Section 3 of TPD is entitled, "Ecumenical Councils." It's a longer chapter, almost 2300 words. The temptation in reviewing it is is to respond at a much greater length. One of the problems bloggers succumb to is responding at double or triple the length of that under review (yes, I've done this). So, I'm going to strive to keep the reviews around the same word count.
First, there are the tedious errors of this chapter. TPD refers to the Westminster Confession of Faith XXXI,4 in Endnote 9, whereas the actual reference should be to XXXI,3. TPD claims The Westminster Confession of Faith is "the most important confessional document of Calvinist (or Reformed) Protestantism." No, this confession holds this pedigree typically for confessional Presbyterians. Then there are the errors of undocumented assertions. TPD asserts,"Most Protestants allege, however, that even these early councils contained errors. For example, few are willing to accept that Mary is the 'mother of God,' as the third ecumenical council in Ephesus declared." No documentation is given as to whom the author is referring to. In actuality, what Protestants have historically rejected is Rome's misuse of the term theotokos, not the theological term itself used at the third ecumenical council [see for instance, James White, Mary- Another Redeemer? (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1998, chapter 5]. TPD asserts Martin Luther "had no problem" with the title "Mother of God." Yes, Luther used the term, but he certainly had a problem with Rome's mariolatry and the meaning they pour into the term. TPD explains Luther "presented the accepted Protestant belief that ecumenical councils have erred and 'contradicted themselves' by deviating from the true meaning of God’s word as found in the Bible" but shows no interaction with or understanding of why Luther believed this. There is also this odd undocumented claim:
More traditional Protestants of the Anglican or Reformed communities, however, do view the first four councils as authoritative. They contend that for a council to be considered an ecumenical (and therefore authoritative) one, it had to have been attended by all five major patriarchs (bishops of important cities or areas): those of Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem. They claim that the first four councils met this criterion. But, they argue, due to the divisions that have occurred in the Church since—notably the Coptic and Eastern Orthodox schisms—it has become impossible for these five patriarchs to be present at a council, making ecumenical councils a practical impossibility to this day.
Which Anglicans or "Reformed Communities" believe this? The author doesn't say. He goes on later to refute this theory, known as "pentarchy" saying, "Modern Protestants have taken up the theory as an objective way of identifying authoritative councils; but, as we have seen, it simply doesn’t work." Now he says the ecclesiastical body adhering to pentarchy are simply, "modern Protestants." The theory though appears to be primarily an Orthodox argument, not an Anglican or Reformed argument. If he just meant "modern Protestants" a simply footnote would have been helpful to see whom he was referring to.
The Protestant Conception of Ecumenical Councils
TPD summarizes the Protestant position on church councils as follows: None of the early church councils "carry any authority—except insofar as they accurately interpret Scripture, in which case the authority is the Bible’s, not theirs." Protestants generally accept the first four ecumenical councils, "only insofar as they are accurate deductions from the words of God in the Bible." This is true enough as far as it goes. If one were to make a general statement for Protestants, the author would have done well to simply say these councils have authority, but not infallible authority. Beyond this, TPD launches into creating its own straw-man: "If Protestantism is true: Ecumenical councils somehow no longer have the authority they used to have. This is very similar to TPD's earlier arguments on authority and the papacy. " While it takes Mr. Rose some paragraphs to get to it, the ultimate paradigm he argues for is an infallible council with infallible authority. Placed in this form, the straw man becomes obvious. TPD says Protestants hold that "councils must somehow have ceased to carry that universal teaching authority," or rather, infallible authority. In actuality, Protestants don't believe any post-enscripturated council has ever had infallible teaching authority to lose to begin with.
Answering TPD's Objections
TPD posits it does not "make sense, as Protestants argue, that ecumenical councils are authoritative only insofar as they accurately represent scriptural truth." It does so by arguing that since the entire Bible had not been completed, the infallible extra-biblical authority of the Council of Jerusalem had to settle the matter about circumcision and salvation. What this argument fails to interact with is that sola scriptura applies to the normal means God has conveyed His truth to the church after Scripture had been completed. As Dr. White said long ago, "Protestants do not assert that sola scriptura is a valid concept during times of revelation. How could it be, since the rule of faith to which it points was at that very time coming into being? One must have an existing rule of faith to say it is ‘sufficient.’ It is a canard to point to times of revelation and say, 'See, sola scriptura doesn’t work there!' Of course it doesn’t. Who said it did?”
TPD also asks,
Who has the authority to accurately interpret the scriptures (and therefore rule whether a council affirms or contradicts their truths)? Luther believed that he did. Other Protestants claimed that Luther erred and that they had the correct key to Scripture’s meaning. The problem of varying Protestant interpretations of biblical truth persists to this day. Without a standard for interpreting Scripture, then, according to this test it’s impossible to say with certainty whether a given council teaches authoritatively.
