The Anathema Council
From 1545 to 1563, Pope Paul III convened the Council of Trent to respond to some of the primary claims of the Protestant Reformation. This council is important for Christians to understand because Roman Catholicism still affirms it today. The church specifically reaffirmed the Council of Trent in the Second Vatican Council in 1965 and the Catechism of the Catholic Church in 1992.
I was led to think of this infamous council as I read through 2000 Years of Christ's Power by Dr. Nick Needham. I enjoyed reading about Jerome, a church father who lived from 347-420 AD. During his life, he spent 23 years translating the Old and New Testaments into the common language of his day, Latin.
As he translated, he had to determine if the Apocrypha (which means "hidden things"), a group of Jewish books written in-between the OT and NT, was equally as inspired as the rest of the Bible. Regarding Jerome's view of the Apocrypha, Dr. Needham writes, "Jerome argued that Christians must accept as part of the authentic Old Testament only those books which the Jews included in the Hebrew Old Testament, and must reject the extra books [the Apocrypha]..." (266) Under church orders, he included them in his translation, but not as canonical books; rather, he viewed them as merely spiritually uplifting books.
We get a similar glimpse into Jesus' view of the Old Testament in Luke 11:51. Jesus summarizes the boundaries of the Old Testament in a rebuke of those who rejected God's prophets, "Because of this, the wisdom of God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, and some of them they will kill and persecute,’ so that this generation may be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets shed since the foundation of the world — from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary."
When Jesus lists these two prophets, He is affirming the line of prophets from Genesis (Abel) to the exiles return to Israel in 2 Chronicles (Zechariah). This supports Jerome's view of the Hebrew Scriptures and his rejection of the Apocrypha, which were all written long after the Hebrew Scriptures were complete. Additionally, Jesus never quotes any Apocryphal book in the gospels.
Nearly 1100 years after Jerome, Luther also translated the Apocrypha and wrote this in his preface, "These are books that, though not esteemed like the Holy Scriptures, are still both useful and good to read." Luther's view of the Apocrypha was similar to Jerome's: the Apocrypha are good books, but not on par with the rest of Scripture.
In 1546, the Council of Trent reacted strongly against this viewpoint, affirming the Apocrypha as equally inspired as the rest of the Bible. Furthermore, the council stated this as a warning to anyone who disagreed with its conclusion, "But if any one receive not, as sacred and canonical, these same books entire with all their parts, as they have been used to be read in the Catholic Church, and as they are contained in the old Latin vulgate edition; and knowingly and deliberately despise the traditions aforesaid; let him be anathema."
Now that word "anathema" means "an accursed or evil thing". If you want to understand the force of the word, anathema is a pretty good description of how the CIA felt about Edward Snowden in 2013. In short, if you disagree with the Apocrypha being called "Scripture", you may consider yourself persona non grata as far as the Roman Catholic Church is concerned. It is the same level of sanction that we see Jesus talk about in Matthew 18 for unrepentant sin, or in Galatians 1 for preaching a false gospel.
But the Council of Trent went much further than that with its anathemas. Here are some other denouncements of the Council of Trent:
"If any one says, that justifying faith is nothing else but confidence in the divine mercy which remits sins for Christ's sake; or, that this confidence alone is that whereby we are justified; let him be anathema."
"If any one says, that the justice received is not preserved and also increased before God through good works; but that the said works are merely the fruits and signs of Justification obtained, but not a cause of the increase thereof; let him be anathema.
"If any one says, that the sacraments of the New Law are not necessary unto salvation, but superfluous; and that, without them, or without the desire thereof, men obtain of God, through faith alone, the grace of justification;-though all (the sacraments) are not indeed necessary for every individual; let him be anathema."
"If any one says, that baptism is free, that is, not necessary unto salvation; let him be anathema."
"If any one says, that baptism, which was true and rightly conferred, is to be repeated, for him who has denied the faith of Christ amongst Infidels, when he is converted unto penitence; let him be anathema."
"If any one says, that in the Catholic Church Penance is not truly and properly a sacrament, instituted by Christ our Lord for reconciling the faithful unto God, as often as they fall into sin after baptism; let him be anathema."
"Whereas the power of conferring Indulgences was granted by Christ to the Church...It condemns with anathema those who either assert, that they are useless; or who deny that there is in the Church the power of granting them."
In short, Roman Catholicism teaches we are under a curse if we believe:
- that God justifies you solely based on you trusting in Him to show you mercy
- that your good works don't add to God's justification, but are merely the fruit of faith
- that you don't have to perform all seven Catholic sacraments to obtain salvation
- that you don't have to be baptized to be saved
- that it's ok to be baptized again if you recommit your life to Christ
- that you don't need to confess your sins to a Catholic priest
- that you can't reduce punishment for sins by paying money to the Catholic church
How should Christians respond to these things? I think it's best to consider how Jesus compared the religious traditions of men with the teaching of Scripture. In Matthew 15:3-9, He rebuked the Pharisees for imposing their traditions in a very similar way:
"Why do you break God’s commandment because of your tradition? For God said: Honor your father and your mother; and, Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must be put to death. But you say, ‘Whoever tells his father or mother, “Whatever benefit you might have received from me is a gift committed to the temple,” he does not have to honor his father.’ In this way, you have revoked God's word because of your tradition. Hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied correctly about you when he said: These people honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. They worship Me in vain, teaching as doctrines the commands of men."
Jesus' method is simple: "This is what God said...but you say..." This is exactly how Christians should evaluate religious tradition.
Like the Pharisees, Catholic teachers affirm that Scripture is authoritative; but then they elevate the authority of their traditions higher by adding unbiblical traditions such as penance and indulgences (both of which still exist today). Like the Pharisees of Jesus' day, who confessed that Yahweh, the God of Israel, is the only true God, the Catholic church acknowledges that Jesus is God the Son. But then Catholic doctrine undermines the gospel of Jesus Christ by distorting what the gospel teaches about atonement for sin, how to be forgiven, saved, and justified. Catholicism also places a curse on any Christian who believes the Bible's teaching over these distortions.
If you have friends or family who are Catholics, you need to give them the true gospel instead. But you must be bold like Jesus when he rebuked Pharisaism and Paul when he rebuked the Judaizers. You must correct the false gospel of Catholicism. I have put two close relationships with Catholic friends on the line in this way. One disagreed with me and we fell out of touch. The other eventually rejected the Catholic gospel and came to know Christ by God's grace. She is still walking with the Lord today.
I believe the primary job of a Bible-believing Christian is to clarify these four truths to them:
1) Jesus teaches that any traditions we have must not subvert the Bible's teaching (Matthew 15). The Catholic church completely subverted the Bible's teaching in the Council of Trent and its subsequent reaffirmations of it.
2) The Bible teaches that we all have sinned (including Mary) and that no Scripture enables us to atone for or remit sin with money, sacraments, or good works. This happens only by God's grace freely given in Jesus (Romans 3:23-24).
3) The Bible teaches that salvation is a gift of God that comes to us by faith, which is itself a gift from God, and that works are the outcome of that faith. (Ephesians 2:8-10) Works are the fruit of our faith and to teach otherwise gives ourselves credit for what only God has done.
4) The Bible teaches that any person or church that distorts the gospel (that we are saved only by placing our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ's death and resurrection) is under God's curse (Galatians 1:6-9). Since Roman Catholicism distorts key parts of the gospel, any person who wants to live for Christ needs to depart from the man-made traditions of Catholicism and join a church that teaches the true gospel and allows for liberty in areas where the Bible does not compel us.
Does the prospect of having this kind of conversation frighten you? It should. We need to realize we are not strong enough to do this by ourselves. No Christian is capable of winning over a Catholic. Our works don't save us and our words can't save others. But God can save them when we faithfully speak the truth in love. So we need to pray for our Catholic friends and family because salvation comes only from the Lord.