On the Councils and the Church


On The Councils and the Church

It is interesting that every new generation of evangelical elites, whether it be conservative Calvinists or liberal Postmodernists seem to always go through a time of rediscovery. Christianity is supposed to be an historical religion, with continuity of foundation and purpose but so much time is expended simply rehashing the same issues that had been argued and settled often centuries before. I know some people enjoy this "journey" but to me it seems a waste of time to always be resetting to zero. Why can't we, especially as Christians simply stand firm in the foundations of our Faith? Why do people think it necessary to go through years and years of doubt, as if that is some great achievement? It is like the once obese person celebrating after achieving some milestone weight reduction while it would be better that we celebrate the person who always maintained their diet and never became obese. But such is our culture, always celebrating the overcomers of failure instead of the faithful maintainers of success.

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This brings us to a treatment that Martin Luther wrote on the councils and the Church. Luther is often portrayed as a wild-eyed rebel that was out to upset the status quo. But this is what I mean by we never seem to learn from history.

Luther and the other Reformers appealed to the pope and the emperor to hold a council to discuss the issues between the Protestants and the Papists (Roman Catholics). Luther wrote a paper detailing his frustration at the continued delay and failure to hold such a council. That paper or treatise is called "On the Councils and the Church".

Luther starts by giving us an analogy of teasing a dog with scraps of food but not actually feeding the dog. This is what he saw the pope and emperor doing to the Protestants' call for a council to convene. Luther wrote his paper in 1538-39, after a twenty year delay in holding the council. By this time, the 95-Theses and the Debates of Worms and Leipzig were long past and Luther was becoming a cynical old man, indeed Luther would be dead within 7-8 years from this treatise. Luther, having been the hero to the German lords, even attacked them for their complacency and unwillingness to aid him in pushing the pope to hold the council. Like Athanasius and the Trinity issue, Luther would also become "contra mundum".

The frustration comes through in this quote from the paper:

"In God’s name, if you lords, — emperor, kings, princes, — are so fond of having such worthless, damnable people trample on your faces and rap you on the muzzle, then we have to let it be done, and remember that they used to do still worse things, when they deposed kings and emperors, cursed them, drove them out, betrayed and slew them, and played the devil’s will with them. History shows this; and they think to do the same thing still.

Nevertheless, Christ will know how to find His Christendom and maintain it even against the gates of hell, though emperor and kings neither can nor will do anything toward it. He can spare their help more easily than they can spare His help. What did He have to do before emperors and kings were born? And what would He have to do now, if there were no emperors and kings, even though a world full of devils raged against Him?"

So while Luther sees the religious and secular powers becoming comfortable in their positions, Luther still declares that Christ will maintain Christendom despite the apathy and compromise all around.

Apparently, the emperor (Charles V) was willing to hold the council but the pope (Paul III) was the main cause of the delay.

Luther contends that the papacy would rather see the "Church destroyed" then to let the Protestants reform it and Luther spends much time reiterating this point. He wants the reader to understand that the papacy doesn't actually defend the Church, but rather it defends its own existence even above the Church. This is what is different with REAL heresies. While the Protestants loved the Church so much that they would rather die than see the Church destroyed, modern heresies, like the papacy are all too ready to disdain the Church and toss it aside so that the heresy can replace the Church yet still call itself "the Church". This is an extremely important point Luther is making. It reminds me of the wise Solomon account of the two women fighting over a baby, each claiming to be the mother. When Solomon suggests cutting the child in half and giving each woman a share, the true mother would rather suffer the loss rather than see her child suffer (1 Kings 3:16-27). In the same way, REAL heretics are all too ready to see the Church suffer so that they can get their "share" of being validated, whereas true Christians will suffer the loss of friends and acclaim so as to maintain the sanctity of the Church.

Luther speaks of the content of the councils being committed to one volume wherein he read them side by side, and instead of how Luther is typically portrayed as being "anti-council" he instead has high praise that the sum total of the councils agreed with the reform the Reformers proposed.

"Some years ago many of the papists occupied themselves with the councils and the fathers and at last brought all the councils together in one book. This work gave me no small pleasure, because I had not previously seen the councils side by side. And there are now among them, I believe, some good, pious people who would like to see the Church reformed according to the standard of these councils and fathers. They are moved to this by the fact that the present state of the Church, under the papacy, disagrees shamefully with the ways of the councils and fathers."

Further, Luther was not against the ancient councils but saw that the pope had no intention of heeding even to those ancient councils:

"but so long as it [the pope heeding the councils] does not happen, what is the use of talking or writing so much about councils or fathers? There is no one who takes the matter up. If the pope, with his imperishable lords, cardinals and bishops, is unwilling to go along into the reformation and be put, with us, under the councils and fathers, then a council is of no use and then no reformation is to be hoped from him; for he dashes it all to the ground and tells us to shut up."

Luther became frustrated with trying to get the papacy to heed the councils and began to think it a waste of time to go that route, not that he thought the councils wrong or useless but just without ability to convince the papacy. Though also, Luther saw the papacy would not abide by Scripture either. That was the conundrum. What were the Reformers to do with a group calling itself the "Church" all the while that group would rather see the Church destroyed than to abide by ancient council or by Scripture?

Luther then turns very sarcastic which sarcasm puts to shame any sarcasm uttered on any modern "blog" and would most certainly offend the ears of our modern effeminate "Christians".

"they [the papists] ought to have sympathy with us weak, poor Christians, and not condemn us or make fun of us because we are learning so childishly to toddle along the benches, nay, to creep in the mire, and cannot skip and dance, on such light feet and legs, over and outside of God’s commandments, as they do, the strong heroes and giants...So we poor, weak Christians, who, in God’s commandments and His little good works, toddle along the benches and sometimes scarcely creep on all fours, nay, even pull ourselves along on the ground, so that Christ must dandle us, as a mother or a maid dandles a child, — we simply cannot keep pace with their strong, manly running and doing; and God forbid that we should!"

