The Ecclesiology of the Council of Trent


The Council of Trent is very significant in the Church for the fact that it was occasioned by the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. This paper will discuss the major ecclesiological concerns of this Council and some of the doctrinal issues that warranted its convocation. It will also evaluate the relevance of the ecclesiology of the Council of Trent in the Church of our age, and highlight later developments on some of its pronouncements.


The Meaning of Ecclesiology

The term ekklesia, which is the Greek root of the concept ‘ecclesiology,’ is often adopted by some modern translators as the Greek equivalent of the English word ‘church’. It is translated in Latin as convocatio which means ‘a calling together’ or ‘an assembly’. In Classical Greek, it basically refers to the meeting itself and not the people who made up the assembly. Later on the term passed from various secular meanings into the Septuagint where it is used as a translation for the Hebrew word ‘Qahal’. Meanwhile, the word ‘church,’ like its equivalents in the other Germanic languages, derives from the Greek adjective kuriakos, meaning ‘belonging to the Lord,’ and kuriakos may have derived from the phrase kuriakos domos, meaning ‘the Lord’s house’ (Edmund, 2014:185). The first reference would be to the building in which Christians met for worship, and that is still the first and dominant reference in ordinary English (2014:186). In their work, the translators of the New Testament put ‘church’ wherever the word ekklesia occurred. Significantly, the word ‘church’ which is ‘a building for worship’ is semantically different from the term ekklesia which means ‘an official assembly’ (Asomugha, 2019). With time the term ekklesia was adopted and popularized in Christianity. From a scholarly perspective, ecclesiology can be defined as a recognized theological discipline which covers both doctrines concerning the Church and theological discussions on the origin, nature, functions, and structures of the Church. It is a truism that the mystery of the Church is not just an object of theological knowledge; it must be a reality lived by the faithful soul, who has, as it were, a connatural experience of it, even before he has a clear idea of it (Ecclesiam Suam, 37). The intelligibility of the mystery of the Church must stem from the mystery of God as he has revealed himself (Le Guillou, 1975:209).

Ecumenical Council

In Kelly’s words, an Ecumenical Council for Roman Catholics is ‘a gathering of the bishops of the entire Church meeting under the headship of the Pope to determine the Church’s doctrinal stance on particular matters, to correct disciplinary problems, and, at Vatican II, to make pastoral pronouncements’ (1994:264-265). This definition emphasizes the authority of the Pope in Ecumenical Councils. Nevertheless, it has been gathered that some early councils were called without papal approval (1994:265). This however does not undermine the papacy – one cannot read theology back into history (1994:265).The Council of Nicaea (325 AD) was the first Ecumenical Council.


The Council of Trent (1545 – 1563 AD) was convoked by Pope Paul III. Martin Luther’s heresy had lasted for about three decades before its convocation. The Council’s ecclesiological highpoints are found in the ninth article of the ‘Catechism of the Council of Trent,’ which is entitled ‘I Believe in the Holy Catholic Church; the Communion of Saints.’ The Church, according to the Council is endowed with sanctity by the Holy Spirit. It defines the word ekklesia as ‘a calling forth,’ even as it reaffirms that though the term came later to signify the Christian society, it had been used in the past by different groups of people (including the wicked and unbelievers). The Council calls the Church ‘the assembly of the faithful’ – of those called by faith to the life of truth and knowledge of God. The Council uses these other appellations for the Church: ‘The House and Edifice of God,’ ‘The Flock of the Sheep of Christ,’ ‘The Spouse of Christ,’ and ‘The Body of Christ’. These names inspire the members to remain faithful in hope, as God’s own people. The Church consists of two broad parts: the Church triumphant and the militant Church. The former is the assemblage of those in heaven, who have triumphed over the world and the limitations of earthly existence, while the latter is the society of the faithful on earth, who are in constant struggle with the enemies of their salvation. The militant Church is further divided into two classes of persons – the good and the bad. Augustine had earlier propagated the idea that the Church is a corpus per mixtum – a mixed body of saints and sinners. The Council employs the parables of the Gospels to explain this classification. The bad ones are found among the good ones as tares growing together with the good grain. The two share the same faith and sacraments but there are elements of discrepancy in their moral lives. Interestingly, the Council maintains that heretics, schismatics, and particularly excommunicated persons are not members of the Church since they have been ‘cut off by her sentence…and belong not to her communion until they repent.’ Like the First Council of Constantinople (381 AD) that elaborated on the Nicene Creed, the Council of Trent emphasizes but with a little development, the four distinctive marks of the Church. The Council of Trent maintains that the Church is one, holy, catholic and apostolic. With the term ‘one’ it refers to unity in Church’s government, that is, a Church having one legitimate Head – the Pope (Vicar of Christ). Anyone who stands in opposition to the Pope as Head is a schismatic and a prevaricator. This oneness also depicts unity in Spirit, hope and faith. The Council vindicates papal authority and the Church’s hierarchy. It gave bishops absolute power over their dioceses (Bokenkotter, 1990:217), and assigned to each prelate a See. They were to deal effectively with abuses and any challenge to orthodoxy (1990:222). To ensure that the training of future priests would be highly traditional, the Council started the establishment of seminaries.

