Council of Trent

by William Cunningham

Excerpt from The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation

The Council of Trent marks a very important era in the history of the church, because, as has been often remarked, its termination, —which took place in the year 1563, the year before the death of Calvin, —virtually marks the termination of the progress of the Reformation, and the commencement of that revived efficiency of Popery which has enabled it to retain, ever since, all at least that was then left to it, and even to make some encroachments upon what the Reformation had taken from it. How far this result is to be ascribed to the Council of Trent, directly or indirectly; and in what way, if at all, it was connected with the proceedings of the council, are very interesting subjects of investigation to the philosophic student of history. But the importance of the Council of Trent, in a more directly theological point of view, depends upon the considerations, that its records embody the solemn, formal, and official decision of the Church of Rome, —which claims to be the one, holy, catholic church of Christ, —upon all the leading doctrines taught by the Reformers; that its decrees upon all doctrinal points are received by all Romanists as possessed of infallible authority; and that every Popish priest is sworn to receive, profess, and maintain everything defined and declared by it.

God was pleased, through the instrumentality of the Reformers, to revive the truths revealed in His word on the most important of all subjects, which had been long involved in obscurity and error. They were then brought fully out and pressed upon men's attention, and the decrees and canons of the Council of Trent show us in what way the Church of Rome received and disposed of them. After full time for deliberation and preparatory discussion, she gave a solemn decision on all these important questions, —a decision to which she must by her fundamental principles unchangeably adhere, even until her eventful and most marvellous history shall terminate in her destruction, until she shall sink like a great millstone, and be found no more at all.

It is not, indeed, to be supposed that the decisions of the Council of Trent form the exclusive standard of the doctrines to which the Church of Rome is pledged; for it is but the last of eighteen general councils, all whose decisions they profess to receive as infallible, though they are not agreed among themselves as to what the eighteen councils are that are entitled to this implicit submission. Still the Reformers brought out fully at length, —though Luther attained to scriptural views on a variety of points only gradually after he had begun the work of Reformation, —all that they thought objectionable in the doctrines and practices which prevailed in the Church of Rome; and on most of these topics that church gave her decision in the Council of Trent. There were, indeed, some questions, —and these of no small importance, —on which the Council of Trent was afraid, or was not permitted, to decide. One of these was the real nature and extent of the Papal supremacy, —a subject on which, though Bellarmine says that the whole of Christianity hangs upon it, it is scarcely possible to ascertain up to this day what the precise doctrine of the Church of Rome is. The Court of Rome succeeded, in general, in managing the proceedings of the council as it chose; but it had sometimes, in the prosecution of this object, to encounter considerable difficulties, and was obliged to have recourse to bribery, intimidation, and many species of fraud and manoeuvring; and even with all this, it was on several occasions not very certain beforehand as to the results of the discussions in the council on some points in which its interests were involved. On this account the Popes were afraid to allow the subject of their own supremacy to be brought into discussion; and those, whether Protestants or Papists, who wish to know the doctrine of the Church of Rome upon this important subject, must go back to the Councils of Constance and Florence, and interpret and reconcile their decisions as they best can.

The Church of Rome, of course, can never escape from the responsibility of what was enacted and decided at Trent; but she may have incurred new and additional responsibility by subsequent decisions, even though there has not since been any oecumenical council. And there are additional decisions on some doctrinal points discussed in the Council of Trent, which, on principles formerly explained, are binding upon the Church of Rome, and must be taken into account in order to understand fully her doctrines upon certain questions. I refer here more particularly to the bulls of Popes Pius V. and Gregory XIII., condemning the doctrines of Baius, the precursor of Jansenius; the bull of Innocent X., condemning the five propositions of Jansenius; and the bull Unigenitusby Clement XI., condemning the Jansenist or Augustinian doctrines of Quesnel, —documents which contain more explicit evidence of the Pelagianism (taken in a historical sense) of the Church of Rome than any that is furnished by the decrees of the Council of Trent. That the bull Unigenitus is binding upon the Church of Rome is generally admitted, and may be said to be certain; and the obligation of the condemnation of the doctrines of Baius and Jansenius rests upon the very same grounds. This is now generally admitted by Romanists, though, at the time when these bulls were published, there were some who denied their authority, and refused to submit to them. It may be worth while to mention, as an evidence of this, that Moehler, the most skilful and accomplished defender of Popery in the present century, having, in the earlier editions of his Symbolism, spoken of a particular opinion in regard to the moral constitution of man before the fall as generally held by the Romish Doctors, but as not an article of faith or de fide, and binding upon the church; and having afterwards found, —as, indeed, he might have seen in Bellarmine,— that the denial of the opinion in question had been condemned by Popes Pius and Gregory in their bulls against Baius, retracts his error, and asserts that the opinion must on this ground be received as a binding article of faith.

This incident, though intrinsically insignificant, may be regarded as relatively of some importance, —not only as showing that the condemnation of the doctrines of Baius is acknowledged to be binding upon the Church of Rome, but still more, as illustrating the difficulty of ascertaining what are the recognised and authoritative doctrines of that church, when such a man as Moehler, who had been nine years a professor of theology in a celebrated German university before he published his Symbolism, fell into a blunder of this sort. But although it is certain that, in order to have a full and complete view of the doctrines of the Church of Rome, —the doctrines to which that church, with all her claims to infallibility, is pledged, and for which we are entitled to hold her responsible, —we must in our investigations both go farther back, and come later down, than the Council of Trent; still it remains true, that the decrees and canons of that council furnish the readiest and most authentic means of ascertaining, to a large extent, what the recognised doctrines of the Church of Rome are, and exhibit the whole of the response which she gave to the chief scriptural doctrines revived by the Reformers; and this consideration has ever given, and ever must continue to give, it a most important place in the history of theology. The Romanists, of course, demand that all professing Christians, i.e., all baptized persons, —for they hold that baptism, heretical or Protestant baptism, subjects all who have received it to the authority of the Pope, the head of the church, —shall receive all the decrees of the Council of Trent as infallibly true, on the ground that, like any other general oecumenical council, it was certainly guided into all truth by the presiding agency of the Holy Ghost.

The style and title which the council assumed to itself in its decrees was, "The holy (or sacrosanct) oecumenical and general Council of Trent, legitimately congregated in the Holy Ghost, and presided over by the legates of the Apostolic See." The title which they were to assume was frequently matter of discussion in the council itself, and gave rise to a good deal of controversy and dissension. Some members of the council laboured long and zealously to effect that, to the title they assumed, there should be added the words, "representing the universal church." This seemed very reasonable and consistent; for it is only upon the ground that general councils represent the universal church, that that special appropriation of the scriptural promises of the presence of Christ and His Spirit, on which their alleged infallibility rests, is based. This phrase, however, was particularly unsavoury to the Popes and their legates, as it reminded them very unpleasantly of the proceedings of the Councils of Constance and Basle in the preceding century; for these councils had based, upon the ground that they represented the universal church, their great principle of the superiority of a council over a Pope, and of its right to exercise jurisdiction over him; and the Papal party succeeded, though not without difficulty, in excluding the expression.

It would, indeed, have been rather a bold step, however consistent, if the members of the Council of Trent had assumed the designation, " representing the universal church;" for they were few in number, and a large proportion of them belonged to Italy, —being, indeed, just the creatures and hired agents of the Popes, and some of them having been made bishops with mere titular dioceses, just for the purpose of being sent to Trent, that they might vote as the Popes directed them. In the fourth session, —when the council passed its decrees upon the rule of faith, committing the church, for the first time, to the following positions, of some of which many learned Romanists have since been ashamed, though they did not venture openly to oppose them, —viz., that unwritten traditions are of equal authority with the written word; that the apocryphal books of the Old Testament are canonical; that it belongs to the church to interpret Scripture, and that this must be done according to the unanimous consent of the fathers; and that the Vulgate Latin is to be held authentic in all controversies, —there were only about fifty bishops present, and a minority of these were opposed to some of the decisions pronounced. During most of the sittings of the council there were not two hundred bishops present, and these were almost all Italians, with a few Germans and Spaniards; and during the last sittings, under Pope Pius IV., when the council was fuller than ever before, in consequence of the presence of some French bishops and other causes, the largest number that attended was two hundred and seventy, of whom two-thirds— one hundred and eighty-seven— were Italians, thirty-one Spaniards, twenty-six French, and twenty-six from all the rest of the universal church.

