And Was it the Prototype of Ecumenical Councils or Merely a Local Synod?
This is a discussion I had on my Facebook page with Fr. Daniel G. Dozier, a good friend of mine who is a Byzantine Catholic priest, and my co-author of the book, Orthodoxy and Catholicism: A Comparison (3rd revised edition: July 2015, 335 pages). His words will be in blue. He likely has more to say. If so, that will be added to this dialogue.
[for background, read Acts 15]
Saint Peter did not preside at the council of Jerusalem.
From Acts 15, we learn that “after there was much debate, Peter rose” to address the assembly (15:7). The Bible records his speech, which goes on for five verses. Then it reports that “all the assembly kept silence” (15:12). Paul and Barnabas speak next, not making authoritative pronouncements, but confirming Peter’s exposition, speaking about “signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles” (15:12). Then when James speaks, he refers right back to what “Simeon [Peter] has related” (15:14). To me, this suggests that Peter’s talk was central and definitive. James speaking last could easily be explained by the fact that he was the bishop of Jerusalem and therefore the “host.”
St. Peter indeed had already received a relevant revelation, related to the council. God gave him a vision of the cleanness of all foods (contrary to the Jewish Law: see Acts 10:9-16). St. Peter is already learning about the relaxation of Jewish dietary laws, and is eating with uncircumcised men, and is ready to proclaim the gospel widely to the Gentiles (Acts 10 and 11).*
This was the secondary decision of the Jerusalem Council, and Peter referred to his experiences with the Gentiles at the council (Acts 15:7-11). The council then decided — with regard to food –, to prohibit only that which “has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled” (15:29).
Jerusalem Council: Orthodox or Catholic style of council?
So, did the Jerusalem Council operate like the Orthodox model of an Ecumenical council? Or rather like the Catholic model? Here’s how it worked:*The bishops met TO EXAMINE the matter. They DEBATED.*Then, Peter — after listening to the debate — gave HIS TEACHING (vox Petros).*After this, the Council FALLS SILENT (a la, the Tome of Leo).*Then, Paul and Barnabas were permitted to tell about their first missionary journey so as to back up Peter’s teaching with signs from the Holy Spirit (e.g. as in the Immaculate Conception dogma backed up by the miracles at Lourdes).*And, thereafter, James gives a ruling. And, THIS is the only thing that seems unCatholic to some.*However, whereas it does say (in verse 13) how Paul and Barnabas “fall silent,” allowing James to respond, this does not take away from the entire assembly “falling silent” after Peter’s teaching in verse 12. Why? Because we are dealing with 2 Greek words. In 13, the verb is “sigesai” (infinitive aorist: meaning that Paul and Barnabas finished talking). In verse 12, it’s “esigese” (past tense aorist usage — meaning that the assembly REMAINED SILENT after Peter’s address). And, indeed, after Peter speaks, all debate stops. The matter had been settled.*So, why does James speak?*We think there are three reasons:*He’s the bishop of Jerusalem. Peter was just a visitor.*
What he says, he …like Paul and Barnabas …ties into Peter’s declaration: “Brothers, listen to me. SYMEON has described how God…” etc.*And, most importantly, because James was the leader of the Church’s “Jewish wing.” Remember, in verse 1 and 2 how Acts 15 describes:*“Some who had come DOWN FROM JUDAEA were instructing the brothers, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the Mosaic practice, you cannot be saved.’
*They were coming FROM JAMES! They were HIS disciples! Therefore, he renders judgment on the matter for his Jewish party, not as a superior or equal of Peter at all. And, this is MOST clear in verse 19, where it says:*“It is my judgment, therefore, that WE ought to STOP TROUBLING THE GENTILES.”*Who was “troubling” the Gentiles? Not Paul and Barnabas. Not Peter and his disciples, who Baptised the first Gentiles without circumcision. So, who? ONLY the Jewish Christians under James. Therefore, it is NOT the whole Church, but only the “Jewish party” that James is giving a “judgment” to.
*So again, the Council of Jerusalem was not an Ecumenical Council by Byzantine Orthodox definition. Rather, it was COMPLETELY based on the Petrine teaching office: the magisterium of the Church.
1) Peter’s name occurs first in a list of the apostles (Acts 1:13; cf. 2:37).2) Peter is regarded by the Jews (Acts 4:1-13) as the leader and spokesman of Christianity.3) Peter is regarded by the common people in the same way (Acts 2:37-41; 5:15).
4) Peter’s words are the first recorded and most important in the upper room before Pentecost (Acts 1:15-22).5) Peter takes the lead in calling for a replacement for Judas (Acts 1:22).6) Peter is the first person to speak (and only one recorded) after Pentecost, so he was the first Christian to “preach the gospel” in the Church era (Acts 2:14-36).7) Peter works the first miracle of the Church Age, healing a lame man (Acts 3:6-12).8 ) Peter utters the first anathema (Ananias and Sapphira) emphatically affirmed by God (Acts 5:2-11)!9) Peter’s shadow works miracles (Acts 5:15).10) Peter is the first [named] person after Christ to raise the dead (Acts 9:40).11) Cornelius is told by an angel to seek out Peter for instruction in Christianity (Acts 10:1-6).12) Peter is the first to receive the Gentiles, after a revelation from God (Acts 10:9-48).13) Peter instructs the other apostles on the catholicity (universality) of the Church (Acts 11:5-17).14) Peter is the object of the first divine interposition on behalf of an individual in the Church Age (an angel delivers him from prison – Acts 12:1-17).15) The whole Church (strongly implied) offers “earnest prayer” for Peter when he is imprisoned (Acts 12:5).16) Peter is the first to recognize and refute heresy, in Simon Magus (Acts 8:14-24).17) Peter’s proclamation at Pentecost (Acts 2:14-41) contains a fully authoritative interpretation of Scripture, a doctrinal decision and a disciplinary decree concerning members of the “House of Israel” (2:36) – an example of “binding and loosing.”18 ) Peter was the first “charismatic”, having judged authoritatively the first instance of the gift of tongues as genuine (Acts 2:14-21).19) Peter is the first to preach Christian repentance and baptism (Acts 2:38).20) Peter (presumably) takes the lead in the first recorded mass baptism (Acts 2:41).21) Peter commanded the first Gentile Christians to be baptized (Acts 10:44-48).22) Peter was the first traveling missionary, and first exercised what would now be called “visitation of the churches” (Acts 9:32-38,43). Paul preached at Damascus immediately after his conversion (Acts 9:20), but hadn’t traveled there for that purpose (God changed his plans!). His missionary journeys begin in Acts 13:2.
The Catholic Church, both in her praxis and in her solemn documents, holds that the communion of the particular Churches with the Church of Rome, and of their Bishops with the Bishop of Rome, is—in God’s plan—an essential requisite of full and visible communion. Indeed full communion, of which the Eucharist is the highest sacramental manifestation, needs to be visibly expressed in a ministry in which all the Bishops recognize that they are united in Christ and all the faithful find confirmation for their faith.
[T]he Jerusalem council presents “apostles” and “elders” in conjunction six times:*
Acts 15:2 . . . Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question.Acts 15:4 When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, . . .Acts 15:6 The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter.Acts 15:22 Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, . . .Acts 15:23. . . “The brethren, both the apostles and the elders, to the brethren who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cili’cia, . . .Acts 16:4 . . . they delivered to them for observance the decisions which had been reached by the apostles and elders who were at Jerusalem.*“Elders” here is the Greek presbuteros, which referred to a leader of a local congregation, so that Protestants think of it primarily as a “pastor”, whereas Catholics, Orthodox, and some Anglicans regard it as the equivalent of “priest.” In any event, all agree that it is a lower office in the scheme of things than an apostle: even arguably lower than a bishop (which is mentioned several times in the New Testament).*What is striking, then, is that the two offices in the Jerusalem council are presented as if there is little or no distinction between them, at least in terms of their practical authority. It’s not an airtight argument, I concede. We could, for example, say that “bishops and the pope [and non-bishop theological advisers] gathered together at the Second Vatican Council.” We know that the pope had a higher authority. It may be that apostles here had greater authority.
*But we don’t know that with certainty, from Bible passages that mention them. They seem to be presented as having in effect, “one man one vote.” They “consider” the issue “together” (15:6). It’s the same for the “decisions which had been reached” (16:4).
7. Perhaps 6 describes a private meeting, during which ‘there had been much debate’, and now St Peter announces the result to the multitude. Be that as it may, he speaks with an authority that all accept, and by re-stating his decision in the case of Cornelius, implies that the question should not have been re-opened. . . .
*19. From St James’ ‘I judge’ it has been argued that he and not St Peter had the first position, but a word cannot prevail against the context, so favourable, here, as in the rest of Ac, to the Petrine primacy. The phrase bears a very different interpretation. ‘For which cause’, in view of Simon’s action in the case of Cornelius, and of the prophecy, ‘I’, without wishing to engage others, ‘judge’, am of opinion, a usual sense of the Gk κρίνω, and one found often in Ac, ‘that the Gentile converts are not to be disquieted’. St James shows why he adheres to the decision which has already been given by Peter on the point at issue. He then puts forward a practical suggestion, which so far from being a decree of his own, is expressly attributed to the Apostles and presbyters who adopted it, 15:28; 16:4.
6–21. The hierarchical Church, consisting of the Apostles and elders or priests, now meets to study and decide whether baptized Gentiles are obliged or not to be circumcised and to keep the Old Law. This is a question of the utmost importance to the young Christian Church and the answer to it has to be absolutely correct. Under the leadership of St. Peter, the meeting deliberates at length, but it is not going to devise a new truth or new principles: all it does is, with the aid of the Holy Spirit, to provide a correct interpretation of God’s promises and commandments regarding the salvation of men and the way in which Gentiles can enter the New Israel.*
This meeting is seen as the first general council of the Church, that is, the prototype of the series of councils of which the Second Vatican Council is the most recent. Thus, the Council of Jerusalem displays the same features as the later ecumenical councils in the history of the Church: a) it is a meeting of the rulers of the entire Church, not of ministers of one particular place; b) it promulgates rules which have binding force for all Christians; c) the content of its decrees deals with faith and morals; d) its decisions are recorded in a written document — a formal proclamation to the whole Church; e) Peter presides over the assembly.*According to the Code of Canon Law (can. 338–341) ecumenical councils are assemblies — summoned and presided over by the Pope — of bishops and some others endowed with jurisdiction; decisions of these councils do not oblige unless they are confirmed and promulgated by the Pope. This assembly at Jerusalem probably took place in the year 49 or 50.*7–11. Peter’s brief but decisive contribution follows on a lengthy discussion which would have covered the arguments for and against the need for circumcision to apply to Gentile Christians. St. Luke does not give the arguments used by the Judaizing Christians (these undoubtedly were based on a literal interpretation of the compact God made with Abraham — cf. Gen 17 — and on the notion that the Law was perennial).*Once again, Peter is a decisive factor in Church unity. Not only does he draw together all the various legitimate views of those trying to reach the truth on this occasion: he points out where the truth lies. Relying on his personal experience (what God directed him to do in connexion with the baptism of Cornelius: cf. chap. 10), Peter sums up the discussion and offers a solution which coincides with St. Paul’s view of the matter: it is grace and not the Law that saves, and therefore circumcision and the Law itself have been superseded by faith in Jesus Christ. Peter’s argument is not based on the severity of the Old Law or the practical difficulties Jews experience in keeping it; his key point is that the Law of Moses has become irrelevant; now that the Gospel has been proclaimed the Law is not necessary for salvation: he does not accept that it is necessary to obey the Law in order to be saved. Whether one can or should keep the Law for other reasons is a different and secondary matter. . . .*
[16:4] 4. The text suggests that all Christians accepted the decisions of the Council of Jerusalem in a spirit of obedience and joy. They saw them as being handed down by the Church through the Apostles and as providing a satisfactory solution to a delicate problem. The disciples accept these commandments with internal and external assent: by putting them into practice they showed their docility. Everything which a lawful council lays down merits and demands acceptance by Christians, because it reflects, as the Council of Trent teaches, “the true and saving doctrine which Christ taught, the Apostles then handed on, and the Catholic Church, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, ever maintains; therefore, no one should subsequently dare to believe, preach or teach anything different” (De iustificatione, preface).
15:11 . . . Peter speaks as the head and spokesman of the apostolic Church. He formulates a *doctrinal* judgment about the means of salvation, whereas James takes the floor after him to suggest a *pastoral* plan for inculturating the gospel in mixed communities where Jewish and Gentile believers live side by side (15:13-21).
This (James) was bishop, as they say, and therefore he speaks last, and herein is fulfilled that saying, “In the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established.” (Deuteronomy 17:6; Matthew 18:16.) But observe the discretion shown by him also, in making his argument good from the prophets, both new and old. For he had no acts of his own to declare, as Peter had and Paul. And indeed it is wisely ordered that this (the active) part is assigned to those, as not intended to be locally fixed in Jerusalem, whereas (James) here, who performs the part of teacher, is no way responsible for what has been done, while however he is not divided from them in opinion. . . .*
Peter indeed spoke more strongly, but James here more mildly: for thus it behooves one in high authority, to leave what is unpleasant for others to say, while he himself appears in the milder part.
Do not many of those involved in ecumenism today feel a need for such a ministry? A ministry which presides in truth and love so that the ship—that beautiful symbol which the World Council of Churches has chosen as its emblem— will not be buffeted by the storms and will one day reach its haven.