Calvin on the Human Fallibility in the Councils

“Leo, the Roman pontiff, does not hesitate to charge the Council of Chalcedon (which he admits to be orthodox in doctrines) with ambition and unadvised rashness. Indeed, he does not deny that it is legitimate, but he openly declares that it may have erred.  Perhaps someone will think me foolish because I labor to show such errors, since our opponents admit that councils can err in those matters which are not necessary to salvation.  But this is no superfluous labor! For even though, being compelled, they confess it by mouth, still, when they thrust upon us the decision of every council, on whatever matter, indiscriminately as an oracle of the Holy Spirit, they require more than they had originally assumed. In doing this, what do they affirm but that councils cannot err; or if they err, it is not lawful for us to discern the truth, or not to assent to their errors?” – Institutes 4.9.11

It’s a shame more Protestants don’t think like Calvin when it comes to the so-called “ecumenical” Councils.

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21 Comments on “Calvin on the Human Fallibility in the Councils”


  1. Reblogged this on The Sovereign Logos and commented:
    Calvin on the fallibility of councils and the inconsistency of popes.


  2. Calvin does not reject Chalcedon, though. And Calvin was certainly no Anabaptist on the church councils. The councils are not necessarily in error but they “may” err. And if councils may err it is most certain that individual doctors of philosophy and theology can and do err as well. The purpose of confessions of faith and ecumenical councils is not to develop inerrant doctrine but to come to a common understanding of what the Scriptures teach. We do not adhere to “solo” Scriptura but “sola” Scriptura–two completely different doctrines. Even logic demands consensus otherwise logic is simply solipsism.

    Peace,

    Charlie


  3. The rest of the paragraph you conveniently left off, which says the exact opposite of what you intended by your selective quotation. Would that you had followed Clark’s advice to Carl F. H. Henry when he said that extensive quotes are better than short quotes since they show the complete context:

    At the same time, all I mean to infer from what I have said is, that though councils, otherwise pious and holy, were governed by the Holy Spirit, he yet allowed them to share the lot of humanity, lest we should confide too much in men. This is a much better view than that of Gregory Nanzianzen, who says ( [Ep. 55] ), that he never saw any council end well. In asserting that all, without exception, ended ill, he leaves them little authority. There is no necessity for making separate mention of provincial councils, since it is easy to estimate, from the case of general councils, how much authority they ought to have in framing articles of faith, and deciding what kind of doctrine is to be received.

    Institutes Book 4, Chapter 9, Section 11.

  4. Sean Gerety Says:

    Hi Charlie. There are a couple of things that I take issue with.

    First, I assure you I didn’t “intentionally” leave off anything and I never suggested that Calvin rejected Chalcedon, obviously he didn’t (even if E.O. apologists like Perry Robinson accused Calvin of being “Nestorian” in his understanding and application of the Chalcedonian construction). I got that quote from an intro to a Cal Beisner piece critiquing John Meuther’s attack on Robert Reymond in an attempt to block Reymond’s reception into the OPC.

    Second, logic does not demand a consensus as that would imply logic demands a fallacy, specifically the fallacy of ad populum. Similarly, the common understanding of what the Scriptures teach can be wrong. Just because people have been repeating meaningless nonsense, phrases or words for 1500 years doesn’t mean they’re not meaningless nonsense. Wasn’t Athanasius known as ” Athanasius Contra Mundum” and shouldn’t we be thankful he didn’t submit to the overwhelming consensus of his day?

    Third, it’s funny you mention “solo” vs “sola” Scriptura as that was one of the arguments raised by one of Rome’s defenders on Green Baggins Bryan Cross who said:

    In my opinion, Christology shouldn’t separate Protestants from Catholics or Orthodox. This should be an area in which we share common ground, because this was worked out when we were still united. This is where I think Keith Mathison’s book (The Shape of Sola Scriptura) is helpful, because he makes a convincing argument, in my opinion, that what he terms ‘solo scriptura’ is wrong. And that requires recognizing at least some sort of subordinate authority in tradition, including not only the Trinitarian theology of the fourth century, but the Christology of the fifth. Our default stance toward our ancestors in the faith, should, in my opinion, be one of humility and receptivity.

    Notice Cross’ “default position” in light of some of the logical difficulties (i.e., contradictions, words without any intelligible meaning, etc.) that have arisen as a result of Chalcedon. Here we have a situation where men like Van Tillian James Anderson admit that the tensions inherent in the traditional formulation are resolved in the two-mind/centers of consciousness theory of someone like Thomas Morris, and is even “within bounds” of Chalecdonian orthodoxy, but according to Anderson should be rejected because two minds/centers of consciousness imply two persons (at least how we normally consider what it means to be a person). Similarly, Cross and Prots like Jon Bonomo and others who essentially agree with Cross’ Christology and interpretation of the creed, would reject Anderson’s critique of Morris simply because Anderson is employing a “Lockean” or modern understanding of “person” and is not employing the traditional meaningless definition which is “a person is an individual substance of a rational nature.” Then we have those like Van Tillian Alan Strange who accept the traditional definition of person and share Cross’ interpretation of the creed, but when they get into trouble reconciling their Chalcedonian construction with the Reformed concept of propitiation they appeal to “mystery” even while admitting that “The mystery is ‘resolved’ only in the rationalism of real Nestorianism” of Gordon Clark’s two persons or two minds construction. I mean, there seems to be a simple solution that resolves the apparent contradictions that have resulted from Chalcedon and also easily overcomes Romanist Cross’ objections to the Reformed doctrine of propitiation. However, because some men are so bound by traditional they reject and even refuse to consider any alternatives simply because they’re 1) not traditional and/or 2) provide a rational solution to the problems raised (something men like Strange confuse with “rationalism”).

