Ecumenical Councils: Catholic vs. Lutheran Perspective

Ecumenical Councils: Catholic vs. Lutheran Perspective June 16, 2020

vs. Pastor Ken Howes (LCMS)

This was a discussion on Facebook underneath a link to my post, Sola Scriptura Can’t Definitively Refute Christological Heresy (The Sad Case of Evangelical Apologist and Philosopher Dr. William Lane Craig and Monothelitism).” Pastor Howes’ words will be in blue.


Sola Scriptura, sed non nuda. The principle of Sola Scriptura, suggested by the writings of St. Augustine [I disagree!] and first enunciated specifically by St. Thomas Aquinas, says that any doctrine of the Church must be supportable from the canonical Scriptures. Scripture alone is the norm and rule of doctrine. Where many Protestants go wrong is in disregarding tradition. The history of the Church is of enormous value in understanding Scripture rightly, and if you’re going squarely against the entire tradition of the Church going back to the early Fathers, you’re probably going wrong. All this is understood well by any well-catechized Lutheran or Anglican, but other Protestants give less weight to the history of the Church and its great teachers, from the apostles to Irenaeus and Tertullian to the great 4th and 5th-century fathers to great medieval teachers like John Damascene, St. Anselm of Canterbury, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Jean Gerson.

Reformed Protestantism is another animal entirely; Calvin himself gave considerable weight to the early Fathers, but the Sola Scriptura principle was distorted in countless ways–by disregarding the early Councils of the undivided Church (being human, those putting together the canons of these councils could err, but they were far more often right) and the great medieval teachers, and in the most bizarre and mistaken misapplication of the principle, with what became known as the “regulative principle.” This said that if a command to do or say a particular thing did not appear in Scripture, it was not to be said or done in the church.

The far better principle that informs Lutherans and Anglicans, and, I believe, the Catholic Church is the “normative principle,” which says that if it in harmony with Scriptural teaching, it may be done or said–one must never go against Scripture with one’s practices. The Protestant quoted in the article attributed to Luther an attitude toward Scripture and the history of the Church that he did not hold–he was trying to make a generic Protestant out of Luther, which Luther certainly was not, nor were the other Lutheran confessors like Melanchthon and Chemnitz.

So would you say (in agreement with Catholics) that “the early Church in its councils was correct that monothelitism was Christological heresy, and this ought to hold enormous (if not decisive) weight with a Protestants in interpreting the relevant scriptures on the topic”?

Dr. Craig (in the final analysis) doesn’t care about those councils. He feels that he can casually overrule them. You’re saying something very different, but still within Protestantism and from a Lutheran perspective. Your view is far better, which is why I respect Lutheranism the most among Protestant communions.

I’m trying to see how much common ground we can establish here.

Yes; monothelitism was indeed a heresy and the council that condemned it was correct in doing so. Protestants gain nothing by re-inventing the wheel where the Church got it right at the time. Instead, we ought to look at the Church’s good work, and I would consider the first four councils to be just about definitively good work–else we would not confess as we do the three Ecumenical Creeds–and the work of the next three councils to be good work in which there was considerable excellent Scriptural analysis. To say that Councils have sometimes erred and contradicted each other–a statement with which I would agree–is not by any means to say that they always did or that their work is useless, which would be a statement that I would reject. How can Protestants even work without the Second Council of Orange?

It is simply foolishness not to build on good work done by the early and even the medieval Church.

But if we say that the ecumenical council can err, then how can we definitively disagree with someone like Dr. Craig and his heretical monothelitism? He will simply say (as he did and as you do now): “Councils have sometimes erred and contradicted each other.”

Isn’t that the very difficulty this post discusses? The Catholic says: “God specially protected ecumenical councils — also popes when they authoritatively declare — from doctrinal error.” And so there is no problem and no internal inconsistency.

The Protestant denies their infallibility (since only Scripture is that, to them), so guys like Dr. Craig can ignore them as he likes.

He doesn’t just say a council can err. He is saying we can’t even look to the earlier Church to see where it disposed definitively of heretical schemes. Councils are far from useless. I don’t pretend that Luther or Chemnitz couldn’t err, yet I look with the greatest respect to their work. We certainly can receive good advice and instruction from great earlier works of the Church.

