Keith Mathison and John Calvin on Ecumenical Creeds and Councils

I’ve talked at some length about Calvinist author Keith Mathison’s book The Shape of Sola Scriptura, but enough thoughtful and intelligent Protestants rely on this book that it’s worth responding to again, and from a different direction than before.

I. Mathison’s Two-Front War

In a nutshell, Mathison argues that there are four views of Tradition.  There’s Tradition 0, the modern Evangelical view, in which the individual’s interpretation of Scripture trumps all. There’s Tradition I, the classical Reformed view (which Mathison claims is the view of the early Church, despite substantial evidence to the contrary).  Then there’s Tradition II, the Catholic view, that all Apostolic Tradition (whether transmitted by word of mouth or by Scripture) is binding.  Finally, there’s Tradition III, the straw-man view that Catholics aren’t allowed to believe anything from Scripture or Tradition, but just believe whatever the pope tells them.  In August, I showed why Tradition III isn’t even a real position, but just an absurd anti-Catholic stereotype, explicitly rejected by the Church Mathison claims teaches it.

In any case, Mathison embraces Tradition I, and tries to have it both ways, by saying that Tradition 0 is wrong in putting the individual above the Church, and Tradition II is wrong in putting the Church above the individual.  This leads to a bizarre “two-front” war in which he makes absolutely contradictory claims, depending on who he’s arguing against.  Here’s how he describes it:

Those who desire to maintain Tradition I (expressed by the Reformers in terms of sola scriptura) must fight a simultaneous battle for this precious truth on two fronts.  On one front, we must continue to reject any two-source theory of tradition such as that dogmatized by Rome at the Council of Trent.  Neither the older Roman doctrine of Tradition II nor the more recent Roman doctrine of Tradition III has any real scriptural or patristic support.  On the other hand, we must also adamantly reject the modern evangelical doctrine of Tradition 0. Anarchy is not the cure for tyranny.  The autonomy of the individual is equally as dangerous as the autonomy of the pope or of the Church. […] The position of the classical Reformers and their heirs was and is Tradition I – the position of the apostolic Church. (p. 152-153)

It’s of course an absurd falsehood to claim that there’s no Scriptural or Patristic support for the Catholic views on Tradition.  Mathison’s just ignored and misrepresented all of the Catholic evidence.  But in any case, Mathison elsewhere describes Tradition I as follows:

In other words, the fact that Scripture alone is our infallible authority does not mean that we can interpret Scripture alone.  The sola scriptura of Luther and Calvin is not the Reformation doctrine unless it is understood within the context of Tradition I.  Scripture is the sole infallible authority and the sole source of revelation, but it must be interpreted in and by the Church within the hermeneutical boundaries of the rule of faith (Christian orthodoxy – as defined for example in the Nicene Creed).  A doctrine of scriptural authority separated from its apostolic ecclesiastical and hermeneutical context is neither Reformational nor Christian.(p. 150).

So, in theory, Mathison claims to hold to Scripture alone, but interprets it only in the way the Church has historically understood it.

II. Mathison to Evangelicals: You Must Follow the Creeds and Councils!

Mathison holds particular contempt for Hyper-Preterists, those who claim that the prophesied return of Christ occurred at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.  They base this view off of their own interpretation of Scripture, and many of them readily concede it contradicts two thousand years of Church teachings.  For example, on page 243, Mathison quotes a Hyper-Preterist named Ed Stevens, who writes:

Even if the creeds were to clearly and definitively stand against the preterist view (which they don’t), it would not be an overwhelming problem since they have no real authority anyway.  They are no more authoritative than our best opinions today, but they are valued because of their antiquity.

Mathison replies that this “is a hallmark of the doctrine of solo scriptura, and it is a position that the classical Reformers adamantly rejected.”  He then quotes Stevens as saying:

We must not take the creeds any more seriously than we do the writings and opinions of men like Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, the Westminster Assembly, Campbell, Rushdoony, or C.S. Lewis.