  5. hughmc5 Says:

    From the WCF, FYI:

    All synods or councils, since the Apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err; and many have erred. Therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith, or practice; but to be used as a help in both. ~ 31.3

    The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.

    The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man, or Church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God.

    …our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts. ~ 1.10, 4, 5

  6. hughmc5 Says:

    Councils of fallible (nay, sinful) folk NECESSARILY err.

  7. Hugh McCann Says:

    The quotes from all of Calvin above point up his distrust in men’s councils.

    I quote the inimitable JR from his ‘Luther and Calvin on the Authority of the Bible’ ~

    Sola Scriptura was the denial of any admixture of the word of man with the Word of God. The Holy Spirit is present in the revelation of the Word. Any teaching that does not agree with Scripture is to be rejected, Luther said, “even if it snows miracles every day.” Luther did not despise the creeds of the church, but accepted them simply because they had Biblical content. Fidelity to the Word was the criterion for Luther, not only for the creeds of the church but for the theologians also. Though he, like Calvin, appealed time and again to the early theologians, he would not bow to them when their teachings conflicted with that of Scripture. Declared the Reformer: “I will not listen to the church or the fathers or the apostles unless they bring and teach the pure Word of God.” The Scriptures are sufficient. In so far as theologians help us to understand those Scriptures, Luther was happy to appeal to them. However, he never had any notion that Scripture had to be supplemented.

    A Council has no power to establish new articles of faith, even though the Holy Spirit is present. Even the apostolic council in Jerusalem introduced nothing new in matters of faith….

    A council has the power-and is also duty- bound to exercise it-to suppress and condemn new articles of faith in accordance with Scripture and the ancient faith….


  8. Calvin had a “confession of faith” that is no less authoritative than the ecumenical creeds, though. Why else did he oppose Michael Servetus as a heretic? And why do you irrationally propose that articles of faith are without any authority and at the same time oppose the heresies of the federal visionists and the theonomists? One cannot have it both ways. Either the articles of faith have authority drawn from the warrant of Holy Scripture or they have no authority whatsoever. In which case your position is Anabaptist and not Calvinist or Reformed.

    Robert Reymond should not have been admitted for ordination if he rejected any part of the Westminster Standards since having exceptions to the standards opens the door to all kinds of heresies. I disagree that the Athanasian Creed implies Arianism as Reymond seemed to think. The “eternal” procession of the Son is not temporal but a matter of the eternal aseity of all three persons of the Godhead.

    Also, it is a pity that Clark did not live to further clarify his position regarding the unity of the Christ as one mediator (1 Timothy 2:5). As I noted on my blog, Clark must have erred earlier in his career because at one point he fully affirmed the unity of Christ as one person and one mediator. He would be unconfessional on that point as well.

    Quoting Calvin to support the idea that the Reformed articles of religion are in error is ambiguous since Calvin himself obviously did not agree with the theology of Clark’s final book, although this is anachronistic.


  9. The Reformed Confessions nowhere say that the church councils are “necessarily” in error. In fact, your quote from Calvin above refutes that view: This is a much better view than that of Gregory Nanzianzen, who says ( [Ep. 55] ), that he never saw any council end well. In asserting that all, without exception, ended ill, he leaves them little authority.

    As I said before the real issue here is confessional theology. If you reject all authority of the Westminster Confession and Standards, then you should stop calling anyone in the PCA or OPC a “heretic” since by your own admission the confession has no authority whatsoever and is merely “tradition”. I for one disagree with R. Scott Clark’s view that the Reformed confessions should allow for exceptions. I believe in strict adherence to the articles of faith, not “exceptions”. That opens the door to all sorts of problems. If a Reformed Confession is in error then by all means prove it from Scripture. Scripture is the warrant for the articles of faith.

    Article XXI
    Of the authority of General Councils
    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 sometime have erred, even in things pertaining to 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.

    That last line applies even to Clarkian apologetics and theology, with which I mostly agree, btw. What I refuse to allow is for anyone to claim infallibility, especially Clarkians.

