Reformation and Conciliarism: A Rejoinder to Pastor Lee

Lee, a pastor in South Dakota, respectfully dissents from my thesis that the Reformation was in significant ways a child of the Conciliar tradition. I have a few hopefully equally respectful rejoinders for him.

Pastor Lee (I’m not sure what else to call him) seems to have done some reading on the subjects rather than, as many Reformed people do, simply reacting to and rejecting the thesis because it is unfamiliar to them and doesn’t appear to easily fit within their historical-theological comfort zones. In Pastor Lee, it is refreshing to find critical attention to and interaction with detail. This said, however, Pastor Lee’s exposition has a few problems.

First, his statement that “the movement known as Counciliarism was born more out of necessity than theology” needs some important qualifications. The Conciliar Movement proper – that is, the movement of councils which took place between 1409 and 1449, called first to end the papal schism and second to deal with matters of reforming the Church in head and members – was indeed, as Pastor Lee notes, born out of necessity. For thirty years other attempts had been made by catholic Churchmen to resolve the schism, but the popes repeatedly shot down these attempts, leaving the “way of the Council” (via concilii) the only apparent option. However, the theology behind the Conciliar Movement was not at all born out of necessity, but had been slowly developing for a number of centuries in the realms of theology, canon law, and secular jurisprudence. The basic theology of the Conciliar Movement was itself old, not revolutionary, and merely came to the forefront of Christian thought because of the papal schism.:”(Brian Tierney’s Foundations of Conciliar Theory is the bottom-line, absolute must-read on this point, and for those who are really interested I’d also recommend Constantin Fasolt’s Council and Hierarchy, Antony Black’s Council and Commune, John of Paris’ On Royal and Papal Power, Francis Oakley’s Council Over Pope?, and Cary Nederman’s Community and Consent.)”:

It is important to observe this distinction because Roman Catholics who defend the disordered form of absolute monarchy that prevailed in the papacy of the later Middle Ages frequently slur conciliarism as a radical, revolutionary novelty. It was not those things, and, I would argue, if conciliarism was not those things, neither were some of the basic concerns of the Reformation which genetically descended from it. Contra the fears of some Reformed people, tracing the impact of conciliarism on the Reformation is actually a very powerful weapon against the disordered form of papal theology, both historically and presently. It is, I would contend, a significant missing piece of our understanding of our historical heritage as Protestants.

Second, Pastor Lee dwells for a bit on the idea that the conciliarists were not opposed to the papacy per se, but only wanted to limit the power of popes. He implies that this is a serious problem with the conciliar program and that for this reason it is to be rejected. I have several responses here. For one thing, I fail to see why the conciliarist acceptance of the papacy per se is a problem. When one views the broad sweep of history in the Western Church one has to acknowledge that the concept of and existence of the papacy was simply traditional. There were, in fact, many disputes over the centuries about the nature and extent of papal power:”(Roman Catholics who are more inclined toward an unrealistic ideological concept of religion than a healthy self-critical theology frequently distort the importance of these disputes and distortively magnify examples of papal authority in action.)”: but no one in the Middle Ages of whom I am aware who was not a fringe fanatic wishing to foment revolution ever dreamed of simply destroying the thing in itself and starting over from scratch. Revolution was considered a great evil, and schism in the Church more so, since it rent the seamless robe of Christ. To attempt to dispense with the papacy entirely would have been both revolution and schism, and no balanced Medieval Christian would ever have wanted to do that.

Indeed, most of the conciliarists prior to the latter stages of the Council of Basel were very conservative catholic men, interested in preservation, not destruction. They did not wish to level Christian society and start over from scratch. This adds one more strong link in the chain of historical-theological arguments supporting the Reformation, for the Reformation itself, at its best, never wanted revolution or schism. Like Conciliarism, the Reformation was a movement of fundamentally conservative reform driven to seeming extremes by the actual extremes of the papacy. This is part of why Jaroslav Pelikan described the Reformers as “Obedient Rebels” in his book of that title. The Reformers were not revolutionaries, but half the problem with our Protestant ethos today is that we believe, with our Roman Catholic opponents, that they were.

Third, Pastor Lee is correct to note that one big difference between the Conciliarists and the Reformers was that the former, at least as a general rule, believed that Councils, representing the Spirit-guided mind of the whole Church, were infallible whereas the latter did not believe this. But even this recognition needs to be qualified in several ways. Conciliar theory was not all of a piece, and the conciliarists had their internal differences. Although I have not myself studied in detail the views of each major Conciliarist on conciliar infallibility, given what I have studied I can reasonably speculate that none of them would have held to conciliar infallibility simpliciter, because all of them recognized distinctions between various elements of councils and the possibility of abuses by each. For instance, there were complicated relations between the parts of a Council in which sometimes “the stronger part” (valentior pars) of the Council was not the same thing as “the greater and healthier part” (maior et sanior pars).

