Debate on the Jerusalem Council (vs. Steve Hays)

Debate on the Jerusalem Council (vs. Steve Hays) September 27, 2023

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The late Steve Hays made a response to me on 14 January 2010 entitled “Up from the acorn.” It mostly had to do with the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) and early ecclesiology, and was a reply to some of my arguments in my article, “Catholic Development of Doctrine: A Defense: Part I (vs. Jason Engwer; Emphasis on the Canon of the Bible & Church Infallibility)” [1-13-10].

This is a mere fifteen days before he described me as possessing an “evil character”: which he added to his colorful repertoire of personal insults sent my way; for example, “narcissistic little jerk” and “actually evil” (4-13-09), “hypersensitive, paranoid, an ego-maniac, with a martyr and persecution complex” (7-16-09), “a stalwart enemy of the faith” whose goal is “to destroy faith in God’s word” (1-28-10), “schizophrenic . . . . self-important. . . . emotionally unhinged” (4-18-10), and “a bad man” (12-7-11). Thankfully, however, in this instance, he decided to actually discuss theology, minus the childish and asinine foolishness. Good for him. Please pray for his soul.

His words will be in blue. Words of mine that he cited from that article will be in green.


Dave Armstrong is attempting to critique a post by Jason Engwer. . . . I’ll just comment on what I think is most germane.

[T]he concept is already (I would contend) explicitly present in Scripture, in the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15), which not only claimed profoundly binding authority, but even the express sanction of the Holy Spirit, making it close to the concept of biblical inspiration: a thing that goes beyond all Catholic claims for infallibility: an essentially lesser gift than inspiration.

Is the council of Jerusalem really the archetype and prototype for the ecumenical councils of Rome?


Does the council of Jerusalem point to an “authoritative church,” as the church of Rome defines herself?

Yes. It had all the hallmarks of an ecumenical council:

1) It was called to consider and resolve a pressing issue troubling the Church (15:1-6).

2) It was attended by bishops (“apostles”: from whom bishops are successors: Acts 15:6, 22-23) from the Church at large.

3) It was attended and influenced by those with less authority than bishops also (“elders”: 15:6, 22-23).

4) It was dominated by and influenced the most by the leader of the early Church, Peter, who put an end to “much debate”(15:7), by authoritatively rebuking the Judaizers (“God made choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe . . . why do you make trial of God by putting a yoke upon the neck of the disciples . . .?”: 15:7, 10). This produced the dramatic effect of “silence” in the assembly after he spoke (15:7-12). Peter (having been informed already of the issue by God in a vision: Acts ch. 10-11) provided the principles by which the council made its decision. If Peter dominated the council and influenced it the most, in effect this was the developmental kernel of papal supremacy.

5) The local bishop, James, also played a prominent but secondary role. When he spoke, he deferentially referred back to Peter’s key and decisive address (“Simeon has related . . .”: 15:14), which is how one defers to superiors and authority figures; then he noted that the “prophets” agree with what Peter said (15:15) and cited them (15:16-18). When he proclaimed, “Therefore my judgment . . .” (15:19), he was simply agreeing with what Peter had already made clear, which he noted was in harmony with the prophets (i.e., the Bible).

6) It reached a profound unity of mind and came “to one accord” (15:25).

7) It made an authoritative decree for the larger Church (15:19-21, 28-29).

8) It invoked the guidance of the Holy Spirit in so doing (15:28); i.e., infallibility.

9) It authoritatively and infallibly interpreted Scripture (matters concerning the application of the Mosaic Law to Gentile Christians: 15:1-6, 19-21, 28-29).

10) Its decree was proclaimed “for observance” across Asia Minor, by no less than St. Paul himself (16:4). He had played a far lesser role than Peter and James in the council, since he and Barnabas simply “related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles” (15:12). Likewise, great bishops through history like St. Augustine and St. Athanasius advised councils and appealed to them as profound authorities but didn’t lead them.

So although it came at a very early time in the development of ecclesiology, all of the essential elements of what would become ecumenical councils are remarkably present, according to the record of inspired revelation. It’s a devastating argument against sola Scriptura, which denies the infallibility or final authority of anything besides Holy Scripture.