Mathison says of this statement: “Here we see the clear rejection of scripturally based structures of authority. The authority of those who rule in the Church is rejected by placing the decisions of an ecumenical council of ministers on the same level as the words of any individual.” By making the Ecumenical Councils and their Creeds subject to private interpretation, Mathison contends that Evangelicals destroy Christianity:

If the ecumenical creeds have no real authority, then it cannot be of any major consequence if a person decides to reject some or all of the doctrines of these creeds – including the Trinity and the deity of Christ.  If the individual judges the Trinity to be an unbiblical doctrine, then for him it is false.  No other authority exists to correct him outside of his own interpretation of Scripture.  This is precisely why solo scriptura inevitably results in radical relativism and subjectivity.  Each man decides for himself what the essential doctrines of Christianity are, each man creates his own creed from scratch, and concepts such as orthodoxy and heresy become completely obsolete. The concept of Christianity itself becomes obsolete because it no longer has any meaningful objective definition. Since solo scriptura has no means by which Scripture’s propositional doctrinal content may be authoritatively defined (such definition necessarily entails the unacceptable creation of an authoritative ecumenical creed), its propositional content can only be subjectively defined by each individual.  One individual may consider the Trinity essential, another may consider it a pagan idea imported into Christianity.  Without an authoritatively defined statement of Christianity’s propositional doctrinal content, neither individual can definitively and finally be declared wrong.  Solo scriptura destroys this possibility, and thereby destroys the possibility of Christianity being a meaningful concept. Instead, by reducing Christianity to relativism and subjectivity, it reduces Christianity to irrationalism and ultimately nonsense. (p. 250)

So Mathison must have a pretty high view of Creeds and Councils, hunh?  Well, read on.

III. Mathison to Catholics and Orthodox: I Don’t Have to Follow Creeds and Councils!

The problem with affirming Creeds and Ecumenical Councils as a Protestant is that even if you take only the seven Ecumenical Councils that Catholics, Orthodox, and many Protestants agree on, it affirms a whole lot of things that Calvinists reject. Peninsula Bible Church Cupertino explains the pride of place creedal Protestants and Orthodox give to the first Seven Ecumenical Councils:

The three major branches of the Church (Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant) recognize seven ecumenical councils: Nicea (325), Constantinople (381), Ephesus (431), Chalcedon (451), Constantinople II (553), Constantinople III (680), Nicea II (787). Further ecumenical councils were rendered impossible by the widening split between Eastern (Orthodox, Greek-speaking) and Western (Catholic, Latin-speaking) Churches, a split that was rendered official in 1054 and has not yet been healed. 

So even if you reject the authority of the modern Catholic Church, if you acknowledge the authority of the early Church at all (whether you believe She was Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, or something else), you have to listen to the first seven Councils.  Based on what Mathison just said, if you don’t give authority to these Councils, you’re destroying Christianity by reducing Church authority to your own individual interpretation.  And for Mathison, that’s a serious problem.

Here’s why.  The Second Council of Nicea proclaimed that (1) the Holy Spirit indwells the Catholic Church; (2) Mary was sinless and ever-Virgin, and (3) that images of God and the saints should be venerated, since such veneration wasn’t of the image itself, but of Those that the image represented.  So, for example, we read things like this:

We, therefore, following the royal pathway and the divinely inspired authority of our Holy Fathers and the traditions of the Catholic Church (for, as we all know, the Holy Spirit indwells her), define with all certitude and accuracy that just as the figure of the precious and life-giving Cross, so also the venerable and holy images, as well in painting and mosaic as of other fit materials, should be set forth in the holy churches of God, and on the sacred vessels and on the vestments and on hangings and in pictures both in houses and by the wayside, to wit, the figure of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ, of our spotless Lady, the Mother of God, of the honourable Angels, of all Saints and of all pious people. […] For the honour which is paid to the image passes on to that which the image represents, and he who reveres the image reveres in it the subject represented.
Now, this isn’t some Catholic site loosely translating. This is the copy from Calvin College’s own library.  Yet John Calvin rejected this Ecumenical Council, and claimed that the Second Council of Nicea instructed Christians to worship images.  You can find all of this in Book I, Chapter 11 of Institutes of the Christian Religion. The Second Council of Nicea condemned Calvin’s view, centuries before his birth, saying:

We salute the venerable images. We place under anathema those who do not do this. Anathema to them who presume to apply to the venerable images the things said in Holy Scripture about idols. Anathema to those who do not salute the holy and venerable images. Anathema to those who call the sacred images idols. Anathema to those who say that Christians resort to the sacred images as to gods. Anathema to those who say that any other delivered us from idols except Christ our God. Anathema to those who dare to say that at any time the Catholic Church received idols.

So Calvin isn’t telling the truth when he says that the Second Council of Nicea urged worshiping images, since the Council distinguished between the two quite clearly.  When you pray in front of a statue of Christ, you’re not praying to the statue, but to Christ Himself.  Idolatry is worship of the object itself.  Even if you disagree with Nicea, it’s objectively untrue to claim it taught worshiping images.

