Forsake Not thy Mother: An Essay on Conciliar Authority

“No one can have God as his father, who does not have the Church for his mother.” – St. Cyprian

“My son, hear the instruction of thy father, and forsake not the law of thy mother.” – Proverbs 1:8

Introduction

River Devereux has recently published a provocative essay dealing with several topics that should interest every Christian who thinks deeply about catholicity and the authority of Scripture. The main thrust of Mr. Devereux’s article was to consider how the individual interacts with and comes to understand Scripture, and upon what basis the believer comes to his or her own conclusions. After laying the foundation for the believer to be his own final authority, Mr. Devereux concludes that any believer guided by his own understanding of Scripture is free to reject not just Nicea II, but any council whether ecumenical or lower.

The essay in view is situated in the middle of a current dialogue between Mr. Devereux and Fr. Mark Perkins as it pertains to the religious veneration of images. This subject, as well as the ecumenical status of Nicea II, is a hotly debated topic. I do not wish to enter into the dialogue regarding whether we are to venerate images, or whether we should reject Nicea II. Rather, my focus is on the groundwork Mr. Devereux laid in order to reach his conclusion. It is my contention that forming these guiding principles in the context of Nicea II is unwise given the debates surrounding it. I think this concern is vindicated in the fact that Mr. Devereux’s own principles can implicate the reception of councils such as Nicea I, which confessed the deity of Christ. I believe there is a better way, and it is my hope that this present essay will assist in clearing a way forward.

The Word, the Church, and the Spirit

Mr. Devereux begins his project by considering how it is that we come to know supernatural truths. For him, the believer comes to know doctrines of faith from the Scriptures alone. He says, “There is simply no other source through which we can know about God’s Covenant or anything that our Lord ever said, did, or promises to do.” He then supports this claim with a citation from Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck about the Scriptures being the ground of faith. It is at this point that one of the concerns I have with Mr. Devereux’s essay arises. I think he conflates the objective grounds of our faith with the means or medium by which we come subjectively to know that faith for ourselves. It is what he contends and emphasizes about this theme of subjectivity that worries me. Doubtless, we all must subjectively consider the information presented to us, but this practical necessity and moral duty does not make us an authority unto ourselves such that we become the arbiters for what truth is to us. God has endowed man with reason and a conscience, but both can and do err. Man’s ability to err is why God has put believers into the community of the Church. I do not believe anyone within this discussion would say that we are to ground matters of faith upon anything but the Holy Scriptures. Mr. Devereux, however, would limit not only the grounds but also the means by which to know these truths: he would have us use no other means but (our own understanding of) the written Word of God. To do so sounds nice and pious, but my fear is that it instead runs contrary to what the Scriptures teach on this matter.

So what do the Scriptures say about the Church? The Apostle Paul in 1 Timothy 3:15 calls it the “house of God” and the “pillar and ground of truth.” One might be surprised to see the Apostle say this about the Church rather than the Scriptures themselves, especially since both sides admit that the Scriptures are the fountain of truth, the grounds upon which we establish matters of faith! But I don’t think we have to put such a harsh divide between the two. When we consider the source and origin of both the Church and the Scriptures, I believe we find the vital link that connects the two in a harmonious unity that prevents the competitive dichotomy often drawn between the two. That vital link, the source and origin of both, is none other than the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit that has inspired the Scriptures (2 Tim. 3:16), and it is the Spirit that creates the Church (1 Cor. 12:13). It is to the Church that the oracles of God have been entrusted, just as they were entrusted to the Jews of old (Rom. 3:2). Do you see the organic relation between the two? They are not enemies at odds with one another, but sweet friends directed to the same end and purpose (Eph. 4:10–13; 2 Tim. 3:16). The Spirit who inspired and preserved the Scriptures, it is he that has been promised to preserve apostolic doctrine; for we read in John 14:26 that the Holy Spirit “shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance.” Consider this vital link between the two found in the First Epistle of John 5:5–9 (KJV):

Who is he that overcometh the world, but he that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God? This is he that came by water and blood, even Jesus Christ; not by water only, but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit that bears witness, because the Spirit is truth. For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and thee three agree in one. If we receive the witness of men, the witness of God is greater: for this is the witness of God which he hath testified of his Son.

