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The Cambridge Companion to the Council of Trent, edited by Nelson H. Minnich

02 June 2023

Grasp the basics about Trent and explore more here, says Robin Ward

THE Council of Trent was convened by Pope Paul III to address the pressing and immediate issues of doctrine and governance in the Church prompted by the progress of the Reformation, and met in the north-Italian city of that name in three groups of 25 sessions: 1545-47, 1551-52, and 1562-63.

The Council met in circumstances of acute political upheaval, carried on its business in a state of almost constant disruption, struggled at times to convene a sufficient number of episcopal members to remain plausible, and continued through the reigns of five popes of very different characters, one of whom was in a scandalous public same-sex partnership, while another locked up Rome’s Jews in the ghetto.

Despite all this chaos, by its conclusion, the Council had consolidated the doctrinal and disciplinary spirit of the Counter-Reformation, and effectively defined the identity of the Roman Catholic Church for the next centuries.

Scholarship about the Council is immense, and for the general reader the most recent accessible study is John O’Malley’s excellent short summary, Trent: What happened at the Council.

This Cambridge Companion, edited by Nelson Minnich, is a collection of 16 chapters, 14 of which have authors from either the United States or Italy. These give an overview of the Council’s work, and deal with particular topics relating to the doctrinal issues considered at Trent, most notably those concerned with grace, revelation, and the sacraments, and the reform decrees dealing with church discipline.

Minnich’s initial introduction to the Council provides a useful if highly compressed summary of the complex events leading up to the convening of the Council and its subsequent progress. I found some of his judgements odd: can it be true to say that the reaffirmation of the Nicene Creed at the Council “with its consubstantialis and filioque clause implied from the start a rejection of the sola scriptura principle”, when all the great Reformation Churches affirmed it, too?

Minnich gives us a second chapter on the organisation of the Council, which is complemented by a survey by Christian Washburn of the theologians present and their respective intellectual schools and religious orders. Two specifically doctrinal studies follow: one by Wim François on the part played by scripture and tradition, and a second by Michael Root on Original Sin and justification.

The thickets of François’s account are in places difficult to follow, but he is particularly interesting on the practical consequences of Trent’s teaching for enhancing biblical scholarship and preaching. Root plunges us into the acute complexities of the debate on justification, while emphasising what, he concludes, is the succinct and Augustinian character of the Council’s teaching in answer to the Lutheran position.

Three chapters on the sacraments follow: one by John Baldovin on sacraments in general, baptism, and confirmation; one by Roberto Rusconi on penance; and one by Bruce Marshall on the eucharist. Marshall, in particular, emphasises how the Tridentine teaching about the real presence of Christ in the eucharist and its character as a propitiatory sacrifice remains definitive for Roman Catholics, unmatched in conciliar history either before or afterwards.

The Companion concludes with seven chapters considering the reform decrees of the Council, ranging from the part played by bishops and the training and life of the clergy and religious to the disciplines surrounding marriage, and the appropriate forms to be taken by sacred art and music. The chapters on art and music range widely into the post-conciliar era, taking the history of chant into the 20th century.

This is an interesting and informative collection of work, which gathers much recent scholarship on the Council of Trent in an accessible if somewhat dense way. It would make a good starting point for the student who has read O’Malley’s history and wants to learn more; it provides informative bibliographies from which to pursue further investigation.

Canon Robin Ward is the Principal of St Stephen’s House, Oxford.


The Cambridge Companion to the Council of Trent
Nelson H. Minnich, editor
CUP £29.99
Church Times Bookshop £26.99

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