Luther returns to the subject of the councils, where some reformers wanted to argue from the councils and try to consolidate them all into one. Luther found this to be useless:

"Enough of that! We would show cause why this undertaking is impossible.

In the first place, it is plain that the councils are not only unequal, but even contradictory, and the same is true of the fathers. If we were to try to harmonize them, there would be greater disagreement and disputing than there now is, and we should never get out of it anymore. For since they are unlike and often contradictory, our first undertaking would be to see how we could cull out the best and let the rest go. Then the trouble would start!

One would say, 'If we are going to keep them, we must keep all or nothing.' Another would say, 'You are culling out what you like, and leaving what you do not like.' Who will be the umpire?"

Though, this seems to be an aid to the heretic who would chuck the entire history of Christian belief and interpretation and start afresh, Luther does not mean this in such a way as can be seen from his many other writings upon the Church. He only is saying that the foundation for reform MUST be with Scripture, to which I agree. Yet I wince at a heretic who would misuse Luther's comment to mean that we have been therefore in utter chaos for 2000 years. Again, this is not what Luther intends the reader to conclude.

But even more, while real heretics would add all sorts of new doctrines to their remake of "Christianity", Luther actually appealed to a minimalist belief in bare basics, citing Augustine's belief that there are only really two sacraments; baptism and the Lord's Supper.

"If St. Augustine is not here a heretic, then I shall never become a heretic. He throws the opinions of so many bishops and so many churches all on a heap in the fire and recommends only baptism and the Sacrament, believing that Christ did not will to impose any further burden on the Church, if, indeed, that can be called a burden which is all comfort and grace; as He says, 'My burden is light and my load is pleasant'

It is here, I too advocate a minimalist approach, especially as it relates to eschatology in that the basics or bare minimums of biblical and historically Christian eschatology can be summed up in these four main doctrines:

  1. Christ is coming again in our yet future
  2. The resurrection of the believers as a group is yet future and to be physically manifested
  3. The judgment of the wicked and righteous is yet future
  4. There will be an eventual end of sin and culmination of God's plan for the world

Luther goes on to say Augustine still advised that the councils should be utilized and highly respected. After all, the sum total of the councils do contain the beliefs of Christianity as had been shared in common and articulated.

Luther points out an interesting fact, that had not the secular emperors called the first Christian councils, the "bishop of Rome", having no more authority than any other regional bishop would have been unable to call these councils. This is more proof that the invention of the papal supremacy is a complete fabrication.

"For no matter how wild it makes all the papists, history testifies that, if the Emperor Constantine had not called the first Council at Nicaea, Pope Sylvester would have had to leave it uncalled. And what would the poor bishop of Rome have done, for the bishops in Asia and Greece were not subject to him?...Yet one sees in the histories that the Roman bishops, even before that time, were always seeking after lordship over the other bishops, but could not get it because of the monarch. They wrote many letters, now to Africa, now to Asia, and so on, even before the Nicene Council, saying that nothing was to be ordered publicly without the Roman See. But no one paid any attention to it at the time, and the bishops in Asia, Africa, and Egypt acted as though they did not hear it. They gave the people fine words, and they were humble, but they yielded nothing. You will discover this if you read the histories and compare them carefully; but you must pay no attention to their cries and those of their hypocrites, but look the texts and histories in the face or see them as a mirror."

Luther goes on to make a very important observation as to why newly called councils had become useless in his day, and indeed perhaps in our day.

"Now when the word “Council” (partly because of the above-mentioned letter of Augustine) was in high honor among Christians throughout the world, and the fine monarchs, or emperors, were gone, the Roman bishops were always considering how they might get possession of the name “Council,” so that all Christendom would have to believe what they said, and how, under this fine name, they might secretly become monarchs. This is the truth and it smites their conscience, if they could have a conscience. "

The papacy led Christians to believe that the pope in Rome was the one with the authority to call councils when in reality, Luther saw, as we ought to see God's divine hand called those ancient councils via the emperors despite and without the aid of the Roman bishop. In this, I appeal not to specific councils but that the Holy Spirit has guided Christians in the most minimal of beliefs, before, during and after the rise of Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, or modern "Left-Behindism". It is those minimal beliefs which we Christians ought to hold, not innovations or burdensome "traditions" no matter how ancient.

Luther then turns his attention perhaps to one of the first Christian councils as recorded in the Bible wherein the newly converted Gentiles are given the simple doctrines contained in Acts 15 and especially Acts 21:25 to "observe no such thing, except that they should keep themselves from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality." Luther points out that if such a council were held in his present day Europe that the people would have to adhere more properly to the Jewish dietary laws than to eat in the common medieval European manner, since much of the European diet was of bloody meats and strangled food.

Luther concludes about Acts 21:25 in relation to the appeal for councils:

"Let anyone who will start to bring the Church into obedience to this council; I shall follow him very gladly. Otherwise, I want to be excused from listening to this cry of “Councils! Councils! You do not keep the councils and fathers!” Or I will cry back, “You yourselves do not keep councils or fathers, because you treat this highest council and the highest fathers, the apostles themselves, with contempt! "

Hmm, this leaves an interesting problem. Just because no Christian seems to have held to that first council, doesn't seem to give Luther a license to not hold to any council. A person cannot say to the hypocrite, "Because you do not do this and thus nor will I do such and such." This doesn't make either of the participants correct in their reasoning and action.

Luther continues in his pointed but fallacious argument:

"If we would be conciliar, we must keep this council above all others; if not, then we may keep none of the other councils and thus be free from all councils. For in this council there were not simple bishops, as in the others, but the apostles themselves, who were the Holy Ghost’s certain and highest fathers. "

He is correct, but then why doesn't he as a supposed "scripturalist" immediately adhere to that first council? He cannot play the scorched-earth policy of all or nothing.

But to drive home his point against the pope, Luther says:

"If the first decrees of the apostles are not binding, though we are sure that the Holy Ghost established them, as they themselves say, how much less shall the power and the decrees of the popes be binding, about which we are by no means so certain that the Holy Ghost was with them as He was with the apostles?"

Luther then takes up the inconsistency with which the Council of Nicaea has been held, especially in regard to the clause about military service and the implication that the council forbade warfare.

At first glance, it is starting to look as if Luther is arguing like the heretics who are indeed ready to lose the whole of Christianity as expressed via the ancient councils, but then Luther tells us:

"I say, however, that I am now a good conciliarist, and must be; after awhile I shall say more of this, and explain myself."

And we are eager to hear it since Luther does indeed sound no better than the common heretic that undermines Christianity at every turn and replaces it with a private interpretation yet calling it "Scripture".

PART 2 [Jump Part 1 2 3 4 5 6]

After spending time trying to make the point that only a monk-like person could live a life free from civic duties, especially duties such as military duty, Luther turns his attention to the topic of celibacy, especially as it relates to clergy and the pope specifically. He merely points out the inconsistencies of how the Roman Catholic Church has handled the matter of celibacy among the clergy but then Luther quickly moves on to the topic of "church fathers".

As Luther begins as we might expect to contrast where the "fathers" disagreed with one another, there is a quote by Luther that I found interesting. Speaking of a heretical group called the Photinians, Luther had this to say:

"The Photinians either had or made another Gospel than the whole Church had, and it is rather to be believed that they used the common form; for heretics have always been glad to boast the Scriptures on their side."

The Photinians were accused of either supporting or at least not condemning the Arian "anti-trinitarian" heresy. But the point that should be taken from Luther's quote is that he DID think there were actual heresies. Further, Luther points out that heretics "boast" that the "Scriptures [are] on their side". This is a catch 22 for Luther since the Roman Catholics could claim the Reformers are heretics who also claim the Scriptures are on their side.

Luther goes on to discuss the disagreement between Cyprian and Augustine (and most of the "father") concerning the necessity to re-baptize those who had been baptized under a heretical form. Cyprian advocated for re-baptism whereas Augustine and most of the other "fathers" thought it wrong, and that the original baptism should stand even if under heretics. Luther makes some indication that perhaps the Cyprian agrees with the apostles whereas Augustine does not. Luther is demonstrating the major contrast between the "fathers" over this issue and wants his readers to assume we cannot look to the "fathers" to support our doctrine.

Luther then drives home his point once again:

"Meanwhile, we cull out of the fathers and councils what we like; they what they like; and we cannot come to agreement, because the fathers are not in agreement any more than the councils are. Dear sir, who is to preach in the meantime to the poor souls who know nothing of this culling and quarreling? Is it feeding Christ’s sheep, when we do not know whether we are giving them grass or poison, hay or dung? We are to be doubtful and uncertain until it is settled, and a council decides it! Ah, what poor provision Christ made for His Church, if that is the way things were to go!

No, it must go otherwise than we pretend to prove from councils and fathers; or else there must have been no Church since the time of the apostles;"

At this point dear reader, maybe you are ready to throw your hands up and say all are heretics, Papists and Reformers alike.

But wait, Luther is not done yet. Let's see if he eventually explains why he is still a good conciliarist. Perhaps we see him moving in that direction as he gives high praise to an attempt to consolidate the overall teaching of the councils and fathers by a man in the twelfth century by the name of Peter Lombard. The compilation, known in English as "The Four Sentences" or just "The Sentences", should be read at least once by every Christian who seeks to not merely be a private interpreter but to have a connection with the totality of Christian thought.

Luther goes on to contrast error with heresy. While a Christian can be in error and is like building straw, hay, and wood on the foundation, on the other hand the heretic is not building on the foundation at all and that is what makes the heretic a heretic. The problem is, who decides what is the "foundation"?

As a side note, Luther says this about through whom the Bible was transmitted:

"All of us ought also to observe this wonderful thing about the Holy Ghost, — He willed to give the world all the books of Holy Scripture, both of the Old and New Testaments, out of the people of Abraham and through his seed, and He would not have one of them written by us Gentiles, anymore than He would choose the prophets and apostles from among the Gentiles...Therefore we Gentiles must not consider the writings of our fathers equal to Holy Scripture, but a little lower; for they are the children and heirs, we the guests and strangers, who have come to the children’s table by grace, without any promise. Nay, we ought to thank God with humility and, like the Gentile woman, desire nothing more than to be the dogs who gather up the crumbs that fall from the master’s table."

This is interesting because in 1543 Luther would pen a 65,000 word treatment called, "On the Jews and Their Lies" which is considered highly antisemitic.

Returning to the main topic, we quote Luther's conclusion (yet there is much more to be covered, especially to get to why we should still consider Luther a good conciliarist). Luther semi-concludes:

"In short, you may put them all together, both fathers and councils, and you cannot cull the whole doctrine of Christian faith out of them, though you keep on culling forever. If the Holy Scriptures had not made and preserved the Church, it would not have remained long because of the councils and fathers."

Now, Luther really begins to touch on the real issue, which is who gets to decide how the Bible is to be interpreted. Even heretics claim they get their wild doctrines from the Scriptures, so how is the matter settled?

Pay attention to this quote from Luther as it will help us understand what he really thinks about the councils and the fathers:

"Thus there are many sayings in the Scriptures which, taken literally are contradictory, but if the causes are shown, everything is right."

The "causes" or reasons. Next quote:

"We take up now the Council of Nicaea. It came into existence for this reason. The noble Emperor Constantine had become a Christian and had given the Christians peace from their tyrants and persecutors...Now when this fine emperor had made this peace for the Christians and done everything for their good, furthered the churches every way he could, and was so secure that he had the intention to go to war, outside the Empire, with the Persians: into this fair and peaceful paradise and peaceful time, came the old serpent and raised up Arius, a priest of Alexandria, against his bishop. He wanted to bring up a new doctrine against the old faith and be a big man; he attacked his bishop’s doctrine, saying that Christ was not God; many priests and great, learned bishops lapsed to him and the trouble grew in many lands, until, at last, Arius ventured to declare that he was a martyr, saying that he was suffering for the truth’s sake at the hands of his bishop, Alexander, who was not satisfied with this teaching and was writing scandalous letters against him to all countries."

Let's stop there a moment since there is a lot of content. We agree with Luther that councils were called not to impose some new belief on the Church, but rather and originally councils were called to deal with some heresy that had risen up. In this case the heresy or contrary doctrine was Arianism. The problem or shortsightedness in Luther's reasoning is that how do we know that what Arius was bringing was a "new doctrine" if we haven't been adhering to a continuous doctrine handed down by the apostles and contained at least in minimal form in the united writings of councils and fathers? Do you see Luther being badgered by his own argument against councils and fathers?

Luther continues to relate the cause or reason for the Nicene Council in that Constantine wrote letters to Arius and Alexander, trying to get them to settle their dispute. Eventually the council was convened to settle the matter once and for all.

Luther again points out that council was not imposing some new belief on the Church but rather defending the ancient belief. It is remarkable that some Christians actually think that the concept of the Trinity didn't exist until after the Nicene Council. Nothing could be further from the truth.

"From this it is easy to see why the council came together and what it had to do; namely, preserve the ancient article of faith, that Christ is true God, against the new wisdom of Arius, who wanted, on the basis of reason, to alter and condemn it; and he was himself condemned. The council did not discover this article or set it up as something that was new and had not existed in the Church before, but only defended it against the heresy of Arius...I must point this out in passing. For the pope’s sycophants have fallen into such gross folly as to think that the councils have the power and right to set up new articles of faith and to change old ones. That is not true...No councils have done it or can do it; for articles of faith must not grow on earth, by means of the councils, as from some new, private inspiration, but they must be given and revealed from heaven by the Holy Ghost; otherwise they are not articles o£ faith, as we shall hear later. So this Council of Nicaea, as I have said, did not invent this article that Christ is God or set it up as a new thing, but it was done by the Holy Ghost, who came from heaven upon the apostles publicly, on the day of Pentecost, and through the Scriptures revealed Christ as true God, as He had promised to the apostles. From the apostles it remained, and came down to this council, and so on down to us; and it will remain till the end of the world...If we had nothing with which to defend this article except this council, we should be in a bad way, and I myself should not believe the council, but say, “They are men.” But St. John the Evangelist and St. Paul, Peter and the other apostles hold firm and give us a good foundation and defense, for to them it was revealed by the Holy Ghost, publicly given from heaven, and from them the Church had it, before this council, and the council, too, had it from them. Both before the council, when Arius first began, and in the council and after the council, they defended themselves hard with the Scriptures, especially with St. John’s Gospel, and disputed sharply, as the books of Athanasius and Hilary bear witness."

So, heresy is first and foremost defined as a new doctrine which is contrary to the doctrines learned and held in common by the Church. (see Romans 16:17-18)

Luther goes on to say that the main cause or reason for the council was resolved but other side issues were also discussed which mainly dealt with ecclesiastical order and not so much with doctrine. And we know that for practical purposes, ecclesiastical order can be altered to fit the need -- for instance, the order of deacon may be considered a new role invented to suit a need the Church had. Thus Luther says:

"It is easy to reckon that Constantine did not assemble the council because of these things, or he would have done it even before the Arian misery began. Why should he worry about how these things were done? They were all things that the bishops had to control for themselves, each in his own church, as they had done before and as the articles themselves declare."

Luther touches briefly on another matter discussed, which is the date of Easter and whether it is properly observed. Luther wanted to see the official date unified, yet even up to now Eastern and Western Christianity observes different dates. Luther seems to be in favor of an Easter date that does not fluctuate but is on the same date every year despite the day of the week. (As it is now, Easter must always be on a Sunday)

Back to the Nicene Council, Luther begins to really show us this thinking:

"This council, then, dealt chiefly with the article that Christ is true God. It was for this that it was summoned and because of this it is called a council. Beside this, they dealt with certain accidental, physical, external, temporal matters, which it is right to consider worldly, not comparable with the articles of faith, and not to be kept as a permanent law, for they have passed and fallen out of use. The council had to arrange these bodily matters also, for at their time they were appropriate and necessary; but they no longer concern us, in our time, at all, and it is neither possible nor profitable for us to keep them."

Comparing to this quote:

"Thus the Council of Jerusalem, also, beside the main points, had to dispose of some non-essential, external articles, which were necessary at that time, about blood, things strangled, and idolatry; but not with the intention that this should remain in the Church as a permanent law, like an article of faith, for it has fallen."

So, you see, earlier Luther made it seem like the Council of Jerusalem should be binding, that Christians ought to refrain from eating meat in the medieval European manner (strangled food). But here Luther explains that these matters in the Jerusalem Council should be considered secondary like some of the issues in the Nicene Council. The question still would remain, who is Luther to decide this? Even though I agree with him.

Luther goes on to show us the "cause" or reason for the Jerusalem Council. A theme is building, in that Luther is trying to get us to see more than the cold command of a council, but to see the cause behind it. The cause behind it determines its continued validity.

PART 3 [Jump Part 1 2 3 4 5 6]

Luther finishes up showing the council of Jerusalem was about not adding works to grace and using it to show that if the Papists consider the Reformers heretics because they preach justification by faith alone, then the apostle Peter must have been a heretic because he too was advocating faith without works.

Luther strikes out quite bluntly at the pope which he calls the "papal ass" and a "filthy sow", that the Papists have taken the true meaning of the council of Jerusalem, the council of Nicea and the other councils and have lifted out context and twisted the true meaning.

In this way, Luther shows us why we should consider him a "good conciliarist". He has not thrown off the councils like many heretics do, but rather only seeks to hold to a true meaning of those councils and as far as they agree with Scripture.

"The decrees of the true councils must remain forever, and they have always remained, especially the chief articles, because of which they came into existence and got the name of councils."

Luther then turns to the apparent contradiction between the words of Peter and the words of James.

