TRUHT FOR TODAY - BIBLICAL ESSAYS BY PASTOR PAUL MIZZI

Pope or council?

If Papal Infallibility is a fact, and if it existed from earliest time, this cancels out the necessity of church councils.

The Catholic church (in distinction from the Roman Catholic church, which developed later) resolved its major doctrinal difficulties by convening ecumenical councils (in which church leaders from a good part of Christendom participated). Other minor problems were tackled through provincial councils.

In the first five centuries several important councils were convened to discuss and settle the issue concerning the deity of Christ (against Arius), his two natures in one person (against several heresiarchs), and concerning the nature of free will (against Pelagius), among others.

This was the accepted mode of settling controversies, though it happened that one council led inevitably to another because of further developments. But the pattern for such councils was set by the apostles themselves when they gathered with the presbyters in Jerusalem to settle the issue whether circumcision was necessary for salvation.

At that time the deciding factor was an appeal to the Scriptures. The canonical Scriptures enjoyed the final and supreme authority; though many voiced their opinion and understanding, the deciding Voice was that of Scripture. It was looked upon as a sure guide. On that occasion, Peter spoke but by no means was the final decision his decision. Rather "it seemed good to the Holy Spirit (speaking through Scripture) and to us (the unity of the church in following the truth)...".

Now it is illogical and nonsensical, if Peter really was pope, to convene the council. There would have been no need for it whatsoever. A word from Peter would have been sufficient, and everybody would bow to it in submission.

And if the bishops of Rome are his successors, then why has the catholic church convened council after council to settle doctrinal matters? The very fact, though, that councils were convened proves that no-one at that time had yet dreamed of one person enjoying infallibility and being the supreme spokesman for God.

The largest General Council of the West was that of Constance in 1414-1416. At this Council the three conflicting popes were deposed from the papal seat and Martin V elected - a sure sign that a council had authority over the pope (even according to the Roman Church at that time).

If the pope is really what he claims to be, he could have avoided much hassle and heartache by simply speaking and settling the issue. When Christ was asked questions, he gave the answers. If the pope is his vicar, why doesn't he do the same?

The very fact of councils throughout church history militates against the fable of papal infallibility.

Spotlight on some church councils (vis-a-vis the papacy) Jerusalem

During the council of Jerusalem a troublesome issue had to be settled. The church was still preponderously Jewish in membership, but since Gentiles were being converted too, they had to decide whether these had to become Jews (by circumcision) before they could be counted true Christians.

The gathered assembly took action by having key personages relate their missionary experiences and making mention of God's choice of them and God's programme to obtain an inheritance from among the Gentiles. This was seen to be in agreement with Amos's declaration that David fallen tabernacle will be rebuilt. They saw it as a fulfillment of prophecy. This council had both orthodox believers and also Pharisees who had believed but who were still intent on observing all the law of Moses, not only they, but also all who repent and trust in the Lord Jesus.

The involvement of the Latin church was virtually nil since we hear of no delegates from anywhere except from Antioch and nearby localities.

Arles

The council of Arles is not considered an ecumenical council and yet it is instructive for us today: it reveals how things still in relation to Rome. The followers of Donatus from North Africa appealed against the decisions of this council, interestingly enough, not to the Bishop of Rome but to the emperor, who convened the council of Arles. They were then condemned the second time.

What is so significant is that during the whole proceedings the bishop of Rome was not appealed to; it is clear that, at least up to that time (AD 314), the final say of the Roman Bishop was still unknown.

This provincial council was convened by the Latin church but without the permission or overseership of the Roman Bishop. Its conclusions settled the matter.

Nicea

The arch-heresiarch Arius was bold in teaching that Jesus has a similar nature to the Father, but was not divine. Alexander rightly opposed this teaching and condemned him in a council held in 320 or 321. Still adamant, Arius continued in the way of perdition, thus leading the organised church to assemble in council at Nicea, as summoned not by the pope (who at that time was not even called pope) but by the emperor Constantine.

An interesting action taken during this council, apart from declaring the full deity of Christ, was to pronounce the areas of jurisdiction that Rome, Antioch and Alexandria were to enjoy. The Bishop of Rome, admittedly, had his area of influence but it was far from a universal sway over all Christendom. These three bishops were forbidden to invade the churches across the borders of their diocese.

