Trent’s Authority and Its Interpretation of Luther

by Matthew Gaetano

A friend of the Regensburg Forum, Darryl Hart, has undertaken a dialogue with me about the authority of the Council of Trent, among other things. This will certainly not be the last time that we address this topic here. But I thought that I could offer some more substantial evidence for my claims about Trent’s limited scope, limits that obtain even if one were to have a very high view of conciliar authority–indeed, of the infallibility of councils.

In his essay, “Luther and the Council of Trent,” Roman Catholic historian, Erwin Iserloh (d. 1996), states that most Tridentine Fathers did not have a detailed understanding of Lutheran teaching.  Cardinal Reginald Pole was rather troubled that most of the statements being rejected by the Council were from lists of “errors” compiled since the 1520s by Catholic controversialists. He was especially concerned when it came to the doctrine of justification “on which our entire salvation hangs” (166-67). Pole wanted the council fathers to read the books of the Lutherans without bias–to avoid the perspective that “Luther has said it; thus, it is false.” He thought that truth often lies hidden in error and that an error’s success is often based precisely on the truth which it contains. As far as the sources for the decree on justification, Andreas de Vega was one of the theologians relied upon for the Council’s deliberations and a figure who knew Luther’s writings better than most. But even he often based his interpretations upon Luther’s writings from 1519-1521–and occasionally at third hand through the mediation of controversialists. Iserloh sums it up: “From this data, it is to be concluded that the Reformation opinions, collected, abbreviated, and cited in the lists of errors, were understood by the council fathers without a knowledge of their context and often not in their original sense” (167).

Anyone who has spent time grappling with Luther must realize that such an approach is obviously not the best for presenting an interpretation of such a complex thinker. If some teacher presented Luther in class by way of third-hand Catholic controversialists and based his interpretation only on his writings before 1521, would anyone see this as the proper way for developing a full account of Martin Luther’s soteriology?

While this is a troubling realization, we might point out, first of all, that a rich historical account of Lutheran soteriology was (for good or for ill) not the Council’s goal. One might lean on the actual words found in the decree on justification before the canons, which say that the canons exist “so that all may know, not only what they must hold and follow, but also what they ought to shun and avoid.” They don’t say that they will provide a handy guide to a scholarly engagement with the views of Martin Luther.

Iserloh points out that a choice was made not to name any of the Reformers. This fact is a significant one. Previous councils certainly named names (e.g., Wyclif at Constance, Arius at Nicaea, etc.). Iserloh tells us that canon law was clear that “no one should be condemned who has not previously been heard” (168). A bishop of the Council said, “The heretics are to be summoned to the council in order to give an account of their teachings, or to confess their errors, as was done at other councils.” But Protestant theologians were not cited before the council. As Iserloh says, “no Reformers were condemned. Only teachings which one imputed to them were placed under the anathema, without they themselves being mentioned by name.” And this was a procedure that came down from the highest levels, with Cardinal Farnese instructing the Council that heretical teachings should be condemned, not expressly named persons. In the words of the great historian of the Council, Hubert Jedin, the Council of Trent never became “a tribunal.” Perhaps there was some naiveté here, but part of the motivation for this approach (besides its roots in canon law) was to “keep the way to Trent open to the Protestants” (168).

Some canons, it is important to note, were obviously not directed at the Reformers: the first three canons, for instance, were directed against Pelagianism. In some of the decrees, the Council criticizes Anabaptist or Zwinglian views that certainly could not be found in Lutheran writings. We can also see the limited scope of the Council of Trent by attending to the fact that it did not wade into medieval scholastic controversies over the moral or physical causality of the sacraments or the intra-scholastic dispute over the level of certainty attainable regarding one’s being in a state of grace. Jedin points out that this limited scope arises from “the clear consciousness of the fundamental difference between the teaching office and theology.” Iserloh elaborates: “In the face of error, the teaching office sets the boundaries of the field of truth. It is not accidental that the canons are formulated negatively. The task of theology is to develop the field that has been marked out over against error. Here a pluralism is possible. The teaching office claims definitively to condemn error as not compatible with revelation. That does not imply, however, that the teaching office has at its disposal sufficient arguments to establish the negatively formulated condemnation” (169 – emphasis added). Jedin talks about the Council as setting ” official doctrinal limits” rather than providing a complete theology of justification (or original sin, penance, the Eucharist, etc.)

