Authority and Infallibility of Councils (vs. Calvin #26)

Authority and Infallibility of Councils (vs. Calvin #26) January 18, 2019

This is an installment of a series of replies (see the Introduction and Master List) to much of Book IV (Of the Holy Catholic Church) of Institutes of the Christian Religion, by early Protestant leader John Calvin (1509-1564). I utilize the public domain translation of Henry Beveridge, dated 1845, from the 1559 edition in Latin; available online. Calvin’s words will be in blue. All biblical citations (in my portions) will be from RSV unless otherwise noted.

Related reading from yours truly:

Biblical Catholic Answers for John Calvin (2010 book: 388 pages)

A Biblical Critique of Calvinism (2012 book: 178 pages)

Biblical Catholic Salvation: “Faith Working Through Love” (2010 book: 187 pages; includes biblical critiques of all five points of “TULIP”)


IV, 8:10 / 9:1-3, 6-11, 14 / 10:21


Book IV


10. The Roman tyrants have taught a different doctrine—viz. that Councils cannot err, and, therefore, may coin new dogmas.

But if this power of the church which is here described be contrasted with that which spiritual tyrants, falsely styling themselves bishops and religious prelates, have now for several ages exercised among the people of God, there will be no more agreement than that of Christ with Belial. 

Nice melodramatic, rhetorical touch . . . this is how mere propaganda (as opposed to cogent rational argument and demonstration) proceeds.

It is not my intention here to unfold the manner, the unworthy manner, in which they have used their tyranny; 

Of course there is no antecedent question considered: whether Catholics en masse are indeed “tyrants.” Calvin has said so, after all.

I will only state the doctrine which they maintain in the present day, first, in writing, and then, by fire and sword. 

Ah, yes. And we all know that Protestants never hurt a flea, right?

Taking it for granted, that a universal council is a true representation of the Church, 

. . . which is what the Christian Church had always taught . . .

they set out with this principle, and, at the same time, lay it down as incontrovertible, that such councils are under the immediate guidance of the Holy Spirit, and therefore cannot err. 

That was the case with the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:25, 28-29), and all true councils. Why would Calvin think that this state of affairs is no longer applicable in the Church? Jesus (John, chapters 14-16) said we would have the Holy Spirit to guide us. Has Calvin lost faith in that ongoing guidance? It is a spectacle to behold such continual lack of faith in God’s promises and manifest examples in Holy Scripture. Man-centered outlooks descend to that level.

When one puts one’s faith in God, to guide sinful men for His sovereign purposes, it’s very different. Calvin wants to emphasize God’s sovereignty, which is good, but seems to repeatedly deny it when it comes to examining how God leads men for His sovereign purposes.

But as they rule councils, nay, constitute them, they in fact claim for themselves whatever they maintain to be due to councils. 

It’s not circular reasoning, as he implies, but a biblical notion, as just shown.

Therefore, they will have our faith to stand and fall at their pleasure, so that whatever they have determined on either side must be firmly seated in our minds; what they approve must be approved by us without any doubt; what they condemn we also must hold to be justly condemned. 

That is, whatever is believed by all, everywhere, from the beginning (apostolic succession). Calvin cleverly makes out that there is some sort of “epistemological equivalence” between the Protestant rejection of so many Catholic doctrines, and the Catholic position which had been consistently maintained for 1500 years. That is ludicrous in and of itself. But it plays well to the crowd, in making out that it is supposedly a matter of “arbitrary Catholic dogmatism and power vs. biblical Protestantism.” It’s superb propaganda, but it is nonexistent reasoning.

Meanwhile, at their own caprice, and in contempt of the word of God, they coin doctrines to which they in this way demand our assent, declaring that no man can be a Christian unless he assent to all their dogmas, affirmative as well as negative, if not with explicit, yet with implicit faith, because it belongs to the Church to frame new articles of faith.

The Church had always done this. Why should it cease now? Even granting Calvin’s perspective that his alternative Christian worldview and “system” is equally plausible as the Catholic Church, it is foolish to condemn the very notion of an enforced orthodoxy (by anyone), since, after all, Calvin’s “church” acted in exactly the same way, sometimes to the point of death for those who disagreed.

What he needs to do is show how some Catholic doctrine or other is false, from Scripture and history and reason. But that is too much work. Empty rhetoric suits his purposes just fine. The Institutes is nothing if not preaching to the choir and riling up the true believers to oppose Harlot Rome.
[ . . . ]


1. The true nature of Councils.

Were I now to concede all that they ask concerning the Church, it would not greatly aid them in their object. For everything that is said of the Church they immediately transfer to councils, which, in their opinion, represent the Church. 

And Calvin thinks they do not?

Nay, when they contend so doggedly for the power of the Church, their only object is to devolve the whole which they extort on the Roman Pontiff and his conclave. 

Maybe they simply want to defend the way it had been for 1500 years? Since Calvin can’t accept that the historic Church was Catholic, and not even remotely “Protestant,” he must search for nefarious motives somewhere and make out that Catholic arguments are mere power plays.

Before I begin to discuss this question, two points must be briefly premised. First, though I mean to be more rigid in discussing this subject, it is not because I set less value than I ought on ancient councils. I venerate them from my heart, and would have all to hold them in due honour. But there must be some limitation, there must be nothing derogatory to Christ. 

And this clause “some limitation” is a loophole big enough for a truck to drive through, as we’ll see again and again, as we proceed.

Moreover, it is the right of Christ to preside over all councils, and not share the honour with any man. Now, I hold that he presides only when he governs the whole assembly by his word and Spirit. 

No man can preside at all? How can there be order or protocol if this is the case?

Secondly, in attributing less to councils than my opponents demand, it is not because I have any fear that councils are favourable to their cause and adverse to ours. 

Of course not . . .