    It’s a bit silly to compare me with the Van Tillians since they are irrationalists. I am far from that. I agree more with Robert Reymond than not and I agree with Carl F. H. Henry’s propositional theology as well. Unfortunately, Carl Henry was also an Anabaptist (Baptist) and more ecumenical than anyone here. Henry’s legacy continues at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, which also is in league with Arminians!


  10. If church councils “necesarily err” then logically you must say that the Westminster Standards “necessarily” err.


  11. 3. All synods or councils, since the Apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err; and many have erred. Therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith, or practice; but to be used as a help in both.

    Westminster Confession 33:3

    Clearly Chapter 33 upholds that there is a rule of “faith” or “practice” and church synods are to be used to resolves theological controversies as a “help in both”, namely “faith and practice”. There are to be doctrinal standards for the church, ministers, and members of the church. Otherwise the point you’re trying to make is self refuting.

    There must be a logical consensus for a rule of faith and practice. Scripture is the basis of that logical consensus. Scripture alone is infallible and inerrant. Both confessions of faith AND individuals like Clark and Reymond “may” err. If all are “necessarily” in error then everyone is hopelessly lost in irrationalism and skepticism.

  12. Sean Gerety Says:

    Hi Charlie. I’m not exactly sure to whom all the above is addressed, but I certainly don’t think church councils necessarily err. However, all creedal formulas and statements are subordinate standards and are subject to revision in the light of Scripture including those “ecumenical” ones. Moreover Clark, Reymond, C. VT and everyone else may err as well. However, it does seem to me that Clark,and Morris and possibly some others have said things that suggest a definite solution to some of the logical problems evidenced by some of the implications arguably validly drawn from Chalcedon along with some other definitional deficiencies like the use of the word “substance” or “subsistence.” As you say,” Jesus suffered as a human person.” The problem is when people admit that there are deficiencies or “apparent” contradictions but refuse to consider any and all alternatives simple because they don’t conform completely to the received wisdom. That’s when I think Protestants start acting like papists.

  13. Hugh McCann Says:

    Hear hear! ~> all creedal formulas and statements are subordinate standards and are subject to revision in the light of Scripture including those “ecumenical” ones.

    Sean, Hugh, Charlie, church councils, Henry, Westminster, 39 Articles, Van Til, Calvin, Luther, Reymond, Morris, and Clarks R.S. & even G.H. necessarily err/ed.

    Except to the degree that they followed WCF 1.6 ~
    The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either
    [a] expressly set down in Scripture, or
    [b] by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture:
    unto which nothing at any time is to be added,
    whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men.

  14. Hugh McCann Says:

    If you reject all authority of the Westminster Confession and Standards, then you should stop calling anyone in the PCA or OPC a “heretic” since by your own admission the confession has no authority whatsoever and is merely “tradition”. I for one disagree with R. Scott Clark’s view that the Reformed confessions should allow for exceptions. I believe in strict adherence to the articles of faith, not “exceptions”.

    Achtung, baby! Sieg Heil!

    We ironically note the republication of My Struggle in German: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-17837325

  15. Hugh McCann Says:

    If the creeds say that church councils “may err and sometime have erred, even in things pertaining to God,” or, that “all synods or councils, since the Apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err; and many have erred. Therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith, or practice,” then how some of you that strict subscription is Reformed/ biblical?!

    No synod or council has NOT erred somewhere in some way. All are uninspired compositions of sinful men, which both the 39 Arts. and the WCF indicate HAVE erred.


  16. Hugh, if strict subscription to the Reformed symbols is not required and they have no authority then your position is Anabaptist, not Reformed. Actung.


  17. Hugh, an excellent question followed by a complete sidestep.


  18. Although I also don’t think it’s logical to assume that all creeds necessarily err.

  19. hughmc5 Says:

    Charlie, again: If the creeds say that church councils “may err and sometime have erred, even in things pertaining to God,” and that “all synods or councils, since the Apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err; and many have erred. Therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith, or practice,” then how can strict subscription be requisite to be reformed? Ar you accusing the reformers of anabaptistic tendencies?

    ecclesia reformata semper reformanda = “The reformed church is always to be reformed,” no? Or has it arrived once and for all?

    Many hate this, but were it not for Luther, Tyndale, Cranmer and Calvin, we wouldn’t be here. Should they have strictly subscribed to Lyons or the Laterans?

    Though I know one Janus-happy prof who seemed to think that the three forms were the end of Spirit-led confessing. IMHO, to argue that we arrived in 1563 (Belgic), 1646, or even 1689, is absurd.

    Sorry, Charlie. Strict subscription to “the Reformed symbols” with no recourse to reform, emendation, etc. is not Anabaptist, it is popish. Achtung, indeed.

  20. Hugh Says:

    Patrick,

    Can any post-Acts 15 synod or council lay claim to infallibility?

    Have they NOT erred somewhere, in some way?

    Again, all are uninspired compositions of sinful men, which both the 39 Articles and the WCF indicate HAVE erred. No?

  21. Jon Says:

    It must be that all non-inspired documents are fallible, and likewise all councils. Scripture alone is infallible.


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