Hays cites the Catholic Encyclopedia article, “General Councils”:

Ecumenical Councils are those to which the bishops, and others entitled to vote, are convoked from the whole world (oikoumene) under the presidency of the pope or his legates, and the decrees of which, having received papal confirmation, bind all Christians.
The bishops in council…hold no power, no commission, or delegation, from the people. All their powers, orders, jurisdiction, and membership in the council, come to them from above — directly from the pope, ultimately from God.
The council is, then, the assessor of the supreme teacher and judge sitting on the Chair of Peter by Divine appointment; its operation is essentially co-operation — the common action of the members with their head — and therefore necessarily rises or falls in value, according to the measure of its connection with the pope. A council in opposition to the pope is not representative of the whole Church, for it neither represents the pope who opposes it, nor the absent bishops, who cannot act beyond the limits of their dioceses except through the pope. A council not only acting independently of the Vicar of Christ, but sitting in judgment over him, is unthinkable in the constitution of the Church.

On this model, you have one authoritative, hierarchical institution.

That’s right. John Calvin agreed. He wrote:

To those to whom he is a Father, the Church must also be a mother . . . (Gal. 4:26). (Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV, 1:1)

[A]ll who reject the spiritual food of the soul divinely offered to them by the hands of the Church, deserve to perish of hunger and famine. (Inst., IV, 1:5)

[T]he Church is the pillar and ground of the truth. And what else do these words mean, than just that the truth of God is preserved in the Church, and preserved by the instrumentality of preaching; . . . The reason, therefore, why the truth, instead of being extinguished in the world, remains unimpaired, is, because he has the Church as a faithful guardian, by whose aid and ministry it is maintained. (Inst., IV, 8:12)

[T]here is no other means of entering into life unless she conceive us in the womb and give us birth, unless she nourish us at her breasts, and, in short, keep us under her charge and government, until, divested of mortal flesh, we become like the angels (Mt. 22:30). For our weakness does not permit us to leave the school until we have spent our whole lives as scholars. Moreover, beyond the pale of the Church no forgiveness of sins, no salvation, can be hoped for, as Isaiah and Joel testify (Isa. 37:32; Joel 2:32). . . . the abandonment of the Church is always fatal. (Inst., IV, 1:4)

We may add, that so long as we continue in the bosom of the Church, we are sure that the truth will remain with us. (Inst., IV, 1:3)

So highly does he recommend her authority, that when it is violated he considers that his own authority is impaired. For there is no small weight in the designation given to her, “the house of God,” “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). By these words Paul intimates, that to prevent the truth from perishing in the world, the Church is its faithful guardian, because God has been pleased to preserve the pure preaching of his word by her instrumentality, and to exhibit himself to us as a parent while he feeds us with spiritual nourishment, and provides whatever is conducive to our salvation. (Inst., IV, 1:10)

The bishops are papal appointees. They derive all their authority from the pope.

Methods of appointment are non-essential elements and developed through time. The important thing to note is that there were bishops, and a leader of the disciples who then became a leader of the bishops. This is all quite biblical. See my well-known (or in some circles, “notorious”), article, 50 New Testament Proofs for Petrine Primacy & the Papacy [1994].

The church of Rome is the central institution which empowered them in the first place.

Yes; following the model of the early Church, which appointed Matthias to replace Judas (Acts 1:20-26), and commissioned St. Paul (Gal 2:9), etc. Peter had been established in the office of the papacy by Jesus Himself (Mt 16, etc.). And the disciples, the first apostles had been called and commissioned by Him as well.

ii) Compare that to Acts 15.

a) ”Pope” Peter doesn’t even preside at the council. James does. What is more, “Pope” Peter doesn’t even confirm the proceedings of the council.

See my summary of the council in #4-5 above. James gave his opinion, in agreement with what Peter had already made clear. The text doesn’t say he was presiding over the council. When the decree was made, it was made in the name of the entire council (15:22-29). The text doesn’t say that either Peter or James ratified or confirmed the letter. That being the case, and all things considered, I think the data we do have from Acts 15 — per my reasoning above — suggests that Peter was the leader and most influential figure in the council: especially in light of the fact that he had been presented in the Gospels as the leader of the disciples and in early Acts as the leader of the young Church. Thus, being leader of the first council of the Church would be entirely consistent with that picture.

b) The council of Jerusalem exists to pass judgment on Peter’s actions–as well as Paul’s. Peter is not above the council.

Again, if Peter dominated it, he could be described as being “supreme” in it (the beginnings of papal supremacy). The council, in its decree, directly reflected what both Peter and Paul had already come to understand about the Gentiles (and Peter by virtue of a vision from God).

Mind you, this is collegial. No individual mission leader outranks any other individual mission leader in these proceedings. No one is above another.