If all oecumenical councils are infallible, and if the Council of Trent was oecumenical, and if all this can be demonstrated a priori, then of course we are bound to submit implicitly to all its decisions; but Protestants have generally been of opinion that there was nothing about the Council of Trent which seemed to afford anything like probable grounds for the conviction, that it was either oecumenical or infallible. It was certainly, in point of numbers, a very inadequate representative of the universal church. The men of whom it was composed had not, in general, much about them which, according to the ordinary principles of judgment, should entitle their decisions to great respect and deference. The influences under which the proceedings of the council were regulated, and the manner in which they were conducted, were not such as to inspire much confidence in the soundness of the conclusions to which they came. In short, the history of the Council of Trent is just an epitome or miniature of the history of the Church of Rome; exhibiting, on the part of the Popes and their immediate adherents, and, indeed, on the part of the council itself, —for the Popes substantially succeeded in managing its affairs as they wished, though sometimes not without difficulty, — determined opposition to God's revealed will, and to the interests of truth and godliness, and a most unscrupulous prosecution of their own selfish and unworthy ends; indeed all deceivableness of unrighteousness— the great scriptural characteristic of the mystery of iniquity. There is a very remarkable passage in Calvin's admirable treatise, "De necessitate Reformandae Ecclesiae," published in 1544, the year before the council first assembled, in which he describes minutely by anticipation what the council, if it were allowed to meet, would do, how its proceedings would be conducted, and what would be the result of its deliberations; and it would not be easy to find an instance in which a prediction proceeding from ordinary human sagacity was more fully and exactly accomplished. Abundant materials to establish its accuracy are to be found not only in Father Paul, but in Pallavicino himself, and in other trustworthy Romish authorities.

Hallam, in his ct History of the Literature of Europe during the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries," has, in his great candour, made some statements about the Council of Trent, of which the Papists boast as concessions of "an eminent Protestant authority," though I really do not know that Hallam had any other claim to be called a Protestant, except that he was not a Romanist. He says,"No general council ever contained so many persons of eminent learning and ability as that of Trent; nor is there ground for believing that any other ever investigated the questions before it with so much patience, acuteness, temper, and desire of truth....Let those who have imbibed a different opinion ask themselves whether they have read Sarpi" — i.e., Father Paul— "through with any attention, especially as to those sessions of the Tridentine Council which preceded its suspension in 1547 and he intimates that he regards this view as diametrically opposed to the representations usually given of the subject by Protestants. Now, in regard to this statement of Hallam's, we have to remark, first, that there is good ground to regard it as representing the council in too favourable a light; and, secondly, that there is not at bottom much in it which Protestants in general have disputed, or have any interest in disputing. That the Council of Trent contained some men of eminent learning and ability is undoubtedly true, and has never been questioned. The Church of Rome has almost always had some men of great learning and ability to defend its cause. That it contained at least as many men of learning and ability as any of the previous general councils, —most of them held in times when these qualifications were not particularly abundant, —may also be admitted as highly probable, if we may be allowed to except the first Council of Nice. There is no reason, however, to think, as Hallam alleges, that the Council of Trent contained many men of this description. There is good reason to believe that the learning and ability which existed were to be found much more among the divines and the generals of monastic orders, who were present merely as counsellors or assessors, than among the bishops, who were the only proper judges of the points that came before the council for decision. It is plain, indeed, from the whole of Father Paul's history, that though there was much disputation in the council upon a great variety of topics, this was confined to a very small number of individuals, —there being apparently but few, comparatively, who were qualified to take part in the discussions. There were very few men in the Council of Trent who have been known in subsequent times for anything except their being members of that council, —very few who have acquired for themselves any distinguished or lasting reputation in theological literature.