During Nicea Rome played its part, but it was certainly not a major role or a decisive role.

Constantinople

The first ecumenical council of Constantinople, once again was convened at the command of the emperor, not the Pope. And, surprise of surprises, the Bishop of Rome was not invited, and neither did he send any delegates. Rome did not acknowledge the patriarch of Antioch, Meletius, who presided over the council.

No wonder that Rome did not consider this as an ecumenical council, but she had to change her mind, by the sheer influence of this council.

Some of the disciples of Mecedonius, bishop of Constantinople, are said to have held that the Holy Spirit was not supreme God. These were condemned by the second General council, which met at Constantinople, AD 381. This council defined and guarded the orthodox faith, by adding definite clauses to the simple reference which the ancient creed had made to the Holy Spirit.

Ephesus

The city of Ephesus hosted the third ecumenical council in 431. It was precipitated by the teachings of Nestorius after Pope Celestine's condemnation. Once again, it was convened by the emperor, Theodosius II. The council, among other things, uttered the orthodox doctrine about Christ, being one person, having two natures (divine and human), not mixed together. Nestorius had said, "God could not be a baby in a manger." The council, while defending Christ's humanity, declared also his deity. Its decision condemned the Nestorians, and affirmed the unity of the Person of Christ.

More than this, Bousset says: "It was fixed (during this council) that all was in suspense once the authority of the universal synod was invoked, even though the sentence of the Roman Pontiff about doctrine, and about persons accused of heresy had been uttered and promulgated."

Chalcedon

The fourth General council was called by the emperor Marcian, after the emperor Theodosius refused to convene one in Italy at the entreaty of Pope Leo.

This council at Chalcedon was held in spite of the opposition of Leo the Great, who protested against the new council defining any doctrine. His protest was ignored! The emperor presided for the sake of order. This was in 451.

Up to this time it is undeniable that the supreme authority for the church at large was the council. It is all too obvious that the pope did not enjoy the supreme and infallible power he boasts of today.

The jurisdiction of the various patriarchates was once against decided on the basis of political influence. No mention of Scripture, such as Matthew 16, was made in favour of Rome. Rome held the place of honour, as the imperial city, but New Rome (Constantinople) came second. The reasoning here is not scriptural; it is merely political. During the whole argument the delegates from Rome did not advance the pre-eminence of Rome on the basis of a God-given authority.

The issue at this council was the person of Christ; the result was what is known today as the Chalcedonian Creed, upheld to this day by all conservative believers. This was formulated against Eutyches, who mixed the two natures of Christ together.

Constantinople again

The second council of Constantinople (553) proved to be another backlash from the pretensions of the papacy. Pope Leo's Tome was rejected. Vigilius excommunicated deacons and clergy and was excommunicated in turn by the patriarch of Constantinople and the African church.

In spite of this Rome recognises this council as legal and ecumenical. 165 bishops attended, only 12 of whom were Western.

The council made far-reaching decisions in the area of Christology. It affirmed that the single person of the incarnate Lord was not other than the divine Logos, a point not made explicit by Chalcedon. The council went on to give its approval to Cyril of Alexandria's statement that "One of the Holy Trinity suffered in the flesh."

The West failed to offer whole-hearted support to the council. Pope Vigilius boldly refused to give his consent, but changed his mind after Justinian banished him to a small island for six months. Large sections of the Western church disowned their fickle-minded pope's action, as they had done in 548 when he approved the Three Chapters. Milan and Aquileia broke off communion with Rome (the schism lasted for years).

Even so, the West did come to recognise this council as the firth ecumenical council, mostly through the sweeping use of papal authority by pope Pelagius I (556-61), chosen by Justinian as Vigilius's successor.

The verdict of history

In respect to the pretensions of Rome, my conclusion as I study church history, is that her pretensions are haughty, illegitimate and baseless. When brought at the bar of history, Rome must plead guilty of usurpation of power. The church at large conducted her affairs through councils; the appeal to the pope became normal practice during the Middle Ages, and even then councils (especially Constance, 15th century) vied with the popes for power and authority.