Nicholas of Cusa would operate with this sort of view when he himself, no unqualified defender of papalism, defected from the majority Council of Basel when it appeared to be hindering reform of the Church. On this sort of view, it would appear evident that “infallibility” would not attach to a Council’s statements just because they were the product of a Council. During the Council of Constance, Pierre d’Ailly, one of the most erudite conciliarists of all, exempted himself from the critical session which passed the decree Haec sancta limiting the power of the pope because he, d’Ailly, believed that Haec sancta struck too deeply at the aristocratic element of the Church’s constitution, the cardinalate, and gave too much power to other elements of the Council. Clearly, then, the conciliarists did not hold some “across the board” theory of conciliar infallibility.

Pastor Lee is obviously correct to point out that the Reformers did not believe in conciliar infallibility but that they “held that these councils were only good as long as they fell in line with Scripture.” Pastor Lee is, of course, also correct to note that “The supreme authority for the Protestants has always been Scripture, not the church speaking in a council.” However, on these points I would again insist on making careful distinctions.

We Protestants are always great at saying that Scripture is the “final” authority and that things can only be true if they “agree” with Scripture, but we are not always so great at spelling out exactly what the terms “final” and “agree with Scripture” mean. To say that Scripture is the “final” authority implies that there is “non-final” authority, and the moment this distinction is made one has to enter potentially complex discussions of the relationships of various authorities. Furthermore, it is vital to see that saying something “agrees with” or “disagrees with” Scripture is to assume a certain understanding of how a text conveys meaning to its readers, and this too, requires that one enter into a potentially complex discussion of hermeneutical theory and levels of authority within a community.

It’s very persuasive (rhetorically, anyway) to the Protestant mind to say, with the Westminster Confession that “The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture,” Well, of course, we glibly say, who could possibly be a better judge of things than God Himself? If there is some disagreement, let’s just see what God has to say about it. But what does this mean?

When Joe Christian and Jane Christian pick up their Bibles to hear the “supreme judge” speaking on some issue on which they disagree, who is reading the “supreme judge”? Why, Joe and Jane, of course. And what happens if Joe and Jane themselves disagree about what the “supreme judge” is saying relative to their disagreement? Aren’t they both reading the same Bible? Isn’t the Holy Spirit, “the supreme judge” who is “speaking in the Scripture” Himself clear in His judgments? It’s just not enough to say that “Scripture judges” things, or “Scripture tells us X about Y,” or “Let’s see what the Scripture says about this disagreement,” because each statement like this implies a certain view of interpretation and a certain view of how and by whom what the Scripture says is to be applied. Even on the most philosophically naive account of Scripture’s “clarity,” say, a Fundamentalist “literal interpretation” view, it is still going to fall to some person or persons to apply what Scripture “plainly teaches” to some given controversy.

This is, I think, precisely why the framers of the Westminster Confession, themselves strongly influenced by conciliarism through their Scottish contingent, put Chapter 31 into the Confession. Chapter 1 gives us a theory of magisterial authority – that is, teaching authority. From what source do we derive teaching? Why, of course, from “the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.” But although many Reformed sola Scriptura advocates try to stop the story here, the story isn’t done yet. One has to keep turning the pages, because Chapter 31 of the Confession complements Chapter 1 by outlining for us a theory of ministerial authority – that is, a theory of who applies what the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture” says to particular issues of disagreement.

And there, in Chapter 31, Section 2, of the very same Confession that teaches the “supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined…can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture,” we read, “It belongeth to synods and councils, ministerially to determine controversies of faith, and cases of conscience; to set down rules and directions for the better ordering of the public worship of God, and government of his church; to receive complaints in cases of maladministration, and authoritatively to determine the same…” Notice that for the strongly sola Scriptura-advocating Westminster Confession, not only controversies of faith but even cases of conscience are to be ministerially determined by synods and councils, and not by private individual Christians.

This is manifestly contrary to the widespread individualistic notion of many Protestants (even many Reformed) that the private Christian clutching his own personal copy of the Bible to himself is the sole-sufficient interpreter of the Bible and does not need authorities “outside of” Scripture to tell him what Scripture means. The rhetoric of authorities “outside of” Scripture and of the Scripture being “above” all other authorities is misleading because it ignores the crucial fact that the individual Christian clutching his own personal copy of the Bible to himself is himself an authority “outside of” Scripture, and is himself the one who is determining both that Scripture is “above” all the other authorities and what exactly it is that Scripture is “finally” saying about the issue at hand.

