[This is part of an ongoing series. See my introduction.]
“15:1 Some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” 2 And when Paul and Barnabas had great dissension and debate with them, the brethren determined that Paul and Barnabas and some others of them should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this issue. 3 Therefore, being sent on their way by the church, they were passing through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and were bringing great joy to all the brethren. 4 When they arrived at Jerusalem, they were received by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them. 5 But some of the sect of the Pharisees who had believed stood up, saying, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to direct them to observe the Law of Moses.”
6 The apostles and the elders came together to look into this matter. 7 After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brethren, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and believe. 8 And God, who knows the heart, testified to them giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us; 9 and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith. 10 Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? 11 But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are.” 12 All the people kept silent, and they were listening to Barnabas and Paul as they were relating what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles. 13 After they had stopped speaking, James answered, saying, “Brethren, listen to me. 14 Simeon has related how God first concerned Himself about taking from among the Gentiles a people for His name. 15 With this the words of the Prophets agree, just as it is written, 16 ‘AFTER THESE THINGS I will return, AND I WILL REBUILD THE TABERNACLE OF DAVID WHICH HAS FALLEN, AND I WILL REBUILD ITS RUINS, AND I WILL RESTORE IT, 17 SO THAT THE REST OF MANKIND MAY SEEK THE LORD, AND ALL THE GENTILES WHO ARE CALLED BY MY NAME,’ 18 SAYS THE LORD, WHO MAKES THESE THINGS KNOWN FROM LONG AGO.’ 19 Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles, 20 but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood. 21 “For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath.”
22 Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them to send to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas--Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brethren, 23 and they sent this letter by them, “The apostles and the brethren who are elders, to the brethren in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia who are from the Gentiles, greetings. 24 Since we have heard that some of our number to whom we gave no instruction have disturbed you with their words, unsettling your souls, 25 it seemed good to us, having become of one mind, to select men to send to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, 26 men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27 Therefore we have sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will also report the same things by word of mouth. 28 For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials: 29 that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication; if you keep yourselves free from such things, you will do well. Farewell.” 30 So when they were sent away, they went down to Antioch; and having gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter. 31 When they had read it, they rejoiced because of its encouragement. 32 Judas and Silas, also being prophets themselves, encouraged and strengthened the brethren with a lengthy message. 33 After they had spent time there, they were sent away from the brethren in peace to those who had sent them out. 34 [But it seemed good to Silas to remain there.] 35 But Paul and Barnabas stayed in Antioch, teaching and preaching with many others also, the word of the Lord…16:4 Now while they were passing through the cities, they were delivering the decrees which had been decided upon by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem, for them to observe.” –Acts 15:1-35, 16:4 NASB
The context of the passage is that the some of the Pharisees were teaching that one must receive circumcision in order to be saved. Paul and Barnabas disagreed with them, and so, the brethren asked that they should go to the apostles and elders in Jerusalem to determine the issue.
Paul and Barnabas gave their side saying that God has been working through them in the conversion of the gentiles, but then, the Pharisees gave their side. The apostles and elders in Jerusalem then convened to decide on the matter.
After much discussion, Peter stands up and recalls to everyone his experiences in Acts 10 and 11. On this basis he agreed with Paul and Barnabas. The people participating in the council kept silent as each one took their turn speaking. As Chrysostom said:
““Then all the multitude kept silence,” etc. (v. 12.) There was no arrogance in the Church. After Peter Paul speaks, and none silences him: James waits patiently, not starts up (for the next word). Great the orderliness (of the proceedings). No word speaks John here, no word the other Apostles, but held their peace, for James was invested with the chief rule, and think it no hardship. So clean was their soul from love of glory. “And after that they had held their peace, James answered,” etc. (v. 13.) (b) Peter indeed spoke more strongly, but James here more mildly: for thus it behooves one in high authority, to leave what is unpleasant for others to say, while he himself appears in the milder part.”
