Fourth Lateran Council
Dr. Herb Samworth
Ages are frequently perceived as a time when little of importance
took place. However, such was not the case. In 1215, a council was
held that changed the Latin Church and altered the course of history.
That council was known as the Fourth Lateran and was convened by
Pope Innocent the Third.
the importance of this council, it is necessary to note the conditions
under which it met, the person who called it, the decrees of the
council, and their results.
met during the period of time that is known as the Dark Ages. The
Roman Empire had been conquered in AD 476, ushering in a period
of intellectual stagnation. Even the revived empire, now called
the Holy Roman Empire, was unsuccessful in stemming the decline.
there were pockets of intense intellectual activity, especially
in France and Italy. It was the period of the founding of the great
universities that later dominated the intellectual sphere. In Paris,
scholars, led by John Major, attempted to correct the Latin Vulgate
to insure a more accurate biblical text. Schools, attached to the
great Medieval cathedrals, trained students in biblical history,
theology and interpretation.
also a period when intense theological debates were conducted in
relation to the nature of the Eucharist or Lords Supper. Radbertus,
a Benedictine monk of Corbie, taught that the elements of the Lords
Supper, the bread and wine, were changed into the body and blood
of the Lord. Ratramnus, also a Benedictine monk from the same monastery,
denied this interpretation in no uncertain terms. This controversy
over the nature of the Eucharist continued to rage through the years.
theologians including Peter Lombard and Anselm of Canterbury added
their contributions to the erection of the systems of theology known
as the "cathedrals of the mind." The theologians of this
time were wedded to a form of presentation of their writings known
as Scholasticism. The result was that theology ceased to be the
application of biblical truths to the lives of individuals but rather
a sterile arrangement of topics that had little relevance to everyday
there were a number of heretical groups that threatened the purity
of the faith. Especially troublesome were the Cathari, literally
the "pure ones," whose moral conduct contradicted their
name. In other geographical areas, the Manichees, an offshoot of
the Gnostics, taught a dualistic view of the universe. According
to their system, material things were inherently evil while the
spirit was pure. Thus a person could commit the foulest acts of
immorality with the body yet remain pure in spirit. A group of their
disciples, known as the Albigenses, was especially strong in the
southern part of France.
difficulties were not sufficient, the Holy Land remained under the
control of the followers of Mohammad. Attempts to win it back proved
insufficient and the holy city of Jerusalem remained in hands of
those who denied the Christian faith.
Innocent the Third
called for a person of resolute will to deal with them. Such an
individual came to the throne of Peter in 1198. His name was Lotario
de'Conti. Born around 1160 in Anagni, he had been educated at Rome,
Paris, and Bologna, majoring in canon law. Previous to his election
as Pope he held various ecclesiastical offices under Popes Lucius
III, Urban III, Gregory VIII, and Clement III, his uncle who made
him a Cardinal. During the reign of Pope Celestine III, Lotario
lived in retirement and devoted himself to meditation and prayer.
Upon the death of his Celestine III, he was elected Pope and chose
the name of Innocent III.
III came to the Papal chair with the determination to rid the church
of heresy, recover the Holy Land from the infidels, and put the
church on a more spiritual basis. In these areas he met with mixed
results. However, he is best remembered for the role that he played
in the Fourth Lateran Council that met in 1215.
Lateran Council was the twelfth ecumenical council recognized by
the Church and the most important one before the Council of Trent
that met from 1545 to 1563. The Fourth Lateran Council was a grandiose
affair. No fewer than seventy-one patriarchs, four hundred and twelve
bishops, and nine hundred abbots and priors were in attendance.
In addition envoys came from Emperor Frederick II and the Kings
of France, England, Aragon, Hungary, Cyprus and Jerusalem.
this impressive array of ecclesiastical figures, the members of
the council did little more than approve some seventy canons or
decrees that Innocent had prepared for them. It is impossible to
discuss these canons in detail but there are three that merit mention,
especially for the impact they made on the Church.
dealt with an exposition of the Catholic Faith. After an orthodox
statement regarding the trinity and creation, we find the following
is one Universal Church of the faithful, outside of which there
is absolutely no salvation. In which there is the same priest
and sacrifice, Jesus Christ, whose body and blood are truly contained
in the sacrament of the altar under the forms of bread and wine;
the bread being changed (transsubstantiatio) by divine
power into the body, and the wine into the blood, so that to realize
the mystery of unity we may receive of Him what He has received
first time the doctrine of transubstantiation was declared the official
doctrine of the Church. The teaching of Radbertus had triumphed
over the teaching of Ratramus. From this time onward, the Church
declared that the elements of the Lords Supper did, indeed,
become the body and blood of the Lord.
