I was just reflecting on an answer to a question I recently asked, and began to wonder... How do we know the conclusions of a given Council were true? Are all findings by Christian Councils authoritative? If not, what is the criteria by which we can judge the findings of a Council? Is it decided democratically amongst those claiming to be Christians?

If there is indeed a "standard" by which Council findings are evaluated, why would we consider the Council findings as "authoritative", as opposed to simply considering the "standard" to be authoritative.

(The answer may not be as straightforward as it seems.)

  • Also, consider Wittgenstein's theory of a language game. Commented Jul 9, 2012 at 21:55
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    This is a good, valid question that has caused me to scratch my head quite a few times about the history of Christianity. We claim so much truth and wisdom from our theology yet many decisions and writings are the spawn of councils of men, particularly through -- ironically -- the dark ages.
    – Matt
    Commented Jul 9, 2012 at 23:15
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    Definately not the Dark Ages! That would be 500 - 800Ad, whereas the first four councils were all completed by 451. Augustine had died by 430, and much of what was settled throughout the Middle Ages was codified by Augustine. Commented Jul 10, 2012 at 0:23
  • Well, let's not argue semantics -- "dark ages" is an ambiguous term. Wikipedia defines it to be many different periods of time which overlap up to about 10 or 15 centuries.
    – Matt
    Commented Jul 10, 2012 at 0:51

4 Answers 4


Historically, there have been four sources of theology:

  • Scripture
  • Tradition
  • Reason
  • Experience.

This formulation goes back quite a ways. Scripture is always first, Tradition is always second, and reason and experience are a distant third and fourth. The fun comes in when one realizes that it is not possible to read Scripture without a tradition.

As a very banal example, in the Hebrew text, YHWH has no vowels, and yet traditionally the vowels of "Adonai" are used, resulting roughly in "Yahweh" or "Jehovah." The tradition informs the reading.

The position of the Catholic Church is actually quite rational in this regard - it reserves to itself the power to declare what is traditional and non-traditional when reading Scripture. In a way the standard of what is acceptable within the Roman Catholic Church is what the church says.

The Councils are like that, only unlike a single interpretation (namely that of the Bishop of Rome,) the Ecumenical Councils were the best attempt at the time to convene all of the spectrum of Christianity. When, in 325, Constantine gathered the church, the whole point was to get as broad a consensus as possible. The statement at Nicea had no more legal authority or scientific power then a petition signed by, say, 55 leading landowners in the American colonies in 1776. But, the attendants were sufficiently representative and authoritative that it made sense for them to be considered the standard bearers of what "Christianity" meant at the time.

Were they "right?" That's actually a non-answerable question. What they were was representative of what the vast majority of influential Christians believed. Sure, they asked for the Holy Spirit's guidance, and these were good men - but did God actually physically appear and say "This is my beloved council in whom I am well pleased?" No.

But then again, did he ever do that when King James' translators presented their work to the King? Or when Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Paul dropped their parchments in the mailbox? No, again.

I believe wholeheartedly that the way the Christian Faith is practiced is both what God intended and still manages to fall woefully short of what is "right." Trust me when I say, of all the indiginities God suffered, his church is by far the most recent. It is a flawed creature - but like a little child it seeks to please its Father as best it can.

As a hermeneutic, Christians tend to put more emphasis on those closer in time to Christ. As a matter of practice, we tend to defer to people better at theology than us (I, for one, cannot take on Polycarp or Irenaeus or Augustine, or even the Bishop of Rome). As an agreed upon set of rules, then we traditionally defer to the traditional interpretation out of traditional accepted theology.

Is it "right"? Who knows. But it is representative of the "standard" against which we measure theology? Indeed, it is the very definition of "the best we can do."