That’s what we would expect in an early Church where the first believers “were together and had all things in common” (Acts 2:44). Jesus had taught that the disciples were not to “lord it over” anyone:

Mark 10:42-44 And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. [43] But it shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, [44] and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.

But this is not inconsistent with leadership, since Jesus Himself washed feet and acted as a servant to His own disciples, while still being their Lord. Likewise, with Peter and the apostles. Acts 15 shows Peter acting as the leader.

Indeed, as Paul makes emphatically clear in Gal 1-2, his authority did not derive from the “authoritative church” of Jerusalem.

His calling came from God, as all callings ultimately do. It doesn’t follow that he was not under any authority in the Church. It’s no mere coincidence that when Paul first interacted with the Church in Jerusalem, he first talked to “Cephas” [Peter, from the Aramaic kepha], and he “remained with him fifteen days” (Gal 1:18). The only other apostle he saw was James the bishop of Jerusalem (Gal 1:19). So the scenario is just as it was in the council: Peter was the leader and James a secondary leader. Note that I am using the same text that Hays claims proves that Paul was supposedly not under authority. Paul basically contends that he was commissioned (or “given the okay”) by Peter, James, and John:

Galatians 2:9 and when they perceived the grace that was given to me, James and Cephas and John, who were reputed to be pillars, gave to me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised;

Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers stated that the word “pillars” was “in common use among the Jews as a designation for the great Rabbinical teachers.”

c) Each speaker in this debate (Peter, Paul, Barnabas, James) is the coequal leader of different mission churches or missionary fields. There is no hierarchy in which one individual (the “supreme leader”) appointed the others to subordinate positions in the power structure. No chain-of-command at this level. There may be people under Peter, Paul, James, &c. But no one is over them.

Again, I say that Peter is presented as the leader, but he’s not “lording it over” them, since he is following his master, Jesus’ lead. Paul and Barnabas were, in fact, “sent off” by the assembly to proclaim its message (15:25, 30; 16:4), along with Judas and Silas (15:27), so there is some sense of “chain of command” there (however “gentle”), I submit.

What we have, rather, are representatives of different, semiautonomous mission churches who come together to hammer out a common policy for the good of the church at large. On the one hand they aren’t entirely independent of each another. On the other hand, no one church can unilaterally impose its will on other mission churches and mission leaders.

This is simply a “low church” bias. Hays’ first sentence is essentially describing episcopal, hierarchical church government. But then he contradicts himself in his final sentence. The decree of the council is precisely the church in Jerusalem “imposing its will” on other local churches (in Asia Minor, as we learn from Acts 16:4), regarding the question of how responsible Gentiles were to keep the Law. In fact, its decision held subsequently throughout all Church history.

That’s a completely different polity than Roman Catholicism. Yet this was Armstrong’s paradigmatic example of the “authoritative church” in action.

Sorry, I don’t see any big (let alone essential) difference here, per my arguments above, which are far more detailed, in-depth, and Bible-based than Steve’s arbitrary “bald” pronouncements.

Now, Dave may claim that things change when we transition from the apostles to their “successors,” but he can’t logically evolve the Catholic ear from the kernel of Acts 15.

Things develop, as always. Development is a consistent progression in complexity and understanding, while maintaining the essence all along, not an evolutionary doctrinal change: a thing which the Church has condemned. When Pope St. Pius X condemned evolution of dogma, at the same time he enthusiastically advocated and praised Newmanian development of doctrine. Steve Hays never understood these sorts of things about Catholicism, and he displayed his uncomprehending ignorance again here.

d) Although Paul complies with the policy which he and his fellow mission leaders agreed to at the time (15:30), he does so at his own discretion–for he also feels at liberty to demur from the conciliar prohibitions regarding sacrificial food when he must later deal with the Corinthian situation (1 Cor 10:27-28).

Therefore, he doesn’t regard the “canons and decrees” of the Jerusalem council as binding on him or his congregants. Rather, it’s a pragmatic compromise which can be selectively set aside depending on the demands of the situation at hand.

Those are all secondary considerations and not of the essence, and as such, no disproof of my claims. All Paul did was what the Church at large at length decided, as to matters of food. Applications of Church decrees develop, too, as new situations arise.

And this is a textbook example of Catholic spooftexting, whereby Armstrong begins with Catholic ecclesiology as his frame of reference, then anachronistically superimposes that grid onto Acts 15, conveniently overlooking or disregarding the fundamental differences.