Christ in his baptism and death, called water and blood by metonymy, was shown to be the Son of God, and to this truth the Godhead testifies in heaven. This testimony is not only in heaven but on the earth as well! The water and blood poured out by Christ on the cross signified the creation of His Church, and is represented by the sacramental ministry of the Church. It is this ministry that bears witness to the Son of God on the earth. And what is the link between the divine testimony in heaven and its witness on the earth? The Spirit.

Remembering the parallels with the Old Covenant, we see that the role of the Jewish priests was that of instruction, not only for the people of Israel but as a light unto the Gentile world at large. This was the reason for which the oracles of God were entrusted to the Israelites, and especially the priesthood.[1] The same is true for the Church in the New Covenant. We see that our Lord’s commission to the Church, as embodied in her apostolic officers beginning with the Eleven, is that she go out and teach the world the sacred doctrine He gave to the Apostles. So how then are we to suppose that it is only through the Scriptures that we come to know divine truth, when Christ Himself has given His Church for the purpose of being a guide and instructor for the attainment of this truth? Is this not what we see when Phillip instructs the Ethiopian eunuch? The eunuch had the Scripture in his hands to read, but he could not understand it. Without Philip there as a guide, what would Mr. Devereux say the eunuch was to do? Make sense of it on his own and follow his own understanding? No, the eunuch needed a faithful guide. We must then conclude that the authority of the Church stems from its connection to the Spirit, just as the Scripture’s authority comes from its own connection to this same Spirit.

With One Voice

Having considered the nature of the Church’s teaching ministry, and established that it has such a ministry, we come to a question that Mr. Devereux poses in his essay: If we are to believe the Church’s teaching, then we naturally must ask, “What Church?” One of the problems I see in his essay is the seemingly equivocal usage of “church.” Mr. Devereux will go from speaking to the Church in a local parish setting, to being synonymous with the opinions of a single bishop, all the way up to a council and even an ecumenical council. This only further obfuscates the issue at hand because we move from one sense to another without any proper distinction. We would agree with Mr. Devereux, and with our formularies, that churches have erred both in doctrine and in practice (Article 19). But what is in view here? Not the universally accepted rulings of an ecumenical council, but individual and national churches. The mere fact that a Church bears a derivative divine authority does not make its every pronouncement infallible, as history itself attests. Yet we maintain that this promise of the Spirit to lead the Church to all truth does not reside in one man or office, but to the Church as a whole. Thus we argue that the Church, when she is gathered in ecumenical fashion and when she speaks on matters of faith, speaks with the voice of Christ, governed by the Spirit of unity and truth. What do the Scriptures say on this point? Consider, in Acts 15, when the Church gathers as a whole to decide upon the Galatian heresy. Who do Paul and Barnabas seek out on this matter? Surely, as an Apostle, Paul has authority to rule on matters of faith. Yet he and Peter came at odds on this matter. So, the definitive ruling on this dispute came not from a single Apostle, but from all the Apostles and elders gathered together (Acts 15:2). And what do we see? The Spirit guided them and instructed them through the Scriptures to rule on this matter, such that the Apostles’ letter is sent out not just with their authority, but with the authority of the Holy Spirit (Acts 15:28). Doubtless, those who considered themselves Christians and were in favor of the Galatian heresy were convinced in their own consciences on the matter that the observance of Moses’ law was necessary. Yet, Mr. Devereux’s position would seem to lead them to feel vindicated against the Apostles themselves in continuing in their heresy for conscience’s sake. Are there not times when reason leads us to subject our conscience for correction under the authority of those placed over us? My children’s consciences very well may feel free to stay up past their bedtime, but my authority over them is for their good in forming and shaping their conscience accordingly. So it is with the guidance of the Church on matters of faith. Not every individual believer possesses the fullness of the Spirit to guide and lead infallibly on every dispute of faith; but we can believe firmly that, when the Church agrees in undivided unity, the Spirit is at work for the edification of the Church toward the blessing of eternal life.