For as we are amply provided by the word of the Lord with the means of proving our doctrine and overthrowing the whole Papacy, 

As we know, the papacy has long since been overthrown and Calvinism reigns supreme everywhere . . .

and thus have no great need of other aid, so, if the case required it, ancient councils furnish us in a great measure with what might be sufficient for both purposes.

Here is the familiar (but thoroughly erroneous) claim: that the ancient councils and fathers supposedly provide plenty of evidence for Protestantism; over against Catholicism.

2. Whence the authority of Councils is derived. What meant by assembling in the name of Christ.

Let us now proceed to the subject itself. If we consult Scripture on the authority of councils, there is no promise more remarkable than that which is contained in these words of our Saviour, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” But this is just as applicable to any particular meeting as to a universal council. And yet the important part of the question does not lie here, but in the condition which is added—viz. that Christ will be in the midst of a council, provided it be assembled in his name. Wherefore, though our opponents should name councils of thousands of bishops it will little avail them; nor will they induce us to believe that they are, as they maintain, guided by the Holy Spirit, until they make it credible that they assemble in the name of Christ: since it is as possible for wicked and dishonest to conspire against Christ, as for good and honest bishops to meet together in his name. 

That’s correct; for example, the Robber Council of 449. But of course, the same criticism applies to various Protestant assemblies that adopted false doctrine. In the end, the discussion will always have to reference Scripture and prior received Tradition in order to determine true and false councils (and we contend, also, that popes have to ratify the decisions of true ecumenical councils).

Of this we have a clear proof in very many of the decrees which have proceeded from councils. But this will be afterwards seen. At present I only reply in one word, that our Saviour’s promise is made to those only who assemble in his name. How, then, is such an assembly to be defined? I deny that those assemble in the name of Christ who, disregarding his command by which he forbids anything to be added to the word of God or taken from it, determine everything at their own pleasure, who, not contented with the oracles of Scripture, that is, with the only rule of perfect wisdom, devise some novelty out of their own head (Deut. 4:2; Rev. 22:18).

And of course this is circular reasoning:

1) Catholics declare doctrine X that I disagree with.

2) Doctrine X is unscriptural.

3) Why is X unscriptural? Because I disagree that it is scriptural. My interpretation says that it is not scriptural.

4) I know my interpretation is correct because it disagrees with the Roman interpretation, which is a tradition of men, because it is a novelty devised out of their heads, rather than from Scripture.

Etc., etc. The circularity can be demonstrated in a number of ways, but this shall suffice for now.

Certainly, since our Saviour has not promised to be present with all councils of whatever description, but has given a peculiar mark for distinguishing true and lawful councils from others, we ought not by any means to lose sight of the distinction. 

Indeed. Not every council is true or Spirit-led.

The covenant which God anciently made with the Levitical priests was to teach at his mouth (Mal. 2:7). This he always required of the prophets, and we see also that it was the law given to the apostles. 

Of course, but by the same token, this also establishes authoritative teaching that is ultimately undermined by the individualistic notion of private judgment, and the denial of infallibility to the Church, and rejection of apostolic succession, etc.:

Exodus 18:20 and you shall teach them the statutes and the decisions, and make them know the way in which they must walk and what they must do.

Leviticus 10:11 and you are to teach the people of Israel all the statutes which the LORD has spoken to them by Moses.

Deuteronomy 33:10 They shall teach Jacob thy ordinances, and Israel thy law . . .

2 Chronicles 17:7-9 In the third year of his reign he sent his princes, Ben-hail, Obadi’ah, Zechari’ah, Nethan’el, and Micai’ah, to teach in the cities of Judah; and with them the Levites, Shemai’ah, Nethani’ah, Zebadi’ah, As’ahel, Shemi’ramoth, Jehon’athan, Adoni’jah, Tobi’jah, and Tobadoni’jah; and with these Levites, the priests Eli’shama and Jeho’ram. And they taught in Judah, having the book of the law of the LORD with them; they went about through all the cities of Judah and taught among the people.

2 Chronicles 35:3 And he said to the Levites who taught all Israel and who were holy to the LORD, . . .

Ezra 7:6, 10-11 this Ezra went up from Babylonia. He was a scribe skilled in the law of Moses which the LORD the God of Israel had given; and the king granted him all that he asked, for the hand of the LORD his God was upon him. . . . For Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the LORD, and to do it, and to teach his statutes and ordinances in Israel. . . . Ezra the priest, the scribe, learned in matters of the commandments of the LORD and his statutes for Israel:

Nehemiah 8:7-8, 12 Also Jesh’ua, Bani, Sherebi’ah, Jamin, Akkub, Shab’bethai, Hodi’ah, Ma-asei’ah, Keli’ta, Azari’ah, Jo’zabad, Hanan, Pelai’ah, the Levites, helped the people to understand the law, while the people remained in their places. And they read from the book, from the law of God, clearly; and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. . . . And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.

Acts 8:27-28, 30-31, 34-35 And behold, an Ethiopian, a eunuch . . . seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah . . . So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said, “How can I, unless some one guides me?” . . . And the eunuch said to Philip, “About whom, pray, does the prophet say this, about himself or about some one else?” Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this scripture he told him the good news of Jesus.

Acts 15:22, 25, 28 Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, . . . it has seemed good to us, having come to one accord, . . . For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us . . .

Acts 16:4 As they went on their way through the cities, they delivered to them for observance the decisions which had been reached by the apostles and elders who were at Jerusalem.

Ephesians 3:10 . . . through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places.

2 Peter 1:20 . . . no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation,

2 Peter 3:15-17 And count the forbearance of our Lord as salvation. So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures. You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, beware lest you be carried away with the error of lawless men and lose your own stability.

On those who violate this covenant God bestows neither the honour of the priesthood nor any authority. Let my opponents solve this difficulty if they would subject my faith to the decrees of man, without authority from the word of God.

Obviously, both sides claim scriptural support. The argument has to be an exegetical one, not a “your dad’s uglier than mine” name-calling, schoolyard level. It is not the case that Catholics ignore Scripture in setting forth their theological views (agree or disagree), as Calvin would have it. But it sounds good, and he loves the black-and-white contrast, with the Catholics always being wicked and evil and unbiblical, so he continues to use the technique.

3. Objection, that no truth remains in the Church if it be not in Pastors and Councils. Answer, showing by passages from the Old Testament that Pastors were often devoid of the spirit of knowledge and truth.

Their idea that the truth cannot remain in the Church unless it exist among pastors, 

It stands to reason, does it not, that if doctrinal truth is to be maintained, that someone in leadership must maintain it, no? If God is truly preserving His Church, this will always be the case, at least with some of the leaders. The Church can never completely fall away (institutionally) from truth. Calvin seems to think this is the case with Catholicism, but this is contrary to Jesus’ promises.

and that the Church herself cannot exist unless displayed in general councils, 

Acts 15 would seem to bear that out. Even Paul the Apostle went around proclaiming the binding decrees of the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 16:4 above).

is very far from holding true if the prophets have left us a correct description of their own times. In the time of Isaiah there was a Church at Jerusalem which the Lord had not yet abandoned. But of pastors he thus speaks: “His watchmen are blind; they are all ignorant, they are all dumb dogs, they cannot bark; sleeping, lying down, loving to slumber. Yea, they are greedy dogs which never have enough, and they are shepherds that cannot understand: they all look to their own way” (Isa. 56:10, 11). In the same way Hosea says, “The watchman of Ephraim was with my God: but the prophet is a snare of a fowler in all his ways, and hatred in the house of his God” (Hosea 9:8). Here, by ironically connecting them with God, he shows that the pretext of the priesthood was vain. There was also a Church in the time of Jeremiah. Let us hear what he says of pastors: “From the prophet even unto the priest, every one dealeth falsely.” Again, “The prophets prophesy lies in my name: I sent them not, neither have I commanded them, neither spake unto them” (Jer. 6:13; 14:14). And not to be prolix with quotations, read the whole of his thirty-third and fortieth chapters. Then, on the other hand, Ezekiel inveighs against them in no milder terms. “There is a conspiracy of her prophets in the midst thereof, like a roaring lion ravening the prey; they have devoured souls.” “Her priests have violated my law, and profaned mine holy things” (Ezek. 22:25, 26). There is more to the same purpose. Similar complaints abound throughout the prophets; nothing is of more frequent recurrence.

Israel went through many periods of more or less complete corruption; this is obvious. But we are in a new dispensation now, after the appearance of our Savior and Redeemer Jesus Christ: the Incarnation, redeeming death, Resurrection, and Ascension. We are indwelt by the Holy Spirit and have the power of the sacraments, and we have God’s promises of guidance and protection. All of that makes the situation after Christ quite different from before the time of Christ.

We see the massive change, for example, in the conduct of Peter, before and after he was filled with the Holy Spirit. Before Pentecost, even the immediate disciples of Jesus were a pretty poor, miserable lot, barely understanding what Jesus was teaching them and failing to understand even the purpose of Jesus’ death on the cross.

After Pentecost, they went out joyously, and triumphantly conquered the world. Yet Calvin would have us believe that nothing whatever was changed from the Old Covenant times and corrupt priests in Israel? It is often thought by Calvin and Protestants that Catholics are stuck in a rut of the Old Covenant (supposedly believing in works-salvation, etc.: which mainstream Judaism did not and does not hold, rightly understood). But here it is obvious that the Catholic position is the progressive one, while Calvin’s Old Covenant redux position is regressive, and lacks faith in the power of God in the New Covenant, and in God’s promises for His Church, built upon Peter himself.

Moreover, this whole line of reasoning would prove too much, because if the idea is that corruption is well-nigh universal, then Calvin’s own version of “church” would be every bit as much subject to the same thing, and there would be no reason to believe that Protestantism is at all superior to Catholicism (if we stick strictly to the “sin” argument). Arguing from sin and corruption never accomplishes much, for this very reason. Calvin can try to maintain that Protestants are singularly freed from corruption and sin and religious nominalism, but it’s a futile effort.

If he wishes to argue a lesser claim: that institutional offices in the Church are null and void because of widespread corruption (real or imagined), then this, too, mitigates against his own position, as he was not opposed to abolition of all Church offices and positions whatever. The entire argument he wishes to make at this juncture is a dead-end. It accomplishes nothing whatsoever.

[ . . . ]
6. Objection, that General Councils represent the Church. Answer, showing the absurdity of this objection from passages in the Old Testament.


Hence it is easy to reply to their allegation concerning general councils. It cannot be denied, that the Jews had a true Church under the prophets. But had a general council then been composed of the priests, what kind of appearance would the Church have had? We hear the Lord denouncing not against one or two of them, but the whole order: “The priests shall be astonished, and the prophets shall wonder” (Jer. 4:9). Again, “The law shall perish from the priest, and counsel from the ancients” (Ezek. 7:26). Again, “Therefore night shall be unto you, that ye shall not have a vision; and it shall be dark unto you, that ye shall not divine; and the sun shall go down over the prophets, and the day shall be dark over them,” &c. (Micah 3:6). Now, had all men of this description been collected together, what spirit would have presided over their meeting? 

Not a very good one; I agree. But I have already explained why these examples of Old Testament corruption are non sequiturs.

