Christian Councils | 4. Age of Reformation


4. Age of Reformation

Conciliarism had died as a practical force in the Roman Church with the end of the Council of Basel.

The Renaissance papacy continued to grow in power and wealth, although throughout Europe the demand for “reform in head and members” continued to grow as well.

Faced with the attempt of Louis XII of France to convoke the antipapal reform synod at Pisa in 1511, Julius II summoned a Roman Council (the 5th Lateran Council) on May 15, 512, which continued under his successor, Leo X, until March 16, 1517.

Aside from a few decrees aimed at correcting financial abuse and encouraging popular preaching, this council - recognized as ecumenical by the Western Church - achieved little.

The wave of institutional and theological reform set in motion by Martin Luther in the 1520s brought new pressure to bear on the Popes to convoke a Council to deal seriously with “Protestant” issues.

Paul III called a council at Mantua in 1537, for which Luther prepared the theses that were later accepted by German Protestants as a kind of manifesto and known as the Smalcald Articles.

This meeting was transferred to Vicenza in the same year and then suspended in 1539.

After several delays, it was reconvened at the Alpine town of Trent, in imperial territory, on December 13, 1545.

Rejecting the conciliar structure agreed on at Constance and Basel, the Council of Trent allowed only cardinals, bishops, and heads of religious orders voice and vote in its full sessions.

During its first period (December 1545-March 1547), the Council discussed the relation of scripture and tradition, the canon of scriptural books, the doctrines of original sin and justification, and various proposed reforms in Church administration.

Transferred to Bologna (papal territory) in 1547, to escape the plague, the council continued to discuss the Eucharist and the other sacraments,

but Paul III agreed not to let it formulate final decisions until it could return to Trent, where Protestants could participate more freely.

A second set of sessions was held in Trent from May 1, 1551, until April 28, 1552, in which documents on these topics were finished.

After a 10 year hiatus due largely to continued warfare among the German principalities, Pius IV re-convoked the council on January 18, 1562, for a third and final period,

during which documents were issued on the sacrificial character of the Mass, on Holy Orders and the education of the clergy, on the sacramental nature of marriage, and on purgatory, as well as numerous disciplinary decrees.

The Council of Trent, recognized by Roman Catholics as a 19th ecumenical council, was closed on December 4, 1563. Its decrees laid the foundation for the doctrines and practice of the Roman Church for the next 4 centuries. 

The 16-17th centuries, an age of rapid, often violent change in religious and civil institutions throughout Western Europe as well as a time of bitter theological controversy, also witnessed a number of gatherings within and between the new Protestant communities.

At the Synod of Dort in the Netherlands (November 13, 1618- May 9, 1619), representatives of the Reformed Churches affirmed, against the theories of the Leiden professor Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609),

a strict Calvinist doctrine of the predestination of both the saved and the damned, the total depravity of unredeemed humanity, and the limited scope of Jesus’ atoning death.

In 1643, the English Parliament commissioned a group of Calvinist divines to revise the 39 Articles of the Church of England along Puritan lines and to draw up a Puritan confession of faith for the British Isles.

On December 4, 1646, this Westminster Assembly completed its document, known as the Westminster Confession:

It comprised 33 articles, largely based on the teaching of Dort and the covenant theology of English Puritanism. Accepted by the Church of Scotland in 1647, it became the chief confessional document of Scottish Presbyterianism.

Protestant theology also made its influence felt in the Eastern Churches at this time:

Synods at Constantinople in 1638 and 1641 condemned the writings of the Western-educated Byzantine patriarch Cyril I (d. 1638) for their Calvinist teaching, and this condemnation was repeated at Orthodox synods in Jassy (Iasi, Romania) in 1642 and Bethlehem in 1672.