The Conscience

Mr. Devereux places great emphasis on the conscience, and rightly so. We must be careful, however, not to make our conscience the grounds of truth, a pitfall I believe Devereux’s position implicitly leads to. First, we must recognize that our conscience is an act of applying our knowledge. This is a truth Fr. Perkins gets at in his essay when he indicates that underlying the dispute concerning images is how we as Christians come to the knowledge of the truth. In discussing how we come to know the truth, we distinguish between a natural knowledge (that is, a knowledge that stems from natural law and how we order our lives based on that truth) and a supernatural knowledge (that is, specifically the knowledge specially revealed to us by God in his Word concerning the salvation of man). The conscience acts to apply our knowledge of what is morally good, and what is not, in order to evaluate our actions (and in this context, to evaluate the veracity of the articles of faith) as we pursue what is true, good, and beautiful. Our conscience is not how we come to a knowledge of truth, but is that act whereby we evaluate the knowledge we already possess as it’s applied to an act or belief. Thus, our conscience doesn’t make something true, even for our individual selves only, but evaluates the moral aspects to an act of belief. I think there is implicit in Mr. Devereux’s view an idea that every believer’s conscience is well equipped for discerning supernatural truth. But we recognize that sin corrupts our natural faculties, and therefore that our restoration is not immediate and complete, but is a process of conforming ourselves to the divine image, of which man now partakes anew in Christ. Grace is needed. Our conscience, just like other natural powers, is something that must be trained and formed toward its proper end and right use. A conscience that has been seared by sin, or has not been properly formed, is not a good or safe guide in evaluating these matters. As Thomas Aquinas says, a conscience, even an erring one, binds.[2] This conscience, however, is not an authority unto itself, such that the individual can disregard any authority over himself. To do so would be a complete overthrow of the natural order. In the end, one must follow his own conscience, but he must make every effort to have his conscience properly formed by the authorities placed over him. This is the function of the Church, as it serves as a guide to the believer.

The Form of Sound Words

One of Mr. Devereux’s points is that even the creeds of the Church are to be subjected to the conscience of the believer, insofar as they are helpful aids in the believer’s faith. As we’ve shown, however, the conscience isn’t always a stable guide in these matters: it needs to be shaped and formed in accordance with the truth. So what is the believer to do if he doesn’t find the Nicene creed to be helpful? There’s a lot to consider on this point. First, consider the believer who wants to assent to the doctrine contained therein, but has concerns or questions about the specific formulation of a doctrine, such as what it means that we believe in “one baptism for the remission of sins.” In this questioning, the believer is not seeking to disagree with the Church’s teaching, but is inquiring into the teaching itself. Say, however, there is instead a believer who wishes to dispute this teaching, and would prefer instead not to tie regeneration to baptism but would rather exclude the sacrament from this act of God. Or, perhaps in an area we should all agree upon, what if someone were to reject the teaching that Jesus is of the same substance as the Father? Is one in his own conscience permitted to disagree with this truth? Sure, but at great peril to his soul! There is a reason the Apostle enjoins us to “hold fast the form of sound words” that we have received (2 Tim. 1:13). It is one thing to seek to clarify sound words, which the Church is free and permitted to do as she has in the past; but it is another thing altogether to reject and depart from the substance of these sound words. To reject that which the Church has defined as necessary to believe is to place ourselves at odds with the Church and to bring forth confusion. Why would we seek to reinstitute the confusion of Babel when the Spirit of God has given us a form of sound words to adhere to? We would do well to hold fast to the instruction and law of the Church, which is our mother (Gal. 4:26; Prov. 1:8), lest we find ourselves without a Father.

Conclusion

Many things could be addressed in Mr. Devereux’s essay, but I think the above is sufficient to further the dialogue on the relationship between the Spirit and the Church, and on the believer’s position in relation to the Church’s teaching. It must be said that Mr. Devereux’s essay is an important one that poses serious questions we all must wrestle with. I wholeheartedly agree with the emphasis on Sola Scriptura, but we must be careful to follow it faithfully and not diverge into a strict biblicism so many easily fall into when divorced from Tradition. Scripture alone is our final authority from which matters of faith are to be resolved. It is in the Scriptures alone that doctrines of faith are to be found, and not in the words of mere councils and men. But this is not at the expense of the true authority the Church possesses, in part because the Scriptures themselves bear witness to this truth! It should be noted that Mr. Devereux’s view would largely be impossible for the average believer during the majority of the Church’s existence. In a day where Bibles are easily accessible, it’s easy to forget that for most of the history of the Church these material conditions were not so. To what would Mr. Devereux direct individual believers prior to the mass production of Bibles? We would direct them to the Church, the pillar and ground of truth. I firmly believe that most of the contention made between the authority of the Church and the authority of the Scriptures can be resolved when we consider the vital link between the two: the Spirit of truth and unity, who gives both Scripture and Church for the edification of the saints. When the Church speaks, we would do well not to forsake the law of our Mother.