-John Chrysostom, Homilies on The Acts of the Apostles, Homily XXXIII
[On a quick note, some Roman Catholics have argued that the people kept silent when Peter spoke in the sense that they fell silent when he gave his ‘Papal decree’: “That’s it, the Pope has spoken.” However, this is not what the text is saying. They kept silent for everyone out of politeness and wishing to hear everyone else’s opinion. This was Chrysostom’s interpretation. It is also interesting to note that he held that James was of higher authority than Peter (see the last sentence of the above quote)!]
Next, James gives his judgment. He sides with Paul and Barnabas citing the Old Testament prophecies of the New Covenant on the inclusion of the gentiles. From this, it was his judgment that the church assembled in Jerusalem write to the church at Antioch that circumcision was not necessary (as it was part of the ritual law fulfilled in Christ) but to abstain from idolatry and other pagan practices (as they were part of the moral law which endures forever). After hearing James’ decision, the apostles, the elders, and the whole church agreed.
“To the Holy Spirit and to Us”
The letter was written and went out. The authority for this decision was given: “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…” (v.28). The decision was worked to by their reasoned judgment through the direction of the Holy Spirit. As Matthew Henry stated:
“They express themselves with something of authority, that what they wrote might be received with respect, and deference paid to it: It seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, that is, to us under the guidance of the Holy Ghost, and by direction from him: not only the apostles, but others, were endued with spiritual gifts extraordinary, and knew more of the mind of God than any since those gifts ceased can pretend to; their infallibility gave an incontestable authority to their decrees, and they would not order any thing because it seemed good to them, but that they knew it first seemed good to the Holy Ghost.”
-Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Complete Commentary on the Whole Bible, Acts 15
Chrysostom gives a slightly different opinion as to why they added “and to us”:
“For it seemed good,” say they, “to the Holy Ghost and to us” (v. 28): not making themselves equal (to Him)-they are not so mad. But why does it put this (so)? Why did they add, “And to us,” and yet it had sufficed to say, “To the Holy Ghost?” The one, “To the Holy Ghost,” that they may not deem it to be of man; the other, “To us,” that they may be taught that they also themselves admit (the Gentiles), although themselves being in circumcision. They have to speak to men who are still weak and afraid of them: this is the reason why this also is added. And it shows that it is not by way of condescension that they speak, neither because they spared them, nor as considering them weak, but the contrary; for great was the reverence of the teachers also.”
-John Chrysostom, Homilies on The Acts of the Apostles, Homily XXXIII
Either interpretation is valid though I prefer Henry’s.
Thus, Paul, Barnabas, Barsabbas, and Silas took the letter to the brethren in Antioch, and the gentiles accepted it with great joy.
Is the Jerusalem Council in a Paradigm Example for Ecumenical Councils?
Some Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox apologists argue that the council in Jerusalem was given as the model for the participation, proceedings, and extent of authority of ecumenical councils. Thus, ecumenical councils would be infallible and binding on the conscience.
However, Acts 15 isn’t exactly the example they’re looking for. As Philip Schaff stated so well:
“The most complete outward representation of the apostolic church as a teaching and legislative body was the council convened at Jerusalem in the year 50, to decide as to the authority of the law of Moses, and adjust the difference between Jewish and Gentile Christianity.
We notice it here simply in its connection with the organization of the church.
It consisted not of the apostles alone, but of apostles, elders, and brethren. We know that Peter, Paul, John, Barnabas, and Titus were present, perhaps all the other apostles. James—not one of the Twelve—presided as the local bishop, and proposed the compromise which was adopted. The transactions were public, before the congregation; the brethren took part in the deliberations; there was a sharp discussion, but the spirit of love prevailed over the pride of opinion; the apostles passed and framed the decree not without, but with the elders and with the whole church and sent the circular letter not in their own name only, but also in the name of "the brother elders" or "elder brethren" to "the brethren" of the congregations disturbed by the question of circumcision.
