Author(s)Mark Earngey
Date 23 March 2017

General Councils may not be gathered together without the commandment and will of Princes. And 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.

How is the 21st Article of Religion relevant to 21st century Anglicans? With its reference to the ‘commandment and will of princes’, this article may initially appear to some as something of a fossilised relic of the past, and unable to provide any reasonable application to dispersed groups of Anglicans around the world. Indeed, The Episcopal Church of the United States of America (TEC) omitted this article in 1801 on the basis that it was ‘partly of a local and civil nature’. This was, of course, a polite way of referring to the rejection of British rule following the American War of Independence!

Nevertheless, this article was highly relevant when initially published as part of the 42 Articles (1553) and later the 39 Articles (1563). Pope Paul III had convoked the Council of Trent that ran from 1545 until 1563. This was highly irregular since the Holy Roman Emperor was traditionally supposed to have initiated councils of this magnitude. He had been supportive but struggled to garner the support of the French, who reluctantly attended and eventually refused to ratify the council’s conclusions. Since the purpose of the council had been to counter the Reformation, the few invitations to Protestants only attracted a handful of Lutherans. Despite the irregular convocation and absence of Protestant and Eastern Christian communities, the council proclaimed itself a general and ecumenical council, and anathematised those who held (and presently hold!) to reformed views of justification and the sacraments.

This was staggering stuff to the Reformers. General councils were best understood as those so-called ecumenical councils of the early church. They were ecumenical in the sense of reaching the world, just as the famous census of Augustus Caesar went out to the ‘whole world’ (oikoumene; Luke 2:1). They were ecumenical in the sense of rightly declaring Christian truth, just as the council of Jerusalem did as recorded in Acts 15. Thus, the Reformatio Legum (1552) and the Act of Supremacy (1558) accorded great honour and dignity to the first four councils: Nicaea I (325), Constantinople I (381), Ephesus I (431), and Chalcedon (451). Why then, did the homily ‘Against the Peril of Idolatry’ (1563) affirm two extra councils, Constantinople II (553) and Constantinople III (680-1)?

The clue to the answer lay embedded in this article itself: the authority of the Scriptures over conciliar decisions. For, even the best of Christian councils were mere ‘assemblies of men’ whose sinful desires waged war against the ‘spirit and word of God.’ (Romans 8:5-13; cf., Article 9). Thus, the canons of councils are fallible and subject to error, whereas the sentences and sense of Scripture remain infallible and free of error. To argue otherwise, was to threaten the very necessity of the Scriptures according to Bishop John Ponet (1514-1556):

‘If the church cannot err, and is a sufficient witness of the truth from time to time: then we have no need of the word written, but that we may be without: for all knowledge and ordering of doctrine remains in the church.’ (British Library, Add MS 89067, sig. f.47r.)

This is the reason for the selective approach to early ecumenical councils among early Anglicans. It also explains why Anglicans have tended to choose liberally from the canons of later ‘so-called’ ecumenical councils: the compulsory clerical celibacy of Lateran I (1123) was rejected, whereas the filioque doctrine of the council of Florence (1439) was retained. The Reformation’s wonderful rediscovery of the supremacy of the Holy Scriptures returned both the authority of the Church (Article 20) and the authority of General Councils (Article 21) to their proper places. Indeed, it was only because of the authority of Scripture that councils were granted their authority. As John Ponet continued:

‘Christian people take not away the authority of such old fathers as agree in Christ’s word, nor of such general councils as ground themselves thereupon but from such as forsake God’s Word, walking by paths of men’s traditions and inventions.’

Thus, we may draw five main lines of application for today.
Firstly, we must face the fact that there is a great difference between early modern and current conceptions of ‘princes’. The historical role of the ‘prince’ in ensuring the safe conduct and outcomes of church councils is now more or less redundant. At any rate, the Scriptures are silent concerning whether councils should be called by the likes of Emperors, Kings, or Presidents. Even if such a princely calling did obtain, it is unlikely that the various Christian communities would bend their authority structures to accommodate each other (e.g., the incompatibility of papal power with Eastern and Protestant denominations). Although nothing is impossible for God, the probability of another General Council seems fairly low at the present time.

Second, notwithstanding the above point, it is a good thing for Christian communities to gather ‘to speak the truth in love’ in councils and synods (Ephesians 4:15). We may not want to leave the intervals of our meetings as long as the Eastern churches (whose recent Pan-Orthodox council was the first in 1000 years), and there may be critical issues of discipline that need to be addressed. But the assembling of Christians for ecclesiastical and theological recalibration with Scripture is surely to be commended. 

Third, the fallen reality described of General Councils remains the same for all synods and councils, be they diocesan, provincial, national, or transnational. We ought to be wary of hastily declaring synodical or conciliar decisions a ‘movement of the Spirit’, ‘the mind of the Spirit’, and so forth. It is only through careful and sustained reflection on the word of God that we may ‘test the spirits.’ (1 John 4:1). Thus we should focus on the movement and the mind of the Scriptures. 

Fourth, since Scriptures ought to play the central role within the ecclesiastical and doctrinal decisions of synods and councils, then we must relativise all other sources of authority. Within certain debates (e.g., human sexuality) it may be tempting to preference modern science, sociology, or sentiment. But these are no substitute for unchanging and unmovable Scriptures. The dynamic of debates should be infused with the words of the Psalmist: ‘Forever, O Lord, your word is firmly fixed in the heavens’ (Psalm 119:80).

Finally, we need to truly appreciate the necessity of the Scriptures. There are no creedal or canonical teachings that contain any saving truth found outside of the Scriptures. Indeed, the saving truths of conciliar creeds and canons only derive their force from the Scriptures. We must be absolutely clear: the church is not ultimately built on councils and synods, but ‘on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone.’ (Ephesians 2:19).

Article 21 thus contains both ancient and contemporary significance. It may be tempting to wonder what might have happened to The Episcopal Church if it had retained this article and its emphasis on the authority of Scripture over conciliar decisions. However, it is more important to look at ourselves and ask: do we truly appreciate the remarkable blessing of the Scriptures within God’s plan of salvation?