Martin Luther, in saying it is “neither right nor safe” to go against conscience was not advocating making individual conscience the supreme arbiter. He had, in the preceding sentence, declared that his conscience was “captive to the Word of God.” If one’s conscience is thus captive, it would be unwise to go against it—if, on the other hand, one’s conscience is captive to the culture at large, it may be very wise indeed to go against it.
Rome accuses Protestantism of being sectarian, with the various denominations being founded on human personalities (Lutheranism from Luther, Presbyterianism from Calvin and others, Methodism from Wesley, etc…). However, Rome is no less sectarian as they claim to be “of Peter” in a way that Paul clearly would not have approved of (1 Corinthians 1:12-13, 3:1-6)). Furthermore, Protestants affirm the fallibility of their human leaders, whereas Roman Catholics must affirm the infallibility of theirs, going so far as to bestow upon the Pope a title that grates on the ears of Protestants as downright blasphemous: the Holy Father. Orthodoxy, with its emphasis on the Church’s infallibility being vested in the universal church as a whole, rather than in one man, avoids the charges of sectarianism that both Rome and Protestantism often fall victim to.
C.S. Lewis said that one can respect, and at times even envy, the Roman Catholic view of the Church. It makes for a “neater” system, eliminates doctrinal gray areas. Who wouldn’t want to belong to a Church that was correct about everything and incapable of being in error? However, when a Church claims to be infallible, those claims must be tested. By what means? The canonical Scriptures. If Rome teaches anything that is not supported by Scripture, or what’s worse, explicitly is contradicted by Scripture, this raises a red flag warning.
Protestants maintain that it is neither presumptuous, rebellious, nor anti-authoritarian to claim to be able to read and understand Scripture for themselves. It is, rather, merely an affirmation that A. the Holy Spirit wrote the Scriptures and B. the same Spirit who wrote the Scriptures illumines the minds of believers in order to understand what is written (1 Corinthians 1-2).
But if the Spirit is illumining the minds of believers, Rome and Orthodoxy asks, why is Protestantism itself so divided? Why is there no consensus among Protestants on so many key doctrinal areas? Is the Spirit sending mixed messages to different individuals? Protestants who feel the legitimate sting of these charges may feel inclined to wish for another ecumenical council to come along and, once and for all, unify the Body of Christ. But can this happen, and if so, what would first have to transpire in order to make it happen?
Will another council ever be convened that will be recognized by the Body of Christ at large (Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant) as being truly ecumenical? In Christendom’s current state, it seems tragically unlikely.
In order for Rome to participate, they would of course want to retain papal supremacy. One couldn’t imagine Rome abdicating the claim to supremacy, but unless this point were abdicated, it’s unfathomable that the East would participate because the East, like the Protestant world, would want to come to the table as equals, and not be condescendingly looked down upon by Rome. In order for the East to participate, Rome and Protestantism would, in all likelihood, first have to drop the Filoque clause from the Nicene Creed as one can’t imagine the East even seriously dialoguing with a Church if this doctrinal prerequisite hadn’t first been met.
The East, as has been previously mentioned, has a number of doctrines on the shelf, pending the approval of an ecumenical council. In such a state, they are as “official” as they can be at the moment, but they do not possess the status of infallible dogma. This raises the question: why doesn’t the East convene another council? From the outside looking in, it’s difficult to determine why this hasn’t happened. It seems that the Patriarchs and bishops could certainly call a council, if they so chose (though, of course it would only be “ecumenical” in name only, as it would of course not include Western Christendom). The absence of any councils in the past 1200 years has, Rome charges, made Orthodoxy “stagnant.” What the West calls stagnation, though, the East would call stability.
As one can see, though councils are intended to clear up dispute, so many areas of dispute would first have to be cleared up before a council itself would even be possible in our day. In order for Protestants to participate, they would want to come to the table as equals, and not be seen as second-rate citizens of the kingdom. Today, Protestants, though not necessarily relegated to hell, are looked upon suspiciously by both Rome and the East, as being, if in communion with Christ’s Body at all, in a state of very “imperfect” communion. “Low church” Protestants would likely have a difficult time seeing the need for a council in the first place. If the Scriptures are sufficient to clear up any and all doctrinal disagreements, what role could a council serve in clearing up the controversies?
In theory, the day dream that an ecumenical council could come along and actually heal the divisions within the Body of Christ is a wonderful ideal, one that is not contrary to the principle of Sola Scriptura. Those who affirm Sola Scriptura recognize that not all of the Bible’s doctrines are equally clear and that, at least hypothetically, it would be wonderful if we could actually be of one mind on all important matters of faith and morals. Saying that God could use such a council, as he did in Acts 15, doesn’t denigrate Scripture.
So it is that the Church may never again see an ecumenical council of the sort that was known in the first eight centuries of the Church. Though Rome claims to have had more than a dozen such councils since 787 A.D., neither the East nor Protestantism recognize any of them, so they are “ecumenical” in name only. They can’t truly be said to be representative of the church universal if half of Christendom gives them no credence.
* Click here to read “In Love With the Scriptures”, a sermon preached by Dr. Derek Thomas at Jackson’s First Presbyterian Church.