Still, that there were men in the Council of Trent who were well acquainted with the fathers and the schoolmen, and who were able to discuss, and did discuss, the questions that came before them, with much ability and acuteness, is undeniable. Father Paul's history fully establishes this, and no Protestant, so far as I know, has ever, as Hallam seems to think, disputed it. As to the alleged patience, temper, and desire of truth with which the discussions were conducted, it is admitted that Father Paul's history does not contain a great deal that openly and palpably disproves the allegation, so far as the divines who usually took part in the discussions were concerned. And this ought to be regarded as an evidence that Father Paul did not studiously make it his object, as Romanists allege, to bring the council into contempt; for it is a curious fact that Cardinal Pallavicino, the professed advocate of the council, whose work Hallam admits he had never read, brings out some facts, not noticed by Father Paul, which give no very favourable impression of the patience and temper of some of the fathers: as, for instance, of one bishop, in the course of a discussion, seizing another by the throat, and tearing his beard; and of the presiding legate and another cardinal who was opposed to the interests of the Pope, discharging against each other fearful torrents of Billingsgate.:):  As to their alleged desire of truth, it is of course not disputed that the fathers of the council honestly believed the doctrinal decisions which they pronounced to be true, —that where a difference of opinion appeared upon any point, they laboured to convince those who differed from them of their error, and did occasionally succeed on some minor points in producing a conviction to this effect. The theologians who guided the doctrinal decisions of the Council of Trent, no doubt represented fairly enough the theological sentiments that generally prevailed in the Church of Rome before the council assembled. Those of them who had studied theological subjects were of course acquainted with the Protestant arguments before the council was called; and the Reformers certainly did not expect that the council would make their opponents sounder theologians, or more disposed to submit to scriptural evidence, than they had been before. They appeared in the council just as they had done in their polemical writings against the Reformers; and they certainly afforded no evidence that, in virtue of the supposed presiding agency of the Holy Ghost, they either had a greater desire of truth, or actually attained it more fully than formerly.

Protestants, then, do not dispute that the Council of Trent contained some men of eminent learning and ability; that the doctrinal decisions of the council were in accordance with what the great body of its members really believed to be true; and that considerable pains were taken to put forth their doctrines in the most unobjectionable and plausible form. The leading general statement which Protestants are accustomed to make in regard to the Council of Trent, so far as this aspect of it is concerned, is in substance this, —that there is nothing about it that entitles its decisions to any great respect or deference; and the main grounds upon which they hold this conviction are these: —that its members were few in number, viewed as representing the universal church; that they were not, in general, men at all distinguished for piety, learning, and ability; that, on the contrary, the great body of them were grossly and notoriously deficient in those qualities; that a large proportion of them were the mere creatures of the Pope, ready to vote for whatever he might wish; that the general management of the proceedings of the council was regulated by the Court of Rome, with a view to the promotion of its own selfish interests; that when difficulties arose upon any points in which these interests were, or were supposed to be, involved, all means, foul or fair, were employed to protect them; and that such was the skill of those who, in the Pope's name, presided over the council, and such the character and the motives of the majority of those who composed it, —that these means, directed to this end, seldom if ever failed of success. All this has been established by the most satisfactory historical evidence; and when this has been proved, it is abundantly sufficient to warrant the conclusion, that the decisions of such a body, so composed, so circumstanced, so influenced, are entitled to but little respect; that there is no very strong antecedent presumption in favour of their soundness; and that they may be examined and tested with all freedom, and without any overpowering sense of the sacredness of the ground on which we are treading.

The two main objects for which the council was professedly called, were, —to decide on the theological questions which had been raised by the Reformers, and to reform the practical corruptions and abuses which it was admitted prevailed in the Church of Rome itself; and its proceedings are divided into two heads, — doctrine and reformation, —the latter forming much the larger portion of its recorded proceedings. It was chiefly on the topics connected with the reformation of the church that the influence of the Pope was brought to bear, —for it was these chiefly that affected his interests; and it was mainly the proceedings upon some of the subjects that rank under this head, which brought out the true character of the men of whom the council was composed, and the influences under which its proceedings were conducted. The Popes were not much concerned about the precise deliverances that might be given upon points of doctrine, except indeed those which might bear upon the government of the church. Upon other doctrinal subjects, it was enough for them to be satisfied that, from the known sentiments of the members of which the council was composed, their decisions would be in opposition to all the leading principles advanced by the Reformers, and in accordance with the theological views that then generally prevailed in the Church of Rome. Satisfied of this, and not caring much more about the matter, the Popes left the theologians of the council to follow very much their own convictions and impressions upon questions purely doctrinal; and this gave to the discussions upon these topics a degree of freedom and independence, which, had any unworthy interests of the Court of Rome been involved in them, would most certainly have been checked.