All of which plainly proves the right of Christian people to take part in some way in the government of the church, as they do in the acts of worship. The spirit and practice of the apostles favored a certain kind of popular self-government, and the harmonious, fraternal co-operation of the different elements of the church. It countenanced no abstract distinction of clergy and laity. All believers are called to the prophetic, priestly, and kingly offices in Christ. The bearers of authority and discipline should therefore never forget that their great work is to train the governed to freedom and independence, and by the various spiritual offices to build them up unto the unity of faith and knowledge, and to the perfect manhood of Christ.
The Greek and Roman churches gradually departed from the apostolic polity and excluded not only the laity, but also the lower clergy from all participation in the legislative councils.
The conference of Jerusalem, though not a binding precedent, is a significant example, giving the apostolic sanction to the synodical form of government, in which all classes of the Christian community are represented in the management of public affairs and in settling controversies respecting faith and discipline. The decree which it passed and the pastoral letter which it sent, are the first in the long line of decrees and canons and encyclicals which issued from ecclesiastical authorities. But it is significant that this first decree, though adopted undoubtedly under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and wisely adapted to the times and circumstances of the mixed churches of Jewish and Gentile converts, was after all merely “a temporary expedient for a temporary emergency,” and cannot be quoted as a precedent for infallible decrees of permanent force. The spirit of fraternal concession and harmony which dictated the Jerusalem compromise, is more important than the letter of the decree itself. The kingdom of Christ is not a dispensation of law, but of spirit and of life.” (emphasis mine)
-Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church 1.10.64
In a later chapter, Schaff goes on to note the polity of later councils which was eventually adopted by the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches:
“But with the advance of the hierarchical spirit, this republican feature gradually vanished. After the council of Nicaea (325) bishops alone had seat and voice, and the priests appear hereafter merely as secretaries, or advisers, or representatives of their bishops. The bishops, moreover, did not act as representatives of their churches, nor in the name of the body of the believers, as formerly, but in their own right as successors of the apostles…As the episcopate culminated in the primacy, so the synodical system rose into the oecumenical councils, which represented the whole church of the Roman empire. But these could not be held till persecution ceased, and the emperor became the patron of Christianity. The first was the celebrated council of Nicaea, in the year 325. The state gave legal validity to the decrees of councils, and enforced them if necessary by all its means of coercion. But the Roman government protected only the Catholic or orthodox church, except during the progress of the Arian and other controversies, before the final result was reached by the decision of an oecumenical Synod convened by the emperor.” (bold emphasis mine)
-Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church 2.4.54
The Historical Dictionary of the Orthodox Church (obviously an Eastern Orthodox source) concurs:
“The appeal to the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) as paradigmatic for church decision-making procedure is frequently made by those emphasizing the importance of the hierarchy in the process of defining the faith…seemingly a perfect example…On closer examination, the example is problematical. Did the hierarchy really make the decision? First, Peter makes a speech and in it takes responsibility for the Gentile mission; but then James, the brother of the Lord, speaks and states, ‘I have reached a decision…’ Next, we find that ‘the apostles and the elders with the consent of the whole church decided…’ (v22); and again, when we read Paul’s account of what is ostensibly the same council (Gal 2:1-10), he states that he is the leader of the Gentile mission and the meeting in Jerusalem added nothing to his message or method…Finally, the Council was not really about orthodoxy at all, but about orthopraxy: The decision did not involve theology (q.v.) or the content of the faith, but only whether circumcision and certain types of abstinence would be practiced.” (emphasis mine)
-M. Prokurat et al. Historical Dictionary of the Orthodox Church (Scarecrow Press 1996), 49-50.
So, the council of Acts 15 cannot be used as a proof-text for supposedly infallible ecumenical councils for the following reasons:
a.) It was attended by the apostles which makes it more than an ecumenical council. Infallibility was guaranteed because of them. [Dave Armstrong tries to respond to this in his book which I will get to below.]
b.) As noted both by Schaff and the EO dictionary, it was attended by the elders (lit. presbyters) of the church in Jerusalem and agreed upon by both the elders and the whole church (thus including the laity) in Jerusalem making it less than an ecumenical council since an ecumenical council is strictly episcopal and excludes the lower clergy and especially the laity. [In the first seven (I believe) ecumenical councils, presbyters could be part of the council but only as proxies for the bishops they represented and had to cast their votes as their bishops had commanded. So, in effect, these councils were still for bishops alone.]
c.) As the Eastern Orthodox dictionary notes, **the decrees of the council (which are supposedly comparable to the canons of the ecumenical councils) only touched on orthopraxy (practice), not orthodoxy (doctrine). Instead, the council delegated the doctrinal authority to the two apostles, Paul and Barnabas.
d.) On what basis is this council a model for ecumenical councils alone? Why couldn’t this be a basis for local councils as well? Isn’t this what Matthew 18:18-20 teaches? In other words, if Acts 15 can be applied to local councils (which are fallible) as well, then how can it be used to prove the infallibility of ecumenical ones?
A Review of Dave Armstrong’s The Catholic Verses on Acts 15:28-29, 16:4
[Unless otherwise stated, all of these quotes come from Dave Armstrong, The Catholic Verses: 95 Bible Passages That Confound Protestants (Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 2004).]
After citing the two passages mentioned above, Mr. Armstrong then states:
“These passages offer proof that the early Church held to a notion of the infallibility of Church councils, and to a belief that they were especially guided by the Holy Spirit (precisely as in Catholic Church doctrine concerning ecumenical councils).” (Armstrong, op. cit., p.7)
Other than the fact that this passage proves no such thing. [See the “Is the Jerusalem Council in a Paradigm Example for Ecumenical Councils?” section above.] Also, aren’t local councils also “guided by the Holy Spirit” and yet, not infallible (Matthew 18:20)?
“A Protestant might reply that since this Council of Jerusalem referred to in Acts consisted of apostles, and since an apostle proclaimed the decree, both possessed a binding authority that was later lost (as Protestants accept apostolic authority as much as Catholics do).” (ibid. p.8)
Actually, this is incorrect. While James made the decision and the other apostles agreed, it was also agreed upon by the church elders (lit. presbyters) and the laity as well (v.22).
“But this is a bit simplistic, since Scripture is our model for everything, including Church government, and all parties appeal to it for their own views. If Scripture teaches that a council of the Church is authoritative and binding, it is implausible and unreasonable to assert that no future council can be so simply because it is not conducted by apostles.” (ibid. p.8)
How can the Jerusalem council serve as an exact model for later councils if they don’t include apostles? It can never be directly analogous (i.e. the exact same).
Armstrong should prove that the post-apostolic authority is directly analogous to apostolic authority. The apostles were an unrepeatable group.
Are bishops, the so-called successors of the apostles, independently infallible as the apostles were? Do they each possess the miracle power that the apostles had? Under the presupposition of Mr. Armstrong’s statement above, why is this not directly analogous but councils are?
Acts 15 proves that we should have church councils, but it never proves that post-apostolic councils would be infallible.
Lastly, and again, the decision was made by the entire church: apostles, presbyters, and laity, not just the apostles (or the apostles’ successors as Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy teach). So, it proves the exact opposite of what Mr. Armstrong wants it to, namely a presbyterian or congregational style of church governance.
“The Bible does not exist in an historical vacuum, but has import for the day-to-day life of the Church and Christians for all time.” (ibid. p.9)
Yes, and this is why the apostles penned the gospels at the end of their lives and the churches made sure to preserve their letters all so that the New Testament Church would not need infallible apostles or have the need for an infallible church congregate. They had divine Scripture which was sufficient above all things. As Athanasius wrote:
Vainly then do they run about with the pretext that they have demanded Councils for the faith's sake; for divine Scripture is sufficient above all things; but if a Council be needed on the point, there are the proceedings of the Fathers, for the Nicene Bishops did not neglect this matter, but stated the doctrine so exactly, that persons reading their words honestly, cannot but be reminded by them of the religion towards Christ announced in divine Scripture.