Of this we have a notable instance in the council which Ahab convened (1 Kings 22:6, 22). Four hundred prophets were present. But because they had met with no other intention than to flatter the impious king, Satan is sent by the Lord to be a lying spirit in all their mouths. The truth is there unanimously condemned. Micaiah is judged a heretic, is smitten, and cast into prison. So was it done to Jeremiah, and so to the other prophets.

Indeed. Men are sinners. If it weren’t for God’s grace, there would be no hope for any religious assembly whatever (including Calvin’s); let alone the Church of God.

7. Passages to the same effect from the New Testament.

But there is one memorable example which may suffice for all. In the council which the priests and Pharisees assembled at Jerusalem against Christ (John 11:47), what is wanting, in so far as external appearance is concerned? Had there been no Church then at Jerusalem, Christ would never have joined in the sacrifices and other ceremonies. A solemn meeting is held; the high priest presides; the whole sacerdotal order take their seats, and yet Christ is condemned, and his doctrine is put to flight. This atrocity proves that the Church was not at all included in that council. 

Obviously not, as it opposed Christ Himself (at least not insofar as this particular ruling was concerned). Calvin’s difficulty, however, is that Jesus recognized the continuing authority of the Pharisees, and even told His followers to do what they teach them to do (Matthew 23:1-3). This shows that there was authority and truth retained, even within a corrupt institution (one that Jesus excoriated shortly after He said this), not that there was an absolute corruption, leading to a complete downfall or cessation of what once was. Paul recognized the authority of the high priest, even at his trial; even called himself a Pharisee (Acts 23:1-6). The early Christians worshiped at both synagogues and in the Temple.

But there is no danger that anything of the kind will happen with us. Who has told us so? Too much security in a matter of so great importance lies open to the charge of sluggishness. Nay, when the Spirit, by the mouth of Paul, foretells, in distinct terms, that a defection will take place, a defection which cannot come until pastors first forsake God (2 Thess. 2:3), why do we spontaneously walk blindfold to our own destruction? 

Christians should always be vigilant against falsehood and heresy and schism. Paul warned more about divisions than he did about almost anything else.

Wherefore, we cannot on any account admit that the Church consists in a meeting of pastors, as to whom the Lord has nowhere promised that they would always be good, but has sometimes foretold that they would be wicked. When he warns us of danger, it is to make us use greater caution.

This is obvious. A true council has to produce true doctrine. The tree is known by the fruit. Calvin, on the other hand, goes so far as to claim that even the Catholic “tree” has ceased to exist; let alone produce any good fruit. He’s taken the axe to the entire Church and has offered nothing of any particular legitimacy or authenticity to take its place. Whatever was true in Calvinism was merely retained from Catholicism (which is yet another proof that Catholicism had some measure of life in it, since it had preserved so much that even the so-called “Reformers” never dreamt of getting rid of). Self-contradictions abound in Calvin’s position.

8. Councils have authority only in so far as accordant with Scripture. Testimony of Augustine. Councils of Nice, Constantinople, and Ephesus, Subsequent Councils more impure, and to be received with limitation.

What, then, you will say, is there no authority in the definitions of councils? Yes, indeed; for I do not contend that all councils are to be condemned, and all their acts rescinded, or, as it is said, made one complete erasure. 

Okay; this sounds good, and moderate, but how does it work in practice? The Council of Nicaea, for example, made certain decrees. If at length a Protestant today decides that certain of these decrees are falsehoods and insufficiently “biblical” etc., on what basis does he discard them? On his private judgment alone? If that is the case, several problems immediately arise. Why should his single opinion trump that of dozens or hundreds of bishops, as the case may be? Why should we take the opinion of the one over the opinion of the many?

But granting that such a scenario is acceptable, now (very often, given internal Protestant division and doctrinal chaos) we have two individuals (say, Luther and Calvin) who reject a council and substitute something else in its place with regard to some theological particular. But they disagree as to the substitute.

Now, then, we have an ancient council that is partially rejected, on the authority of a single individual. Two such individuals might very well disagree on the solution to the “error.” Whom do we choose? On what basis? Why should we assume that a lone individual has a superior interpretation of Scripture and theological tradition, over against an assembly of many learned bishops? Or if a group today (some dreaded committee of some denomination) decides to overrule Nicaea or Chalcedon, etc., why should we accept their corporate dogmatic authority more than Nicaea’s or Chalcedon’s (or Pope Leo the Great’s)?

We see, then, that it is arbitrary at every turn, and it always, inevitably logically reduces to radical individualism and doctrinal relativism, to reject the traditional understanding of Christian authority. It breaks down as soon as a few penetrating questions are asked. Calvin cannot give answer, but his followers today do scarcely better when confronted with such difficult conundrums, raised by their rule of faith.

But you are bringing them all (it will be said) under subordination, and so leaving every one at liberty to receive or reject the decrees of councils as he pleases. By no means; 

To the contrary, by all means . . .

but whenever the decree of a council is produced, the first thing I would wish to be done is, to examine at what time it was held, on what occasion, with what intention, and who were present at it; next I would bring the subject discussed to the standard of Scripture. 

Exactly. Calvin thus stands as judge over the council, and this contradicts what he just stated about it not being the case that “every one [is] at liberty to receive or reject the decrees of councils as he pleases.” Councils declare that such-and-such a doctrine is biblical and true; Calvin says it is not. And we are supposed to bow and accept his authority as God’s Oracle? And he complains about the popes having too much theological pull and power and say?

And this I would do in such a way that the decision of the council should have its weight, and be regarded in the light of a prior judgment, yet not so as to prevent the application of the test which I have mentioned. 

That has all sorts of practical difficulties of application, as we shall see again and again.

I wish all had observed the method which Augustine prescribes in his Third Book against Maximinus, when he wished to silence the cavils of this heretic against the decrees of councils, “I ought not to oppose the Council of Nice to you, nor ought you to oppose that of Ariminum to me, as prejudging the question. I am not bound by the authority of the latter, nor you by that of the former. Let thing contend with thing, cause with cause, reason with reason, on the authority of Scripture, an authority not peculiar to either, but common to all.” 