In 1519 AD, Luther contended that a Council may sometimes err, and neither the Church nor the Pope can establish articles of faith. Hence, Scripture must serve as their only basis (Bruce, 2008:241). The Council refutes this by maintaining that the Church cannot err in faith or morals, since it is guided by the Holy Spirit. Again, the Council declares both Scripture and tradition as necessary in determining the faith of the Church, and that one is not justified by faith alone, but also by hope and charity as well (Bokenkotter, 1990:216). The Council perceives Luther’s adventure as a spark of confusion in the Church, and insists on the supreme teaching office of the Roman Church – Popes and bishops – as the essential interpreters of the Bible. Due to the effort of the Council, the papal authority and the seven sacraments remained (Bruce, 2008:278). Also, the sacrifice of the Mass was redeemed from serious aberrations with the issuance of the Missale Romanum which was made binding on the Universal Church and which remained virtually unchanged until the 1960s (Bokenkotter, 1990:218).


The Council’s efforts as stated above are quite commendable but they cannot be held as exhaustive or beyond criticism. When compared with the ecumenical approach of Vatican Council II, Trent would appear to have a non-inclusive character. Weiss notes that “the Council of Trent formalized many points of difference from Protestant beliefs, which was essential at the time, but it does not always pose an insuperable obstacle to contemporary ecumenical efforts (2014:1046). During the pontificate of Pope John Paul II, a document called the ‘Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification’ was signed in Augsburg on 31 October 1999, by high officials of the Catholic Church and of the Lutheran World Federation – an outcome of several prior Lutheran-Catholic dialogues (Wicks, 2008:139). Since Vatican Council II, Lutherans are not referred to as heretics but rather ‘separated brethren’. After all, Luther’s early followers thought him so obviously right since his adventure began with his disdain for simony and abuse of the sacraments by the clergy. Furthermore, the title ‘body of Christ’ as the Council of Trent calls the Church apparently bears an exclusive character. Something Rausch defines as ‘a concept of membership that was dependent on acknowledgment of papal authority, so juridical in essence rather than being based on the spiritual power of baptism’ (2005:17). The ecclesiology of Lumen Gentium, by way of development, interprets the expression ‘Body of Christ’ from a Eucharistic (liturgical) dimension – as opposed to an ecclesiology with a hierarchical stamp. It is quite revealing to say that the first message of the Church is ‘Christ’ and not herself or her hierarchy. The first sentence of Lumen gentium suggests that since Christ is the light of the world, the Church being the mirror of his glory can transmit his light (LG. 1). Safeguarding the doctrines and the hierarchy of the Church are important but of more importance is the salvation of souls especially those who perish in ignorance. Actually, these developments came later but it is undeniably evident that the Council of Trent laid a favorable foundation for their emergence. Otherwise Protestantism would have swept away some of the traditional bases of these teachings.


The Council of Trent was a salvaging option that came as an answer to a desire that dealt substantively with the faith of the Church in a certain age. Its contributions were so foundational and wonderful to a great extent, but the dynamism and progression in the integral life of the Church cum theological findings have led to the development of some of its declarations for the benefits of the entire Church.


Asomugha, John. (2019). Lecture Note, Enugu: Spiritan International School of Theology, Attakwu.

Bokenkotter, Thomas. (1990). A Concise History of the Catholic Church, New York: Doubleday.

Bruce, Shelley. (2008). Church History in Plain Language, 3rd edition, Nashville: Thomas  Nelson.

Catholic Church. (2007). ‘Lumen Gentium’ in Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, vol.1, Bandra Mumbai: St. Pauls.

Kelly, Joseph. (1994). ‘Ecumenical Councils’ in M. Glazier and Hellwig M.K. eds. The Modern Catholic Encyclopedia, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press.

Rausch, Thomas. (2005). Towards a Truly Catholic Church: An Ecclesiology for the Third Millennium, Minnesota: Liturgical Press.

 Richard, McBrien. ed. (1995). The Harpercollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism, USA: Harpercollins Publishers Inc.

Weiss, James. (2014). ‘Trent, Council of’ in J.A. Komonchak, M. Collins and D.A. Lane. eds.  The New Dictionary of Theology, Bangalore: Theological Publications in India.

Wicks, Jared. (2008). ‘Pope John Paul II and Lutherans: Actions and Reations’ in G. O’Collins and M.A. Hayes. eds. The Legacy of John Paul II, London: Burns & Oates.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: