that Paul and Silas “delivered to them for observance the decisions which had been reached by the apostles and elders who were at Jerusalem” (Acts 16:4)?

Somewhat humorously (in the context of our debate), the verse before (Acts 16:3) informs us about how Paul had Timothy circumcised.

Once again, you want to go with Old Testament and Jewish models regarding councils, rather than New Testament / new covenant / apostle- and Holy Spirit-led New Testament councils, as if there is no difference between the covenants (as I have already addressed: getting only crickets back from you).

You do that for councils, just as you prefer the Jewish biblical canon (by their authority) *after* Jesus’ death to the Christian canon, which included the Septuagint and hence, also the Deuterocanon. It’s as if the indwelling and leading of the Holy Spirit is an indifferent matter to you.

You say councils are extra-biblical, while you hold to presbyterian government, minus hierarchy, bishops, apostolic succession, and the papacy, which is extraordinarily anti-biblical (not merely extra-biblical, which can be in harmony with Scripture).

As for your observation that the Jerusalem Council was dominated by Apostles, this is only partially true. The text consistently said that the authorities and decision-makers were “apostles and elders.” The elders seem to have had the same practical authority as the apostles, which sets the future precedent, for times after the apostles have died and are no more. I wrote an entire paper about this motif in the Jerusalem council. Then I explored it further, in what the council implied about future pronouncements.

Furthermore, Judas (apostle) is replaced by Matthias (Acts 1:20-26), and the word bishoprick appears in KJV, because episkopos is in the Greek (Acts 1:20: “For it is written in the book of Psalms, Let his habitation be desolate, and let no man dwell therein: and his bishoprick let another take.”). This is one scriptural basis for the historic view (for fifteen centuries) of apostolic succession: bishops replaced the apostles in Church government.

Thus, there can be councils led by bishops, just as the Jerusalem council was jointly led by elders or bishops (the offices still being fluid at that time, because it was early in development of doctrine, just as the Trinity and Two Natures of Christ and original sin and many other doctrines were).

Good point, the Council’s decisions were “extra-biblical” because Acts 10 had not yet been written.

But if we’re honest, the Council in Acts 15 really added nothing new, because Peter had already baptized Cornelius’ household without having them circumcised, and broke kosher law on the strength of his vision that told him “What God has made clean, do not call common.” (Acts 10:15). Peter also silenced his opposition upon his return to Jerusalem (11:1-3, 17-18).

What was really at stake here is Peter’s words “Who was I to withstand God” – not because he was in an infallible Council, but because of divine revelation – his vision of unclean animals and seeing for himself those uncircumcised Gentiles receiving the Holy Spirit.

Note that Peter had witnesses, 6 in all, whom he’d brought from Joppa to Caesarea to Jerusalem (Acts 10:23, 11:12), because God was breaking fresh ground. A very wise precaution!

In fact, Peter had to remind the Council of that very incident when he baptized the Gentiles (Acts 15:7-9).

So the “binding dogma”, if you will, had already been binding. The whole reason for the Council, as they said in their letter, was to alleviate the Gentiles’ uneasiness because of what some of the Jerusalem people had said without their authority:

Acts 15:23‭-‬24 (ESV) “The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the brothers who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings. Since we have heard that some persons have gone out from us and troubled you with words, unsettling your minds, although we gave them no instructions,

Finally, James himself, whose speech decided the Council and whose suggested stipulations were in the letter’s content, warned in Luther’s “epistle of straw”  “We all make many mistakes” (James 3:2). If one sinner, even a writer of Scripture, is prone to make many mistakes, I would be very hesitant to impute infallibility to councils throughout church history.

You can have the last word.


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