Friday, April 04, 2008

Reformation and Conciliar Movements

There is some discussion on the web as the Reformation being a descendant or a relative of the Conciliar Movement of the 15th century. One of the major proponents of this view is Tim Enloe whose works are worth a quick read. I have to admit these things got me thinking. However, in the end, I think this thesis has to be rejected, with regards to the Reformed branch of the Reformation anyway. I will let the Lutherans argue for themselves. I see a few major flaws in this argumentation about Conciliarism having a great effect on the Reformation.

First, I think the Conciliar movement itself was nothing more than a protest and not a true reform. The Conciliar Movement was the only answer possible to the situation the Babylonian Captivity of the Papacy had created. Short of all out war between the rival popes, the Council was the only solution. I think then the movement known as Counciliarism was born more out of necessity than theology. This is born out by the fact that not all Conciliarists rejected the idea of Papal Infallibility. In fact the Council of Pisa elected a pope, which made three. And the next one the Council of Constance removed the other popes and elected a new pope, finally ending the multiple pope problem. But it should be noted that these councils elected popes. They were obviously not opposed to the idea of a pope. Later the Council of Basel tried to depose a pope and elected a new pope, but no one recognized the move. Still it shows that Conciliar Movement did not oppose the ideas of popes. They tried to limit their power and assert supremacy over popes, but the movement felt the need to have a pope. Also reforming the papacy is not the same as Reformation. Let us not forget it is the height of the Conciliar Movement that executed Jan Hus, a forerunner of the Reformation with regards to theology.

Second, the Reformers favored a Presbyterian form of government, but that is not to be confused with Conciliarism. The Reformers did believe in calling councils, or even having regular scheduled councils. This did not mean that they thought these councils infallible, and there lies the major difference. The Conciliar Movement was a movement to replace the supreme power of the pope with the supreme power of the council. The Reformers did believe that councils governed the church, that is simple Presbyterianism, not conciliarism. However, the Reformers held that these councils were only good as long as they fell in line with Scripture. Any pronouncement not in line with the Word was no authority at all. That idea was missing in the counciliarists. Note also that Luther truly became a Protestant when Eck forced him to disagree with the judgment against Hus, a judgment that was not just done by a pope, but by an entire council. Luther rejected the idea of a supreme authority in councils.

Third, which is related to the above. The supreme authority for the Protestants has always been Scripture, not the church speaking in a council. This is a point that is conceded by Enloe in his post, but is then attempted to be circumvented. The Conciliarists (not uniformly but mostly) believed the authority was still the church speaking. Even the radical Marsilius of Padua, who rejected papal infallibility, placed infallibility in the universal church and thus councils. Even then one might could argue that Marsilius was placing the civil authority as the head of the church rather than the pope, but either way this is not the doctrine of the Reformers. See Westminster Confession of Faith 31.

Fourth, the Synod of Dort. For all the talk of Coniliarism in the Reformation only once has an ecumenical council of Reformed men actually met. This was the Synod of Dort. Dort for the record used the Scripture and not previous confessions as the only rule of faith. Anyway, one could look at that Synod to see exactly how it was received. Other than Holland where the Synod was part of their regular Presbyterian form of government, only one other place adopted the Canons of Dort as official doctrine and rule. That was Geneva. Other placed debated it and agreed with the outcome, but they did not adopt it and they did not consider it a rule of law or official doctrine and canons that now had to be subscribed to or upheld at any cost. Some places, like England, did not adopt them and took rather liberal interpretations of some of the points showing that they did not believe that the Synod of Dort was any sort of binding rule that now needed to be followed. This is again the complete opposite of the Conciliar Movement that thought and taught that the declarations of the Council had to be obeyed.

I am not disagreeing that the Reformation has connections the history of the Church. Nor am I saying that the Reformers did not make use of those who opposed the pope from time to time. Cramner reprinted Marsilius to defend Henry VIII as the head of the church. However, I do not think that the Reformation stands in line of descent from the Conciliarists. The Conciliarists still believed in the doctrines of the Roman church especiallity the infallibility of the church. They simply disagreed who would wield the power of the church and fought over that power with the pope. I believe the Reformation stands in link with the early church, which I do not believe was ever successfully stamped out by the pope, the Greeks, or the Turks.


Tim Enloe said...

I'm glad the issues got you thinking, and I thank you for your gracious, and reasoned response. However, I think you have a few confusions in your treatment of the issues and my thesis in particular. I'll try to respond later today.

Tim Enloe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tim Enloe said...

Pastor Lee, if you are interested I have just posted my rejoinder to your post at

Anonymous said...


The blog entry on Reformed Catholicism that you linked to is a lengthy quote from Paul Avis's recent book on the Reformation and the Conciliar Movement. I would highly suggest you read Avis's book. With regard to your comments, Avis does not say that the Conciliarists believed in papal infallibility. Yes, it is true that they believed in the papacy, but make no mistake about it, it is precisely because the papacy was infallibly revealing its fallibility that the Conciliarists were convinced and convicted that it needed reform. In other words, the Conciliarists believed their needed to be a papal reformation. The later Reformers believing that their needed to be a reformation on an even wider scale simple means that they were a development of conciliar thought, just as the papacy was a development of earlier papal thought. With the preceeding Conciliar Reformers having shown through their experiences with the papacy that the papacy itself was the problem, the sixteenth-century Reformers now through their experiences with the papacy acted accordingly.

Lee said...

Thank you for the book information. I will attempt to get my hands on that book.

I did read the post, and I encourage all to go and read it. There was much there for me to chew on. Thus, I will not have any quick responses, but Lord willing one day. Thank you for your hard work and thoughtful posts.