  • Which category, if any of the four you posted, does revelation fit into? You imply it a few times but I can't help but think it deserves a little more attention.
    – Matt
    Commented Jul 9, 2012 at 23:16
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    Scripture is the most common form of revelation. Scripture is God's will revealed to man. Private revelation is typically considered experience. Your question might be better served as a separate question, though. Commented Jul 10, 2012 at 0:24
  • Cool, thanks; that's what I was thinking, I just wanted to make sure!
    – Matt
    Commented Jul 10, 2012 at 0:51
  • GREAT response. +1
    – Dan
    Commented Jul 11, 2012 at 14:18

(The answer may not be as straightforward as it seems.)

As in, different theologies will purport different ideas about the authority of various councils, yes. But I think the general principle can be summarized easily enough, at least to your title question, which is different from your actual post.

What makes a Council's conclusions authoritative?

If the men on the council have authority, then the conclusions of the council are more or less authoritative.

How do we know the conclusions of a given Council were true?

One way to know truth is through spiritual means. In some cases, it is the only way. If men disagree, how else can your soul know for sure one way or the other?

Are all findings by Christian Councils authoritative?

Depends who you ask, but generally no.

If not, what is the criteria by which we can judge the findings of a Council? Is it decided democratically amongst those claiming to be Christians?

Again, do the men on the council have authority from a source you believe to be legitimate? For example, monarchists would argue that legitimacy, or authority, comes through family heirloom. Republicans/democrats alternatively believe that true legitimacy comes from a vote of the people.

As Christians, we of course have a common belief in Christ and we know that He is the King, the Head, and it makes sense that He is the giver of authority and legitimacy in the Church and its councils. But exactly how that authority is manifest to men varies from church to church. Some believe in education; others in receiving the Holy Spirit; yet others in laying on of hands... the diversity goes on and on.

Oh, and finally...

If there is indeed a "standard" by which Council findings are evaluated, why would we consider the Council findings as "authoritative", as opposed to simply considering the "standard" to be authoritative.

Affable Geek touched on this. The way things have been, or "the standard," is sometimes overruled by new revelation. A famous council was convened over the issue of circumcision. You know of it: the so-called Jerusalem Council, where the apostles met and discussed the need for converts to be circumcised. The decision was that they were not to be, which was a "violation" of the standard. Yet it was apparently the correct, or true, decision.


A council’s authority has authority so long as they do not cross the authority of God’s word, at which point all authority is demolished. We believe they have authority only because we trust they have made decisions that are complaint with God’s word. When they generally do not cross God’s word then they still maintain their authority generally, but not where they fail to maintain Gods word. Ultimately the only authority is God’s word. It alone is an infallible guide. Even if the councils were angels in heaven or the Apostle's themselves, if they crossed God’s word, we are free to consider them as Devils:

But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! (NIV Galatians 1:18)


What makes a Council's conclusions authoritative?

The council does. As we know, the results of said councils have been decreed to all and obedience demanded. Just as we might 'elect' a suburban council and find that we now have new legislation that makes it illegal to do what we used to do. We might be fined or imprisoned etc. until a new council replaces them and their laws.

We are not bound by ancient church council decisions anymore as we have come to realise that they actually oppose plainly written scripture and their 'authority' has expired.

Are they superior to scripture? No. Are they more correct? No.

They are a group of men's interpretations of their day made with their reason and logic and according to the politics of the day. We have much better access to the word than they did, so there is no need to accept the authority they once had over the church.

So now, we have the authority to discard or endorse any council decision or creed when we compare it with the word of God. Denominations can assist with corporate structure and facilitators of Christian activity, but that there are so many differing views amongst them, one must make their own mind up on what is valid according to the bible.

Let us not be confused about the, 'Christ is head of the church' truth.

Which church, which denomination when the doctrines are many and wildly varying. He is not leading them all to the beliefs they hold. Think on ancient Israel... they always had the same God, yet they went through the centuries on a merry-go-round of choosing other leadership offerings - always to their detriment. The church is no different. Each division within it has their own leadership mantra and will incur judgement accordingly.

If we hold tradition over truth then we give authority to another that isn't Jesus.


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