Yes; this was the case precisely because Augustine was talking to a heretic, who rejected the authority of Nicaea (just as Protestants selectively do with all councils). Maximinus was an Arian bishop. They had to argue from Scripture because that was what they held in common. That is exactly what I do with Protestants, who reject conciliar infallibility.

As a Catholic apologist “being all things to all people,” I argue from Scripture 98% of the time, because my Protestant opponents accept the authority of Holy Scripture. I do the same with Jehovah’s Witnesses: today’s Arians. One must either cite Scripture with them or internal inconsistencies and false prophecies in their own published works.

In this way, councils would be duly respected, and yet the highest place would be given to Scripture, everything being brought to it as a test. 

The above example doesn’t suffice to prove this, because it was a methodological decision by Augustine, not a rejection of the same council’s authority. This is so obvious it is embarrassing to even have to point it out.

Thus those ancient Councils of Nice, Constantinople, the first of Ephesus, Chalcedon, and the like, which were held for refuting errors, we willingly embrace, and reverence as sacred, in so far as relates to doctrines of faith, for they contain nothing but the pure and genuine interpretation of Scripture, which the holy Fathers with spiritual prudence adopted to crush the enemies of religion who had then arisen. 

Excellent. Then we must ask: by what principle are later councils rejected? They were convoked by the same principles and authority as these earlier ones. All of a sudden what was “sacred” authority becomes the opposite? If these councils were protected by the Holy Spirit from error, then it stands to reason that others, convened in the same fashion, were also. But these councils that even Calvin reverences were orthodox because all (by mere coincidence) were confirmed by popes as orthodox.

In some later councils, also, we see displayed a true zeal for religion, and moreover unequivocal marks of genius, learning, and prudence. 

Which ones?

But as matters usually become worse and worse, it is easy to see in more modern councils how much the Church gradually degenerated from the purity of that golden age. 

Which ones? Which doctrines? And how do we know this with certainty?

I doubt not, however, that even in those more corrupt ages, councils had their bishops of better character. 

But by his time, councils had become completely corrupt; so argues Calvin, while rarely producing hard evidences for this alleged total defection from the faith.

But it happened with them as the Roman senators of old complained in regard to their decrees. Opinions being numbered, not weighed, the better were obliged to give way to the greater number. They certainly put forth many impious sentiments. There is no need here to collect instances, both because it would be tedious, and because it has been done by others so carefully, as not to leave much to be added.

How convenient (and disappointing) . . .

9. Contradictory decisions of Councils. Those agreeing with divine truth to be received. Those at variance with it to be rejected. This confirmed by the example of the Council of Constantinople and the Council of Nice; also of the Council of Chalcedon, and second Council of Ephesus.

Moreover, why should I review the contests of council with council? 

Because it is absolutely crucial to his ultimately “anti-conciliar” case.

Nor is there any ground for whispering to me, that when councils are at variance, one or other of them is not a lawful council. For how shall we ascertain this? 

By seeing what Rome determines, which was always the method (most notably with Chalcedon in 451, over against the Robber Council of 449.

Just, if I mistake not, by judging from Scripture that the decrees are not orthodox. 

Men disagree on that. There has to be a final say somewhere.

For this alone is the sure law of discrimination. 

But impossible to implement in practical terms without binding human Church authority . . .

It is now about nine hundred years since the Council of Constantinople, convened under the Emperor Leo, determined that the images set up in temples were to be thrown down and broken to pieces. Shortly after, the Council of Nice, which was assembled by Irene, through dislike of the former, decreed that images were to be restored. Which of the two councils shall we acknowledge to be lawful? The latter has usually prevailed, and secured a place for images in churches. But Augustine maintains that this could not be done without the greatest danger of idolatry. 

That was what the Mind of the Church decided. Idolatry is always a danger with some people, because it is an internal thing, and folks can always use images wrongly, in an impious or idolatrous fashion, if they so choose. That doesn’t make the image wrong in and of itself, as all things can be distorted and misunderstood.

Epiphanius, at a later period, speaks much more harshly (Epist. ad Joann. Hierosolym. et Lib. 3 contra Hæres.). For he says, it is an unspeakable abomination to see images in a Christian temple.

That’s odd, seeing that God Himself commanded this for His own temple. The ark of the covenant was certainly an image. It had carved cherubim (Ex 25:22; Num 7:89). God even said this is where He would meet with His people, on the mercy seat between the two cherubim (Ex 30:6). Joshua “fell to the earth upon his face before the ark of the LORD” (Josh 7:6). Was this idolatry? The temple had huge images in it, by the express decree of God:

1 Kings 6:23-29 In the inner sanctuary he made two cherubim of olivewood, each ten cubits high. [24] Five cubits was the length of one wing of the cherub, and five cubits the length of the other wing of the cherub; it was ten cubits from the tip of one wing to the tip of the other. [25] The other cherub also measured ten cubits; both cherubim had the same measure and the same form. [26] The height of one cherub was ten cubits, and so was that of the other cherub. [27] He put the cherubim in the innermost part of the house; and the wings of the cherubim were spread out so that a wing of one touched the one wall, and a wing of the other cherub touched the other wall; their other wings touched each other in the middle of the house. [28] And he overlaid the cherubim with gold. [29] He carved all the walls of the house round about with carved figures of cherubim and palm trees and open flowers, in the inner and outer rooms. (cf. 2 Chron 3:7; Ezek 41:20,25)

The cherubim were angels (creatures): so use of them as aids in worship is precisely of the sort that Protestants object to in the case of a statue of a saint. But God commanded it. The very holiest places in Judaism (the temple, holy of holies, ark of the covenant) had images. The Bible often mentions praying or worshiping toward the temple (e.g., 2 Chron 6:20-33; Ps 5:7; Ps 28:2; Ps 134:2) or even bowing before it (Ps 138:2) and the temple had images. The temple wasn’t a plain white clapboard building, like New England Calvinist churches. Case closed. See much more on physical items as aids of worship in the Bible.

Could those who speak thus approve of that council if they were alive in the present day? But if historians speak true, and we believe their acts, not only images themselves, but the worship of them, were there sanctioned. 

The veneration of saints by means of an image is perfectly proper and biblical (as the Catholic Church has determined, lo these many centuries). See my papers:

Now it is plain that this decree emanated from Satan. 

It’s not “plain” in the slightest! Calvin has made a foolish, unwarranted, unbiblical conclusion that all images (not just corruption or inadequate understanding of the use of them) automatically reduce to idolatry. If that is so, then it would make God Himself a liar or incompetent judge of these matters, given the scriptural data outlined above. This was the flimsy rationale used by the early Calvinists to engage in iconoclasm and to smash stained glass and even statues of Jesus Christ, as if Catholics were worshiping plaster rather than our Lord Jesus.

This is one of the most curious, odd, altogether stupid manifestations of early Calvinism. It derives far more from Islam than from Hebrew-Christian tradition or the Bible. Historically, it flourished only after the arrival of Islam, because of that religion’s strong iconoclasm.

Do they not show, by corrupting and wresting Scripture, that they held it in derision? 

Anyone who does this is deriding Scripture. The dispute is about who is doing this? If Calvin takes an absolute view against all Christian images, it is He who wars against Scripture, history, and indeed God Himself. God would be reduced to a Being Who was too dumb to know that what He Himself commanded was idolatry, and against Himself. In other words, either God wouldn’t be God, or He would be a self-contradictory, wicked “god” at cross-purposes with himself.

This I have made sufficiently clear in a former part of the work (see Book I. chap. 11 sec. 14). 

Not if he offered no more argument than he has here, which was virtually none at all . . .

Be this as it may, we shall never be able to distinguish between contradictory and dissenting councils, which have been many, unless we weigh them all in that balance for men and angels, I mean, the word of God. 

That has already been done. Why should we renounce all this past established history of the Church and her decrees and dogmas, and now place all responsibility on upstart Calvin, and his “idol”-smashing minions? It’s as if the past means absolutely nothing. All that past generations of Christians have learned, led by the Holy Spirit, can be nullified by the stroke of Calvin’s mighty, All-Knowing pen.

Thus we embrace the Council of Chalcedon, and repudiate the second of Ephesus, because the latter sanctioned the impiety of Eutyches, and the former condemned it. 

That is correct. And the key figure who declared as much at the time, was Pope St. Leo the Great. If it were up to the eastern bishops, the heretical Robber Council of Ephesus (449) would have been accepted as truth.

The judgment of these holy men was founded on the Scriptures, and while we follow it, we desire that the word of God, which illuminated them, may now also illuminate us. Let the Romanists now go and boast after their manner, that the Holy Spirit is fixed and tied to their councils.

We do. The Council of Chalcedon in 451 is a superb example of that. I have used Calvin’s own method (recourse to Scripture) to show that his aversion to all images is most unbiblical. What does it say of Calvin’s exegetical acumen if he could overlook so much plain Scripture?

10. Errors of purer Councils. Four causes of these errors. An example from the Council of Nice.

Even in their ancient and purer councils there is something to be desiderated, either because the otherwise learned and prudent men who attended, being distracted by the business in hand, did not attend to many things beside; or because, occupied with grave and more serious measures, they winked at some of lesser moment; or simply because, as men, they were deceived through ignorance, or were sometimes carried headlong by some feeling in excess. 

Did I not predict not far above that Calvin’s radical new anti-conciliar principle would eventually chip away at the authority of even those councils he claims to especially revere? It’s happening right before our eyes as we read. Everyone understands (if this is Calvin’s primary meaning) that there is human corruption in councils. The question is whether any of these human shortcomings corrupt the doctrines promulgated.

Of this last case (which seems the most difficult of all to avoid) we have a striking example in the Council of Nice, which has been unanimously received, as it deserves, with the utmost veneration. For when the primary article of our faith was there in peril, and Arius, its enemy, was present, ready to engage any one in combat, and it was of the utmost moment that those who had come to attack Arius should be agreed, they nevertheless, feeling secure amid all these dangers, nay, as it were, forgetting their gravity, modesty, and politeness, laying aside the discussion which was before them (as if they had met for the express purpose of gratifying Arius), began to give way to intestine dissensions, and turn the pen, which should have been employed against Arius, against each other. Foul accusations were heard, libels flew up and down, and they never would have ceased from their contention until they had stabbed each other with mutual wounds, had not the Emperor Constantine interfered, and declaring that the investigation of their lives was a matter above his cognisance, repressed their intemperance by flattery rather than censure. 

This is exactly what I referred to: human flaws and shortcomings were present, but they did not pervert the doctrinal decrees. The same thing applies to the more notoriously immoral popes. God manages to overcome these things by His power and providence.

In how many respects is it probable that councils, held subsequently to this, have erred? 

In hundreds of respects, but for the supernatural protection from God, which is the entire point.

Nor does the fact stand in need of a long demonstration; any one who reads their acts will observe many infirmities, not to use a stronger term.

No argument or particulars offered; so I’ll pass . . .

11. Another example from the Council of Chalcedon. The same errors in Provincial Councils.

Even Leo, the Roman Pontiff, hesitates not to charge the Council of Chalcedon, which he admits to be orthodox in its doctrines, with ambition and inconsiderate rashness. 

