It is the Decision of the Holy Spirit and Us….On the Council of Jerusalem and the Catholicity of the Early Church

In the first reading at Today’s Mass (and all last week at daily Mass) we have recounted for us the Council of Jerusalem which scholars generally date to around the Year 50 AD. It was a pivotal moment in the history of the Church since it would set forth an identity for the Church that was independent per se from the culture of Judaism, and it would open wide the door or inculturation to the Gentiles. This surely had significant impact upon evangelization in the early Church.

Catholic Ecclesiology is Evident here: I want to set forth in this article the proposition that we have reflected here a very Catholic model of the Church in terms of how a matter of significant pastoral practice and doctrine is properly dealt with. In effect what we see here is the same model the Catholic Church has continued to use right to our own time. What is evident here and in all subsequent Ecumenical Councils is a gathering of the Bishops presided over by the Pope which considers a matter and may even debate it. If necessary the Pope resolves debates where consensus cannot be reached. Once a decision is reached, a letter is issued to whole Church and considered binding.

All these elements are seen here though somewhat in seminal form. Let’s consider this First Council of the Church in Jerusalem of 50 AD. beginning first with the remote preparation –

1. Bring in the Gentiles! – The Lord, just before he ascended gave the Apostles the great commission: Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matt 28:19). Hence, the Gentiles are now to be summoned  and included in the ranks of discipleship and of the Church.

2. But it looks like the Church was mighty slow in beginning any outreach to the Gentiles. It is true that on the day of Pentecost people from every nation heard the Sermon of Peter and 3000 converted. By they were all Jews (Acts 2). In fact it seems the Church did little at first to leave Jerusalem and go anywhere, let alone to the nations.

3. Perhaps as a swift quick in the pants the Lord allowed a persecution to break out in Jerusalem after the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7). This caused the gospel to begin a northward trek into Samaria at least. Samaritans however are not usually considered Gentiles, since they were a groups that had intermarried with Jews in the 8th Century BC. There is also the Baptism of an Ethiopian Official but he too was a Jew.

4. Fifteen Years  ?!  The time line of Acts is a bit speculative however if we study it carefully and compare it to some of what Paul says (esp. in Galatians) it would seem that we are dealing with over 15 years before the baptism of the first Gentile! If this is true then it is a disgrace. There were of course strong racial animosities between Jew and Gentile that may explain the slow response to Jesus’ commission. It explains but does not excuse it.

5. Time for another kick in the pants. This time the Lord went to Peter who was praying on a rooftop in Joppa and by means of a vision taught him that he was not to call unclean what God had called clean. The Lord then sent to Peter an entourage from Cornelius, a high Roman military official who was seeking baptism. He, of course was a Gentile. The entourage requests that Peter go with them to meet Cornelius at Cesarea. At first he is reluctant. But then recalling the vision (kick in the pants) that God had given him he decides to go. In Cesarea he does something unthinkable. He, a Jew, enters the house of a Gentile. Peter has learned his lesson and been guided by God as the first Pope to do what is right and just. After a conversation with Cornelius and the whole household, and signs from the Holy Spirit, Peter has them baptized. Praise the Lord! It was about time. (All of this is detailed in Acts 10)

6. It is a true fact that many were not happy with what Peter had done and they confront him on it. Peter explains his vision, and also the manifestation of the Holy Spirit and insists that this is how it is going to be. While it is a true fact these early Christians felt freer to question Peter than we would the Pope today, it is also a fact that what Peter has done is binding even if some of them don’t like it. What Peter has done will stand. Once Peter has definitively answered them, they reluctantly assent and declare somewhat cynically: “God has granted life giving repentance (even) to the Gentiles!”  (Acts 11:19)

7. Trouble Brewing – So, the mission to the Gentiles is finally open. But that does not mean trouble is over. As Paul, Barnabas and others begin to bring in large numbers of Gentile converts some among the Jewish Christians begin to object that  they were not  like Jews and began to insist that they must be circumcised and follow the whole Jewish Law, not just the moral precepts but also the cultural norms, kosher diet, purification rites etc. That is where we picked up the story in today’s Mass.

8. The Council of Jerusalem – Luke is a master of understatement and says “Because there arose no little dissension and debate….” (Acts 15:2) it was decided to ask the Apostles and elders in Jerusalem to gather and consider the matter. So the apostles and some presbyters (priests) with them meet and,  of course,  Peter is there as is James who was especially prominent in Jerusalem among the apostles and would later become bishop there. Once again Luke rather humorously summarizes the matter by saying, “After much debate Peter arose” (Acts 15:7). In effect Peter arises to settle the matter since (it would seem) that the apostles themselves were divided.  Had not Peter received this charge from the Lord? The Lord had prophesied: Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded to sift you all like wheat but I have prayed for you Peter, that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers (Luke 22:31-32). Now Peter fulfills this text as he will again and every Pope after him. Peter clearly dismisses any notion that the Gentiles should be made to take up the whole burden of Jewish customs. Paul and Barnabas rise to support this. Then James (who may have felt otherwise) rises to assent to the decision and asks that a letter be sent forth to all the Churches explaining the decision. He also asks for and obtains a few concessions.

So there it is, the First Council. And that Council like all the Church-wide Councils that would follow was a gathering of the bishops, in the presence of Peter who works to unite them. A decision is then made and a decree, binding on the whole Church,  is sent out. Very Catholic actually. We have kept this Biblical model ever since. Our Protestant brethren have departed from it for they have no Pope to settle things when they dispute. They have split endlessly into tens of thousands of denominations and factions. When no one is pope every one is pope.

A final thought. Notice how the decree to the Churches is worded: It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us (Acts 15:28). In the end we trust the Holy Spirit to guide the Church in matters of faith and morals. We trust that decrees and doctrines that issue forth from Councils of the Bishops with the Pope are inspired by and authored by the Holy Spirit Himself. And there it is right in Scripture, the affirmation that when the Church speaks solemnly in this way it is not just some bishops and the Pope as men, it is the Holy Spirit who speaks with them.

The Church – Catholic from the Start!

20 Replies to “It is the Decision of the Holy Spirit and Us….On the Council of Jerusalem and the Catholicity of the Early Church”

  1. Another interesting perspective I read…

    St. Luke does not tell us whither Peter went after his liberation from the prison in Jerusalem. From incidental statements we know that he subsequently made extensive missionary tours in the East, although we are given no clue to the chronology of his journeys. It is certain that he remained for a time at Antioch; he may even have returned thither several times. The Christian community of Antioch was founded by Christianized Jews who had been driven from Jerusalem by the persecution (Acts 11:19 sqq.). Peter’s residence among them is proved by the episode concerning the observance of the Jewish ceremonial law even by Christianized pagans, related by St. Paul (Galatians 2:11-21). The chief Apostles in Jerusalem — the “pillars”, Peter, James, and John — had unreservedly approved St. Paul’s Apostolate to the Gentiles, while they themselves intended to labour principally among the Jews. While Paul was dwelling in Antioch (the date cannot be accurately determined), St. Peter came thither and mingled freely with the non-Jewish Christians of the community, frequenting their houses and sharing their meals. But when the Christianized Jews arrived in Jerusalem, Peter, fearing lest these rigid observers of the Jewish ceremonial law should be scandalized thereat, and his influence with the Jewish Christians be imperiled, avoided thenceforth eating with the uncircumcised.

    His conduct made a great impression on the other Jewish Christians at Antioch, so that even Barnabas, St. Paul’s companion, now avoided eating with the Christianized pagans. As this action was entirely opposed to the principles and practice of Paul, and might lead to confusion among the converted pagans, this Apostle addressed a public reproach to St. Peter, because his conduct seemed to indicate a wish to compel the pagan converts to become Jews and accept circumcision and the Jewish law. The whole incident is another proof of the authoritative position of St. Peter in the early Church, since his example and conduct was regarded as decisive. But Paul, who rightly saw the inconsistency in the conduct of Peter and the Jewish Christians, did not hesitate to defend the immunity of converted pagans from the Jewish Law. Concerning Peter’s subsequent attitude on this question St. Paul gives us no explicit information. But it is highly probable that Peter ratified the contention of the Apostle of the Gentiles, and thenceforth conducted himself towards the Christianized pagans as at first. As the principal opponents of his views in this connexion, Paul names and combats in all his writings only the extreme Jewish Christians coming “from James” (i.e., from Jerusalem). While the date of this occurrence, whether before or after the Council of the Apostles, cannot be determined, it probably took place after the council.

    Catholic Encyclopedia

    1. Yes, very interesting. It seems clear that Peter taught rightly regarding the gentiles but struggled to live it rightly. I had not thought of the connection of the judaizers as coming “from James” but it confirms my hunch that James was one of the early Christians who thought Gentiles should live like Jews if they entered the Church. Hence, Peter’s intervention at the Council swayed him at least at that moment. However, like Peter he may have struggled to live the teaching well at least for a time.

  2. Does anyone know what is meant by “the blood”. What custom was there that the phrase “the blood” would be understood by all at the Council, but not defined in the Church.

