We’re in a series of articles exploring the councils and creeds of the Christian church. Why? Because when it comes to faithfully and diligently working out our salvation with fear and trembling (Phil 2:12) we miss a great deal when we simply try to construct our own “real Christianity” with nothing more than a bible. To take heed from those who have gone before us is to benefit from the wealth found in the most important theological declarations of the Christian tradition.
Today we continue the series with a look at the council of Trent.
Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the church in Wittenburg in 1517. By the 1540s all attempts on the part of the Holy Roman Empire to bring peace between the protestants and the Catholic church have failed. The challenges held by the Reformers still required a response however, and so the Catholic church convened the council of Trent—held in three stages beginning in December 13, 1545 and ending in 1563 with a 235-to-1 vote in favour of the canons established there.
Put simply, the council’s purpose was to remedy the problems within the Catholic church that had caused the Reformers’ cries of protest. The reforms included correcting abuses of power by the clergy, clarifying the balance of power between the authority of Scripture and church tradition, and issuing official statements on the topics of justification, the sacraments, and purgatory.
Even today, we can see the abuses of power when a person in leadership holds authority at more than one level in a government or institution. Trent attempted to straighten out the potential for corruption through ruling that Bishops must be resident and serve only where they are placed, and not in more than one location. The most important institutional reform was the decision that (without admitting Luther was right) the selling of indulgences needed to be reigned in and come under tighter scrutiny.
Scripture, Tradition, and Revelation
The Reformers held to Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone) as the ultimate authority for life, with all other sources of guidance still highly regarded, but subordinate. Trent ruled differently however, determining that Scripture and the traditions of the church (passed down through Apostolic succession) held equal weight. Trent also recognised the Apocrypha as part of the Bible, contrasting the Reformers who held that the Hebrew Bible is the only legitimate Old Testament.
The most significant doctrinal issue discussed at Trent was how a sinful person comes to be justified before a holy God. Luther argued that all humans are sinful and condemned from birth, and we are saved by grace alone through faith alone, on the merits of Christ alone. The Catholic position however holds that humans work towards a state of being justified through God giving them opportunities to further develop and strengthen themselves into a person that is more acceptable to God. As we respond to God in the right way, our right decision shapes us further into the person He wants us to be, and in this way we prepare ourselves for justification.
Why it Matters
As Trent was a Catholic council, should we immediately assume that contemporary Christians have nothing to learn? The Reformers wanted to see Christians living without fear that the church had power or influence over salvation, or that God requires good works and merit in order to justify us. They wanted Scripture to be available to all believers (not just those who could read Latin), and they sought a hierarchy which cared for all people with fairness and transparency. Even today we see instances where people in church leadership hold more than one office in a denomination (this should not be so), or where people are taught that a man can be justified by his works (this comes in different shapes and packages). We can agree with Trent that the history and tradition of the church (those great men and women of faith on whose shoulders we stand) has much to offer us in living a fuller Christian life. We can further agree that man is not justified by his own works apart from divine grace through Jesus Christ, but that works are evidence of our salvation, not a requirement of it. Lastly, Trent helps us to think with more clarity about our Protestant beliefs by contrasting those things that Trent stands by that differ from our own—in this way we ask questions that seek with humility to take seriously our own faith and the richness of our shared heritage.
More articles in Councils & Creeds: