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  • Writer's pictureMark Sparks

Can the ecumenical councils be binding for Protestants?

There has been a question swirling in my head lately regarding the relationship between the ecumenical councils and Protestant understanding. For the other major sects of Christianity, Orthodoxy and Catholicism, the ecumenical councils are given an authoritative and binding weight and one is not able to remain in good repute within the respective ecclesial bounds without affirming (or better yet while denying) the conclusions of the ecumenical councils. This authoritative structure establishes the great Christological teachings of the early church and many other important doctrines as necessary pre-conditions, and their necessity is driven by predicating infallibility to the ecumenical councils.

While Protestants value the teaching of the early ecumenical councils and many Protestants do hold them to be a point of necessity, I have been questioning lately as to whether the epistemic structure that carries Protestantism along, sola scriptura, is robust enough to establish these teachings as necessary to the point that they can be appropriately used as ecclesial boundary markers.

This does appear to be a deep tension in Protestantism because on the one hand, Protestantism maintains the reformation cry of sola scriptura, which establishes the written canon of Scripture as the sole infallible rule of faith, otherwise articulated as the final rule of faith. On the other hand, there are several ways in which Protestantism must maintain some level of authoritative structure to the traditional teachings of the Christian church including many of the Christological dogmas, trinitarianism, matters related to the canon, etc. Many of those who understand this tension take the sola scriptura position of the reformers by predicating a meaningful level of authority to church tradition in their epistemic structure, while also denouncing the modern evangelical teaching of nuda scriptura. However, the question remains, is the historical Protestant epistemic structure of sola scriptura enough to carry the authority required to maintain rigidity on these historical dogmas?

This boils down to one important question related to epistemology.

Must a theological belief be unable to be wrong in order to be used as an ecclesial boundary marker (a belief that cannot be denied)?

I will be pondering this question more deeply as time moves along, however, for the scope of this article, I want to grant that the answer to this question is yes. If we are going to take a belief and use it as an "ecclesial boundary marker", which I take to be a necessary condition to being accepted into the universal church, then that belief must be necessarily true in such a way that it cannot be denied. It would seem inappropriate to establish a belief as an ecclesial boundary marker if the belief could possibly be wrong. If the trinitarian conclusions of the early church are fallible, then it would be inappropriate to make those fallible conclusions exclusionary boundaries. For the scope of this article, I will be labeling this the infallible-exclusio principle.

So, if we grant this principle, I think that Protestantism has some meaningful challenges with establishing ecclesial boundary markers. I have laid out an argument below in order to clearly draw attention to what I think follows from Protestantism if the infallible-exclusio principle is maintained. The argument is as follows:

(1) To establish a doctrinal belief as an ecclesial boundary marker in such a way that it cannot be denied, the belief cannot have any potentiality to be wrong. (Infallible-exclusio principle)

(2) A doctrinal belief that is acquired through fallible means necessarily has potentiality to be wrong.

(3) Within the framework of sola scriptura, beliefs are acquired through biblical interpretation and ecclesial interpretation.

(4) Within the framework of sola scriptura, biblical interpretation and ecclesial interpretation are each fallible means.

∴ Beliefs acquired within the framework of sola scriptura have potentiality to be wrong.

∴ Beliefs acquired within the framework of sola scriptura cannot be established as ecclesial boundary markers.

Now there could be some flaw in the logical structure here, rendering the argument technically fallacious, however I am asking for your grace to see that it can likely be reworded in such a way that it is technically sound without changing the main structure of the argument.

Looking at the argument, I believe that the most vulnerable premise is (1), which is being granted for the sake of the argument. One might also out of piety and a modernist bend seek to push back on premise four, arguing that through Scripture, an infallible source, we can come to infallible certitude of a belief. While my theological background makes me partial to statements such as this, I believe that it is untenable as there is an interpretive gap that chasms between the infallibility of the Scripture and the interpreter of the Scripture. An individual interpreter of Scripture is met with a range of interpretive issues that separates them from the infallible ontology leaving them in a place where their interpretations end up necessary fallible. The interpreter is faced with a plethora of issues, from issues of linguistics to cultural differences, to philosophical and theological presuppositions and biases, to text-critical issues, to personal backgrounds, to methodological considerations, to cross-textual harmonization, and several others. These issues prevent the interpreter from having their interpretation participate in the infallibility of the source. Now this is not to say that that we melt away into deep uncertainty and unknowing, groping at a tree shaped elephant. we can still arrive at a measure of certitude about the correct beliefs of Scripture, however our interpretations can never transcend to the realm of infallibility.

It seems that in light of all of the above information, I think if we are granting premise one, which again is worthy of deeper consideration, I believe that the argument stands and there seems to be only three ways forward. We could (1) demonstrate the falsity of the infallible-exclusio principle that was granted at the beginning of the article, (2) accept the principle and the argument that follows and abandon ecclesial boundary markers, or (3) abandon sola scriptura and retain the ecclesial boundary markers.

As a Protestant, especially as a Protestant who seeks to find an identity within the one holy catholic church, I am deeply troubled by this. For option (2), this changes the entire dynamic of the body of Christ from the historical perspective. The requirements of trinitarianism, the deity of Christ, and even the scope and canon of Scripture no longer become binding. Anyone who studies theology understands how deeply problematic and dangerous this is to our theological understanding and how much it can rupture congregations and dissolve them into vague, undefined, social activist clubs. We cling and we fight for these truths for a reason, and that is because they genuinely matter, and using them as boundary markers is what protects the body of Christ. However, without the means within Protestantism to provide sound epistemic justification for exclusion, what warrant do we have to do so? We could just do it without warrant; however, I think that the growth of heterodoxy and heresy in Protestantism firmly demonstrates that people recognize that the historical requirements are merely strong suggestions. However, to abandon sola scriptura for some other epistemic structure is just as problematic as the issues that follow from the structures of Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy have their own subset of problems to wrestle through, including the possibility that they also are unable to ascend to infallibility within their own epistemic models.

What do you think about this? Where in the argument would you push back or how would you maintain the structure of sola scriptura and establish firm clear ecclesial boundary markers? I would love to hear back from you either in the comments, in your own response, or even via email at

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