"What shall we say, however, about this council of the apostles, when St. James makes exceptions of the four points, — blood, things strangled, idolatry, and fornication? Is not the council contradicting itself, and is not the Holy Ghost in disagreement with Himself? The two speeches are plainly and palpably contradictory, — not laying the burden of the law of Moses, and yet laying it...How, then, do we reconcile these two, — no law and the whole law?"

See, this is what I like about Luther. He was willing to just cut to the chase even if it caused his friends to worry. However, Luther's conclusion is worrisome since he advocates Scripture against Scripture.

"Well, if we cannot make them agree, we must let St. James go with his article, and keep St. Peter with his chief article for the sake of which this council was held. Without St. Peter’s article, no one can be saved; but Cornelius and the Gentiles whom St. Peter had baptized, at his house along with him, were holy and saved before St. James came along with his article, as St. Peter says in this council...To be sure, now that it has fallen, we do well to stick to the one part, to St. Peter’s articles, i.e., to the genuine Christian faith.

Only the commandment against fornication, which is the fourth point in St. James’ article, has not fallen."

Remember how Luther earlier argued that we can't really consider councils and father because each party would cull out what they wanted? Well, isn't that what Luther is doing here but instead of culling from councils he picks and chooses which Scriptures should be interpreted in a way he likes. This is the reason why I say, when there is a disagreement over Scripture, it is foolish to say one party is holding to Scripture and the other party is not. The real issue is how and why one party is interpreting Scripture over the other party, heretic is otherwise.

What does this do to Luther's claim of "Sola Scriptura" if he is openly calling for letting fall, not merely some Old Testament text, but New Testament text?

But as we go further along with Luther, we see it was never his point for us to conclude that we toss out the words of James, instead Luther insists that Peter and James words are cohesive and that James was simply asking the Gentiles to be considerate to their fellow Jewish Christians who would take offense at their eating practices.

"The good advice of St. James was, therefore, the very finest means to peace, and to the salvation of many. It was that the Gentiles, since they had now attained Christ’s grace without the law and without merit, should show themselves helpful, in a few matters, to the Jews, as to sick and erring folk, in order that they also might come to the same grace. It did not harm the Gentiles in the eyes of God to avoid the public, open use of blood, things strangled, and meat sacrificed to idols (though in conscience they were already free, through grace, on all these points) and for the benefit and salvation of the Jews, to desist from giving wanton offense. In the absence of Jews, they could eat and drink what they pleased, without risk to conscience. "

This seems to fit with 1st Corinthians chapter 8 about watching that our freedom does not become a stumbling block to weaker brothers. So, Peter and James are not contradictory after all.

"These two articles, — that of St. Peter and that of St. James, — are, therefore, contradictory and not contradictory. St. Peter’s article is about faith, St. James’ about love. St. Peter’s article suffers no law, eats blood, things strangled, meat sacrificed to idols, yes, and the devil, too, and gives no heed to it. It deals with God, not with man, and does nothing but believe on the gracious God. St. James’ article, however, lives and eats with men; it directs everything to the one purpose of bringing men to St. Peter’s article, and guards diligently against hindering anyone...When the Jews had been scattered, or became obdurate, and the Gentiles no longer had to practice love [in refraining from strangled meats and such] toward them, this whole article fell. It was not altered by the power of the Church, as the papists lyingly declare, but since the cause of it was no longer there, Christians freely ate blood and black jelly, from which they had for a time abstained on account of the Jews, and for their good, even though they had not been bound, in the eyes of God, to do so, because of their faith...Thus we see that St. Paul when among the Jews, lived as a Jew; when among the Gentiles, as a Gentile; so that he might win all. He circumcised his disciple, Timothy, who was already a believer, not because it must be so, but, as St. Luke says, for the sake of the Jews of the place, that he might not offend them."

Beautiful! This is what I mean by there are apparent contradictions in the Bible, which are not really contradictions at all.

Luther then touches on how Arianism, rose to power after the Council of Nicea which had condemned it. Indeed, for many years it seemed like the true faith was being overthrown and for a while men like Athanasius seemed to be the only ones holding true. This is one reason the phrase contra mundum became associated with Athanasius, since for a time it seemed like Athanasius was all by himself fighting the heresy of Arianism. That had to be difficult to see your fellow Christians siding with a heresy more than with the truth.

Luther gives wise counsel on such heresies and how they operate by seeking out the influential and trying to fool them to accede:

"Such histories warn us to pray for great lords, because the devil seeks them most of all, since he can do the greatest harm through them; also that we ourselves are to be careful, and not readily to give credence to sectarian spirits, even if they humble themselves as completely as this rascal Arius did."

Luther goes on to explain why Arianism was wrong and how it tricked its way into Christianity as heresies always attempt to do.

Before Luther concludes discussion the Council of Nicea, he says this:

"It is evident, too, that what I undertook to show is true, viz., that this council neither devised nor established anything new, but defended the old faith against the new error of Arius."

This is important because I know many a heretic that claims that we are only Trinitarians because the Church held this council. This is untrue. Christians were trinitarian long before the council was ever held.

Now Luther picks up the issue of yet another council, the council of Constantinople which was called about 50 years after Nicea. The Constantinople Council regarded the Macedonian heresy. Where the Arians said Jesus was not God, the Macedonians said the Holy Spirit was not God. Luther is bright to note:

"Meanwhile a new sect arose, the Macedonians, for one error always brings another, one disaster another, without end and cessation."

What better reason for Christians to be diligent not to give heresy any foothold.

Luther relates the backstory, how Macedonius, the bishop of Constantinople was the leader of this new heresy and how many of the weaker bishops simply gave in. However the matter was resolved at the Council of Constantinople and the Macedonian bishops were removed from their posts and replaced. Luther goes on to tell us how this infuriated the bishop of Rome, since these decisions were being made without his consent. You see, the bishop of Rome was at this point beginning to see himself more and more as the Chief Bishop, as the Pope, as the successor to Peter himself. Yet, the other bishop still saw the bishop of Rome as one of their number with no more power and authority than the rest.