In his essay on “The Canons of the Tridentine Decree on Justification,” Otto Hermann Pesch, another Roman Catholic scholar of Luther and also a Dominican friar, goes through the canons and deals with their actual bases in Lutheran sources. Before getting underway, however, he observes that the Council of Trent’s decree on justification, especially the chapters, did not exist exclusively to reject errors associated with Lutheranism but also to “provide preachers at least the outline of a Catholic doctrine of justification” (177). So, this shows that we need to read the Council as having multiple purposes. Pesch’s article as a whole would, at the very least, provide a fascinating point of departure for further (even critical) inquiry. Pesch is quite willing to argue that many of the canons, even those which took aim at Lutheran teachings, failed to hit the target in part because of the limited sources available to the Tridentine fathers. Again, this is not to say that Trent utterly misunderstood Luther or that it missed the target in every instance. On the contrary, I’ve spent a great deal of time with the Tridentine theologian, Domingo de Soto, and, despite some important problems, I have often found his interpretations of Lutheran soteriology (and Trent) quite illuminating. But we must still take into consideration the Council’s limited access to the complexity of Luther’s soteriology.

While I would be willing to criticize aspects of Trent’s approach (which doesn’t seem to be out of keeping with contemporary practice), this does not in itself undermine the binding character of Trent’s condemnations of particular assertions (understood in the terms widely embraced by the Tridentine fathers, I would think). It remains the case–as far as I know–that those who affirm those teachings anathematized at Trent could be disciplined by bishops in communion with the Bishop of Rome. (We’ll talk about what anathema meant in the sixteenth century at some point in the future.) But perhaps a (very) brief discussion of what is meant by the authority and infallibility of councils and popes is in order here. It’s been suggested that I have been setting the bar too low when talking about conciliar authority. I won’t belabor the point about the distinctions–made long before Vatican II–between what is ex cathedra or not (if we are talking about the pope) or what is disciplinary or doctrinal. Instead, I’ll draw from James Heft’s essay on “Papal Infallibility and the Marian Dogmas,” to point out that, even if we don’t want “low bars,” we are perhaps on safer ground in encouraging caution with the doctrines pertaining to infallibility. John Henry Newman said in “A Letter to the Duke of Norfolk” that “the principle of minimizing” was necessary “for a wise and cautious theology.” Much later, Yves Congar talked about a tendency to “inflate the category of infallibility” so that it at times begins to cover all sorts of papal utterances and so on (49).

But some might object that this is just what one might expect from modest Roman Catholic theologians and historians who are somewhat embarrassed by the strong language of papal and conciliar statements. (To be clear, I am not at all suggesting that this is a fair characterization of Newman and Congar.) But we certainly couldn’t dismiss what the Council Fathers at the First Vatican Council said while they were putting together their definition of papal infallibility.

  1. Bishop Gasser stated: “Papal infallibility is in no sense absolute, for absolute infallibility belongs to God alone. … Every other infallibility, inasmuch as it is communicated for a certain purpose, has its limits and conditions” (emphasis added).
  2. Vatican I clearly distinguished–in a way, arguably, that Trent did not–between “faith and morals” and matters which “pertain to discipline and Church government.”
  3. In the official expositio, Gasser explains that the direct object of infallibility is revealed truth. There is also an indirect object–those truths “intimately bound up with revealed dogmas” that are “necessary to protect, to expound correctly, and to define efficaciously in all its integrity the deposit of faith.” These “dogmatic facts” that are part of the “indirect object” of infallibility “do not belong directly to the deposit of faith, but are necessary for its protection.”

So, to talk about the limits of Trent seems well within the scope of even Vatican I’s teaching (point #1). And, while Lutheran soteriology has implications for “faith and morals” (point #2), the accurate interpretation of Lutheran soteriology itself is obviously not part of revealed truth (point #3).

It is quite clear to me that it would not be part of the “indirect object” either. It is worth noting, however, that the Fathers of Vatican I, according to Heft, disagreed over the “precise content of the indirect object of infallibility.” Even Vatican II leaves this issue of the indirect object (i.e., the dogmatic facts necessary for the protection of the deposit of faith in divine revelation) rather unclear. Lumen Gentium says that infallibility extends “as far as the deposit of revelation.” The commentary on the Vatican II texts states: “The object of the infallibility of the Church, thus expounded, has the same extension as the revealed deposit; it therefore extends to all those things and only to those things which either directly touch upon the revealed deposit or which are required for religiously guarding and faithfully explaining the revealed deposit” (emphasis added). Heft concludes this discussion as follows: “While the object of infallibility is therefore limited to matters of faith and morals, there does not seem to be any consensus to this day as to which unrevealed truths are in fact necessary to protect revealed ones” (51). So, there is admittedly some debate on this point, but I don’t know anyone who would see incorrect conclusions about the evolution of Luther’s teachings or about the shape of Lutheran soteriology as undermining the Council of Trent’s infallibility, as understood not only by Lumen Gentium but even by Vatican I.

Again, my goal is not to open up a discussion about popes and councils and infallibility as such. I’d prefer that we focus on the “Augustinian legacy” and other matters more central to the aims of the Regensburg Forum. But I thought that some information about the limits of the Council of Trent and some preliminary remarks about how to think about those limits in light of the Roman Catholic Church’s traditional views of the infallibility of councils and the pope might be useful for future conversations.

6 thoughts on “Trent’s Authority and Its Interpretation of Luther

  1. Matt, part of what I’m trying to get at is the claim that the papacy and magisterium were part of God’s design to protect the church from error and apostasy. That is clearly the claim made by some (and I’m pretty sure I could find it in RC sources — maybe even Bellarmine). So an implication of what you are arguing is something at odds with that claim. If bishops can misunderstand error (which I think is true but I’m a Protestant), they how can they protect the faithful from error.

    Part of the reason that the Westminster Confession claims that synods and councils err, is to counteract Rome’s claim that the church does not err.

    And yes, the Westminster Assembly could err. The way we address that is to revise or amend the confession, which is a different endeavor the way Trevor explained Vat 2’s redirection of Roman Catholicism? What Protestants would do is either reject Trent and write a new confession, or amend Trent.

    My sense is that Vat 2 could not do this because of the legacy and self-understanding that the church does not err.

  2. You made a point in our last thread about the role of scholarship vs. ecclesiastical authority in determining what position a thinker actually holds (and what dangers it might have, etc.). You raise an important question that I hope we can unpack in the future. There are times where (as you indicated in your comment) we are not really dealing with misunderstandings or mischaracterizations as much as with a perspective on the implications of a certain theological claim. For example, I think that Catholic theologians knew that John Calvin explicitly denied that God is the author of sin. But they believed that his view of free choice required such a conclusion, regardless. I am certainly not endorsing this perspective, but you are right to point out that we can’t rule out such a possibility from the outset when we are dealing with a *theological* analysis. So, we need to take it on a case-by-case basis, it seems.

    As far as your comment here, I believe that you are mistaken about the nature of ecclesiastical authority, and I think that I have provided substantial evidence for my conviction (from Trent, Vatican I, Vatican II, and good theologians). You have not refuted or reinterpreted that evidence or brought forth better evidence for your view.

    I quoted the official exposition of Vatican I–how can I be accused of watering down papal authority?

    The Roman Catholic belief is that the Church is protected from leading the faithful into error about things held de fide. It is protected from *defining* something for belief by the faithful that is an error. I have not questioned that conviction here. As I’ve said quite a few times, you are extending this protection far beyond those limits, limits that were understood and set forth long before Vatican II.

    If you have evidence for your broader perspective, I’d be happy to consider it.

    1. Matt, Over on the Calvin/Aquinas thread, I quoted the catechism. Here it is:

      2032 The Church, the “pillar and bulwark of the truth,” “has received this solemn command of Christ from the apostles to announce the saving truth.”74 “To the Church belongs the right always and everywhere to announce moral principles, including those pertaining to the social order, and to make judgments on any human affairs to the extent that they are required by the fundamental rights of the human person or the salvation of souls.”75

      2033 The Magisterium of the Pastors of the Church in moral matters is ordinarily exercised in catechesis and preaching, with the help of the works of theologians and spiritual authors. Thus from generation to generation, under the aegis and vigilance of the pastors, the “deposit” of Christian moral teaching has been handed on, a deposit composed of a characteristic body of rules, commandments, and virtues proceeding from faith in Christ and animated by charity. Alongside the Creed and the Our Father, the basis for this catechesis has traditionally been the Decalogue which sets out the principles of moral life valid for all men.

      2034 The Roman Pontiff and the bishops are “authentic teachers, that is, teachers endowed with the authority of Christ, who preach the faith to the people entrusted to them, the faith to be believed and put into practice.”76 The ordinary and universal Magisterium of the Pope and the bishops in communion with him teach the faithful the truth to believe, the charity to practice, the beatitude to hope for.

      2035 The supreme degree of participation in the authority of Christ is ensured by the charism of infallibility. This infallibility extends as far as does the deposit of divine Revelation; it also extends to all those elements of doctrine, including morals, without which the saving truths of the faith cannot be preserved, explained, or observed.77

      2036 The authority of the Magisterium extends also to the specific precepts of the natural law, because their observance, demanded by the Creator, is necessary for salvation. In recalling the prescriptions of the natural law, the Magisterium of the Church exercises an essential part of its prophetic office of proclaiming to men what they truly are and reminding them of what they should be before God.78 END OF QUOTE

      And I believe, Vat 2 said that the laity are still required to submit to the magisterium.

      I’m not sure what I misunderstand about papal/church authority. This is pretty crucial to the Reformation debates. If churches err, their authority is subject to revision and ongoing evaluation. If the church is infallible like the Bible is, then revision and ongoing evaluation are not so easy.

  3. Though Vatican I should go a long way to establish my point, perhaps Suarez and Bellarmine (since you mentioned him) would help to shore up the (rather modest) claim that I’ve been making.

    Here is Suarez – from his polemic against James I:

    “There is…a received distinction about the Pontiff qua believer, as he is a private person, or qua teacher, as he is a Pontiff. For we say that the promise of Christ pertains to him as taken in the second way; for in this way he is the rock on whose firmness depends in its kind the firmness of the Church. But in this way no trace of heresy is shown by heretics in the whole succession of Supreme Pontiffs. But, when considering the person of the Pontiff in the first way, even Catholics are in controversy about whether a Pontiff could be a heretic [note – not merely making historical mistakes], and the quarrel is still undecided whether some Pontiff was, not by presumption alone, but really such. But this question does not pertain to the foundations of faith, and therefore we now pass it over. And for the sake of avoiding controversy we easily grant that it is not necessary for the promise of Christ to extend to the person of the Pontiff as he is one of the individual believers. … [Regarding] the errors that are attributed to the Pontiffs, we say briefly that it is one thing to speak about the decrees of Pontiffs insofar as they thereby define something or approve it as to be believed or observed by the Universal Church; it is another thing to speak of the private judgments, opinions, or reasons of Pontiffs. For in the present treatise we are treating of the former decrees, and in them is found no false dogma that Pontiffs handed down by way of definition and proposed to the Church for belief. … But in private judgments or opinions, or even in the reasons which they sometimes use, as it is not necessary that in these they have the certitude of faith, so it is not necessary that they have infallible truth in them either, because this is neither necessary for the firmness or purity of the faith of the Universal Church, nor is it even consonant with the mind and intention of the same Pontiffs. For by the very fact that they are speaking by way of opinion or human valuation, they profess that they are speaking with human reason and wisdom, not with the infallible assistance of the Holy Spirit.” (47-48)

    “The Holy Spirit teaches everyone then in an ordered way, namely the common people through teachers, and the teachers themselves through Councils and especially through the Vicar of Christ. … The interior grace of the Holy Spirit is necessary for conceiving faith, and in this way ‘all are taught of God,’ as Augustine…everywhere expounds against the Pelagians. But pastors and doctors of the Church are by more special helps and gifts taught by the Holy Spirit, as far as is expedient for the common good of the Church; and so, for the most part, this is not done through express revelations, nor through infallible judgment, but to the extent necessary and as much as the status and duties of each require. But the Great Pontiff and legitimate Councils, when they define something, teach it through a singular assistance such that they cannot err, lest they lead the whole Church into error.” (80)

    For Suarez, the Holy Spirit’s guidance extends quite far, but infallibility remains a “singular assistance” directed to the common good of the Church, etc. And note that, when Suarez talks about popes and councils, he is speaking about *definitions*, not about all the reasons that back up those definitions, not about what these people think as private believers, etc. And the reason for this special assistance of the Holy Spirit is to prevent the whole Church being led into error about what it holds with the certitude of faith. The content and motivations, etc., of Lutheran soteriology is not part of the “one faith” (Ephesians 4:5). I don’t hold my convictions regarding the shape of Luther’s outlook with the certitude of faith.

