Unity (VII): Ecumenical Councils: Renaissance Councils (1400-1520)

Ron Halbrook
Nashville, Tennessee

Major Contribution or Characteristic in Approach to Unity: During the period of the Renaissance Councils, neither popes nor secular rulers were the center of unity; the councils themselves claimed greater power. In various kinds of quarrels, the popes had weakened their position and created division. In the early 1400's, three different men claimed to be the true pope at the same time. "Men looked with new hope to the great series of Councils which began with Constance" in 1414 (Rouse and Neill, p. 22).

The Conciliar theory gained credence during the Renaissance. This theory claimed that the Church as a whole had power from God to guard the truth; the Pope was merely "the executive of a power residing in all members" of the body. "The community of the faithful transferred this power to the pope," but could take it back if he misused it. If the pope errs, the Church, "represented in a council," can remove him and elect a new pope (Dvornik, p. 69). Thus the council, as a representative of the universal Church, was considered superior to the pope, as a representative of the Church. In short, the council was superior to the pope in stating doctrine and creating unity. The Conciliar view held sway for about a hundred years, but then the popes reasserted "their own position as the centre of unity for the Christian world" (Rouse and Neill, p. 22).

Council of Constance, 1414

Pope John XXIII called this council as a concession to the demands of Emperor-Elect Sigismund. In return, Sigismund pledged to give his allegiance to the Pope. But after the Council convened, the Pope vanished in an effort to wreck the Council; not to be outdone, Sigismund forbad the Council to dissolve! The end result was that this Council asserted the preeminent authority of councils. In the Sacrosancta decree, "the Council declared itself an ecumenical assembly with full jurisdiction given it by Christ. Therefore, all Christians, even the pope, must obey its decisions in matters of faith, of union, and of Church reform" (Dvornik, p. 72).

On another front, the Council condemned early reformers John Wyclif (English) and John Huss (Czech). Huss came to Constance with assurances of protection, but was tricked. He was turned over to "the secular arm" and burned at the stake July 6, 1415. This "provoked a new storm in Central Europe which disturbed the peace of the Church for many years to come" (Dvornik, p. 73).

Wyclif had been dead since 1384, but he managed to die of more natural causes, escaping the clutches of the "authorities" who would have liked his head. The Council continued to meet and act through 1418. In 1415, it "condemned Wyclif on 260 different counts, ordered his writings to be burned, and directed that his bones be exhumed and cast out of consecrated ground" (Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity, p. 666). Not only was Wyclif hated for his writings and sending out itinerate preachers, both of which plagued the Roman Catholic Church many years after his death, but also "it was due to Wyclif and those kindled by him that the entire Bible was made available in the English of the fourteenth century" (Ibid., p. 664). At any rate, in keeping with the council's edict and the Pope's command, Wyclif's slumbering remains at Lutterworth, Leicestershire, England, were dug up and burned. But this did not stop the rumblings that were to become a deafening roar in the Protestant Reformation. As Fuller put it in his Church History, the ashes of Wyclif were thrown "into Swift, a neighboring brook, running hard by. Thus this brook has conveyed his ashes into Avon, Avon into Severn, Severn into the narrow seas, then into the main ocean; and thus the ashes of Wyclif are the emblem of his doctrine, which now is dispersed all the world over" (cited by Charles Knight, Half-Hours With the Best Authors, p. 74).

Council of Basle (Ferrara-Florence-Rome-Lausanne), 1431-1449

The Council of Basle (also spelled Basel) was originally called by Pope Martin V under pressure from the bishops; it was continued by his successor Eugenius IV. But it broke into two factions which continued to meet off and on at separate places for several years. One group moved from Basle to Lausanne, spanning the years 1431-1449. The other group moved from Basle to Ferrara to Florence to Rome, covering the years 1431-1445.

The Council of Basle-Lausanne (1431-1449) strongly asserted the authority of councils over popes. The 1432 session claimed the synod derived "its power directly from our Lord Jesus Christ" and that all men, "not excepting the Roman Pontiff himself, are bound to obey it" (Rowe, pp. 268-269). In 1433, the Council forced Pope Eugenius to revoke his own bull dissolving the Council. Finally in 1438-39, the Council deposed Eugenius from office and a new pope was elected, though some nations recognized Eugenius until he died four years later. The Council was evicted from Basle in 1448 and moved to Lausanne; it finally ended in 1449 after Pope Felix V resigned to make way for unity around a more acceptable candidate. Several other actions of this Council include reconciliation of moderate Hussites (1433), some reform ideas, and efforts at unity with the Eastern Church.

The Council of Basle-Ferrara-Florence-Rome (14311445) represents the papal faction, as opposed to the group pressing the Conciliar theory. In 1437, the Pope tried to transfer the Council to Ferrara, "but the majority of the members revolted, refusing to obey the papal order" (Dvornik, p. 77). A minority group supporting the Pope did convene at Ferrara in 1438, and again at Florence in 1439. This Council convened in Rome for the last time, beginning in 1443. It established union with the Greek Church after agreeing on the nature of the Holy Spirit, on purgatory, the Eucharist, and above all on the primacy of Rome. Other unions were effected with certain Armenians, Copts (an Egyptian group), Syrians, and Cyprians. In 1453, the last Emperor of Constantinople died in battle with the Moslems; Constantinople became the capital of the new Ottoman Empire. A new Patriarch was appointed by Mohammed II and the unions with Rome were repudiated.

Lateran Council, 1512

Pope Julius II called this Council at the Lateran Church in Rome as a means of offsetting a synod convened by King Louis XII of France. Louis XII was extending his power in Italy, an action which the Lateran Council tried to oppose. Also, reforms were effected, but they "failed to attack the most crying abuses" (Dvornik, p. 81). That was nothing unusual. Doubtless some efforts at reform by the Church were sincere; but all too often, they were like the concessions made by the old Roman Empire to the so called barbarian hordes-simply intended to pacify a troublesome party.

Truth Magazine XXI: 43, pp. 679-680
November 3, 1977