A letter was sent by the council to the bishop of Rome, advising the Roman bishop of the decision and even defining the church at Antioch as the oldest church wherein we see people called Christians. Luther humorously remarks about the letter and the bishops who wrote it.

"They were fine and able people, however, and they wanted to check the proud spirit of Rome soberly and gently, in Christian love and humility, and, as Sirach says, “to spit on the sparks,” and exhort the bishop of Rome to remember that the Gospel had not come from Rome to Antioch, but from Antioch to Rome; therefore, if it came to a question of precedence, Antioch, the oldest church, ought rightly to have precedence over Rome, the new church. This ambition, as the words show, had vexed these fine, holy fathers sorely, and that was proper. If there had been a Doctor Luther in the council, so mild a letter would not have been written to the bishop of Rome, if he could have had anything to do with it."

As you see, Luther is constantly trying to show how historically, the regional bishops did not consider the bishop of Rome as anything more than they. There was no such thing as pope.

PART 4 [Jump Part 1 2 3 4 5 6]

Luther relates ultimately how the break came between the West and East Church, in that following the removal of Arians from Constantinople not only were new bishops appointed but a patriarch was appointed which would act as the chief bishop of the East (Bishop Nectarius). This began the battle for supremacy which the patriarch of the East and of the West each claiming to have more authority than the other; thus began Papalism.

"Thus the two churches, Rome and Constantinople, wrangled over the worthless primacy with lame, vain scurrilities, until at last the devil devoured them both: that of Constantinople by the Turks and Mohammed, that of Rome by the pope and his blasphemous decrees. "

But to repeat Luther's theme that councils aren't held to establish any new thing, whether it be the concept of the Trinity (which is not new despite how some people claim), or any other doctrine, we quote:

"This is not only a lesson, to teach us that the councils have no power to establish new good works, still less articles of faith; but it is also a warning that councils ought not to appoint or establish anything new, for they should know that they are not assembled for that purpose, but to defend the old faith against new teachers;"

Luther therefore saw it is a mistake for the Council of Constantinople to have appointed a patriarch or even to have appointed bishops which did not need a council to do. The appointment of elders and bishops could have been handled locally. In the times to come, the error increases when eventually secular powers would often appoint bishops. Indeed, though Emperor Constantine's first call for a council may have had noble intent, it unfortunately set a bad precedent where secular powers either called Church councils for selfish goals or various parties within the Church urge secular powers to call councils so that the party could hide behind an imperial decree.

Luther then turns to the Council of Ephesus in which Luther makes clear was not called by the pope of Roman but once again by an emperor. Luther relates the the Council of Ephesus pertained mainly to an issue where bishop Nestorius seemed to be defending the view that Mary ought not be called the "Mother of God" since it is supposed that a human cannot give birth to God. It then became that Nestorius was accused of claiming Jesus was man or part man and only made divine later.

This matter was even made larger since Nestorius was not only a bishop but was in fact the patriarch of the East, of Constantinople. Interestingly enough, as Luther tells it, Nestorius was not advocating anything like Arianism and that Nestorius have been so vigilant against the Arians that he order some of them to death. Luther supposes that Nestorius then was not advocating some heresy, but merely was trying to point out that Mary was merely a vessel to bring Christ into the world and therefore should not be lauded as the "Mother of God" as this title construes her role.

"He [Nestorius] would not have it that Mary should be called, on that account, mother of God, since Christ was not born of her according to His divinity; or, to speak plainly, — he believed that Christ did not have His deity from her, as He had His humanity. That was his whole fight! God cannot be born or have His divine nature from a human being; and a human being cannot bear God or give God His divine nature."

Oddly enough, Luther spends time berating Nestorius over this and claims Nestorius was being "ignorant" for making such a big deal over the phrase "Mother of God". However, if this were Nestorius only point, then I would agree with Nestorius, it does construe Mary's role to call her the "Mother of God". It appears Nestorius' error went further, or at least the perception of his error; in almost making Jesus out to be separate entities.

Luther therefore spends a lot of time interacting with what appears to be a semantic difference. Indeed, at one point Nestorius even tried to recant the entire challenge and let the whole matter settle, but the other bishops would not. Luther's conclusion was that Nestorius was not articulate enough to express what he really meant and because of Nestorius' pride he simply dug himself in deeper trying to defend himself, when in actuality his original proposition, though appeared heretical probably was not.

It came down to the fact that Nestorius didn't understand how to articulate the two but united natures of Christ. He is both fully man as we, and fully God as God.

Nestorius is said to have retired to a monastery where he lived out is life peacefully and orthodox, but some that had followed after Nestorius' reasoning or poor articulation continued advocating the dual and separate natures of Jesus. This group became known as the Nestorians.

Luther then turns to the forth great council which was held at Chalcedon. Luther expresses uncertainty at the real purpose of the Council of Chalcedon since the previous three councils had been reported on by dispassionate parties but the Council of Chalcedon was reported by the Papacy, Luther doubts the report itself. However, Luther relates that those reports stated that Chalcedon was addressing almost the reverse for what Nestorius was condemned. Where it appeared Nestorius was suggesting Christ has two separate natures, Chalcedon was dealing with monk named Eutyches who is said to be teaching Christ had only one nature soon after His birth.

As with Nestorius, Luther appears to think Eutyches is more guilty of poor articulation than anything else. Indeed, Eutyches was actually trying to combat the Nestorians around him and went too far the other way, seeming to deny the humanity of Christ.

Luther then masterfully ties the Nestorius and Eutyches issue to his own issue with the Papacy. Where the Papacy appears to divide justification and works, Luther says justification is something God must do alone and works is something man does; however neither should be separated in as far as it completes a Christian. Or perhaps as the Bible states it plainly;

"You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only." - James 2:24

It seems an apparent contradiction to Luther's mantra of man is justified by faith alone. But further context shows that works are merely the sign a man is justified, otherwise James would be contradicting so many other verses that say man is not justified by works. No wonder Luther had trouble with the apostle James' writings. However, in James 2:17, James 2:20, and James 2:26 we see that James is pointing out that faith will contain works -- that true living faith causing the new creature to good works. This should be seen as no different than Jesus' phrases about a good tree bearing good fruit. Matt 7:17-19.

Luther clarifies it when he speaks of the Antinomians (no law) Christians who much like today preach a Gospel that does not tell people to leave their sins but as if God will accept them even as they continue in their sins.

" That is what my Antinomians, too, are doing today. They are preaching finely and (I can think nothing else) with real seriousness about Christ’s grace, the forgiveness of sins, and the other things that can be said concerning redemption. But they flee the consequence of this, as though it were the very devil, and will not speak to the people about the Third Article, which is sanctification, i.e., the new life in Christ. For they think that they ought not to terrify people, or disturb them, but always to preach in a comforting way about grace and the forgiveness of sins in Christ, and utterly avoid such words as these: “Listen! You want to be a Christian and yet remain an adulterer, fornicator, drunken swine, proud, covetous, a usurer, envious, revengeful, malicious!” On the contrary, they say: “Listen! Though you are an adulterer, a fornicator, a miser, or any other kind of sinner, only believe, and you will be saved and need not fear the law; Christ has fulfilled it all!”

Tell me, is that not granting the premise and denying the conclusion? Nay, it is taking away Christ and bringing Him to nought, at the same time that He is most highly preached. It is saying Yes and No to the same thing.

There is no such Christ, Who has died for these sinners who, after forgiveness of sins, do not leave their sins and lead a new life."

Ultimately, in concluding his view of the Council of Chalcedon Luther does not think too highly of it and thinks it was called for a trifle purpose.

Luther concluding his assessment of the councils says:

"We, too, therefore, must have for our faith something more and something more certain than the councils. That something more and more certain is the Holy Scriptures."

Which embodies the Reformed concept of Sola Scriptura to be sure. Thus Luther summarizes and reasserts:

"We now have the four chief councils and the causes for which they were held. The first, at Nicaea, defended the deity of Christ against Arius; the second, at Constantinople, defended the deity of the Holy Ghost against Macedonius; the third, at Ephesus, defended the one Person of Christ against Nestorius; the fourth, at Chalcedon, defended the two natures in Christ against Eutyches: — but they did not thereby establish any new article of faith. For these four articles are established far more abundantly and powerfully in St. John’s Gospel alone, even though the other evangelists and St. Paul and St. Peter had written nothing about them, though all these, together with the prophets, teach them and testify mightily to them. These four councils the bishops of Rome, according to their decree, hold to be like the four evangelists, as though these matters, together with all articles of faith, did not stand far more richly in the Gospels and as though the councils had not taken them from the Gospels; so finely do those asses of bishops understand what the Gospels and the councils are! And if these four chief councils do not intend to make or establish anything new in the way of articles of faith, and cannot do so, as they themselves confess, how much less can such power be ascribed to the other councils, which must be held of smaller account, if these four are to be called the chief councils."

PART 5 [Jump Part 1 2 3 4 5 6]

Luther answers the main question posed by his own book, which is; What is a council, or what is its work?

  1. A council has no power to establish new articles of faith
  2. A council has the power, and is bound, to suppress and condemn new articles of faith according to Holy Scripture and the ancient faith
  3. A council has no power to command new good works
  4. A council has the power, and is bound, to condemn wicked works that are contrary to love, according to the Scriptures and the ancient way of the Church, and to rebuke the individuals who are guilty of them
  5. A council has no power to impose upon Christians new ceremonies
  6. A council has the power, and is bound, to condemn such ceremonies according to the Scriptures, for they are unchristian and set up a new idolatry, or service of God that God has not commanded, but forbidden
  7. A council has no power to interfere in worldly law and government
  8. A council has the power, and is bound, to condemn attempts of this kind and new laws, according to the Scriptures
  9. A council has no power to make statutes or decrees that seek nothing else than tyranny, that is, statutes which give the bishops authority and power to command what they will and make everybody tremble and obey
  10. A council has power to appoint some ceremonies, provided, first, that they do not strengthen the bishops’ tyranny! second, that they are needful and profitable to the people and provide a fine and orderly discipline and way of life. Thus it is needful to have some days and also some places for people to assemble; likewise definite hours for preaching, distributing the sacraments, and for praying, singing, and praising and thanking God.

For this list from Luther we glean his understanding of councils. It is important to note that Luther does acknowledge that there is indeed an "ancient faith", that Christianity was not begun anew during the Reformation. Unfortunately, many modern Evangelicals think that Luther and the Reformers were out to overthrow the ancient faith and start over. This is not the case as we see from Luther's own pen.

Luther in his list, offers negative and positive aspects of a council and specifically what a council can and cannot do. Interestingly Luther would not be considered a "Reconstructionist" in that point 7 states that councils should not try to impose decrees upon worldly powers. However, from other writings by Luther he clearly sees that worldly powers should be influenced by the Christian presence.

Luther then goes on to rehearse the situation that brought the council against the heretic Arius, how the bishop of Alexandria needed help to quell Arius' spread of heresy. For this reason, Luther explains a council should be convened.

Luther gives a great analogy:

"It is just as when a fire breaks out; if the man who lives in the house cannot subdue it, all the neighbors ought to run together and help put it out; and if they do not run together, the government must help, and command that they must run together, and anathematize or condemn the fire, so that the other houses may be saved.

The council, therefore, is the great servant, or judge, for this empire and its law; but when the time of need is past, it has completed its duty."

In this regard, Luther sees the council as for a specific event, and not like men are always with buckets in hand, dousing every house lest it catch fire, even when there is no fire.

Luther sees individual pastors and schools as "perpetual councils" dealing with "young rascals" before they inflame into a larger heresy, whereas a convened council is deal with the fire of heresy if it spreads.

