Exposition of the Thirty-nine Articles – Article XXI

Article XXI.

Of the Authority of General Councils.

General Councils may not be gathered together without the commandment and will of Princes. And when they be gathered together (forasmuch as they be an assembly of men, whereof all be not governed with the Spirit and Word of God), they may err, and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining unto God. Wherefore things ordained by them as necessary to salvation have neither strength nor authority, unless it may be declared that they be taken out of Holy Scriptures.

De Authoritate Conciliorum generalium.

Generalia concilia sine jussu et voluntate Principium congregari non possunt; et ubi convenerint, quia ex hominibus constant, qui non omnes Spiritu et Verbo Dei reguntur, et errare possunt, et interdum errarunt etiam in his quæ ad Deum pertinent; ideoque quæ ab illis constituuntur, ut ad salutem necessaria, neque robur habent, neque authoritatem, nisi ostendi possint e sacris literis esse desumpta.

[This Article is omitted in the American Revision, “because it is partly of a local and civil nature, and is provided for, as to the remaining parts of it, in other Articles.” Not a very sufficient reason for an unfortunate omission. As some persons have argued from the omission, in 1562 and 1571, of Articles XLI. and XLII. of 1552, that the Church of England intended to allow Millenarianism and Universalism, so others have urged, that, by omitting this Article, the American Church, if it did not assert, at least allowed the infallibility of a General Council. The one line of argument is worth as much as the other, both being worthless. — J. W.]

WE saw, in considering the last Article, that our Lord Jesus Christ had given a certain promise of guidance and indefectibility to His Church, by which we may conclude, that the whole Church shall never utterly fail or be absorbed in one gulf of error. We saw too, that the Church had a right to judge in controversies of faith, so as to expel from her communion those whom she determined to be fundamentally wrong.

If these premises be true, the voice and judgment of the Church universal must be of great value and importance, not as superseding but as interpreting Scripture. And this voice of the Church has been considered to be audible, in the general consent of Christians of all, and more especially of early times. Those doctrines which the Church of Christ at all times, everywhere, and universally, has received, have been esteemed the judgment of the Catholic Church. This is the universality, antiquity, and agreement, the “semper, ubique et ab omnibus” of Vincentius Lirinensis.[1] It is true, no doctrine of the faith has been received so universally that it never has been spoken or written against. But a large number of doctrines (all, in fact, clearly enunciated in the Creeds) have been upheld by the vast majority of Christians from the beginning to the present day. There never was a time, not even the short-lived but fearful reign of Arianism, in which the Church in general did not hold all these doctrines; and those who dissented from them formed a comparatively small, if not always an insignificant, minority. And as regards these fundamental truths, there would never be any difficulty in following the rule which Vincentius gives in explanation of his own canon, namely, “If a small part of the Church holds a private error, we should adhere to the whole. If the whole be for the time infected by some novel opinion, we should cleave to antiquity. If in antiquity itself there be found partial error, we should then prefer universal decisions before private judgments.”[2] This rule will embrace all the Articles of the Creeds of the Church. But new errors may arise, and men’s minds may be sadly perplexed by them, and difficulties of various kinds may spring up, in which the voice of the Christian Church may never have plainly spoken; and the question may almost of necessity occur, Shall the abettors of such or such an opinion be esteemed heretics or not, be continued in, or rejected from, the communion of Christians? In such cases, which may be cases of great emergency, the only way in which the Church can speak is by a council of representatives.

Among the Jews, questions of importance and difficulty were referred to the Sanhedrim, a council of seventy-one elders, which sat at Jerusalem. In the Christian Church, the first example of such an assembly is what has by some been called the first general council, held by the Apostles and elders and brethren at Jerusalem, concerning the question of circumcising the Gentile converts (Acts xv.).

Afterwards we hear of no council for some considerable period. But during the third century several provincial synods sat, for the determining of matters either of doctrine or discipline. Thus Victor held a council at Rome, A. D. 196, concerning the keeping of Easter; in which year other councils were held, in other places, on the same subject. St. Cyprian held several councils at Carthage, on the subject of the lapsed, and the rebaptizing of heretics (A. D. 253, 254, 255.) Councils were held at Antioch, A. D. 264, 265, to condemn and excommunicate Paul of Samosata. And many others for similar purposes were convened, in their respective provinces, during the third and early part of the fourth century. Yet hitherto they were but partial and provincial, not general councils of the whole Church. At last, during the disturbances which were created by the propagation of the Arian heresy, Constantine the Great, having been converted to Christianity, and giving the countenance of the imperial government to the hitherto persecuted Church of Christ, summoned a general council of all the bishops of Christendom, to pronounce the judgment of the Church Catholic concerning the Divinity of the Son of God. The council met A. D. 325. The number of bishops that assembled at this great synod is generally stated to have been 318, besides priests and deacons. The council decided by an immense majority for the doctrine of the ὁμοούσιον, drew up the Nicene Creed, and published twenty canons on matters of discipline.

1. This was the first general or œcumenical council. Following this were five others, also generally received as œcumenical. 2. The council of Constantinople, summoned by the Emperor Theodosius, A. D. 381, which condemned Macedonius, and added the latter part to the creed of Nice. 3. The council of Ephesus, called by the younger Theodosius, A. D. 431, which condemned Nestorius. 4. The council of Chalcedon, called by Marcianus, A. D. 451, which condemned Eutyches. 5. The second of Constantinople, summoned by the Emperor Justinian. A. D. 553, confirmatory of the councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon. 6. The third of Constantinople, convened by the Emperor Constantine Pogonatus, A. D. 680, which condemned the Monothelites.

These six are the only councils which have been acknowledged by the Universal Church. There are two or three others, called œcumenical by the Greek Church, and many called œcumenical by the Latin Church, which, however, have never received universal approval.[3] Even the fifth and sixth have not been quite so universally esteemed as the first four. The fifth, though generally acknowledged in the East, was for a time doubted by several of the Western bishops. Gregory the Great said he reverenced the first four synods as he did the four Evangelists; evidently considering those four as far more important than those which followed them.[4] And the reformers, both foreign and Anglican, and probably the divines of the English Church in general, have more unhesitatingly received the first four, than the fifth and sixth councils; though it has been thought that the reason for this may be, that the fifth and sixth were considered as merely supplementary to the preceding two, and therefore as virtually included in them.

1. These few well-known and unquestioned facts are, of themselves sufficient to give us an insight into the nature, constitution, and authority of general councils. In the first three centuries no general council was ever held. The reason of this may be manifold. In the first century Apostles were yet alive, whose inspired authority could have been subject to no appeal. Indeed the meeting of Apostles and elders at Jerusalem may be called a council; but its force is derived, not merely from Christ’s promise of guidance to His Church, but also from His assurance of inspiration to His apostles. Then, too, the Church was small; Jerusalem was the visible centre of unity; the Apostles gathered together there could readily, by common consent, meet and unite in expression of their decisions. But a century later, and the Church was spread from India in the east, to Gaul and Lusitania in the west; from Ethiopia southward, to the remotest northern Isles of Britain. There was singular difficulty in all its bishops meeting in one spot. A general gathering of all the spiritual heads of Christendom would have been, like enough, a signal for general persecution. There was no one power which could summon all together, and which all would be bound to obey.[5] And therefore it would have been morally, and perhaps physically impossible to gather a council from all portions of the Church. But when not only was the Roman empire subject to one man, but that one man became the patron and protector of the Church, his power enabled him to enjoin all bishops who were his subjects to meet him, or to send deputies to a general synod; and his safe-conduct assured against the violence, at least of heathen persecutors. Hence, by the very nature of the case, general councils were at first never summoned, and when summoned, it was by “the commandment and will of princes.”

Formidable heresies had risen before, but at first they were sufficiently met by the zeal and energy of catholic bishops; then local synods condemned and suppressed them. But the rise of Arianism required a more stringent remedy, and a more distinct declaration of the voice of the Church. The evils of Arianism were not confined to Arius and his followers. Macedonians, Nestorians, Eutychians, Monothelites, all sprang out of the same grievous controversies; and the six general synods were successively summoned for the end of pruning off these various offshoots of the one noxious plant.

