Unity (VIII): Reformation-Age Councils (1521-1965)

By Ron Halbrook

Major Contribution or Characteristic in Approach to Unity: A recent Roman Catholic author said, “the supranational position” and infallible “authority of the papacy” has become “the most important factor in Church life” (Dvornik, p. 93). Occasional dissent arises and Modernism-Liberalism has attacked Bible, pope, Church, tradition, and anything else claiming infallibility. Basically, though, within Roman Catholicism the popes have achieved and are maintaining their role as “the centre of unity for the Christian world” (Rouse and Neill, p. 22; emphasis added, RH). Many today would find that hard to believe in view of all the publicity certain Roman Catholic dissidents have been receiving. But the quotations given above represent agreement on the modern role of papal dominence, coming from both Roman Catholic and Protestant scholars. True, there have been rumblings in the Roman Catholic empire; but there have always been! The existence of such rumblings of discontent do not determine how “the bottom line” reads. The careful observer will notice that the modern popes manuever and occasionally concede, but here is how “the bottom line” still reads: no firm counter-authority to the pope has been established to this day. Some of his subjects may be ignoring the Lawless One in certain matters; the fact remains that no strong, central spokesman, authority, or mechanism has arisen to replace the central authority of the pope. His role as “the centre of unity” has not been successfully challenged. His dominant role is the overriding theme on the question of unity during the Reformation Age. What the future holds remains to be seen, but there is no certain evidence of a change at this point.

Council of Trent, 1545-1563

This Council was called by Pope Paul III and concluded by Pius IV. The latter demonstrated papal supremacy over present and future councils by personally selecting “a special congregation of cardinals which still functions today” to give the official interpretation of the decrees of the Council of Trent (Dvornik, p. 91). Three hundred years after the Council of Trent, John F. Rowe observed, “the Roman Catholic Church of the present day is but a counterpart, theologically and morally, of the council of Trent” (Rowe, p. 276).

The Council of Trent was an all-out effort by Catholicism to turn back the tide of the Protestant Reformation. It specially condemned the teachings of Martin Luther, John Calvin, and other major Reformation figures. Tradition was declared equal to the Bible as a source of authority, in contradiction to Reformation doctrine. The Roman Catholic canon of the Bible was defined. The Latin or Vulgate Bible was made the official translation, in opposition to translations being made into the common language of the day by many Reformation leaders. Not only did the council state the pope was supreme in all matters,.but it demonstrated the fact by submitting all decisions to him for confirmation!

The Vatican Council, 1869-1870

Pope Pius IX convened the Vatican Council. He did much “preparatory work” through specially appointed commissions beginning in 1865. In other words, much of the outcome of this Vatican Council was predetermined by the Pope himself. The opening of this Council reflected how thoroughly the popes had come to fill the role of the old emperors. “The open Gospel” was placed on the altar just as Emperor Constantine, at the First Ecumenical Council (Nicaea, 325), set the Bible “in the place of the statue of Victory, which stood in the front of the presidential tribune in the Roman Senate.” As the Roman senate had once acclaimed the Emperor, and as the Council of Chalcedon (451) had acclaimed Emperor Marcian, so at the Vatican Council “all present rendered homage to the pope, presiding at the session” (Dvornik, pp. 95-96 note).

The Vatican Council proclaimed papal infallibility. His infallibility was declared to be a means of expressing the Church’s infallibility. Yet, when the Pope speaks ex cathedra, his decree is not dependent upon “the consent of the Church” for validity. This extreme exaltation of a man into the very seat of God is so significant that we here will quote the canon verbatim:

“The Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex cathedra, namely when exercising the office of pastor and teacher of all Christians, by virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the universal Church, Is, through the divine assistance promised to him in St. Peter, possessed of that infallibility with wlfich the divine Redeemer willed his Church should be endowed in defining doctrine regarding faith or morals; and that, therefore, such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church, irreformable” (Dvornik, p. 102).

We cannot pass from the Vatican Council without noticing the courageous yet pathetic figure, Bishop Joseph G. Strossmayer of Diakove, Croatia (inhabited by Slavic or Serbian people). At the 31st General Congregation, on March 22, 1870, he objected to a statement which identified Protestantism as the origin of all modern heresy. He believed many Protestants sincerely loved Christ and erred only “in good faith.” His objection was defeated and some cried out, “He is another Luther, let him be cast out” (Dvornik, p. 96).