Notes:

  1. For references to this teaching ministry to the nations, consider Malachi 2:7 and Numbers 29:12–34 together with Genesis 10: 70 bulls are offered for the 70 nations of Genesis 10.
  2. Thomas Aquinas, Disputed Question on Truth 17.2 translated in Selected Writings (London: Penguin Group, 1998), 231–36.

 


Cory Byrum

Cory is a native of the great state of Arkansas who is currently in exile in Virginia, and is a layman in the APA. He is interested in the ecumenical dialogue amongst Protestant denominations, as well as between Protestants and Roman Catholics. With a background particularly in Presbyterian theology, Cory enjoys discussing the theological differences between Presbyterian and traditional Anglican doctrine with a pursuit of a Reformed Catholicity. He is a husband to his delightful wife Emily, and father to three wonderful children: Calvin, Elias, and Ella.


'Forsake Not thy Mother: An Essay on Conciliar Authority' have 6 comments

  1. August 15, 2022 @ 12:42 pm Connor Perry

    Thank you for writing this article! I’ve enjoyed keeping up with this discussion and I am pleased to see another voice chiming in.
    Unfortunately, I do have some concerns with what you’ve written–full disclosure, while it was rough around some edges I did approve of Mr. Devereux’s article to which you are responding to. However, this is not so much a defense of his article as my own criticism of yours.
    The problem I have with your article is the oversight of the most important piece of this puzzle: knowing when or when not the Church is teaching “universally”. This is central to the current debate and I noticed more than once your writing was in dire need of addressing this point. Now, for some the answer may seem obvious, they may think: “well, I will simply cleave unto the decisions of an ecumenical council. That is, after all, the ruling of the whole Church catholic.”
    Unfortunately, that is not so easy. As if the Council is claiming universal representation, it needs to define what is and is not the “universal whole”. But lets say a council of two-hundred bishops is called, it makes some anathema’s, including whosoever was not represented at the council–but their reasoning for those being represented is because they are “not true Christians or members of the Church Universal.” However, what if four-hundred bishops who were not present take issue with being anathema’ed? Now you could say, “well clearly the majority of the Church was not in attendance.” But the basic claim of the council was “the majority–in fact, everyone–was in attendance, the rest of them are all heretics and cut off from the Church of Christ.” This may seem absurd, but I would point to the Robber Council of Ephesus, as well as all Western councils post Nicaea II, as well as the Arian Ascendancy during which St. Athanasius was persecuted.
    I hope it should be plain to see–unless you were to appeal to Majoritarianism (whoever has the most numbers is right) then you have no way of knowing on a surface level who is truly the Church and not the Church without a thorough, individual investigation. The appeal to Majoritarianism undermines the entire Reformation and also the entirety of the Apostolic mission, who disobeyed the Majority of the presumed “covenant people” (the Sanhedrin) because they were inspired to do so by none other than the witness of the Spirit in their conscience.
    > “We would agree with Mr. Devereux, and with our formularies, that churches have erred both in doctrine and in practice (Article 19). But what is in view here? Not the universally accepted rulings of an ecumenical council, but individual and national churches.”

    I will ignore bringing up the elephant in the room (Article 21) for the present conversation. But you presupposed “universally accepted” as implying that whosoever does not accept is not a member of the Universal Church. But in order to do this, I fear you may try to cite the ecumenical council with supposed “universal acceptance” and thus end up utterly circular. Defining the limits of the Church by the council is essentially as good as saying “well those in attendance claimed, and therefore the claim is true, because they claimed they were the only persons necessary to be in attendance.”
    Furthermore, who is the Church? Am I not a member of the Church? And yet why do I not feel very represented by this supposed “universal” council. Many times in Christian History, the locality claimed the majority was not universal and radically disobeyed what it viewed as a veritable Sanhedrin twisting the clear word of God. You cannot say, “well they were opposing a false ecumenical council because I believe so-and-so wasn’t represented” because the council itself was claiming that they did not need to be. You cannot be a Majoritarian and criticize the what the council says. Whereas these individual “rebels” (many of whom I count as assuredly saints in heaven) simply made their determinations by a simple declaration: “we must obey God rather than man.” For, as best as they could tell by Faith and Reason, it was the majority who was in disobedience and rebellion, not themselves.
    The theology of disobedience is sorely lacking in this article, and it seems to presuppose a clear Church to see and answer to, when in reality the diverse sectarianism that infects us leads to a choice between many competing members that can have dire consequences on a person’s view of whom we would consider to be their fellow Christians. I know the Russian Orthodox don’t consider me to be a member of the Church. Who’s to say they’re wrong? Why should I even care what a Lutheran says on any issue? After all, they don’t commune me. Vatican I says the Pope can speak infallibly under certain conditions–clearly everyone who rejects that is simply a schismatic disobeying the mother Church.
    Reason is how we come to know. Our reason is also errant, but we have no recourse but to use our senses in order to exist. Should we critically examine ourselves? Absolutely. Should we be willing to accept that we are in error? Absolutely. But this should come from being convinced by the reason of another in humility, not submission to perceived numbers. I agree the conscience needs proper training, checks and balances, so on and so forth; I also agree that the Church is to be treated with the respect and authority of a mother. But it is crucial that we reserve the right to say to our mother: “wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?”

    Reply

    • August 15, 2022 @ 2:28 pm River Devereux

      Very fitting that the image chosen is of St Peter’s, Mr. Byrum’s article, while constructing a strawman of mine, is far from Protestantism.

      Reply

      • August 20, 2022 @ 5:54 am Greg

        Very fitting indeed when one remembers that it was the corrupt and unbiblical practice surrounding the sale of Indulgences that funded the building of Saint Peter’s in Rome.

        Reply

  2. August 15, 2022 @ 2:44 pm Hugh McCann

    Mr Byrum & NAA,
    Where is the title of the essay being critiqued?
    Or the debate ‘twixt Devereaux & Perkins?
    Please let us know. Many thanks!

    Reply

  3. August 17, 2022 @ 8:58 am Simon

    I found the article very interesting. There does seem to be an unbridled individualism in mr. Devereux article. A question I would have as pertains to the church’s authority:
    Do you believe that Ecumenical Councils are infallible? I do believe that the are authoritative and “most probably inerrant “ but not sure of being infallible as scripture is. Would like to hear you thoughts on the matter.

    Reply

  4. August 23, 2022 @ 6:49 am Brad Kafer

    River and Cory are articulating something very similar.
    I think Cory misunderstood River at some level or is at least misrepresenting him by characterizing his essay as “strict Biblicism” which it clearly is not!
    This is from Cory’s essay:
    “Scripture alone is our final authority from which matters of faith are to be resolved. It is in the Scriptures alone that doctrines of faith are to be found, and not in the words of mere councils and men…”
    Amen.
    The words of mere councils. Councils can err and have erred. River wholeheartedly receives and upholds Nicea 1. Many Biblicists do not. I grew up around the people who said “Trinity is not in the Bible” yikes! That is not what River is arguing for at all. This is no “jus me n muh Bible” fundamentalism. He said when the Map is proven reliable he will trust the Map even over his experience aka he will go with sound orthodoxy from the past because he has come to trust its reliability.
    Nicea 2 is the elephant in the room that Cory avoided. Nicea 2 was not received in Anglicanism historically. It was not even recognized initially in the West as has been shown in this series of Articles. If councils err and are the words of men then regional and national churches, yes, and even individual Christians, are bound to weigh them against the Scriptures. Were not the Bereans commended for searching the Scriptures to see if the Apostles’ doctrine was true? How much more are we to be commended for searching the Scriptures to judge lesser fallible authorities!?!

    I don’t think Cory has properly responded to River’s groundwork at all. He actually has significant overlap with what River has argued all along, yet he also seems to be unclear on whether the Church can actually err or not.

    We all have our convictions and conscience. We all submit to truth as we know best to do. And yes, obviously, we need to have a conscience formed, shaped, and bound by the word of God, and the Church can, does, and should help with that, nevertheless, when it comes to mere councils and other secondary authorities outside of Scripture we must search the Scriptures to see if these things are true and then accept that which is good and reject that which is apparently false.
    And when our conscience is bound by the Word of God it is neither wise nor proper to violate conscience even if we stand against the whole visible church. Here I stand. I can do no other. So help me God.

    I embrace the Church because she is my mother and the pillar and buttress of the truth, but I do not receive everything as infallible, because she is not Scripture. The Church is under Scripture’s authority.

    This is the clear logic of the Articles in their reception of the Creeds:

    Article 8 – Of the Three Creeds
    The Three Creeds, Nicene Creed, Athanasius’s Creed, and that which is commonly called the Apostles’ Creed, ought thoroughly to be received and believed: for they may be proved by most certain warrants of holy Scripture.

    Reply


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