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In 1546, the Council of Trent, a Roman Catholic gathering that met soon after Martin Luther’s death, issued two decrees regarding sacred Scripture. The first decree cursed those who did not receive the Scriptures. It also cursed those who “deliberately condemn” the church’s traditions. The second decree forbade twisted readings of “sacred Scripture” in doctrinal or moral matters. The council also condemned interpretations of “sacred Scripture contrary to . . . holy mother Church” or “contrary to the unanimous consent of the fathers,” and explained that it is the task of the church “to judge of the true sense and interpretation of the holy Scriptures.”
The two decrees are cluttered with complicating clauses and awkward phrases. There is a reason for this: the bishops at the council disagreed about the relationship between Scripture and the traditions of the church used to interpret Scripture, and they argued about how to come to some kind of compromise. Of those willing to vote on the subject, thirty-three members thought that Scripture and tradition are “equal” in authority, eleven thought they are “similar” but not “equal” in authority, and three thought that the council should require only that traditions be shown respect. The language of equal authority of Scripture and tradition was dropped.
In another compromise, the council made yet another distinction: thirty-eight members wanted the council to condemn those who did not receive either the Scriptures or tradition. But thirty-three members wanted a softer position. They were willing to condemn those who did not receive Scripture, but with respect to tradition, the bishops would only condemn people who self-consciously condemned the church’s traditions. Here the minority party won the vote, as the majority party was unwilling to ignore the concerns of their colleagues.
I tell this story because it is surprising to hear that any members of the Council of Trent made points that every Reformer could affirm (and that I think every Protestant Christian should affirm). After all, every Reformer could agree that Scripture must not be manipulated to say what we want. The Bible is God’s Word: we are to be shaped by it; it is not to be shaped by us. The Reformers could also agree with the tiny minority of voters at the Council of Trent: the traditions of the church—certainly the writings and earliest practices of the church—deserve respect. Yes, there have been false teachers in the history of the church. But there is also a history of useful teaching in the church that affirms and supports the teaching of Scripture. There is much to learn from those who have gone before us.
As it happens, the Reformers came to see that the Roman Catholic imagination of “unanimous consent” among Christian teachers of the early centuries of the church had no basis in reality. In fact, the 1530 Augsburg Confession, the most important early Lutheran statement of theology, highlights disagreements within the Roman tradition itself, including contrasts between the teachings of the church and the teachings of prominent church fathers. However, that the teachings of church fathers are important was obvious to all. As a final authority, Scripture, being God’s Word, stands alone. Yet, wise people read the Scriptures not alone but with others, including those who have gone on before us.
I tell this story also because the council came to other conclusions that no Reformer could accept (and no Protestant Christian should accept). Principally, the Reformers could not accept that it is the task of the church to “judge . . . the true sense and interpretation” of the Bible. To place such authority in the hands of the church would be to put the church over the Bible rather than the Bible over the church. To insist that this kind of interpretation is necessary was as much to announce that the Bible is not clear in itself.
The whole history of the Protestant church—seen in the hundreds of confessions and catechisms produced by Lutherans and the Reformed alike—witnesses to the power and usefulness of Scripture and calls churches to be reformed according to the Scriptures. These confessions occasionally cite important authors in the history of the church. Protestant writers did so often. But they understood that only Scripture bears the marks of necessity, sufficiency, ultimate authority, and clarity in all matters pertaining to salvation. Ultimately, the relevance, usefulness, truthfulness, and persuasiveness of any other text must be gauged by Scripture alone.
In 1646, the Westminster Assembly, writing at the end of England’s long Reformation, declared,
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. (Westminster Confession of Faith 1.10)
This was simply to record the very attitude of the Scriptural writers themselves, who proved many of their arguments with a “thus says the Lord,” followed by a citation from Scripture. Are we to have respect for the decrees of councils, high regard for ancient writers, and proper interest in other men’s teaching? Yes. As wise men have noted in the past, many problems in the church could have been avoided if Christians would listen not only to what we think the Holy Spirit is teaching us but also to what He may have taught others. Yet, none of these sources of insight and wisdom—let alone the declarations of popes—can rise to the level of the authority of God’s own Word. Here we must stand.
So, are there “controversies of religion” that need to be settled? Then there is only one standard that is necessary for us to use, one court to which every Christian and church must appeal. Are there “decrees of councils” that need to be evaluated? Then there is only one canon by which these councils and their decrees can authoritatively be considered right or wrong. Have you or your friends encountered weighty “opinions of ancient writers”? There is only one balance in which they can be weighed. Do we meet “the doctrines of men” in conversation, in reading, and in preaching? There is only one light by which they can be examined. Are there “private spirits” or personal opinions in the church? Then there is only one way in which they are to be judged. There is one “sentence” in which “we are to rest.” And that “can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.”