This is a typical Roman Catholic double standard. How many verses has Rome infallibly interpreted? Some say only a small handful of verses have an infallible interpretation, others deny the Church has defined the literal sense of any single passage. Roman Catholics aren't even united on a basic issue like the inerrancy of Scripture. The problem for Roman Catholics is compounded even more, because their church holds that a doctrine can be defined, but the scriptural proofs used to support it utilized by the church's theologians might not actually support it. In other words, one can have certainty for a doctrine, but not have certainty in the scriptural proof texts for that doctrine. The infallibility is in the decree, not in the reasoning to that decree. The dogmatic pronouncements of Rome are still left up to private interpretation. For instance Trent speaks of Scripture and Tradition, yet Jimmy Akin states, "While these considerations may be useful as an apologist explores the relationship between Scripture and Tradition, he ultimately will have to decide how he thinks they fit together. So far, the Church has left him considerable latitude." Throw "development of doctrine" into the mix, and it creates more of a problem because it can grant differing possible authentic interpretations. If doctrine develops, and one cannot know when a doctrine has completely developed, one must consider many differing Roman Catholic opinions as possible authentic Roman Catholic opinions.
The Roman Catholic Criterion for an Ecumenical Council
TPD states, "If none of the Protestant theories makes sense, what makes a council ecumenical and thus authoritative? Quite simply: the pope." There's a bit of historical anachronism here at best, or at worst ignoring the development of papal primacy over the authority of a council (the concilliar movement). As noted in a previous review, TPD simply assumes beforehand a monarchical episopate functioning in Rome controlling the entire church from the beginning. A study of The Council of Nicea shows that "when the bishops gathered at Nicea they did not acknowledge the bishop of Rome as anything more than the leader of the most influential church in the West."
But even the very Council of Jerusalem cited by TPD speaks against its claim. The account in Acts 15 does not say the Pope and the council met. Peter is considered simply as one of the apostles, meeting with the elders. James appears to be directing this meeting. TPD thinks that Peter speaking first at the Council implies he's the leader and the pope, when the text shows that it's James who has the decisive word in verse 19-21. Exegetically, it's James who commands the others to listen to him in verse 13. The letter written at the end shows the decision of the council and a letter from the council. Nowhere do we find this council being confirmed by Peter as "the final guarantor" of its "orthodoxy" as TPD claims a pope should be doing.
TPD uses the classic prooftext, Matt. 16:18-19 to establish Petrine primacy, ignoring Matthew 18:18 as well as the testimony of many of the early church fathers who identify "the rock" as all of the apostles or the testimony of Peter [See James White, The Roman Catholic Controversy (Minneapolis:Bethany House, 1996 ) p. 119-120; William Webster, The Patristic Exegesis of the Rock of Matthew 16:18].
TPD claims, "The Catholic Church is the only Christian Church or community that still holds ecumenical councils today. No other group dares to claim that it has held one, which makes sense when you realize that no other group is led by the bishop of Rome." Illogical assertions like this based on false premises occur throughout the book. Other church bodies meet together in similar fashion to what Rome does, all the time. My own church is part of a larger body that meets at least once every three years, and interestingly, often other denominations are involved, or at least invited to attend.
The Protestant's Dilemma?
This section of TPD ends with the following "dilemma":
Assuming the Catholic Church is wrong about what makes a council ecumenical, why did God design his Church such that, for centuries, these councils were the primary way in which vitally important matters of the Faith were discerned and authoritatively proclaimed, but then remove his authority from them such that they could no longer be trustworthy?
To simply reiterate the point made earlier, in his review of TPD, TurretinFan stated, "No, the authority of ecumenical councils has not changed. They were never infallible. Nicaea was right – not infallible. Ariminum was a larger council than Nicaea, but it was wrong." The unproven assumption throughout TPD is the infallibility of Rome
In my community, I attend a local church, of which I'm a member, and that church meets with other churches on a concilliar level. Many churches still do this. "Vitally important matters of faith" are addressed at these meetings. Yes, it's a sad fact that there are different denominations, but this isn't due to the failure of the sole infallible rule of faith, but rather the sinfulness of those who interpret it. Before one of Rome's defenders runs with this, consider the following: the Orthodox church is waiting for you to repent of your errors and cease your denomination. Note the following from an Orthodox website:
The Orthodox attitude to the Papacy is admirably expressed by a twelfth-century writer, Nicetas, Archbishop of Nicomedia:
My dearest brother, we do not deny to the Roman Church the primacy amongst the five sister Patriarchates; and we recognize her right to the most honourable seat at an Ecumenical Council. But she has separated herself from us by her own deeds, when through pride she assumed a monarchy which does not belong to her office ... How shall we accept decrees from her that have been issued without consulting us and even without our knowledge? If the Roman Pontiff, seated on the lofty throne of his glory wishes to thunder at us and, so to speak, hurl his mandates at us from on high, and if he wishes to judge us and even to rule us and our Churches, not by taking counsel with us but at his own arbitrary pleasure, what kind of brotherhood, or even what kind of parenthood can this be? We should be the slaves, not the sons, of such a Church, and the Roman See would not be the pious mother of sons but a hard and imperious mistress of slaves.'