David B Hunsicker

Ecclesia en Exodus Blog

Thoughts on Christianity and the Church after Christendom.

Refo500, Part 6: On the Councils and the Church


On the Councils and the Church (1539)

Our second text that focuses on Luther's ecclesiology is On the Councils and the Church. Published in 1539, it is often cited as Luther's mature explication of his ecclesiology. In Medieval catholicism, there was a struggle between conciliarists and papists, with those emphasizing conciliarism arguing that the pope's authority is subservient to that a of a church council. By Luther's time, Conciliarism became a way that princes and emperors attempted to check the authority of the Pope. Luther had been accused of being a conciliarist and, indeed, there were times with many in the Protestant movement called for a council as a means to effect reconciliation with Rome. Luther was, in fact, politically weary of such councils because he knew the deck to be stacked against reconciliation. 

Divided into three parts, On the Councils is Luther's definitive response to the attempt to convene a council. The first part argues that any council would be the Pope's council and, therefore, a trick to claim reconciliation by effecting submission. The second part addresses the idea of councils in general, if and when they may be considered authoritative, and how their authority should be expressed in theological investigation and debate. The third and final part is even still more broad, explicating the very nature of the church itself and identifying the signs by which one knows a true church. In so doing, Luther is determining the lines of a Protestant ecclesiology over and against the Catholic Church on the one hand and the Antinomians and Anabaptists on the other.


The Role of Tradition in Theological Debate

In Luther's discussion of the Pope's abuse of councils, he argues that the Roman Catholic Church appeals to councils as they appeal to the fathers of the church, which is to say that they cite sources they've never studied. Should they have read the fathers like Luther read them, they would have been lead to scripture. And should they arrive at scripture, having traced the stream of water back to its source, why would they settle for drinking downstream? This is the crux of Luther's argument (and his assertion of the Protestant Scripture Principle, sola scriptura): the fathers and the councils are only authoritative insofar as they derive their authority from scripture itself. As interpretations and teachers of scripture, they may be useful; however, they can never replace scripture itself as the ultimate source and norm for settling church disagreements. 

Central to the debate over papal authority is the notion that the Pope represents the position of the fathers and the councils. Luther argues, however, that in claiming such authority the Pope actually uses the words "fathers" and "council" as a warrant for acting in direct contradiction to the authority (scripture) by which the fathers and the councils actually spoke. This argument is accentuated first by Luther's argument that Augustine (the most important church father) directs us, not to the fathers or the councils (Nicaea and Constantinople occurred prior to Augustine's death), but to scripture itself. Second, Luther appeals to the two councils that he takes to be the most authoritative: the Jerusalem Council and the Council of Nicaea. 

The Jerusalem Council—when Paul went before the Jerusalem Apostles and argued his case for his gospel to the Gentiles—is the original church council. Luther writes, "If we wish to be conciliar, we will have to keep this council above all others". The convener and chief operator in this council was not the bishops (for there were no bishops) but the Holy Spirit, given to the apostles to discern the truth. The problem with the conciliar tradition is that it is presupposed that a latter council can change and correct the decisions of earlier church councils, giving contemporaneous church authority superiority to its predecessors. Who, Luther asks, can alter a decision issued by the Holy Spirit and recorded in Scripture? Only the one who assumes their authority supersedes the Spirit and Scripture. 

The Council of Nicaea proves a different point for Luther. Namely, that citing the authority of a council has its limits. For instance, the council of Nicaea decreed a lot of things. Among them the suggestion that soldiers who become Christians ought to give up war and should they return to war, they ought to be excommunicated for a period of seven years (spending five years relearning the faith with the catechumens and another two before they can receive Eucharist). This is a decree that has clearly fallen out of use by Luther's time. Should it have been enforced, the Christian emperors would have no soldiers. Or again, the Council of Nicaea prescribes that heretics ought to be rebaptized—a decision the church clearly denied in its solution to the Donatist controversy. The point, for Luther, is that the councils do not exert their authority in every word of the conciliar documents; instead, they exert authority chiefly around the great articles of faith for which they were convened in the first place. For Luther, there are four great councils (Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus, and Chalcedon). Each is authoritative to the degree that they express clearly a doctrine of the faith: Nicaea Christ's divinity, Constantinople the divinity of the Holy Spirit, Ephesus, the hypostatic union, and Chalcedon the two natures. And the authority of these for articles of faith derives not from the fact that the councils expressed them, but from the fact that they owe their truthfulness to the scriptures which the councils interpret truthfully.