So then general synods were the result of peculiar exigencies, and were summoned by the only power which could constrain general obedience, — obedience that is of meeting to deliberate, not, it is to be hoped, of deciding according to the imperial standard of truth. This constituted them, so far as they were so, general and œcumenical. When the Bishop of Rome had attained to the full height of his sacerdotal and imperial authority, claiming an universal dominion over the Church of Christ, by virtue of succession to the primacy of St. Peter, he began to exercise the power, for many centuries enjoyed only by the emperors, of calling together general councils of the Church, himself presiding in them. The question of presidency we may lay aside, as we have to deal only with the right to summon. Now, it is quite true that there was no inherent and inalienable right in the Roman emperor, nor in any other secular prince, to summon ecclesiastical synods. Therefore the bare fact of their being summoned by the emperor, gave them no special authority. But the imperial was the only power which could command general obedience. Hence, when the emperor summoned, all portions of Christendom obeyed; and so a council, as nearly as possible œcumenical, was gathered together. But when the Pope claimed the same authority, the result was not the same. The bishops of the Roman obedience felt bound to attend, when the chief pontiff summoned them; but the eastern prelates felt no such obligation, and the bishops belonging to the ancient patriarchates of Constantinople, Antioch, and Alexandria refused to attend to a command issuing from the Patriarch of Rome. The ground, therefore, on which this Article asserts that princes only have a right to summon general councils is that such only have power to compel attendance at them. Neither the Greek nor the reformed Churches admit the authority claimed by the Pope, and therefore their bishops would not assemble at his command. There is no single individual governor, nor any ten or twelve ecclesiastical governors, who, if they agree together, could with authority summon a council. All bishops are de jure equal and independent, and might refuse to obey citations from other bishops; and their refusals would invalidate the authority of the council called.

At the time of the Reformation there was a great effort to call a free general council. Luther appealed to such. So did our own Cranmer. But it was to a real and free council. The pope summoned the Council of Trent; but the reformers refused to acknowledge his authority to call it, or to admit that, so called, it was a real council of the whole Church. Soon after the Church of England had thrown off the supremacy of the Bishop of Rome, declarations to the above effect were made by English bishops and by convocation. The words of the latter are, “We think that neither the Bishop of Rome, nor any one prince of what estate, degree, or preeminence soever he be, may, by his own authority, call, indict, or summon any general council, without the express consent, assent, and agreement of the residue of Christian princes.”[6] Their argument is, that when the Roman emperor had absolute and universal control, his commandment alone was sufficient to insure the attend ance of bishops from all quarters of the world. But now there is no such supreme authority. The pope claims it; but it is an usurpation. The only conceivable mode of insuring universality now would be, that all Christian princes in all parts of Christendom should agree together to send bishops to represent their respective Churches; and such an agreement would correspond with the ancient mode of convoking councils, as nearly as in the present state of things is possible.[7] A supreme spiritual authority, such as is claimed by the pope, we do not acknowledge; but as all bishops are subject to their respective sovereigns, the joint will of all Christian princes might produce an œcumenical synod; but no other plan of proceeding seems likely to do so.

2. But when councils are gathered together, from whence do they derive their authority? There is no distinct promise of infallibility to councils in Scripture. Nay! there is probably no distinct allusion to councils at all. To the bishops and rulers of the Church indeed there is a promise of Christ’s guidance and presence, and Christians are enjoined to “obey” and “follow the faith” “of those who have the rule over them.”[8] Hence the judgment of our own spiritual guides is much to be attended to; and when our spiritual rulers meet together and agree on matters either of doctrine or discipline, there is no question but that their decisions are worthy of all consideration and respect. Yet infallibility is certainly not promised to any one bishop or pastor, and though they are assured of Christ’s presence and guidance, yet promises of this kind are all more or less conditional; and it is only to the universal Church that the assurance belongs, “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Individual bishops, we know, may err. Hence assemblies of individual bishops may err; because, though they have the grace of ordination, yet all may not be pious men, “governed with the Spirit and word of God.”[9]

If indeed all the chief pastors of the Church could meet together and all agree, we might perhaps be justified in considering their decision as the voice of the universal Church; and the promises of Christ to His Church are such as might lead us to believe that that Church could not universally be heretical, and therefore that its universal judgment must be sound. But no synod ever had, nor perhaps ever can have, such conditions as these. Those hitherto held have consisted of a minority of the bishops of the whole Church; and most important portions of the Church have been but very slenderly represented. Though, therefore, one bishop may be supposed to represent many others; yet even in political matters we often feel an assembly of deputies to speak but imperfectly the voice of a people, and in ecclesiastical and spiritual things this must be much more probable. We cannot say then, that the whole Church speaks by the voices of a minority of her bishops, even when they are quite agreed.

Again, it is not quite certain that our Lord’s promises to His Church render it impossible that the major part of that Church should for a time be corrupted by error. God gave many and great promises to Israel; and yet at one time there were but seven thousand knees that had not bowed to Baal. The promises indeed assure us that the Church shall not become totally corrupt, nor continue so finally. But we have seen, that Vincentius himself supposes the possibility of the Church for a time being largely, and indeed in the greater part of it, led astray by some novelty of doctrine. Now a council composed of a minority of bishops of the Church might, in a corrupt age, consist of those very bishops who had embraced the novelties, from which the great body of the Church was not then exempt. What would then be the value of the decisions of such a council? We may perhaps reasonably hope, that the gracious and superintending Providence of Christ would never allow the Church, which is His Body, and of which He is the present and animating Head, to be so represented, or misrepresented. But there is nothing in the nature of councils to assure us against such an evil. Councils have hitherto always consisted of a minority. Even that minority has not always been unanimous; and it might be, that the same minority might represent the worse, instead of the sounder part of the Church, in a corrupt and ignorant age.

We hear enough of councils, even in the best ages, to know that the proceedings at them have not always been the wisest, or the most charitable; that some of those who attended them were not the most highly to be respected; and that other motives, besides zeal for the truth, have had too much influence in them. The words of Gregory Nazianzen are famous: “If I must write the truth,” he says, “I am disposed to avoid every assembly of bishops; for of no synod have I seen a profitable end; rather an addition to, than a diminution of, evils; for the love of strife and the thirst for superiority are beyond the power of words to express.”[10] Every reader of Church history must feel that there is too much truthfulness in this picture.

The question then arises, of what use are universal synods? and what authority are we to assign them? The answer is, that so far as they speak the language of the universal Church, and are accredited by the Church, so far they have the authority, which we saw under the last Article to be inherent in the Church, of deciding in controversies of faith. Now we can only know that they speak the language of the Church when their decrees meet with universal acceptance, and are admitted by the whole body of Christians to be certainly true. Every general council which has received this stamp to its decisions may be esteemed to speak the language of the universal Church; and as in some cases the judgment of the universal Church could not otherwise have been elicited, therefore we must admit their importance and necessity. Now the first six, or at least the first four, general councils have received this sanction of universal consent to their decisions. Their decrees were sent round throughout the Christian world; they were received and approved of by all the different national Churches of Europe, Asia, and Africa; the errors condemned by them were then, and ever have been, counted heresies; and the creeds set forth by them have been acknowledged, reverenced, and constantly repeated in the Liturgy, by every orthodox Church from that time to this.[11]

Thus then the true general synods have received an authority which they had not in themselves. “It is,” as the Lutheran Confession expresses it, “the legitimate way of healing dissension in the Church to refer ecclesiastical controversies to synods.”[12] But those synods have universal authority only when they receive catholic consent. When the Church at large has universally received their decrees, then are they truly general councils, and their authority equal to the authority of the Church itself.

Supposing then a synod to assemble, and to draw up articles of doctrine, or rules of discipline, even though it have been legally assembled by an authority qualified to convene it, and to insure attendance at it, still we hold it possible that it should err, not only in its mode of reasoning, or in matters indifferent, but “even in things pertaining to God.” Hence, when its decrees came forth, especially if they concerned things “necessary to salvation,” we should not esteem them to have strength nor authority “until they were compared with Holy Scripture, and could be declared to be taken out” of it. The council itself would be bound to decide on the grounds of Scripture, no power having the right to prescribe anything as “requisite or necessary to salvation, which is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby.” The Church would be bound to examine the decisions of the council itself, on the grounds of Scripture, and would not be justified in receiving those decisions unless it found that they were “taken out of Holy Scripture.” But when the Church had fully received, and stamped with its approval the acts of the council, then would they assume the form of judgments of the Church concerning the doctrines of Scripture.[13] This was the case with the great Councils of Nice Constantinople, Ephesus, and Chalcedon. They put forth their decisions as their interpretations of the word of God. They enjoined nothing “as necessary to salvation,” but what they “declared to have been taken out of Holy Scripture.” All Christendom received their interpretations as sound and true: and, from that day to this, they have been admitted by the Catholic Church as true articles of faith. This has stamped them with an authority of Scriptural truth, and Catholic consent, of which the constitution of the Councils themselves could not give us full certainty and assurance.[14]

3. Concerning the assertion of the Article, that “some general councils have erred,” Bishop Burnet justly observes that it “must be understood of councils that pass for such.” The later councils summoned by the Pope, and acknowledged only by the Western Churches and those in obedience to Rome, were commonly called General Councils at the time of the Reformation, as they still are in the Roman Church, though never acknowledged by the Churches of the East.[15]

Of these, the fourth Council of Lateran, under Innocent III. A. D. 1215, asserted the doctrine of Transubstantiation.[16] The Council of Constance, A. D. 1414, forbade the cup to the laity.[17] The Council of Florence, A. D. 1439, decreed the doctrine of Purgatory.[18] The Council of Trent added to the Nicene Creed a confession of belief in seven sacraments, Transubstantiation, Purgatory, Invocation of Saints, Image-worship, &c. &c.

The decrees of these councils, though called general, have never received the assent of the Eastern Churches, and cannot therefore be of universal authority. None of the above-mentioned doctrines, which they sanctioned, can be found in Scripture, but may all be proved to be contrary to Scripture. They are all denied in those Articles of our own Church which we have next to consider, and which we shall have to justify from Holy Writ. Hence, we can have no difficulty in concluding, that some (so-called) General Councils have erred, even in things pertaining to God.

[NOTE. The statement that General Councils may not be gathered “without the commandment and will of Princes,” probably caused the omission of this Article in the American revision. It should be remembered, however, that it is aimed against the Papal usurpation, and interference with the Civil power. The Pope — as in the famous dispute of Boniface VIII. and Philip le Bel — claimed the right of calling the clergy out of the several countries in which they lived, without the consent of the civil power, and the words above quoted were intended to meet this claim. So Bishop Burnet, Dr. Hey, Mr. Hardwicke, and even Mr. Newman in Tract XC. explain them. The student should specially bear in mind (a) the proper work of a General Council, and (b) its proper authentication. The first is, not to invent new Articles of faith, but to testify to, to set forth more carefully, and to guard antecedent truth. So that, while it is not an infallible judge, it may be a faithful witness. The second is found, not in the confirmation of the Pope or any other person, but in the acceptance of the Council by the entire Church. As to the rules laid down by some Romish writers, that a General Council must be called by the Pope, that he must preside, &c. they are all confuted by a simple reference to the four great General Councils. If those rules are sound, they were not General Councils; if they were General Councils, those rules are unfounded. — J. W.]


  1. Vincentius Lirinens. Commonit. c. 2.
  2. “Quid igitur faciet Christianus Catholicus, si se aliqua ecclesiæ particula ab universalis fidei communione præciderit? Quid utique nisi ut pestifero corruptoque membro sanitatem universi corporis anteponat? Quid si novella aliqua contagio non jam portiunculam tantum, sed totam pariter ecclesiam commaculare conetur? Tunc etiam providebit, ut antiquitati inhæreat, quæ prorsus jam non potest ab ulla novitatis fraude seduci. Quid si in ipsa vetustate, duorum aut trium hominum, vel certe civitatis unius aut etiam provinciæ alicujus error deprehendatur? Tunc omnino curabit ut paucorum temeritati vel inscitiæ si qua sunt universaliter antiquitus universalis Con cilii decreta præponat,” &c. — Commonit. c. 3.
  3. The Greeks number eight general councils, adding to the above six the second council of Nice under Irene and her son Constantine, A. D. 787, and the fourth of Constantinople, A. D. 869, under the Emperor Basil.
  4. Gregor. Epist. ad. Joann. Constantinop. Episc. Epistol. Lib. I. c. 24.
  5. I must assume that the Bishop of Rome had not that supremacy which the Pope has since claimed and exercised; though this is not the place to prove the assumption.
  6. “The judgment of Convocation concerning general Councils.” It is signed by “Thomas Cromwell, Thomas Cantuariensis, Johannes London, with thirteen bishops; and of abbots, priors, archdeacons, deans, proctors, clerks, and other ministers, forty-nine.” See Appendix to Cranmer’s Works, IV. p. 258; also Burnet, Reform. I. App. B. iii. No. 5; Collier, Eccl. Hist. II. App. 2037.
  7. See also “The Opinion of certain of the Bishops and clergy of this realm, subscribed with their hands touching the general Council,” probably A. D. 1537. It is signed by Cranmer as archbishop, eight other bishops, the Abbot of Westminster, and three others. — Jenkyns’s Cranmer, IV. p. 266.
  8. Heb. xiii. 7, 17. Compare Acts xx. 28‒31; Tit. i. 13; iii. 10, &c.
  9. See the sentiments of Bishop Ridley to this effect, corresponding to the wording of the Article. — Ridley’s Works, p. 130, Parker Society edition, Cambridge, 1841.
  10. ἕχω μὲν οὕτως. εἰ δεῖ τἀληθὲς γράϕειν, ὥστε πάντα σύλλογον ϕεύγειν ἐπίσκοπων, ὅτι μηδεμιᾶς συνόδου τέλος εἶδον χρηστον · μηδὲ λύσιν κακῶν μάλλον ἐσχηκυίας, ἢ προσθήκην. Αἱ γὰρ ϕιλονεικίαι καὶ ϕιλαρχίαι · ἀλλ’ ὅπως μηδὲ ϕορτικὸν ὑπολάβῃς οὕτω γράϕοντα · καὶ λόγου κρείττονες, κ. τ. λ. — Epist. 55, Procopio. Tom. I. p. 814, Colon. 1690.
  11. Not only episcopal churches have so admitted the decrees of the general councils, but that of the reformers and reformed bodies of Christians in Germany, Switzerland, &c. have admitted them, may appear both from their confessions and the writings of their divines — e. g. see Confess. August. Art. XXI.; Sylloge, p. 189; Calvin, Institut. IV. ix. 8, 13.
  12. “Hæc est usitata et legitima via in ecclesia dirimendi dissensiones, videlicet ad synodos referre controversias ecclesiasticas.” — Conf. August. ubi supra.
  13. Calvin, as above referred to, says: “Sic priscas illas synodos, ut Nicænam, Constantinopolitanam, Ephesinam primam, Chalcedonensem, ac similes, quæ confutandis erroribus habitæ sunt, libenter amplectimur, reveremurque ut sacrosanctas, quantum attinet ad fidei dogmata: nihil enim continent quam puram et nativam Scripturæ interpretationem quam sancti patres, spirituali prudentia, ad frangendos religionis hostes, qui tunc emerserant, accommodarunt.” — Institut. IV. ix. 8. Compare Confess. Helvet. Art. XI.; Sylloge, pp. 41, 42.
  14. On the subject of the authority of general synods, see Palmer, On the Church, Part IV. ch. 8; whose view is the same as that taken in the text.
  15. According to the Roman Church the First Council of Lateran summoned by Pope Calixtus II. A. D. 1123, was the 9th general Council. The other general councils allowed by the Latin Church are, Second Lateran, A. D. 1139. Third Lateran, 1179. Fourth Lateran, 1215. Lyons, 1245. Lyons, 1274. Vienne, 1311. Constance, 1414. Basle, 1431. Florence, 1439. Fifth Lateran, 1512. Trent, 1546.
  16. Conc. Lateran, IV. Can. I.
  17. Sess. XIII.
  18. Concil. Florent. De Purgat.


E. Harold Browne

(Edward) Harold Browne was an English bishop, born at Aylesbury and educated at Eton and Cambridge. He was ordained in 1836, and two years later was elected senior tutor of Emmanuel College, Cambridge. From 1843 to 1849 he was vice-principal of St David’s College, Lampeter, and in 1854 was appointed Norrisian professor of divinity at Cambridge. His best-known book is the Exposition of the Thirty-nine Articles (vol. i., Cambridge, 1850; vol. ii., London, 1853), which remained for many years a standard work on the subject and is still beloved today. In 1864 he was consecrated bishop of Ely.

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