Just one part of it, where Constantinople is placed on a level with Rome. Leo vetoed that, saying that Constantinople can never be made an apostolic see. It’s history was very recent. Popes were needed to oversee and rule as out of order the mere political pretensions and machinations of men.

He denies not that it was lawful, but openly maintains that it might have erred. 

That’s why we Catholics believe that ecumenical councils are only valid insofar as the pope agrees to all their decrees.

Some may think me foolish in labouring to point out errors of this description, since my opponents admit that councils may err in things not necessary to salvation. 


My labour, however, is not superfluous. For although compelled, they admit this in word, yet by obtruding upon us the determination of all councils, in all matters without distinction, as the oracles of the Holy Spirit, they exact more than they had at the outset assumed. 

Some Catholics may be guilty of this; sure. They are wrong.

By thus acting what do they maintain but just that councils cannot err, of if they err, it is unlawful for us to perceive the truth, or refuse assent to their errors? 

We claim more for ecumenical councils, not every council whatever. Like the fathers, we accept the received apostolic tradition, as manifest in such councils and made binding.

At the same time, all I mean to infer from what I have said is, that though councils, otherwise pious and holy, were governed by the Holy Spirit, he yet allowed them to share the lot of humanity, lest we should confide too much in men. 

That argument doesn’t work, since many of the Bible writers were great sinners, too (especially David and Paul). Calvin doesn’t conclude that the Bible is questionable because of that. In both instances it is God’s protection that overcomes these limitations.

This is a much better view than that of Gregory Nanzianzen, who says (Ep. 55), that he never saw any council end well. In asserting that all, without exception, ended ill, he leaves them little authority. 

I tried to locate this but the “Epistle 55″I found had nothing to do with this and was rather short. Without more information, I can’t comment further.

There is no necessity for making separate mention of provincial councils, since it is easy to estimate, from the case of general councils, how much authority they ought to have in framing articles of faith, and deciding what kind of doctrine is to be received.

Obviously, more local councils have less general authority.

[ . . . ]
14. Impudent attempt of the Papists to establish their tyranny refuted. Things at variance with Scripture sanctioned by their Councils. Instance in the prohibition of marriage and communion in both kinds.


But the Romanists have another end in view when they say that the power of interpreting Scripture belongs to councils, and that without challenge. For they employ it as a pretext for giving the name of an interpretation of Scripture to everything which is determined in councils. Of purgatory, the intercession of saints, and auricular confession, and the like, not one syllable can be found in Scripture. 

This is massively untrue:

25 Bible Passages on Purgatory [1996]

A Biblical Argument for Purgatory (Matthew 5:25-26) [10-13-04]

Purgatory: Refutation of James White (1 Corinthians 3:10-15) [3-3-07]

50 Bible Passages on Purgatory & Analogous Processes [2009]

50 Biblical Indications That Purgatory is Real [National Catholic Register, 10-24-16]

“Armstrong vs. Geisler” #1: Purgatory (Mt 12:32) [2-17-17]

“Armstrong vs. Geisler” #2: Purgatory (Lk 23:43) [2-17-17]

Does Matthew 12:32 Suggest or Disprove Purgatory? [National Catholic Register, 2-26-17]

25 Descriptive and Clear Bible Passages About Purgatory [National Catholic Register, 5-7-17]


Bible on Invocation of Angels & Saved Human Beings [6-10-08]

Praying to Angels & Angelic Intercession [2015]

Asking Saints to Intercede: Teaching of Jesus [2015]

Dialogue on Praying to Abraham (Luke 16) [5-22-16]

Prayer to Saints: “New” [?] Biblical Argument [5-23-16]

Invocation & Intercession of Saints & Angels: Bible Proof [10-22-16 and 1-9-17]

“Armstrong vs. Geisler” #5: Prayer to Creatures [2-20-17]

Dialogue: Rich Man’s Prayer to Abraham (Luke 16) and the Invocation of Saints (vs. Lutheran Pastor Ken Howes) [5-3-17]

Dialogue on Prayer to the Saints and Hades / Sheol [12-19-17]

Prayers to Saints & for the Dead: Six Biblical Proofs [6-8-18]

4 Biblical Proofs for Prayers to Saints and for the Dead [National Catholic Register, 6-16-18]

Angelic Intercession is Totally Biblical [National Catholic Register, 7-1-18]


Formal Human Forgiveness of Sins in the Bible [6-10-07]

Confession and Absolution Are Biblical [National Catholic Register, 7-31-17]
But as all these have been sanctioned by the authority of the Church, or, to speak more correctly, have been received by opinion and practice, every one of them is to be held as an interpretation of Scripture. And not only so, but whatever a council has determined against Scripture is to have the name of an interpretation. 

Individuals can just as easily declare that their view is the “biblical” one. Calvin does this all the time. I do it myself (most people who do any theology at all, do it), but the difference is that I submit my judgments to that of the Church, and where I differ from the Church, I submit my understanding to her.

Christ bids all drink of the cup which he holds forth in the Supper. The Council of Constance prohibited the giving of it to the people, and determined that the priest alone should drink. Though this is diametrically opposed to the institution of Christ (Mt. 26:26), they will have it to be regarded as his interpretation. 

There are straightforward biblical arguments for it.

Paul terms the prohibition of marriage a doctrine of devils (1 Tim. 4:1, 3); and the Spirit elsewhere declares that “marriage is honourable in all” (Heb. 13:4).

Paul also assumes and defends celibacy in those who want to fully devote themselves to the Lord.

Having afterwards interdicted their priests from marriage, they insist on this as a true and genuine interpretation of Scripture, though nothing can be imagined more alien to it. 

It’s plain as day in 1 Corinthians 7. Jesus also refers to “eunuchs” for the sake of the kingdom.

Should any one venture to open his lips in opposition, he will be judged a heretic, since the determination of the Church is without challenge, 

That is, the Church, in direct accordance with plain words of our Lord Jesus and St. Paul . . .

and it is unlawful to have any doubt as to the accuracy of her interpretation. 

Not if it is a tradition that has historical and biblical pedigree . . .

Why should I assail such effrontery? to point to it is to condemn it. Their dogma with regard to the power of approving Scripture I intentionally omit. For to subject the oracles of God in this way to the censure of men, and hold that they are sanctioned because they please men, is a blasphemy which deserves not to be mentioned. 

Scripture always has to be interpreted by men. The only question is who will do this, and how binding it will be.

Besides, I have already touched upon it (Book 1 chap. 7; 8 sec. 9). I will ask them one question, however. If the authority of Scripture is founded on the approbation of the Church, 

It is not. It is what it is, prior to the Church’s approval:Catholic Church: Superior to the Bible?: Does the Catholic Church Claim to be ‘Above’ the Bible and Its “Creator”? 

will they quote the decree of a council to that effect? I believe they cannot. 

Of course not, because it is not what we believe.

Why, then, did Arius allow himself to be vanquished at the Council of Nice by passages adduced from the Gospel of John? 

Because the Gospel of John is quite sufficient to refute Arianism.

According to these, he was at liberty to repudiate them, as they had not previously been approved by any general council. They allege an old catalogue, which they call the Canon, and say that it originated in a decision of the Church. But I again ask, In what council was that Canon published? 

The councils of Carthage in 393 and 397.

Here they must be dumb. 


Besides, I wish to know what they believe that Canon to be. 

The legitimate, genuine, inspired books of the Bible.

For I see that the ancients are little agreed with regard to it. 

All the more reason for an authoritative Church to acknowledge what the canon is and to end the discussion. Bingo!

If effect is to be given to what Jerome says (Præf. in Lib. Solom.), the Maccabees, Tobit, Ecclesiasticus, and the like, must take their place in the Apocrypha: but this they will not tolerate on any account.

St. Jerome submitted his judgment to that of the Church: just as every good Catholic does. Catholicism is not a “magisterium of scholars and Bible commentators” but of priests, bishops, councils, and popes.

[ . . . ]


21. An argument in favour of traditions founded on the decision of the Apostles and elders at Jerusalem. This decision explained.
It gives them no great help, in defending their tyranny, to pretend the example of the apostles. The apostles and elders of the primitive Church, according to them, sanctioned a decree without any authority from Christ, by which they commanded all the Gentiles to abstain from meat offered to idols, from things strangled, and from blood (Acts 15:20). 

Not according to Catholics, but according to the Bible.

If this was lawful for them, why should not their successors be allowed to imitate the example as often as occasion requires? 

Exactly! Why, indeed? Why should there be an example of a council in the early Church, in Scripture, if not as some sort of model for later Christianity? Is that not an eminently sensible, reasonable conclusion? That is the biblical model. Calvin’s model, however, is his casual assumption of his own authority — that he doesn’t in fact possess, and arbitrary decrees of doctrines and condemnations of existing Catholic traditions. If anything is unbiblical and contrary to previous Christian history, it is that, as opposed to Catholics daring to actually follow an explicit biblical example.

Would that they would always imitate them both in this and in other matters! 

The same applies to Calvin and all Protestants. If he wants to condemn Catholic instances of alleged or actual departure from apostolic and biblical and patristic precedent, then by the same token he ought to subject Protestantism to the same scrutiny and the same standard. But so often, of course, he does not do so. It’s all one-way, and winking at the glaring faults and false premises of his own general party.

For I am ready to prove, on valid grounds, that here nothing new has been instituted or decreed by the apostles. For when Peter declares in that council, that God is tempted if a yoke is laid on the necks of the disciples, he overthrows his own argument if he afterwards allows a yoke to be imposed on them. But it is imposed if the apostles, on their own authority, prohibit the Gentiles from touching meat offered to idols, things strangled, and blood. 

The Church has authority to make decrees, and to bind and loose. That came straight from our Lord Jesus Christ (Matthew 16:19, 18:18; John 20:23). Jesus even granted the Pharisees a continuing teaching authority (Matthew 23:2-3). But Protestants have to always maintain an unbiblical “loophole” by denying the infallibility of the Church and ecumenical councils and popes.

The difficulty still remains, that they seem nevertheless to prohibit them. 

What difficulty?

But this will easily be removed by attending more closely to the meaning of their decree. The first thing in order, and the chief thing in importance, is, that the Gentiles were to retain their liberty, which was not to be disturbed, and that they were not to be annoyed with the observances of the Law. As yet, the decree is all in our favour. The reservation which immediately follows is not a new law enacted by the apostles, but a divine and eternal command of God against the violation of charity, which does not detract one iota from that liberty. It only reminds the Gentiles how they are to accommodate themselves to their brother, and to not abuse their liberty for an occasion of offence. Let the second head, therefore, be, that the Gentiles are to use an innoxious liberty, giving no offence to the brethren. Still, however, they prescribe some certain thing—viz. they show and point out, as was expedient at the time, what those things are by which they may give offence to their brethren, that they may avoid them; but they add no novelty of their own to the eternal law of God, which forbids the offence of brethren.

In a sense it is new; in another it is nothing new; as is the case with all legitimate developments of doctrine and practice. How Calvin thinks any of this is somehow an argument against the Catholic Church, is a mystery. He surely doesn’t demonstrate such a glaring inconsistency here.


(originally July 6, 8-9, 2009 / 25 August 2009)

Photo credit: Historical mixed media figure of John Calvin produced by artist/historian George S. Stuart and photographed by Peter d’Aprix: from the George S. Stuart Gallery of Historical Figures archive [Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license]


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