The Purpose and Value of the Councils

The second major section of On the Councils is ... on the councils. Luther begins specifically with Nicaea, repeating and elaborating on his claim that the only thing of lasting value from the council is the major doctrinal thesis of the Nicene Creed, namely, that Jesus is Very God and Very Man, homoousian with the Father. Although, he does digress for an extended period about the Council's decision about Easter.

[I find the history fascinating and so I will summarize his digression here. Since the beginning of the church, there has been disagreement about whether to celebrate Easter concurrent with the Jewish Passover or not. Those who wished to avoid the appearance of Judaizers proposed the following week. This eventually lead to the split in the Eastern and Western church calendars. Constantine wished that Easter should be on the same day throughout the world. Luther himself advocates setting a fixed annual date for Easter. Following the Jewish calendar makes Easter a "wobbling festival" that can occur very early or very late in the spring. Theologically, he suggests that insistence on keeping Easter near Passover is maintaining a sort of obedience to the old law, putting the new wine in the old wineskins, patching the old garment with new fabric, etc. Practically, however, he concedes that its easier to let it continue to progress as its its habit. He does tend to think the second coming of Christ immanent in his own time, so he defers to the end out of ambivalence for correcting this perceived error.]

From Nicaea, he moves backwards to the Jerusalem Council. This tells you something about his valuation of councils after Nicaea. The central issue in Jerusalem was Paul's gentile gospel and its rejection by a number of Jewish Christians, who insisted on a conversion that called for submission to Jewish Law, circumcision, and dietary restrictions. For Luther, this looks like a parallel of the debate over his own gospel and the Roman Catholic Church's legalism. Thus, he leverages the council's decision to validate the preaching of Paul and Peter to the gentiles in order to suggest that the charges that he his a heretic would make Paul and Peter themselves heretics.

From there, Luther returns to Nicaea and then moves forward into the Arian controversies, showing that the abiding issue is really the question about the divinity fo Christ. He then treats Constantinople, Ephesus and Chalcedon; however, the editors have omitted those conversations from the text.

The effect of this historical overview is to establish with greater authority the point he made at the end of the first section: that there are four authoritative councils (excluding Jerusalem) and that they are significant only for the major theological doctrine that was defended and upheld at each. But the doctrines were not established anew at the councils. To the contrary, they were given formulations that provided greater explanatory power to beliefs that Christians have confessed from the beginning. There is nothing confessed here that is not already testified to in scripture.

Luther concludes the section with a list of criteria for adjudicating the legitimacy of a church council:

  1. a council has no power to establish a new article of faith
  2. on the contrary, councils must suppress and condemn new articles of faith
  3. councils have no power to command new good works
  4. on the contrary, councils must condemn evil works that oppose love
  5. councils have no power to impose new ceremonies on Christians
  6. on the contrary, councils must condemn such ceremonies
  7. a council has no power to interfere in worldly law and government
  8. on the contrary, councils must condemn such new laws
  9. a council has no power to create statues or decrees that establish tyrannical authority in the episcopacy
  10. a council can institute ceremonies if they do not strengthen the bishops power, but they prove useful to the people.
  11. a council should only occupy itself with questions of faith, and only when faith itself is in jeopardy. 


The Marks of the Church

And now, we come, at last, to the most widely read portion of Luther's treatise. The third part, on the church, is perhaps one of the most well-known and oft cited Lutheran texts. For here, we hav Luther's positive description of the church itself.

Attending to the language in the creed, Luther explains that "church" simply means the whole communion of saints, christians in every time and place. Thus, the words "catholic" and (in the Nicene Creed) "apostolic" are simply redundant to the definition of the word "church" itself. That the church is "holy" simply means that these people have the Holy Spirit and that the spirit endeavors to sanctify them daily.

An interesting feature of Luther's description of the Spirit's sanctifying work is his description of the gifts of the spirit. He defines these in accordance with the decalogue. Thus, the Spirit empowers us to obey the first tablet of the law by giving us true knowledge of God (revelation), strength, comfort, fear and love of God. Most significantly, perhaps, the spirit also gives the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. This is significant because here Luther is using theological language that is not unlike the Aristotelian language of virtue that he hates in catholicism. Of course, he is speaking only of these theological virtues as gifts, not as human works; nevertheless, there is an opportunity here to explore further the relationship between Lutheran theology and virtue ethics.

The gifts that the Spirit gives in accordance with the second tablet correspond to the commands: a willingness toward obedience, peaceableness and patience, chastity, etc. Christians are people who respond to the Spirit's work with a pursuit of "Christian holiness." The Spirit's work in these two ways is connected and Christians must be careful of anyone that seeks to separate them (i.e. the antinomians). 

The remainder of the text addresses the Marks of the Church.

  1. Preaching: The church is known, first and foremost, by the fact that it possesses the holy word of God. By it, the church itself is rightly called holy. To say the church possesses it does not mean that the church is its master. On the contrary, the word of God is administered by the Holy Spirit. It is possessed as a gift. Where it is present, there is a true church.
  2. Baptism: Wherever the sacrament of baptism is correctly taught, believed, and administered, there is a true church. For Luther, baptism is "the holy bath of regeneration". Like the word, it is a gift of God. The baptizer has no ownership over the act; instead, it belongs to the one baptized, given from God himself.
  3. Eucharist: Wherever the sacrament of eucharist is rightly administered, believed, and received, there is a true church. Correct administration, for Luther, means that the Eucharist ought not be dressed up in unnecessary ritual and restriction. It ought to be received "like a patient in bed". Again, the sacrament belongs to the recipient, not the administrator.
  4. Church Discipline: A true church exercises "the office of the keys", or church discipline, in order to correct its members. There are both public and private dimensions to this mark. For those whose conscience already bear down on them, one need only correct them privately. They will receive the correction and seek absolution. There are some, however, who are not ashamed of their actions and will not curb their sin. In this case, the church must publicly rebuke the sinner. Wherever you see the church offering this sort of correction in the Christian life, there is a true church.
  5. Ordination: The above marks (preaching, sacraments, discipline) must be administered by someone. A further mark of the church is that it calls ministers from among its members to fill the vocations of pastor, preacher, and bishop. This calling comes according to the gifts that God has given.
    [For Luther, this is a male-only calling. Using arguments from the typical Pauline texts and natural law, Luther argues that women, children, and incompetent people are not competent to fulfill this calling. I don't find Luther's arguments on these points compelling. There is nothing here that is exceptional regarding his argument. These are commonly argued points today and tend to fail to take Paul in context and to rely on a conception of natural law that is philosophically untenable.] 
  6. Worship: Where you see the Lord's Prayer taught and prayed, the Psalms sung, the Creed, the Decalogue, and the catechism, you may trust there is a true church. The church worships God and it trains its members in the proper worship of God.
  7. The Way of the Cross: Finally, God's people are recognized by their willingness to bear the cross, suffering misfortune and persecution on account of their commitment to Christ. 

These seven marks of the church are the means by which the Holy Spirit sanctifies and vivifies us in Christ. They pertain to the first table of the Decalogue. In addition to these seven marks of the church, Luther admits that the second table of the Decalogue, pertaining to love of neighbor, generates the outward signs  of a Christian life.