Unfortunately, in this day and age, individual pastors are too busy trying to grow or maintain a congregation than to do battle with "young rascals", and thus any trouble, even "good" trouble is hushed and put away as quickly as possible. And schools, or seminaries which often allow even open heretics to attend and even participate in the development of their materials also are not performing their duties as guards of the ancient faith. So, without the "perpetual councils" of individual pastors and schools, and really no way to convene a church-wide council, heresy runs a muck in the Church today.

Luther sums up what councils are for in this quote:

"To finish, at last, this matter of the councils, I hold that everyone can get from what has been said, an understanding of what a council is, and what its rights, powers, office, and work are, also of what councils are true and what are false councils. Their duty is to confess and defend the old faith against new articles of faith; also not to set up new good works against the old good works, but to defend the old good works against the new good works."

Therefore, the next time someone portrays Luther or the other Reformers as radicals who were out to overthrow the "old faith", remember Luther's own words.

Luther returns to calling for such a council as the one he describes in his 10 points, but knowing no such council will be called.

PART 6 [Jump Part 1 2 3 4 5 6]

Having extensively examined the issue of councils, Luther now turns to examining what is meant by "the Church". Luther uses as his model of definition, the statement from the Children's Creed which is merely a simplified form of the Apostles' Creed.

"Well then, setting aside many writings and many divisions of the word church, we will this time stay by the Children’s Creed, which says, 'I believe one holy Christian Church, the Communion of Saints.' There the Creed indicates clearly what the Church is, namely, 'a communion of saints,' that is, a group or assembly of such people as are Christians and holy. That is a Christian, holy group, or Church. But this word 'church' is not German and does not convey the sense or idea that is to be taken from this article."

Likewise, in my own writings, I have begun the practice of using the term "community of saints" so as to encompass a broader meaning than merely Church, since some people stumble over this word "Church", wondering which "Church" is being referenced.

Luther points out that the Greek word often translated in English as Church, is the word ecclesia, which means "assembly" with no specific religious connotations. Even a pagan assembly is an ecclesia. Luther advocates that the creeds should replace the term Church with the phrase, Christian Holy People.

"If these words had been used in the Creed: 'I believe that there is a holy Christian people,' it would have been easy to avoid all the misery that has come in with this blind, obscure word 'church'; for the term 'Christian, holy people' would have brought along with it, clearly and powerfully, both understanding and the judgment on the question 'What is and what is not a church?'"

Luther then spends time distinguishing the difference between sanctity or holiness as used by pagans and as used by Christians. This he shows in that the Holy Spirit's guides and preserves such who are real Christians. This is important to my premise that God has preserved that basic elements of Christianity and that should be our presupposition in approaching how to interpret the Bible. Otherwise, any person may come claiming to be "Christian" but offer some new doctrine or new interpretation which is contrary to the ancient and preserved faith.

Luther takes special aim again at the Antinomians for preaching a christ that doesn't work in concert in shaping a person, in convicting them of their sins, but instead the Antinomian christ is one of vague platitudes without real renewal of the old man of sin.

As with the list that outlines the purpose of the councils, Luther also builds a list that defines the Church, or how the Church can been known.

  1. Preaching of the Word
  2. Sacrament or Ordinance of Baptism
  3. Sacrament or Ordinance of the Altar (Communion/Lord's Supper)
  4. Keys of Rebuke, Condemnation, Repentance, Forgiveness
  5. Calling of ministers
  6. Public Prayer and Praise
  7. Persecution

Luther calls these 7 points, the "7 chief means of Christian sanctification". To clarify, point 4 is about whether you see an assembly of Christians calling itself "Church", actually rebuking its fellows when they fall into sins, even condemning them and putting them out of the assembly if need be (see 1 Cor 5), yet also calling for repentance and extending forgiveness. In so many of our modern churches, these "keys" are never used, except perhaps in the Antinomian way, where the rebuke, condemnation, and repentance are skipped over and instead forgiveness applied. That is no church at all.

On point 5, Luther is most questionable because it is often not clear by his writings how a person is called to be a minister/pastor/elder. By what authority? Can any man simply claim a calling, gather an assembly and declare it? Luther sidebars for some time in addressing Ephesians 4:11-15 and how the so-called five fold offices are or are not still in operation. He doesn't really ever answer satisfactorily, at least not here. He then spends several paragraphs on the papal decree of celibacy for priest, and pointing out its error and contradiction with the attributes of an elder as explained in that Bible. (see Titus 1:6 for example)

Beyond the seven points, Luther defines attributes of Christians that we would expect such as; loving your parents, being a good neighbor, and living an all-around honorable life. However, Luther says these attributes alone don't define a Christian since he says some heathens practice these attributes even better than some Christians. But ultimately, Luther is speaking of an holy people, a sanctified people, people who are new creatures. These he sees as Christians, as the "community of saints".

Next, Luther turns his attention to explaining how the Papists imitate the marks of the Church, but are not really the Church. But then Luther contrasts all this external ceremony of the Papists with the complete abandon of the "radicals" (such as Thomas Munzer whom Luther names). That external ceremony is not the Church nor is individualized "spiritualism".

Luther concludes that the seven points need not be done in a building or in a scheduled manner or with any other props such as candles, bells, baptismal fonts, but that these things neither are wrong but are useful. As he concludes, he speaks also of the need for schools, even schools that are not necessarily Christian, but that they teach the basic rudiments so that there can be learned men to lead both the Church and the government. And even more the need for good homes from which people will bear children to be students and members of the Church.

To conclude, I believe Luther has done a fine job showing what councils are for and a mediocre job at showing what the Church is. But, I consider this work by Luther, his defining moment. When a person tries to figure out what the end of Luther's Reformation would be, the outcome of his theses; here we see it. A practical, simplified Christianity that is neither pretentious nor too idealistic. It is a type of Christianity, that abides with the "ancient faith" and is yet able to exist in the 16th century, the 21st century and beyond. It is the historic Christian faith that has always been the Christian faith and will always be the Christian faith; despite heresies as small as Arianism or as large as Papalism. The gates of hell shall not prevail against the Church. Amen!

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