-Athanasius, De Synodis 1.6
And Augustine, who denied the infallibility of plenary (i.e. ecumenical) councils in favor of Scripture being the only *infallible* authority:
But who can fail to be aware that the sacred canon of Scripture, both of the Old and New Testament, is confined within its own limits, and that it stands so absolutely in a superior position to all later letters of the bishops, that about it we can hold no manner of doubt or disputation whether what is confessedly contained in it is right and true; but that all the letters of bishops which have been written, or are being written, since the closing of the canon, are liable to be refuted if there be anything contained in them which strays from the truth, either by the discourse of some one who happens to be wiser in the matter than themselves, or by the weightier authority and more learned experience of other bishops, by the authority of Councils; and further, that the Councils themselves, which are held in the several districts and provinces, must yield, beyond all possibility of doubt, to the authority of plenary Councils which are formed for the whole Christian world; and that even of the plenary Councils, the earlier are often corrected by those which follow them, when, by some actual experiment, things are brought to light which were before concealed, and that is known which previously lay hid, and this without any whirlwind of sacrilegious pride, without any puffing of the neck through arrogance, without any strife of envious hatred, simply with holy humility, catholic peace, and Christian charity?
-Augustine, On Baptism, Against the Donatists 2.3
Next, Mr. Armstrong states:
“St. Paul told us to imitate him (e.g. 2 Thess. 3:9). And he went around proclaiming decrees of the Church. No one was at liberty to disobey these decrees on the grounds of conscience, or to declare by “private judgment” that they were in error (per Luther).” (Armstrong, op. cit., p.9)
First of all, the passage cited, although pertaining to us imitating him, has to do with his work ethic (vv.7-12), not with his authority.
Secondly, where does Paul say to imitate his authority as an apostle? Again, Mr. Armstrong commits the fallacy of the over-extended conclusion (see my intro. to this series, part g.) by trying to extend apostolic authority into the post-apostolic church.
Again, if true, this would prove too much. Are we (or even a bishop) supposed to run around like we have *apostolic* authority (i.e. infallible individually) and the ability to write Scripture and perform as many miracles as they did? This was what some of the Anabaptists argued for. Rather than arguing for Roman Catholicism, if right, Mr. Armstrong’s argument would argue for Anabaptistry.
So, no one was allowed to disobey “these decrees” specifically because Paul was an *apostle*.
“It would be foolish to argue that the way the Apostles conducted the governance of the Church has no relation whatsoever to how later Christians engage in the same task.” (ibid. p.9)
“It would seem rather obvious that Holy Scripture assumes that the model of holy people (patriarchs, prophets, and apostles alike) is to be followed by Christians.” (ibid. p.9)
How does this prove that post-apostolic church councils (which *are* given precedent and authority in Acts 15) are infallible (something that only the apostles possessed)? Again, he commits the over-extended conclusion. He has to show that they are the exact same instead of simply being similar but not exactly the same.
“The binding authority of the Church was present here…” (ibid. p.9)
Yes, because there were apostles present.
Of course, something else should be said at this point. Protestants don’t deny that the covenant community is to convene church councils at times (as the Schaff quote above says), and we don’t deny that they possess the authority to excommunicate based on their judgment of what Scripture says. However, this decision is fallible. Basically, we see church councils in the same way that the early church saw local church councils.
Mr. Armstrong goes on to attempt a critique of Calvin’s commentary on Acts 15:28:
“This strikes me as somewhat desperate. First, Catholics have never argued that the Pope has power to make decrees contrary to the Bible (making Calvin’s slanderous charge a straw man).” (ibid. p.10)
Obviously, Mr. Armstrong doesn’t know how to tell when one is making an assertion and accusation and when one is trying to give the other side’s position. Of course Calvin knew that Roman dogma never stated that the Popes had the right to decree something contrary to Scripture! He was making an accusation that they in fact did and forced it upon men’s consciences.
