This is part of my commentary series on The 39 Articles of Religion. Article 21 states:
XXI. Of the Authority of General Councils
General Councils may not be gathered together without the commandment and will of Princes. And when they be gathered together, (forasmuch as they be an assembly of men, whereof all be not governed with the Spirit and Word of God,) they may err, and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining unto God. Wherefore things ordained by them as necessary to salvation have neither strength nor authority, unless it may be declared that they be taken out of holy Scripture.
For the most part, this Article is an additional layer of clarification attached to Article 20. There, the authority of the Church was affirmed for the purposes of regulating the liturgy and settling doctrinal controversies. Now, one of the major historical instruments of Church authority is addressed: the General Councils, which today we normally call the Ecumenical (meaning worldwide) Councils.
In the year 325, shortly after Christianity was legalized in the Roman Empire, Emperor Constantine called for an assembly of Christian leaders and delegates from throughout the Roman world and beyond to gather and settle some theological controversies. The major issue on the table was Arianism – a heresy that ultimately denied the full divinity of Christ Jesus. The first draft of the Nicene Creed was forged and signed at that council. Over the next few centuries, subsequent ecumenical councils were called to deal with subsequent controversies. A total of seven were held in the first millennium, before the East and the West split from one another; some Anglicans point to the teachings of those seven councils as being faithful demonstrations of historic universal Christianity; others (perhaps the majority) point to the teachings of just the first four councils writing off the latter three as being ancillary or less important offshoots of the first four.
During the Reformation, many Roman Catholics accused the Anglicans and other Protestants of inventing a new religion under the guise of Christianity, appealing to the authority of the ecumenical councils. Our response was to affirm the teaching of the first few councils, insofar as their teaching “be taken out of holy Scripture” without having to elevate them to an “infallible” status. Article 21 takes this answer a step further with a subtle pushback against the Roman Catholic position by asserting that the real ecumenical councils are the ones called by Christian princes, kings, or emperors, thus rejecting the many more so-called “ecumenical councils” called by the Pope after the East and West formally parted ways in 1054.
This is a point of contention to this day: according to the Roman Catholic Church there have been 21 such councils, the most recent of which being Vatican II in 1962-1965. The Eastern Orthodox Church affirms the first seven ecumenical councils (held between 325 and 787), though a few among them accord similar dignity to a further four councils held between 879 and 1672. Most Protestants affirm only the first four ecumenical councils, and even then only their canons pertaining to Christology (the doctrine of Christ). As far as Anglicans are concerned, Article 21 here leaves room for some debate over what to make of the first four to seven councils. Our ultimate guide is always and only the Bible, so whatever we find written in the canons of the ecumenical councils that is agreeable with the Bible, we receive and hold dear as the faith of the true and ancient Church.