Sunday, January 22, 2017

Tridentine Teachings

The Council of Trent clarified major doctrinal issues. We now turn to the key teachings that the council for the most part affirmed from previous sources and that stand to this day as official Catholic doctrine, setting aside administrative reforms and dabbling in secular problems of its age.

The Bible

The first and perhaps most useful decision at Trent, for all Christianity, was to produce an official list of biblical books deemed divinely inspired, or canonical (from the Greek, kanon, meaning “rule” or “measuring stick”).

Trent’s was the first such Churchwide statement, although early Church fathers such as Origen, Athanasius and others had offered such lists. As noted much earlier, Trent’s 1546 decree on the biblical canon was followed by statements by Calvinists (1559), Anglicans (1563) and the Greek Orthodox (1672).

The canon approved by Trent included all the books in St. Jerome’s Latin translation (completed in 382), known as the Vulgate, the Bible in use since then in the West and challenged by various Protestant reformers.

The Tridentine canon, still used today for all Catholic Bibles, includes all 66 books found in Protestant Bibles, plus Tobit, Judith, Wisdom (also called the Wisdom of Solomon), Sirach (also called Ecclesiasticus), Baruch, 1 Maccabees and 2 Maccabees. Trent also included passages clipped off by Protestants in Esther (10:4-16:24) and Daniel, including the Prayer of Azariah and Song of the Three Young Men, which deal with some of the torments during the Babylonian Captivity (3:24-90), and the story of Susanna (Daniel 13), which deals with a married woman’s virtue. The Old Testament canon is identical to that of most Orthodox Christian Bibles.

The New Testament canon includes the 27 books in all Christian Bibles. Luther attempted to remove four NT books—Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation, which he felt, with some reason,  undermined his own teachings, such as sola Scriptura and sola fide—but he failed to convince his followers.

Importantly, in that same decree’s prologue, Trent made clear that the entirety of the “Christian Gospel,” or good news, proclaimed by Jesus Christ and preached by the apostles is “contained in the written books, and the unwritten traditions which, received by the Apostles from the mouth of Christ himself, or from the Apostles themselves, the Holy Ghost dictating, have come down even unto us, transmitted as it were from hand to hand.” The clause is a mortal arrow directed at the heart of Luther’s teaching that only Scripture (sola Scriptura) could be the basis of Christian doctrine.


The council was more nuanced on original sin and justification, which were admittedly more complex. After all, Luther and Rome were not far apart on the question that original sin came through Adam and agreed on infant baptism. Luther had departed from traditional teaching only insofar as the value of good deeds and rituals of Christians justified by faith; to Luther these works and rites were useless and pointless for the purposes of gaining salvation. Calvin had gone farther astray with predestination.

Trent replied to both.

To Luther, the council effectively said “no one, how much soever justified, ought to think himself exempt from the observance of the commandments,” adding that “God commands not impossibilities, but, by commanding, both admonishes thee to do what thou are able, and to pray for what thou art not able (to do), and aids thee that thou mayest be able; whose commandments are not heavy; whose yoke is sweet and whose burthen light.”

To Calvinism, the council warned that “No one, moreover, so long as he is in this mortal life, ought so far to presume as regards the secret mystery of divine predestination, as to determine for certain that he is assuredly in the number of the predestinate” … or “that he that is justified, either cannot sin any more, or, if he do sin, that he ought to promise himself an assured repentance.”


The council decreed that the seven sacraments “instituted by Jesus Christ” are “Baptism, Confirmation, the Eucharist, Penance, Extreme Unction, Order, and Matrimony”—the names of two have changed somewhat, but the sacraments are still the same today.

In various canons, the council declared that
  • infant baptism is valid;
  • confirmation is not “an idle ceremony”;
  • in the Eucharist the “whole Christ” is “contained under each species” (meaning either the consecrated bread or the wine);
  • Christ did bestow “the power of forgiving and of retaining sins in the Sacrament of penance, as the Catholic Church has always from the beginning understood them”;
  • “Extreme Unction” is “truly and properly a sacrament, instituted by Christ our Lord, and promulgated by the blessed apostle James”;
  • in New Testament there is mention of “a visible and external priesthood”; and
  • “the bond of matrimony cannot be dissolved on account of the adultery” and “that both, or even the innocent one who gave not occasion to the adultery, cannot contract another marriage, during the life-time of the other.”
The council condemned as “anathema” (or subject to excommunication for heresy) anyone who asserted anything to the contrary.

The list is far from exhaustive, but it represents a fair sampling of Catholic teaching on sacraments that still stands in marked contrast to the positions of almost all Protestant churches.

The council tread trod gingerly in the matter of the Eucharist. Trent reaffirmed that Christ is “really, truly, substantially present” in the consecrated bread and wine. Yet, although it said this was “suitably and properly called Transubstantiation,” it notably omitted the complex explanation by Thomas Aquinas after the T-word was first used at Lateran IV. It seems as if almost out of pique, the council fathers declined to drop the word just to please a bunch of heretics, as they would have thought of them, but they did not wish to die on the scholastic hill Aquinas built for them. Even Luther might have chuckled.

The documents do not cite biblical passages (perhaps out of exasperation with the Bible proof-texting of the reformers?), but the language of the decrees and canons on each of the seven sacraments contains Bible verses verbatim. They cite evidence that Jesus Christ in the gospels specifically empowered and ordered the Church to carry out and administer special signs of grace, called sacraments by theologians.

Biblical writ for the sacraments is ample. For example, concerning Penance or Confession, now called Reconciliation, there’s Luke 13:5 (“unless you shall do penance, you shall all likewise perish”), John 20:23 (“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained”), Matthew 16:19 and 18:18 on “binding and loosing” and James 5:16 (“confess your sins to one another”).

The council borrowed many of those passages, then drew from such teachings the idea that the sacrament requires of the penitent himself three “parts of penance”: contrition or sincere sorrow for the sins (preferably for the love of God, but acceptably out of fear of punishment); confession, or the actual oral statement of the acts committed, to an ordained priest; and “satisfaction,” or some way in which the wrong is set right, through penitence and restoration to those aggrieved by the sin. These were not new ideas, but what had been consistently taught up to the council, restated for clarity’s sake.

Purgatory, Images, Indulgences

Trent similarly linked the continued purification of the dead (purgatory) in the afterlife until final judgment of all by Christ, to the invocation of dead Christians deemed to have been saintly enough to be already in the presence of God; such pleading should be seen as seeking favors on behalf of the living and the dead from someone figuratively with direct access to God’s ear.

The biblical linchpin is 2 Macc. 12:43-45 in reference to an instance of what Jews call the prayers of Kaddish: “In doing this he acted in a very excellent and noble way, inasmuch as he had the resurrection of the dead in view; for if he were not expecting the dead to rise again, it would have been useless and foolish to pray for them in death. But if he did this with a view to the splendid reward that awaits those who had gone to rest in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be freed from this sin.”

The council put in a word for relics and images, noting their purpose in educating the faithful in church and affirming they are not idolatrous, but said little more. The matter had been dealt with centuries earlier in councils dealing with iconoclasm, the smashing of and opposition to religious iconography.

As regards indulgences, the council noted concerning the power to remit sin for those in purgatory—known as indulgences—that “there is in the Church the power of granting them.” However, Trent expressly banned the sale of indulgences, ordering that “all evil gains for the obtaining thereof, whence a most prolific cause of abuses amongst the Christian people has been derived, be wholly abolished.”

All told, Trent conceded that there had been reason for alarm concerning indulgences, even if the council disagreed with the doctrinal particulars later put forth by those who sounded the bell.

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