Perhaps more fundamentally, Calvin is taking his own view of Scripture over the clear teaching of the Second Council of Nicea, the Seventh Ecumenical Council.  Given the scathing attacks on the Hyper-Preterists for reducing the ecumenical councils to no more authority than C.S. Lewis,  Mathison must be furious with Calvin for holding views which are “neither Reformational nor Christian” and destroying Christianity by reducing it to “irrationalism and ultimately nonsense,” right?  Well, not quite.  Instead, Mathison agrees with Calvin, accusing the Catholic Church of idolatry on page 316 of his book, and using this imagined idolatry as proof that She’s not lead by the Holy Spirit.  Both of these claims are explicitly contrary to the Seventh Ecumenical Council — that is, directly contrary to the “apostolic, ecclesiastical and hermeneutical” authority he claims to hold dear.

To support this hypocrisy, Mathison runs to Calvin (of course), writing:

What Calvin does not grant is that any council is given a gift of infallibility. The veracity of a council’s decisions is not determined in advance simply because it meets a list of external criteria. In his debate with Cardinal Sadoleto, Calvin explained, “For although we hold that the Word of God alone lies beyond the sphere of our judgment, and that fathers and Councils are of authority only in so far as they accord with the rule of the Word, we still give to Councils and fathers such rank and honor as it is meet for them to hold, under Christ.” (p. 116)

So the Councils are binding if and only if they agree with John Calvin’s interpretation of Scripture. But if an Ecumenical Church Council says that the Scriptures teach x, how can an individual Christian possibly hold (as Calvin did) that the Council was wrong?  Mathison tries to provide us this answer, as well, by quoting the following from Calvin (from p. 116 of Mathison’s book, quoting Book IV, Chapter 9 of Calvin’s Institutes)::

But the Romanists aim at another goal when they teach that the power of interpreting Scripture belongs to councils, and without appeal.  For, in calling everything ordained in councils “interpretation of Scripture,” they misue this as pretext.  Not one syllable of purgatory, or intercession of saints, of auricular confession, and the like will be found in Scripture.  But because all these things have been sanctioned by the authority of the church, that is (to speak more accurately), received by opinion and use, every one will have to be taken as an interpretation of Scripture. 

Calvin is wrong here.  Catholics find support for purgatory in places like 2 Maccabees 12:43-46, 1 Corinthians 3:10-15, and Revelation 21:27; for intercession of saints in places like Luke 16:23-24 and Hebrews 11-12; and auricular confession is explicitly taught in James 5:16, while the power of priests to forgive sins is found in places like John 20:22-23.  Calvin may disagree with the Church’s interpretations of these Scriptures, but how is that any different from a Hyper-Preterist saying that the Church’s interpretations of the Trinitarian Scriptures are wrong?  What principled difference is there between this, and an anti-Trinitarian determined that the Trinity is nothing more than “a pagan idea imported into Christianity“? As Mathison has established, if an individual can do this, Christianity is effectively destroyed.


In the end, Mathison tries to have it both ways, using the Church’s Ecumenical Councils and Creeds against Evangelicals when it suits him, while ignoring the Church’s Councils and Creeds when it doesn’t.  He tries to justify this rank hypocrisy on page 101 by saying that there are three ways of understanding Tradition’s authority:

  1. Authoritarian Reverence – Roman Catholicism
  2. Critical Reverence – Reformed Catholicism or Protestantism
  3. Utter Contempt – Radical Reformers
But as we saw in Part II, followers of “Tradition 0” don’t hold Tradition, the Creeds, or the Church’s Councils in “utter contempt.”  They just treat them the same as they treat men “like Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, the Westminster Assembly, Campbell, Rushdoony, or C.S. Lewis.”  In other words, they respect that well-meaning Christians wrote them, and that they might be right, or might not be.   That’s the exact same view that Calvin and Mathison hold, even if they deny it.
Put simply, if Calvin and Mathison can spit upon the Second Ecumenical Council of Nicea’s declarations on venerating images, there’s no serious basis on which they can criticize even Unitarians for spitting upon the First Ecumenical Council of Nicea’s declaration on the importance of the Trinity.  AndMathison would have us understand that folks who do what he does (place themselves above Ecumenical Councils and Creeds) are literally destroying Christianity.


  1. love it, great timing too, as I have a discussion going w/ someone on this Monday and was asking kev about it…the person i was discussing it with suggested that Papal/Church authority has the danger of leading to an Islamic type system without individual thought and requirement of top down interpretation of every issue. thoughts?

  2. FYI

    This is, I think, your best post on sola scriptura. It draws all of your prior ones together and forces protestants to face that their anti catholicism cuts their own throat. Bravo

  3. Joe,

    Is there any other Nicene language on the sinlessness of Mary other than that “spotless Mother of God line” you quote? I haven’t been able to find any, but I’m thinking you have a cite.


  4. Joe, do you know if that document you linked to from Nicaea with the language about the “spotless”, “immaculate Mother of God” was thought to be infallible at the time?

    I’m talking to a Lutheran who is trying to get out from under it by claiming “The Council, while they certainly believed those things (and I don’t have a problem with Mary’s perpetual virginity) did not make them things that must be believed or you are not part of the Church.”

  5. Robert,

    It appears to be in the form of a dogmatic definition, and with an invocation of the Holy Spirit’s guidance of the Church:

    We, therefore, following the royal pathway and the divinely inspired authority of our Holy Fathers and the traditions of the Catholic Church (for, as we all know, the Holy Spirit indwells her), define with all certitude and accuracy…

    Also of possible relevance to your Lutheran friend. In the First Session, anathemas were read into the record against iconoclasts. This was part of Basil of Ancyra’s reunion with the Church, after he had embraced iconoclasm. The anathemas can be found here (, and include:

    – Anathema to the calumniators of the Christians, that is to the image breakers.

    – Anathema to those who apply the words of Holy Scripture which were spoken against idols, to the venerable images.

    – Anathema to those who do not salute the holy and venerable images.

    – Anathema to those who say that Christians have recourse to the images as to gods.

    – Anathema to those who call the sacred images idols.

    I don’t see how someone could do all of the things declared anathema here, and still remain in full communion with the Church. Or put another way: this Council was called in large part to address precisely this question. It wasn’t some tangential, throw-away line that the Church got wrong.

    In fact, this was virtually the only issue of faith and morals addressed: most everything else is disciplinary (about the construction of Oratories, building of double monasteries, women living in bishop’s houses, etc.). If you can give lip service to this Council, while rejecting its views on the issue most occupying its focus, what can’t you deny? Could you accept I Nicea, while rejecting the Trinity?


  6. Joe,

    Have you heard many such people who argue that they are subject to the first 7 ecumenical councils, but not the rest? I’ve heard some that say that they don’t have to follow the latter councils b/c they occured after the split with the Orthodox (which is different from other splits as is evidenced by the fact that the Catholic Church holds that the Orthodox have real bishops, etc.). What do you think of that argument?

  7. HocCogitat,

    I have. Most Protestants (and, of course, the Eastern Orthodox) fall into that group. But it’s a bit silly, isn’t it? After all, the non-Chalcedonian Oriental Orthodox broke away from the Catholic Church well before the Seventh Council. They split off in 431. Yet they still have Apostolic Succession. So that can’t be the standard.

    God bless,


  8. To make this more philosophical, I should add that what we have here is an example of the failure of the “deductivist” model that is required by Sola Scriptura (as well as Solo Scriptura). As Prof. Koons puts it:

    “The Lutheran position only makes sense if we can suppose that all the doctrines can be logically deduced from the explicit statements of Scripture. That is, Lutheran theology must be completely “deductivist” in method, if it is to be coherent. In contrast, Roman theologians can legitimately make use of inductive and other “ampliative” (to use Charles S. Peirce’s term) forms of inference. Roman theologians can see the doctrines of the Church emerging from the text of Scripture by a kind of organic development (as John Henry Newman argued). The Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, develops a body of doctrine that completes and fulfills God’s revelatory intentions for inspired Scripture. Catholics and Lutherans can agree that Scripture is, for the most part at least, the sole foundation of all theology. (Oral tradition plays a relatively minor role in Catholic theology.) However, they differ in the forms of inference that lead from Scripture to the formulations of doctrine.

    “Newman makes a compelling case that the development of such doctrines as the Trinity, the two natures of Christ, and infant baptism does not fit the deductivist model. Lutheran protestations to the contrary, I cannot believe that every proposition in the Book of Concord can be deduced directly from the text of Scripture, interpreted only by means of neutral, grammatical-historical methods. At some point, one has to make judgments about which system of theology best makes sense of the biblical data, and these human judgments will be fallible and variable, except where superintended by the Holy Spirit. Hence the need for an infallible magisterium of the Church.”

    A deductivist model must take all of its premises directly from scripture and infer its conclusion therefrom. If you do that, however, there are multiple possible conclusions concerning many doctrines. In order to rule out the competing doctrines you need to use “ampliative” reasoning or “judgment”. This means that you supply an additional premise to the premises taken directly from scripture so that the conclusion is required. The problem is that there is a chance that this premise will be false. If so, then all your premises from scripture can be true and your conclusion will still be false (compare this to deductive reasoning where if all the premises are true, then the conclusion *must* be true). “Hence the need for an infallible magisterium of the Church” in order to avoid Mathison’s “non-sense”

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