The Council of Trent met in response to the Protestant Reformation in order to formulate its own position on the debated issues of the day. Oftentimes, the period immediately following the beginning of the Council in 1545 is referred to as the “Counter-Reformation” or the “Catholic Reformation.” The latter is preferable, as the reform within the Catholic Church was not merely a response to the Protestant Reformation.
The Council of Trent aimed to remedy the problems within the Catholic Church that had contributed to the Protestant Reformation. For instance, the Council sought to end clerical abuses and corruption, especially associated with the selling of indulgences.
Most significantly, the Council formulated the Catholic Church’s official position on the controversies of the Reformation: the relationship between Scripture and tradition, justification, ecclesiology, and the nature and role of the sacraments.
According to the Council, Scripture and tradition were to be given equal weight in determining orthodox theology. This principle stood against the Protestant affirmation of sola Scriptura (“by Scripture alone”), which means that Scripture alone is the final authority, not the only authority. A further declaration relating to the doctrine of revelation made at Trent was the affirmation of the Apocrypha as part of the canon of Scripture. (For more on this read the free chapter, “Theologies of Scripture in the Reformation and Counter-Reformation,” by Michael Horton in Christian Theologies of Scripture).
Protestants can acknowledge with Trent the importance of tradition in the discipline of theology.
Trent also emphasized the importance of the church as an institution and as a divinely ordained society. The Protestant Reformers were seen as standing outside of this historically important institution, and therefore outside of salvation, since there was no salvation apart from the Catholic Church.
Regarding justification, Trent believed that the Reformers had misunderstood both Augustine and the New Testament emphasis on works in advancing a position of justification by faith alone. While the Reformers debated the precise role of the sacraments among themselves, the Council of Trent defended their view of “transubstantiation” against both Lutheran and Reformed positions.
Since it was in part a firm response to the Protestant Reformation, some may wonder what Protestants glean from the Council of Trent. First, though they affirm sola Scriptura, Protestants can acknowledge with Trent the importance of tradition in the discipline of theology. The Reformers confidently quoted and learned from the patristic fathers. Winston Churchill famously said, “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” and almost assuredly the same can be said with regard to theology.
Similarly, while Protestants disagree with Catholics on the doctrine of justification by faith, they can, with Trent, declare anathema the following proposition: “That man can be justified before God by his own works, which are done either in the strength of human nature or through the teaching of the law, apart from the divine grace through Jesus Christ.”