Furthermore, on the very day that the fateful vote was taken defining papal infallibility (85th General Congregation, July 13, 1870), he made a courageous speech opposing the definition. His whole argument was based upon THE SILENCE OF BOTH SCRIPTURE AND HISTORY! Had he been faithful to that principle, it would have “un-made” him as a Roman Catholic; had he been truly faithful to it, it would have made him a simple, New Testament Christian! He declared he had “asked these venerable monuments of truth (the Scriptures, RH) to make known to me if the holy pontiff, who presides here, is truly the .successor of St. Peter, vicar of Jesus Christ, and the infallible doctor of the church …. I have then opened these sacred pages. Well (shall I dare to say it?), I have found nothing either near or far. which sanctions the opinion” of papal infallibility. He continued,

“And still more, to my great surprise, I find in the apostolic days no question of a pope, successor to St. Peter, and vicar of Jesus Christ, any more than of Mahomet who did not then exist. You, Monsignor Manning, will say that I blaspheme; you, Monsignor Fie, that I am mad. Now, having read the whole New Testament, I declare before God, with my hand raised to that great crucifix, that I have found no trace of the papacy as it exists at this moment.”

Strossmayer repeatedly used statements like “I do not find one single chapter, or one little verse;” Christ is “silent on this point;” “certainly, if He had wished that it should be so, He would have said it;” in “counting up the offices of the church” would Paul “have forgotten the first of these offices, the papacy;” “the Apostle Paul makes no mention . . . of the primacy of Peter;” “the silence of Peter . . . .he surely would have know it.” At one point, he said,

“I go on. Neither in the writings of St. Paul, St. John, nor St. James, have I found a trace or germ of the papal power. St. Luke, the historian of the missionary labors of the apostles, Is silent on this a1l-important point. The silence of these holy men (MARK THOSE WORDS, READER! RH), whose writings make part of the canon of the divinely-inspired Scriptures, has appeared to me burdensome and impossible, if Peter had been pope ….”

Bishop Strossmayer summarized his findings in Scripture and history,

. . “Finding no trace of the papacy in the days of the apostles, I said to myself, I shall find what I am in search of in the annals of the church. Well, I say it frankly-I have sought for a pope in the fist four centuries and I have not found him.”

As may well be imagined, this speech was repeatedly interrupted by such cries as, “Silence, heretic, silence,” and, “Shut his mouth, shut his mouth; make him come down from the pulpit,” and, “Get down! Out with the Protestant, the Calvinist, the traitor of the church,” and, “Anathema, anathema, to the apostate.” (All quotations taken directly from Bishop Strossmayer’s Speech In the Vatician Coundil of 1870).

After all that effort, the vote in favor of the definition of papal infallibility carried 451 in favor (plus an additional 62 with reservations) and 88 (another source says 86) opposed (Dvornik, p. 99). Worse than that, a year and a half later Strossmayer notified his companions-in-protest that he intended to yield at least outwardly. As pointed out earlier, the existence of even the strongest protest does not disestablish the power of the pope. One must understand this when he views protest movements within the Roman Catholic fold. The protest of the goat may mean little in relation to the actual authority of the shepherd!

The Second Vatican Council, 1962-1965

This one was called by Pope John XIII and concluded by Paul VI. “When, during the Council’s proceedings, he saw the papal authority endangered, he frequently and sometimes a little anxiously issued reminders that this authority was not to be diminished” (Fey, p. 336). The Council expressed interest in the modern ecumenical movement; but Catholic authorities have long warned that such moves must be from the perspective of the faithful seeking reconciliation with the erring. Some Liberal Catholics might dissent from that view, but no significant spokesman has arisen to champion the view that the removal of the pope might be negotiable in discussions of unity! The Council also discussed internal problems such as liturgy reform, social action, and the work of the laity.

Conclusion to Study

Our study of the so-called Ecumenical Councils should better equip us to understand the working of error, the spirit of lawlessness. Once set in motion, that spirit knows no limits. Let us determine not to turn to the right nor to the left in the smallest particular, but to steadfastly adhere to the divinely approved order of things-the New Testament order. These things are written that we might know how to conduct the affairs of the church of the living God (1 Tim. 3:14-15). Let us not go beyond the things written there (1 Cor. 4:6; 2 Jn. 9).

As the subject of church unity has been prominent since about the beginning of this century, it will continue to be a dominant theme of American Religion throughout this century. But he is a poor observer who has not learned that whatever concepts are stirring in society around us pour over into the church. Just as the pagan “imperial idea” was in the air in the Second and Third Centuries and worked havoc among the people of God, so the modern, lawless “unity ideas” in the air will continue to affect the thinking of brethren. Let us understand what is going on around us so that we may better understand what is going on among us. The search for unity through councils and conventions of one sort or another has no prospect of passing off the scene. It has been here a long, long time. It will continue to be here. This is one of the current ideas of how to effect unity which God’s people must understand and reject. True unity is in Christ, upon his word. Let us “hear his voice” (in the New Testament) and flee “the voice of strangers” (Jn. 10:1-5).

Truth Magazine XXI: 44, pp. 695-696
November 10, 1977