I did no such thing. We all do have our natural biases, though, depending on our Christian affiliation. I will tend to see — going in — primitive Catholicism here, just as Hays saw primitive Calvinism and low church ecclesiology. That said, and freely admitted, I have argued from the Newmanian perspective of development of doctrine. Nothing I see in Acts 15 contradicts that understanding in the least. And I have laid out my view far more comprehensively than Hays has done with his. I think it’s most consistent — indeed, strikingly so — with a “primitive Catholicism” perspective.

The authoritative Church also includes apostolic succession. The true apostolic tradition or deposit is authoritatively passed down.

Of course, that simply begs the question.

Not when I can back up my claim with lots of Scripture:

Visible, Hierarchical, Apostolic Church [1996]

Apostles Became Bishops (Apostolic Succession) [1997]

Biblical Arguments for Apostolic Succession [9-9-09]

Apostolic Succession: More Biblical Arguments [1-6-17]

Apostolic Succession as Seen in the Jerusalem Council [National Catholic Register, 1-15-17]

Answers to Questions About Apostolic Succession [National Catholic Register, 7-25-20]

A New Biblical Argument for Apostolic Succession [National Catholic Register, 4-23-21]

“New” Apostle Matthias: Proof of Church Infallibility [12-31-21]

Apostolic Succession, Judas, & Matthias [5-26-23]

Petrine & Roman Primacy & Papal Succession (vs. Calvin #14) [6-13-09]

The Biblical Argument for Papal Succession [12-12-15]

Papal Succession: A Straightforward Biblical Argument [4-28-17]

All that really needs to be found, then, is a notion of an authoritative Church that can “bind and loose,” over against sola Scriptura, in which Scripture alone is the infallible authority.

i) Dave would need to properly exegete the concept of “binding and loosing” in the Gospels.

I wrote in my first book, A Biblical Defense of Catholicism (1996, p. 225):

Binding and loosing were technical rabbinical terms meaning, respectively, “to forbid” and “to permit,” with regard to interpretations of Jewish Law. In secondary usage, they could mean “to condemn” and “to acquit.” This power is also given to the Apostles in Matthew 18:17-18, where it apparently refers particularly to discipline and excommunication in local jurisdictions (whereas Peter’s commission seems to apply to the universal Church).

In John 20:23 it is also granted to the Apostles (in a different terminology, which suggests the power to impose penance and grant indulgences and absolution). Generally  speaking, binding and loosing usually meant the prerogative to formulate Christian doctrine and to require allegiance to it, as well as to condemn heresies which were opposed to the true doctrine (Jude 3). [1]

Marvin Vincent writes:

No other terms were in more constant use in Rabbinic canon-law than those of binding and loosing. They represented the legislative and judicial powers of the Rabbinic office. These powers Christ now transferred, . . . in their reality, to his apostles; the first, here, to Peter, as their representative, the second, after his Resurrection, to the Church (John 20:23) . . . [2]


1. See, for example, Protestant works: Allen C. Myers, editor, Eerdmans Bible Dictionary, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1987 [English revision of Bijbelse Encyclopedie, edited by W. H. Gispen, Kampen, Netherlands: J. H. Kok, revised edition, 1975], translated by Raymond C. Togtman and Ralph W. Vunderink, p. 158; D. Guthrie, and J. A. Motyer, editors, The New Bible Commentary (NBC), Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 3rd edition, 1970 [Reprinted, 1987, as The Eerdmans Bible Commentary], p. 837; Leon Morris, general editor, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press / Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1985, vol. 1: Matthew, R. T. France, p. 256.

2. Marvin R. Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1946 (originally 1887), 4 volumes, vol. 1, p. 96.

Aspects of particulars such as where this Church resides, exactly how it is governed, etc., are distinct from this basic kernel, and we would fully expect relatively more disagreement in the early centuries, just as we would expect the known fact of disagreement over the NT books (the canon): more so, the further we go back. That should surprise no one or make no one think Catholic doctrine is brought into question on this ground by itself. Men could differ on the exact nature of the infallible Church, while agreeing that there is such a thing, just as men can differ on individual books, while agreeing that there is such a thing as a Bible, that is inspired.

i) If we equate early tradition with apostolic tradition, with a deposit of faith handed down without adulteration from one successor to another, then we wouldn’t expect more disagreement the closer back in time we go to the wellspring. To the contrary, we’d expect more unanimity.

