• Know the Creeds, Councils, Confession and Catechisms Part 9: Council of Trent

    Posted Jun 30th, 2017 By in Pastor Brian's Blog, Why We Believe What We Believe With | Comments Off on Know the Creeds, Councils, Confession and Catechisms Part 9: Council of Trent

    We have been surveying a number of important Christian Creeds, Confessions, Councils, and Catechisms with the goal of understanding what we believe and why we believe it and also so that we might understand the way our doctrine has developed over the centuries. This week is a slight deviation of that, in so far as this Council—the Council of Trent—is not a universally received council. In fact, as we will see, this is a response to the challenges from the Protestant reformers and reformation.

    Shortly after the Protestant Reformation erupted (ca. 1517) the Roman Catholic Church launched its Counter-Reformation (sometimes called the Catholic Reformation). It had to. The Roman Catholic Church was feeling the heat of the Protestant full court press and it needed to clarify its teaching and respond to concerns raised about and accusations against it. The Counter-Reformation was equal part response to the Protestant Reformation as well as proposed reforms to the Catholic Church in light of the concerns raised by the reformers. The formal place where these responses and reforms took place was at the Council of Trent. The council took place in three stages between 1545 and 1563 in the small northern Italian city of Trent. If the location choice seems strange it is because it was. Trent was a neutral city of sorts, assuaging concerns of prejudice if the meeting were to take place in Southern Italy. Trent’s northern location allayed any concerns those in Germany and France may have had.

    The issues at this council were—like the issues that sparked the Protestant Reformation—many and varied. For example, they tackled the issues of clergy reform—limiting power and especially limiting the ability to sell indulgences for those in purgatory. They ratified marriage as a sacrament rounding out the number of sacraments to seven. The reason this was an issue was because of the reformers’ insistence that there are only two sacraments. Also in response to the reformers, they took up the issue of Scripture’s authority, especially as it related to tradition. It was concluded that Scripture and tradition were to be given equal authority in determining what Christians are to believe and why they are to believe it. This position still exists and continues to be at the center of the rift between Protestants and Catholics.

    Perhaps most important of all was the conclusion Trent came to on the doctrine of Justification. Trent took place between 1545-1563. In 1541, however, there was a glimmer of hope that the division between Protestants and Catholics might be overcome. Evidently, a compromise was reached between both sides on the subject of justification at the Regensburg Colloquy but agreement on Papal authority and church tradition was lacking. Eventually both sides rejected the offers on the table. Fast forward four years. Enter Trent. It was at Trent that the Catholic Church distanced itself from the Protestants on this topic. While not as crass as it is often made out to be, the Catholics insisted on the necessity of good works for salvation, thus offering their version of infused righteousness—a righteousness that grows over time—to the antithesis Protestant position of imputed righteousness—a righteousness that is declared once and for all.

    Sometimes folks think that the differences between the Roman Catholic church and Protestants are cultural or semantic or tangential. Sometimes they are. But Trent shows us that they are, at the end of the day, deeply theological and hugely important for understanding what we believe and why we believe it. Until these are overcome there simply can never be any deep, strong, and lasting unity.

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    Pastor of New Life La Mesa Presbyterian Church in San Diego, CA.

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