The accounts given by Father Paul of the discussions that took place in the council upon doctrinal subjects are very interesting and important, as throwing much light both upon the general state of theological sentiment that then obtained in the Church of Rome, and also upon the meaning and objects of the decrees and canons which were ultimately adopted; and, indeed, a perusal of them may be regarded as almost indispensable to a thorough and minute acquaintance with the theology of the Church of Rome as settled by the Council of Trent. There are two interesting considerations of a general kind which they suggest, neither of them very accordant with "the desire of truth" which Hallam is pleased to ascribe to the council, —first, that the diversity of opinion on important questions, elicited in the discussion, was sometimes so great as apparently to preclude the possibility of their coming to a harmonious decision, which yet seems somehow to have been generally effected; and, secondly, that a considerable number of the doctrines broached and maintained by the Reformers were supported by some members at least in substance, although it seems in general to have been received by the great body of the council as quite a sufficient argument against the truth of a doctrine, that it was maintained by the Protestants. The great, objects which the council seems to have kept in view in their doctrinal or theological decisions were these, —first, to make their condemnation of the doctrines of the Reformers as full and complete as possible; and, secondly, to avoid as much as they could condemning any of those doctrines which had been matter of controversial discussion among the scholastic theologians, and on which difference of opinion still subsisted among themselves. It was not always easy to combine these objects; and the consequence is, that on many points the decisions of the Council of Trent are expressed with deliberate and intentional ambiguity. The truth of this position is established at once by an examination of the decrees and canons themselves, and by the history both of the discussions which preceded their formation, and of the disputes to which they have since given rise in the Church of Rome itself. It was probably this, with the awkward consequences to which it was seen that it was likely to lead, that induced Pope Pius IV., in his bull confirming the council, to forbid all, even ecclesiastical persons, of whatever order, condition, or degree, upon any pretext whatever, and under the severest penalties, to publish any commentaries, glosses, annotations, scholia, or any sort of interpretation upon the decrees of the council, without Papal authority; while, at the same time, he directed that, if any one found anything in the decrees that was obscure, or needed explanation, he should go up to the place which the Lord had chosen, —the Apostolic See, the mistress of all the faithful.

It cannot be denied that a great deal of skill and ingenuity were displayed in the preparation of the decrees of the Council of Trent, and that advantage had been taken of the discussions which had taken place since the commencement of the Reformation to introduce greater care and caution into the statement and exposition of doctrine, and thus ward off the force of some of the arguments of the Reformers. There is certainly not nearly so much Pelagianism in the decrees and canons of the Council of Trent, —so much of what plainly and palpably contradicts the fundamental doctrines of Scripture, —as appears in the writings of the earlier Romish opponents of Luther, though there is enough to entitle us to charge the Church of Rome with perverting the gospel of the grace of God, and subverting the scriptural method of salvation.

The canons of the council, as distinguished from the decrees, consist wholly of anathemas against the doctrines ascribed to the Reformers. And here a good deal of unfairness has been practised: advantage has been taken, to a considerable extent, of some of the rash, exaggerated, and paradoxical statements of Luther, much in the same way as in the first bull of Pope Leo condemning him; and in this way statements are, with some appearance of authority, ascribed to Protestants which they do not acknowledge, for which they are not responsible, and which are not at all necessary for the exposition and maintenance of their principles. Leo, in his bull, which was directed avowedly against Luther by name, might be entitled to take up any statement that he had made; and Luther did not complain, in regard to any one of the statements charged upon him, that he had not made it. But it was unfair in the Council of Trent to take advantage of Luther's rash and unguarded statements, for exciting odium against Protestants in general, who had now explained their doctrines with care and accuracy.

A further artifice resorted to by the Council of Trent in their canons condemning Protestant doctrines, is to take a doctrine which Protestants generally held and acknowledged, —to couple it with some one of the more extreme and exaggerated statements of Luther or of some one else, —and then to include them both under one and the same anathema, evidently for the purpose of laying the odium of the more objectionable statements upon the other which accompanied it. Some of these observations we may afterwards have occasion to illustrate by examples; but our object at present is merely to give a brief summary of the leading general points that should be remembered concerning the decrees and canons of the council, and kept in view and applied in the investigation of them.


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