  3. Antoinette —

    From Judaism 101

    The Torah prohibits consumption of blood. Lev. 7:26-27; 17:10-14. This is the only dietary law that has a reason specified in Torah: we do not eat blood because the life of the animal (literally, the soul of the animal) is contained in the blood. This applies only to the blood of birds and mammals, not to fish blood. Thus, it is necessary to remove all blood from the flesh of kosher animals.

    The first step in this process occurs at the time of slaughter. As discussed above, shechitah allows for rapid draining of most of the blood.

    The remaining blood must be removed, either by broiling or soaking and salting.

      1. Interesting – is there a connection between the Jewish understanding of kosher meat and our Catholic Lenten practice that allows the consumption of fish on Fridays but not other meats?

  4. It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us (Acts 15:28). In the end we trust the Holy Spirit to guide the Church in matters of faith and morals. ibid…..This is solid evidence that the holy spirit is not guiding the catholic church.

  5. Your articles are so very helpful to me and I enjoy reading them each day.

    Thank you

  6. Thank you for your explanation of this week’s Jew-Gentile debates among the apostles and followers.
    I listened and pondered all week long as to exactly what this was all about. It was reiterated in the homily, but you did it better.
    Did I get a glimpse of you at the Priests for Life Mass the other day?

  7. How could the other elders, not even apostles, have called Peter to account if he had the lofty position that you presume. And it was James who gave the definitive decision in this account not Peter. Take off your popish filter when reading the Bible.

    1. After Much discussion Peter rose,,,,,James affirmed Peter’s insight. I may have a ‘popish filter’ but what does that make your filter? anti-popish? At any rate I think I was clear to indicate that I was reading back from this vantage point and seeing in seminal form what we have today. That is not an invalid vantage point. For example, I can look at pictures of me as a small child and see that some of my current features were already becoming manifest though they are not yet fully developed. Is this wrong? Anyway, while you invite me to check my filter perhaps you’ll check yours too because I guarantee you that you have them too.

  8. Msgr.,
    Great post. I have a question about the Council’s prohibition on blood. Does it still stand? If not, who decides what mandates of a council are temporary and what are permanent?


  9. Excellent retort good father- Peter’s manifest ‘lofty’ position is abundantly clear in the very fact that ‘ he arose after much discussion- anyone familiar with corporate boards or executive meetings understands there is generally allowed a time of discussion among the lessers and then the chair speaks- defining the issue and the resolution if he/ she is a good leader. The chair understands it has this responsibility AND authority to do same and asks for no permission at the right time to STAND and render the final opinion- closing out the discussion and settling the issue.
    Note well, James requests that HIS DECISION, not the discussion , be provided to all the churches[ kingdoms] for their enlightenment and to inform them that the Holy Ghost and Peter[ US!] Has spoken!

    There is a beautiful short paragraph I’ll quote from Humanae Vitae wherein, after the Pontiff lays out the question that has been posed regarding the artificiality[ or not] of synthetic hormone as a fertility regulator and the Pontiff proceeds to document all the issues being raised regarding birth control and the findings of the commission with which the Magisterium is about to take exception. Quote:

    Consequently, now that We have sifted carefully the evidence sent to Us and intently studied the whole matter, as well as prayed constantly to God, We, by virtue of the mandate entrusted to Us by Christ, intend to give Our reply to this series of grave questions. end quote .

    Whom do you think the Pontiff is referring to when he says We and Our – our australian friend may think he has a bird in his pocket- council of jerusalem makes it clear he is speaking with the 3rd Person of the Most Blessed Trinity! This is the church – the one Holy Catho0lic and Apostolic Church as Christ founded.

    Only one who chooses not to see is blinded to the obvious supremacy of Peter in this council and for generations unto generations – Deo Gratias!

    1. My understanding of the “we” phrasing by Pontiffs is that it is part of the royal tradition. A monarch traditionally eschews saying “I” because their words are meant to represent a community (nobles, barons, dukes, etc) rather than themselves. I recall reading that this is the tradition in which the Pope speaks in the plural. The Great John Paul was a little different in this regard, I believe.

      Does anyone else have more information on this point? Nothing I’ve said here necessarily contradicts the observation from gedda fan, but I’m curious if what I’ve heard has substance.

  10. I wrongly ascribed to James Schulze a domicile in australia- that may or may not be true- i was thinking James S. when i recalled Martin Richardson’s location- regrets :-))

  11. Peter in that video has a striking resemblance to Monsignor Pope. Great choice of video Monsignor.

    1. Hmm…. interesting. I had not thought that I looked like Peter in the Video. I guess there is some resemblance though I am the last to really be able to say so. I am mindful of the Old Latin saying, Nemo judex in sua causa (no one is a judge in his own case).

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