I am not sure if Pastor Lee holds this sort of view of the individual Christian’s interpretive authority, but it does not take much looking around the Protestant (and, sadly, the Reformed) world to find many examples of people who do. And, often enough, their defenses for their individualism, for their democractic distortions of authority which are their very own special kind of tyranny equal and opposite to that of the extreme papalist, is to invoke “sola Scriptura” without any of the qualifications the Reformers themselves would have put on it, to quote WCF 1 without any reference at all to WCF 31, to deploy historical caricatures about Councils (such as the great mythology of the hero of the Gospel, John Huss, being burned by the tyrants at the Council of Constance), and so forth. Such views are at odds with a more full-orbed understanding of the Reformation’s view of authority in the Church, and also at odds with a more full-orbed understanding of Church history.

Of course, WCF 31.2 goes on to say, after my ellipsis above, “which decrees and determinations, if consonant to the Word of God, are to be received with reverence and submission; not only for their agreement with the Word, but also for the power whereby they are made, as being an ordinance of God appointed thereunto in his Word.” But again, what does this mean? We cannot let this statement stand merely rhetorically. We must think about it and yes, we must interpret it. It is not “plain” in the question-begging sense that many Protestants today think of “plainness” – namely, as just whatever happens to occur to the surface level of their own minds. What does it mean to say a given decree or determination of a Council is “consonant with” Scripture? And who decides whether this is so?

The issues here are more complicated than typical Protestant rhetoric about the “authority” of Scripture and its “clarity” can handle, and that, I contend, is why we as Protestants need to study Medieval conciliarism. Medieval conciliarism is not, of course, entirely on board with the program the Reformers put forward, but to highlight the differences between the two and posit, as Pastor Lee does, that the thesis of the Reformation being ” in line of descent from the Conciliarists” is flawed is itself a flawed judgment.

In my paper “Martin Luther and the Quest for Conciliar Reform of the Church” I demonstrate at some length that Luther was familiar with the writings of the conciliarists Pierre d’Ailly, Jean Gerson, and Wessel Gansfort, and that Luther takes up some of the major themes of these writers into his own theology. I do not at present have as thoroughly-developed a case for the Reformed side of the Reformation, but I do have the rudiments of the case at hand. Consider these points: (1) Calvin was for a time taught by the Scottish conciliarist John Major, and Calvin’s views of Church Councils in Institutes Book IV is quite a bit higher than your average Presbyterian’s view of same, (2) Francis Turretin and William Whitaker have very high views of Church councils as ministerial arbiters of doctrinal controversies, (3) the Reformed in France made heavy use of the doctrines of conciliarism against their Catholic opponents there, and (4) the evidence of the Westminster Confession of Faith already adduced.

To close my rejoinder, Pastor Lee admits that “the Reformation has connections the history of the Church” and that “the Reformers [made]use of those who opposed the pope from time to time,” but to my mind, these concessions are simply not sufficient as they are stated. Whether they mean to or not, they portray the Reformers negatively, as rebels and revolutionaries, as fomenters of division and discord and novelty. And in so portraying them, this view hands over to the Roman Catholic polemicist all the ammunition he ever needs to convict us of all the bad things his Church has ever said about us.

Pastor Lee closes his post by saying, “I believe the Reformation stands in link with the early church, which I do not believe was ever successfully stamped out by the pope, the Greeks, or the Turks.” It is true, as the Reformers themselves constantly tried to demonstrated, that the Reformation has significant connections to the early Church. We should not ignore or downplay these, especially as over against Roman Catholic propaganda about their own supposed superior fidelity to the early Church. But in my book, to ignore or downplay the heritage of Medieval conciliarism as a significant genetic precursor of the Reformation is, in an important sense, to historically cut the Reformation off at the knees, to saw off the branch on which the Reformers themselves were sitting. Our case for Protestantism is not limited to the early Church, and we need not handicap ourselves by simply giving 1,000 years of history to the Roman Catholic. In reality, when one digs into the history of the papacy’s flirtation with a tyrannical conception of authority and the development of conciliar resistance to it, one increasingly finds that it is the Roman Catholic who bears the burden of proof and the Roman Catholic who has aligned himself with the cause of schism and disorder in the Church.

My thanks to Pastor Lee for his gracious, reasoned disagreement with my thesis, which has given me this opportunity to hopefully clarify some of the issues at stake.


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