We see that on the basics and fundamentals, but not the fine points and specifics. But even basic things like Christology and the theology of trinitarianism, took (as is well-known) some six centuries to fully develop into their present orthodox form. Ecclesiology was rather slow in development, though we do see its kernel clearly in the Bible, and see it also very plainly in St. Clement. (c. 35 –  c. 101).

ii) Dave can’t legitimately isolate the bare “kernel” of an infallible/authoritative church from the “particulars,” for, on his model, the true church is self-defining and self-identifying. The infallible church is the custodian of the “kernel.” It defines the “kernel.”

Nice try. It’s not circular reasoning. It is what it is, based on the account in the New Testament, and subsequent history. I didn’t make it what it is. Nor did the Catholic Church arbitrarily define itself (no matter how much Hays desperately wished and fantasized that that were true). It did based on the apostolic deposit, passed down from our Lord Jesus Christ.

So you need the true definition to identify the true church, yet you need the true church to identify the true definition. Unless you already know where this church resides, you can’t specify what is meant by an infallible, authoritative church. For the church itself must specify the concept. Otherwise, words like “authoritative” and “infallible” are simply ciphers.

The Jerusalem Council is where we look to see the beginning and the essence.

But unless you already have an accurate definition, you can’t use that to pick out the one true church. So how does Dave ever get started?

I start with the New Testament and words of Jesus, of course. One exercises faith, serous exegesis, and historical analysis, rather than Hays’ trademark hyper-skepticism and cynicism towards anything different from his own beliefs.

iii) He can’t very well invoke the criterion of “binding and loosing” in the canonical gospels, for, according to him, it’s up to the authoritative church to authorize the canon in the first place. Without his infallible church, he has no warrant for the “binding and loosing” criterion.

Nonsense. It had a long Jewish and rabbinical pedigree, from which it developed, as the several Protestant scholars whom I cited in my first book (see above) explain.

iv) And if all we need is the bare concept of an authoritative, infallible church, then the LDS church might as well claim to be the oak which sprang from this indistinct acorn.

Sure, if it hadn’t begun based on alleged visions of Joseph Smith in 1823. It’s a bit of a later arriver, I’m afraid. The true Church has to trace itself to the day of Pentecost (Acts 2).

Protestantism didn’t exist. When it does come around over a thousand years later, it obviously has to be derived from Catholicism (being a western European phenomenon) in order to claim historical continuity, and then it has to provide a rationale for the “primacy” supposedly being switched over to them over against the existing Catholic Church.

But given the principle of development, Protestantism, in its “particulars,” didn’t have to “exist” back then. All we’d need to unearth is a Protestant acorn from which the Protestant oak tree arose.

Best wishes in that endeavor! Talk about an impossible task!

The existence of apostolic succession as a major part of the rule of faith in the fathers isn’t even arguable. It is simply a fact. It also has a directly biblical basis and a secondary, indirect (deductive) biblical basis, if the thing itself is to be disputed.

It’s gratifying to see Armstrong’s bold confidence in the perspicuity of Scripture. But now that he’s affirmed his faith in the perspicuity of Scripture, the Magisterium is dispensable.

Why would it (logically) be dispensable? It doesn’t follow. Nor will the Bible itself allow that, since it explicitly asserts ecclesial infallibility:

1 Timothy 3:15 = Church Infallibility (vs. Steve Hays) [5-14-20]

In other words, if you accept an infallible Bible, you must necessarily also accept an infallible Church, since the infallible Bible proclaims it.

They could conceivably be so, but the historical pedigree in those cases is far inferior to the pedigree of Rome: largely because of the historical function of the papacy.

Would the pedigree of Rome include the False Decretals, fraudulent papal elections, &c.?

One can always find anomalies, shortcomings, and sins among the human beings, even in the one true Church. These don’t falsify the essential claims made.

Related Reading

Jerusalem Council vs. Sola Scriptura [9-2-04]

Acts 16:4 vs. Sola Scriptura & John Calvin?: Is Conciliar Authority Binding on Protestants (Especially When it is Guided by St. Paul and St. Peter?) [11-2-15]

C. S. Lewis vs. St. Paul on Future Binding Church Authority [National Catholic Register, 1-22-17]

“Armstrong vs. Geisler” #10: Ecclesiology (Jerusalem Council) [3-2-17]

Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) Decrees: Universally Binding? [11-21-19]

Did Peter or James Preside at the Jerusalem Council? (And Was it the Prototype of Ecumenical Councils or Merely a Local Synod?) [5-21-21]

Jerusalem Council, “Idol” Food, Paul, & Doctrinal Development: Reply to Lydia McGrew [12-9-22]

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Summary: I reply to various objections to the Catholic and “episcopal” interpretation of the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) made by the late anti-Catholic Calvinist Steve Hays.


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