    As far as Bellarmine, I think that I found a case in his treatise on the papacy from On Controversies that is pretty close to what we have been talking about. He is dealing here (487) with objections to papal infallibility. Bellarmine is taking up examples of “papal errors” presented by Calvin, Flaccius, and others. Pope Zephyrinus (d. 217) was accused by some (it seems) of leaning towards Montanism. The details do not matter as much as how Bellarmine deals with the possibility–of which the Jesuit was deeply suspicious–that the pope did in fact fail to criticize the Montanist heresy:

    “It is credible that Zephyrinus the Pope was persuaded by the Montanists that the doctrine of Montanus was not different from the doctrine of the Roman Church and that this pope wanted to restore peace to them, which his predecessors took away. Certainly, this is not approving the error, which those before him disapproved, but rather judging that the Montanists had been accused falsely of these errors. But this is not to err concerning the faith, nor is it to ‘montanize,’ as Rhenanus falsely says, but instead to err concerning a person, a thing which has happened to many other holy men.”

    Bellarmine goes on to give other examples: Arius’ deception of Constantine and Pelagius’ attempt to deceive some bishops “with a confession of their faith that they might appear to be Catholics despite the fact that they were not.”

    That is quite parallel to what we have been discussing, no? Of course, thinking that someone is not a heretic is very different from ascribing heresy to someone. But the error is essentially the same: an error “concerning a person” rather than one “concerning the faith.” And Bellarmine does not appear to find such errors “concerning persons” deeply troubling for his “high” view of papal infallibility.

  4. Matt, so did Trent condemn Protestantism for the wrong reasons?

    I’m not saying they got Luther right. But in the end they condemned Protestantism. So the condemnation will stand even if you/we understand Lutheranism better, right?

  5. 1) I read the section from the Catechism. It’s unclear how it contradicts anything that I’ve been saying. Perhaps you are not suggesting as much. But if so, could you put two sentences (one of mine and one from the CC) side by side which exist even in strong tension? In fact, my argument has been based on the passage also found in the Catechism which says: “This infallibility extends as far as does the deposit of divine Revelation; it also extends to all those elements of doctrine, including morals, without which the saving truths of the faith cannot be preserved, explained, or observed.” This can easily be read as imposing certain limits on the singular assistance given to the Magisterium when it speaks infallibly, limits that do not extend as far as the infallible interpretation of Luther’s On Christian Liberty. (And I quoted some passages from the Catechism that support such a view in the previous thread.)

    2) As I already noted at the end of the previous point, my main claim throughout has been that the infallibility of the Council of Trent does not depend, strictly speaking, on its judgment “concerning a person,” as Bellarmine pointed out long ago. And I’ve shown that Trent was already making this distinction to some extent by not naming names. So, as far as your last point, Trent’s errors about Luther (which could only be implicit since it did not name his name in the Decree) would have to be established on a case-by-case basis. I am not yet prepared to make strong assertions on that score (TRF still has a lot more to do, right?), though Iserloh and Pesch have brought forward some compelling evidence that there are problems as far as historical judgments regarding Luther, Melanchthon, etc., are concerned. Now, while such a conclusion would raise questions about whether “the condemnation [of Protestantism] stands” on any particular point (e.g., if Protestants never or no longer hold a particular condemned doctrine, this would obviously be significant), this line of reasoning would not undermine the fact that Roman Catholics *still* are forbidden to affirm what Trent anathematized. Isn’t that sufficient?

    3) This leads to a comment which might perhaps be useful regarding the submissive spirit towards the Magisterium. Even if judgments about persons living in the sixteenth century are not infallible, they are still to be treated by Roman Catholics with respect, etc. As a Catholic, I am probably more comfortable raising these issues in this forum because leading bishops and theologians have already done so (e.g., my link to Benedict XVI). Maybe that will be helpful for finding the way between dismissing Trent (as some Modernists do) and saying that every bishop at Trent had a comprehensive grasp of Luther’s outlook.

    4) You conclude one of your comments as follows: “If churches err, their authority is subject to revision and ongoing evaluation. If the church is infallible like the Bible is, then revision and ongoing evaluation are not so easy.” While there are distinctions to be made (not here but elsewhere) between the authority of the Bible and the Church, I will concede that the traditional Roman Catholic conviction regarding the infallibility of the Council of Trent certainly makes our conversation “not so easy.” You have been arguing more than that, but, if this is your main concern, I freely acknowledge it. But, as they say, strength rejoices in the challenge!

    On a more serious note, I would describe myself as having attempted to show a number of ways that our conversation might go forward, even when one party in the conversation affirms a high view of conciliar infallibility. It certainly adds difficulties, but it doesn’t quite shut the door for conversation, etc., as much as some say.

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