is the next one that we will examine. This canon dealt with heretics
or those who pervert the true faith. As was noted above, one of
Innocent's goals when he became Pope was to rid the church of heretical
teaching. What is significant about this canon is that the discipline
meted to the individual convicted of heresy was not administered
by ecclesiastical officials but by the secular authorities. Before
this time, the Church did censure those who did not teach according
to the rule of faith but such discipline was limited to admonishment
and, ultimately, excommunication from fellowship. Now, the secular
authorities could inflict civil punishment on the heretic even to
the point of putting an individual to death.
canon we will note was Canon twenty-one that required every member
of the Church to confess to a priest once a year. In addition, all
members were to partake of the Eucharist at Easter and confession
was mandatory before the taking of the Eucharist. Failure to observe
this canon resulted in being barred from entering a church during
a person's lifetime and the denial of a Christian burial at death.
of these Canons
such attention be given to three canons that were enacted nearly
eight hundred years ago? What relevance do they have to our day
when things appear so different? There are several important lessons
that we can glean from this short study.
find the formal adoption of the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church
in reference to the Eucharist. The participation in the Eucharist
is the central part of the celebration of the Mass. The official
position of the Roman Catholic Church is that of transubstantiation,
i.e. that the elements of the Lord's Supper, the bread and the wine,
are changed into the body and blood of the Lord upon consecration
by an officially ordained priest. There is no Scriptural basis for
this teaching that denies the once for all, perfect sacrifice of
the Lord Jesus Christ for our sins. See Hebrews 9:26-28.
we find that erroneous beliefs concerning the doctrines of the Christian
faith were now subject to punishment by civil authorities. The Fourth
Lateran Council, by the enactment of Canon three, declared heresy
to be a crime against the civil government. However, there is no
Scriptural authority to make such a declaration. Heresy is a serious
matter and the Scriptures instruct the Church how to deal with it.
The Bible declares that the Church's weapons are not carnal but
spiritual in nature. Scriptural teaching makes clear that the Church
does not possess the power of the sword, i.e. the power to inflict
civil and physical punishment. That power is restricted to the state.
See Romans 13:4. The highest spiritual authority given to the Church
is the right of excommunication from the fellowship of believers.
While it is true that the Church never actually inflicted the punishment
because the heretics were turned over to the civil authorities,
there can be no doubt that the Church and State worked together
to punish them. There is no Scriptural teaching that permits physical
punishment to be inflicted on an individual for heresy. See 2 Thessalonians
canon requiring confession to a priest at least once a year has
opened the doors to innumerable evils. Sins are to be confessed
to God. If an individual has wronged another person, they are required
to confess that injury directly to them. However, that is altogether
different from confessing the pollution of one's heart to another
of the Council
taken together, marked a turning point in the history of the church.
The Church became a sacramental Church by which the grace of God
was given through the administration of the sacraments. As a result
it was not long before the Church assumed the role of mediator between
God and men. Scripture assigns that role exclusively to the Lord
Jesus Christ. See 1 Timothy 2:5. The result of this teaching was
that the grace of God was not communicated directly to the individual
through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, but conveyed via the sacraments.
Thus, the individual became dependent upon the Church for the reception
of grace and his standing before God. Additionally, the sacraments,
that later became seven in number, were taught as having the power
to work ex opere operato or by virtue of their own inherent power.
In other words, the sacraments themselves had the power to confer
the grace of God on the person.
It was against
this medieval system of the efficacy of the sacraments that Martin
Luther protested. It is true that the impetus for his protest was
the sale of indulgences in 1517. However, Luther, through his own
personal struggles over his acceptance by God, had come to understand
that salvation from sin came by faith in Christ alone. No institutional
Church had the authority to keep a person dependent upon the sacraments
of one's liberty is a very serious matter. There are many in the
world today who are in bondage to various things. However, the greatest
bondage is bondage to sinful men. Thank God for the Gospel that
liberates us from such men, no matter how sincere they may appear
to be. Paul admonished the Galatians to stand fast in the liberty
to which they had been called and not to come into any form of bondage.
May we enjoy the liberty that Christ has purchased for us! Galatians
5:1 tells us, "It was for freedom that Christ set us free;
therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke