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Formulary Friday: The Church of England and the Authority of General Councils

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Posted by The Rev'd Dr Mark Smith, 20 May 2016

Mark Smith explores what the Articles have to say about church councils.

In establishing the sole sufficiency and supreme authority of the Bible, the 39 Articles appear radically to undermine the authority of church councils. Indeed, Article 21 makes clear that:

‘when they be gathered together, (forasmuch as they be an assembly of men, whereof all be not governed with the Spirit and Word of God,) they may err, and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining unto God. Wherefore, things ordained by them as necessary to salvation have neither strength nor authority, unless it may be declared that they be taken out of Holy Scripture’.

The Roman Catholic Council of Trent is, of course, partly in view here. The Reformers wanted to make it clear that the mere fact of a group of bishops meeting together - however lavish their proceedings or exalted their pronouncements - was not enough to give their council an authority over and above that of Scripture itself. For those bishops remained, whatever their gifts, sinful men, whose minds could wander and whose thoughts could err. This side of Eden, our ‘infection of nature’ (as Article 9 puts it) consigns every human act, and every human thought, to the realm of the fallible - and this fallibility, crucially, remains even ‘in them that are regenerated’. 

And yet, in rejecting the Roman position, the Church of England did not thereby lurch to the other extreme, and deny any authority to councils whatsoever. No, the Church of England understood itself to be part of the one true catholic church - indeed, as more truly ‘catholic’ than the Roman Catholic Church. It did not therefore break itself off from the conciliar history of the church, but rather embraced that history, insofar as it expressed Biblical teaching. A renewed emphasis on fidelity to Scripture, in other words, did not lead to the abandonment of the Christian past, but rather became the means by which that past could faithfully be received.

To give one brief example of this, it is evident from the Formularies that the decisions of the councils of Nicaea (325), Constantinople I (381), Ephesus I (431) and Chalcedon (451) are wholeheartedly affirmed and endorsed, precisely because they are consonant with the teaching of Scripture. Indeed, the Reformatio Legum Ecclesiasticarum (1551-1553), cap. 14, describes these councils as ‘the pre-eminent four’, which ‘we embrace and accept with great reverence’.

This being so, why not read up a little about these four great councils, and the statements of faith that they produced? There are plenty of helpful books available on this subject, such as Stephen Needs’ book Truly Human and Truly Divine (SPCK, 2008). In a series of future posts, I’ll explore in more depth the distinctive contributions that these councils’ decisions have made to the doctrine of the 39 Articles, and so to the Church of England.

The Rev'd Dr Mark Smith is Chaplain and Director of Studies in Theology at Christ's College, Cambridge

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