By Dr. Herb Samworth

The Middle 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.

To understand 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.

The Conditions

The council 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.

However, 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.

This was also a period when intense theological debates were conducted in relation to the nature of the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper. Radbertus, a Benedictine monk of Corbie, taught that the elements of the Lord’s 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.

Great medieval 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 problems.

In addition 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.

If these 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.

Pope Innocent the Third

These conditions 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.

Innocent 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.

The Fourth 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.

Despite 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.

Canon one dealt with an exposition of the Catholic Faith. After an orthodox statement regarding the trinity and creation, we find the following words:

There 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 of us.

For the 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 Lord’s Supper did, indeed, become the body and blood of the Lord.

Canon three 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.

The final 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.

The Importance of these Canons

Why should 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.

First, we 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.

Second, 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 3:14-15.

Third, the 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 person.

Effects of the Council

These things, 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 for salvation.

The loss 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 of slavery.”