I understand that, but in my opinion the fundamental difficulty remains: of obtaining certainty. The Church authoritatively declares and proclaims and puts an end to discussions. This is how we can determine what is heretical or not, with finality: because the Church settled it.

Without that, there can be no end to the discussion, since different folks will interpret Scripture differently (appealing to it alone). I know that you see the epistemological (and practical) difficulty here.

I understand that, but in my opinion the fundamental difficulty remains: of obtaining certainty. The Church authoritatively declares and proclaims and puts an end to discussions. This is how we can determine what is heretical or not, with finality: because the Church settled it.

Without that, there can be no end to the discussion, since different folks will interpret Scripture differently (appealing to it alone). I know that you see the epistemological (and practical) difficulty here.

I understand your point. Lutherans (I don’t even begin to speak for the Reformed or even Anglicans on this) do view certain matters as decided, and where they were decided was in councils of the undivided Church. We do not go back and re-question the three Creeds, which were specifically to refute those early heresies. Every year, on Trinity Sunday, the general practice of Lutherans is, in the Communion service, to recite, in place of the Nicene Creed, the Athanasian, which is little other than a summary of the rulings of the Church at Ephesus and Chalcedon.

You know that the Church has had many “robber synods” or “anti-councils”, where there were assemblies of bishops, all convoked by persons seeming at the time to have authority to do so, who decided things that subsequent councils of the Church said were wrong. Chalcedon itself was called to reverse the rulings of a council only a few years before. Conclaves of bishops have elected Popes who were thereafter declared to be Anti-Popes, yet at the time large parts of the Church accepted their authority, and the successors of the bishops appointed and consecrated under the authority of the Anti-Popes were for the most part accepted thereafter as validly bishops in their sees.

The Church can gather and has gathered and made wrong decisions–and then, to preserve the idea that councils are not fallible, simply said, “Oh, well, those weren’t real councils after all.” Anyone seeing these “robber synods” and “anti-councils” at the time would have taken their decisions as in fact being decisions of the Church, taken by assemblies of real bishops, sometimes under the auspices of men who were at the time understood to be real popes, and acted on the strength of those decisions. And how does the Church refute the “robber synods”? When it does so most effectively–as it at Chalcedon refuted the “robber synod” of a few years before–it is by a closer examination of Scripture.

I’ll grant you–it’s almost 600 years since the last such council and since the last “anti-Pope”, but they happened, especially in the 14th and 15th centuries when it appeared that the seat of Peter itself was divided, and when these things happened, Catholics in the sees of those bishops who had participated in those councils were required to accept the decisions of those councils as valid and, indeed, infallible, only to be told later, sometimes generations later, that it wasn’t because that wasn’t a real council. At the same time, there have been at each council where there was a serious issue to be resolved many bishops who departed believing that the Church had erred; even in the Church, majorities are not always right.

Tens if not hundreds of bishops left Vatican II not persuaded that the council’s rulings were right. Are those bishops heretics? Schismatics? What are they supposed to say about what happened? Deny what their own conscience is telling them? Work deceitfully as certain of the religious orders have done in recent decades, in apparent obedience and secret subversion of the Church and its teachings? Or urge re-examination of the issue? The minute they urge re-examination of the issue, the whole epistemological premise on which you’re working is denied; yet I think it’s the only honest thing for them to do.

Our point of reference is the Lutheran Confessions in the Book of Concord. We receive these with all the certainty possible on this earth; yet we know they are, unlike Scripture, the product of the work of men who were not infallible either individually or jointly. I would not reject anything appearing in the Confessions–though I think some things have to be received with great care, that they not be applied wrongly. You have mentioned the matter of the reference in the Smalcald Articles to the Pope as antichrist. That cannot be received as an individual condemnation of specific Popes (though someone like Alexander VI, as wicked a man as ever lived, was certainly working on being that).

I can’t even begin to imagine Benedict XVI or JP II as personally an antichrist. It’s the office itself as it has been defined since Boniface about 610 AD that is indeed troubling, and not only to Protestants. We don’t have a problem with “first among equals”. “Vicarius Petri” — Okay, first among bishops as St. Peter was, at least at times, first among the apostles (though it wasn’t St. Peter who obviously presided at the Proto-Council in Acts 15; it was St. James who pronounced the council’s decision).

Councils, of course, have to be ratified by popes in order to be valid and to be regarded as orthodox (and there is no “overriding the veto” as in US government). St. John Henry Cardinal Newman wrote about the famous example of the Robber Council of 449:

How was an individual inquirer, or a private Christian to keep the Truth, amid so many rival teachers? . . .

[In the fifth and sixth centuries] the Monophysites had almost the possession of Egypt, and at times of the whole Eastern Church . . .

The divisions at Antioch had thrown the Catholic Church into a remarkable position; there were two Bishops in the See, one in connexion with the East, the other with Egypt and the West with which then was ‘Catholic Communion’? St. Jerome has no doubt on the subject:

Writing to St. [Pope] Damasus, he says,

“Since the East tears into pieces the Lord’s coat . . . therefore by me is the chair of Peter to be consulted, and that faith which is praised by the Apostle’s mouth . . . From the Priest I ask the salvation of the victim, from the Shepherd the protection of the sheep . . . I court not the Roman height: I speak with the successor of the Fisherman and the disciple of the Cross. I, who follow none as my chief but Christ, am associated in communion with thy blessedness, that is, with the See of Peter. On that rock the Church is built, I know.” [Epistle 15] . . .

Eutyches [a Monophysite] was supported by the Imperial Court, and by Dioscorus the Patriarch of Alexandria . . . A general Council was summoned for the ensuing summer at Ephesus [in 449] . . . It was attended by sixty metropolitans, ten from each of the great divisions of the East; the whole number of bishops assembled amounted to one hundred and thirty-five . . . St. Leo [the Great, Pope], dissatisfied with the measure altogether, nevertheless sent his legates, but with the object . . . of ‘condemning the heresy, and reinstating Eutyches if he retracted’ . . .

The proceedings which followed were of so violent a character, that the Council has gone down to posterity under the name of the Latrocinium or ‘Gang of Robbers.’ Eutyches was honourably acquitted, and his doctrine received . . . which seems to have been the spontaneous act of the assembled Fathers. The proceedings ended by Dioscorus excommunicating the Pope, and the Emperor issuing an edict in approval of the decision of the Council . . .

The Council seems to have been unanimous, with the exception of the Pope’s legates, in the restoration of Eutyches; a more complete decision can hardly be imagined.

It is true the whole number of signatures now extant, one hundred and eight, may seem small out of a thousand, the number of Sees in the East; but the attendance of Councils always bore a representative character. The whole number of East and West was about eighteen hundred, yet the second Ecumenical Council was attended by only one hundred and fifty, which is but a twelfth part of the whole number; the Third Council by about two hundred, or a ninth; the Council of Nicaea itself numbered only three hundred and eighteen Bishops.

Moreover, when we look through the names subscribed to the Synodal decision, we find that the misbelief, or misapprehension, or weakness, to which this great offence must be attributed, was no local phenomenon, but the unanimous sin of Bishops in every patriarchate and of every school of the East. Three out of the four patriarchs were in favour of the heresiarch, the fourth being on his trial. Of these Domnus of Antioch and Juvenal of Jerusalem acquitted him, on the ground of his confessing the faith of Nicaea and Ephesus . . . Dioscorus . . . was on this occasion supported by those Churches which had so nobly stood by their patriarch Athanasius in the great Arian conflict.

These three Patriarchs were supported by the Exarchs of Ephesus and Caesarea in Cappadocia; and both of these as well as Domnus and Juvenal, were supported in turn by their subordinate Metropolitans. Even the Sees under the influence of Constantinople, which was the remaining sixth division of the East,took part with Eutyches . . .

Such was the state of Eastern Christendom in the year 449; a heresy, appealing to the Fathers, to the Creed, and, above all, to Scripture, was by a general Council, professing to be Ecumenical, received as true in the person of its promulgator. If the East could determine a matter of faith independently of the West, certainly the Monophysite heresy was established as Apostolic truth in all its provinces from Macedonia to Egypt . . .

At length the Imperial Government, . . . came to the conclusion that the only way of restoring peace to the Church was to abandon the Council of Chalcedon. In the year 482 was published the famous ‘Henoticon’ or Pacification of Zeno, in which the Emperor took upon himself to determine a matter of faith.

The Henoticon declared that no symbol of faith but that of the Nicene Creed, commonly so called, should be received in the Churches; it anathematized the opposite heresies of Nestorius and Eutyches, and it was silent on the question of the ‘One’ or ‘Two Natures’ after the Incarnation . . . All the Eastern Bishops signed this Imperial formulary. But this unanimity of the East was purchased by a breach with the West; for the Popes cut off the communication between Greeks and Latins for thirty-five years . . .

Dreary and waste was the condition of the Church, and forlorn her prospects, at the period which we have been reviewing . . . There was but one spot in the whole of Christendom, one voice in the whole Episcopate, to which the faithful turned in hope in that miserable day. In the year 493, in the Pontificate of Gelasius, the whole of the East was in the hands of traitors to Chalcedon, and the whole of the West under the tyranny of the open enemies of Nicaea . . .

A formula which the Creed did not contain [Leo’s Tome at the Council of Chalcedon in 451], which the Fathers did not unanimously witness, and which some eminent Saints had almost in set terms opposed, which the whole East refused as a symbol, not once, but twice, patriarch by patriarch, metropolitan by metropolitan, first by the mouth of above a hundred, then by the mouth of above six hundred of its Bishops, and refused upon the grounds of its being an addition to the Creed, was forced upon the Council . . . by the resolution of the Pope of the day . . . (An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, 1845, 6th edition, 1878, reprinted by University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, Indiana, 1989, 251, 274, 282-3, 285-6, 299-300, 305-6, 319-20, 322, 312)

It was Rome and the popes that ultimately determined (with irreversible binding decisions) what was orthodox or not. This is what both Orthodoxy and Protestantism lack. Fr. Ronald Knox noted how in his Anglican days he studied all these early heresies and he noticed (just by the merest coincidence) that Rome turned out to be on the right [i.e., orthodox] side of every controversy with heretics, every time.

Newman noted the same in studying the early Church. He said that the Monophysites and Semi-Arians went against Rome, and that the analogy of his Anglicanism was to those heresies and not to Rome. “I looked into the mirror and I was a Monophysite.”

Protestantism, in rejecting the authoritative council, ratified by the pope, allowed theological relativism to be institutionalized, because no one can make such decisions. Everyone is on their own (in the final analysis).

How can Dr. Craig be told he is in the wrong? I offered plenty of Scripture, but he ignored it and no one else will take up the argument. So the truth is in the Bible. But Dr. Craig doesn’t see it, and he bows to no other authority, because for him, only Scripture is a binding and infallible authority. People are doing the same today with process theology and open theism. They’ll deny that God is outside of time (plenty of Scripture about that, too).

The fathers argued from Scripture (just as I do), but in the end always appealed to what had always been taught (St. Vincent’s dictum and apostolic succession).

Luther picks and chooses. He’ll agree with this model where he agrees with us (say on baptism and the Real Presence), but when he doesn’t agree, he ditches it. And that is arbitrary, unbiblical, and contrary to the fathers.

Lastly, Protestants and Orthodox who accept early councils have to explain on what basis they accept some and then cease to do so, and why God intended councils only for a few hundred years and then they were to cease. It makes no sense. And any suggested answer will (by nature) not be from the Bible, and therefore will be an arbitrary tradition of men.

The same is true of the papacy. Many Protestants (and the Orthodox for sure) accept Petrine primacy in the Bible and a primacy of honor of popes through history. But then the pope (however his authority is construed) simply disappearsWhy? There is no good answer that is not 1) arbitrary and 2) merely a tradition of men.

Long discussion, but this is my “basic” reply.

I appreciate the friendly discussion, as always, and I have great respect for you personally and for your thinking, even when we disagree.

We can do this all day; I’ve weighed in, and I’ll leave it there. We will, as always agree to disagree about these questions, but agree on much more important things–that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, born of a virgin, died to redeem us and returned to life that we might live, that in Baptism the Holy Spirit makes us God’s own children, and that in Communion, we truly receive the Body and Blood of Christ for the remission of sins.

Amen on the agreements. I think the rule of faith remains a very important issue, and that non-Catholic views have insuperable difficulties. And no doubt you would say our view has those, too. But in any event, we have presented the two positions and thoughtful, open-minded readers can make up their own minds. That’s what I love.


Photo credit: Fourth Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon (1876), by Vasily Surikov (1848-1916) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


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