“Calvin goes on to use vivid language, intended to resonate with already strong emotions and ignorance of Catholic theology.” (ibid. p.10)
Kind of like the use of the term, “anti-Catholic”?!
Secondly, Calvin didn’t write his commentaries back in the 1950’s. He wrote them in the mid-sixteenth century when Protestant congregations were mostly former Roman Catholics. He was hardly playing on ignorance, but instead, he was making an assertion.
He goes on to quote Barnes’s Notes, a commentary, saying that the decision of the council of Jerusalem was inspired and that this was to fulfill the promise of Christ in Matthew 18:18-20 and John 14:26. Mr. Armstrong then states:
“In this instance, it was the decision of the council in a case submitted to it; and it implied an obligation on the Christians to submit to that decision. Barnes actually acknowledges that the passage has some implication for ecclesiology in general.” (ibid. p.10)
Of course, what Barnes was noting by citing John 14:26 was that the promise of the Spirit in this special sense was made to the apostles. So, again, for the umpteenth time, the council at Jerusalem was infallible because it was attended and decided upon by apostles.
Secondly, Matthew 18:18-20 states that when “two or three gather”. Why wouldn’t this apply to local councils as well?
He goes on to misrepresent Calvin:
“It is remarkable, on the other hand, that Calvin seems concerned about the possibility of a group of Christians – in this case, a council – being led by the Holy Spirit to achieve a true doctrinal decree, whereas he has no problem with the notion that individuals can achieve such certainty.” (ibid. p.10)
First of all, Calvin didn’t deny that a congregate of Christians as a whole could be led by the Spirit and be moved by Him providentially toward the truth. He simply denied them infallibility. He consistently applied the same to the reader of Scripture. [There are a number of reasons why a Spirit-led person or group can arrive at the wrong outcome: lack of prayer and meditation on Scripture, misinterpreting personal emotions for the work of the Spirit, personal traditions, lack of knowledge of the subject matter, sinful pride, etc. all come into play.] Calvin covered all of this in his Institutes (IV.9.1-14).
Again, Mr. Armstrong is inconsistent since, when we apply the same standard to local councils, he denies them infallibility but yet, believes that they were moved by the Spirit as well.
“For Catholics, the import of Acts 15:28 is clear and undeniable.” (ibid. p.11)
Yes, Mr. Armstrong, because of your overriding presupposition which your Church tells you to bring to Scripture, you have managed to ignore that the Jerusalem Council was:
a.) More than an ecumenical council since it was attended and decided upon by apostles.
b.) Less than an ecumenical council since it was attended and decided upon by the presbyters and laity of Jerusalem making it more presbyterian or congregational.
c.) ****Indeed over doctrine. However, its decrees found in the letter sent to Antioch (which are supposedly comparable to the canons of the ecumenical councils) did not touch on the doctrines of soteriology but on the practices of obeying the apostles, Paul and Barnabas, and not participating in immoral acts. The decrees of the council were over orthopraxy, not orthodoxy.
d.) Would give precedent to local councils as well as ecumenical ones. [Thus, under Mr. Armstrong’s assumptions about the implications of this passage, why aren’t local councils infallible as well?]
BTW: I encourage my readers to give comments on what I can add to these posts to make my arguments/counter-arguments more complete, and of course, I encourage criticism as well.
**This paragraph used to read, "...the issue at hand was one of orthopraxy (practice), not orthodoxy (doctrine)." It was corrected in order to be more accurate. The change was made on October 11, 2007.
****This paragraph used to read, "More over an issue of practice, not doctrine." It was corrected in order to be more accurate. The change was made on October 11, 2007.