Ignatius of Loyola

Ignatius of Loyola

“To Have the True Sentiment Which We Ought to Have in the Church Militant, Let the Following Rules be Observed.  Rule Thirteen: To be right in everything, we ought always to hold that the white which I see, is black, if the Hierarchical Church so decides it, believing that between Christ our Lord, the Bridegroom, and the Church, His Bride, there is the same Spirit which governs and directs us for the salvation of our souls.  Because by the same Spirit and our Lord Who gave the ten Commandments, our holy Mother the Church is directed and governed.”

In the mid-sixteenth century, Europe was full of competing ideas regarding Christianity.  Many advocated reforms of varying kinds.  Some favored doctrinal and practical reforms, while others favored moral reforms.  A major component of the debates between the advocates of different kinds of reforms was the question of whether or not the Church could be trusted.  Could the Church’s claims of authority in spiritual matters be trusted?  Could it be trusted at all times?  Could it be trusted at all?  And how much?  Ignatius of Loyola claimed that the Church could be trusted unreservedly, and it should be trusted, even if one’s own senses say the opposite.  However, Ignatius’ “Rule Thirteen” is both impractical and antithetical to the teaching of the New Testament, and it was therefore rejected by the Protestants.

The beginning of the Protestant Reformation is traditionally dated to October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door at Wittenberg.  There had been movements advocating reform in earlier generations, yet there were two characteristics of this movement that set it apart from its predecessors.

First, the Protestant Reformation resulted in the permanent separation of a number of branches of Christianity from each other.  The most recent division had been the separation of the Greek churches in the east from the Latin churches in the west in 1054.  The reform movements in the centuries preceding the sixteenth century hadn’t resulted in an institutional separation from the hierarchical Church.

Second, the Protestant Reformation was discussed among the laity extensively in the common tongue.  It was not merely an academic debate in Latin among scholars and clergy.  Luther wrote his 95 theses in Latin with the intent of debating them with other scholars, yet they were quickly translated into German and dispersed throughout the land.  Both Lutheran and Reformed Protestants used the printing press to propagate their particular views among the common people, and in many areas of Europe there were public disputations regarding doctrinal disagreements.

The third through fifth decades of the sixteenth century, then, were an environment where the laity, not just the clergy or scholars, were discussing the current theological controversies.  This environment is the historical context in which Ignatius of Loyola wrote his Spiritual Exercises.  Following his spiritual conversion in 1521, Ignatius first composed Spiritual Exercises from 1522 to 1524, and he finally published it in 1548.  Europe was already discussing Luther’s and others’ teaching before Ignatius began work on his book, and when it was finally published, the Council of Trent had not yet finished responding to Protestantism.

Many parts of the Spiritual Exercises repeat ideas and practices that had been present in earlier moral reform movements, encouraging a more in depth practice of medieval piety without addressing doctrinal matters.  In the section where Ignatius asserts that the Church should be trusted unreservedly, however, he is presenting a list of eighteen rules that are all about the doctrinal debates of his day.  For example, the second rule addresses auricular confession, the third the Mass, the fifth vows of poverty, the sixth veneration of relics and praying to saints, the seventh fasting and penance, and the eighth images and ornamentation in churches.  Later, the fourteenth through seventeenth rules in this list advocate caution when speaking about predestination, faith, and grace.[1]

One could characterize this list of rules as eighteen rules for how to remain loyal to the Roman Church in a place and time where everybody is talking about the issues raised by the Protestants.  In addition, Ignatius’ book was written for the laity, not the clergy alone, and it was these people who were reading and discussing Protestant literature.  Yet if the common people would follow these rules by speaking well of the distinctly Roman features of Christianity, trusting the hierarchical Church in all matters, and not speaking much about predestination, faith, and grace, then popular support for Protestantism could be eradicated.

The advantage to Ignatius’ rule is clear.  Whatever the matter of debate, there is an answer: simply go with what the hierarchical Church says.  If the hierarchical Church says that bread and wine becomes the body and blood of Christ, though it does not appear so to one’s own eyes, then one simply needs to believe what the hierarchical Church teaches.  For those whose faith could be shaken by a multiplicity of voices all claiming that theirs is the correct version of Christianity, they can have assurance that they are indeed following the correct version because they’re doing what the hierarchical Church says to do and believing what the hierarchical Church says to believe.  It isn’t necessary to read the Scriptures (in the original languages if possible), carefully understand the various positions and the arguments for and against the different positions, and then make a choice about who to follow, whether the Romanists, the Reformed, the Lutheran, or one of the Anabaptist groups.  Instead, one can simply believe that God will not allow his one true hierarchical Church to err and then always know where to look to get the right answer for any theological question.

The first problem with Ignatius’ “Rule Thirteen,” though is that it is impractical.  While it sounds useful in theory, in reality it doesn’t work.  The first question is determining who speaks for the hierarchical Church.  Is it the Pope or the Ecumenical Councils?  What if there are more popes than one, as there were in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, for example?  The popes claimed to have authority over the councils, and the Councils of Pisa and Constance claimed to have authority over popes.  How does one follow Ignatius’ rule when there are multiple popes and councils, all claiming to be the highest authority in the hierarchical Church?

Similarly, the second question is the same as the first, yet not chronologically concurrent.  If one decides in favor of popes and there is only one person claiming to be pope at a time, what then if the first pope says it’s black, the next pope says it’s gray, and the next pope says it’s white?  Is the way to follow the hierarchical Church to follow whatever the current pope says, even if it disagrees with his predecessors?  This line of thinking would have led believers to uncritically accept Monothelitism if they happened to live during the reign of Pope Honorius I in the seventh century.  The hierarchical Church condemned Honorius and his heresy afterwards.  If one believes that the pope is kept from error when speaking on matters of faith and doctrine, what should then be believed when the current pope says that an earlier pope taught heresy?

The third question that shows the impracticality of Ignatius’ rule is the question of interpretation.  What do you do when there are competing interpretations of what the hierarchical Church teaches?  Protestants hold to the infallibility of Scripture, yet Protestants disagree among themselves when they hold to different interpretations of Scripture.  Likewise, those who follow Ignatius’ rule are holding to the infallibility of the hierarchical Church, yet they would also disagree among themselves when they hold to different interpretations of what the hierarchical Church says.

The second problem with Ignatius’ “Rule Thirteen” is that it is antithetical to Scripture.  Even if one were to suppose, for the sake of argument, that the hierarchical church always spoke with a single voice, never contradicted itself, and was never subject to differing interpretations, it still would remain a problem that Ignatius’ rule is not how Scripture teaches us to evaluate what teachers in the church say.

On the level of practical examples, one can consider how and why the apostle Paul taught that his teaching should be accepted.  Those in authority in the hierarchical Church have supposedly succeeded the apostles in the Church, so it would be incongruous for them to be more trustworthy than the apostles.  Yet Paul and the other apostles never taught that they should be believed simply because they speak for the Church.  Paul defended his arguments with Scripture, whether speaking to unbelievers in Thessalonica (Acts 17:2-3) or writing to believers in Rome (Romans 15:1-4).  The Bereans in Acts 17:11 were commended because they examined the Scriptures to see if what Paul was teaching was true.

Along with the confirmation of their teaching by Scripture, the apostles’ teaching should be believed because it’s eyewitness testimony and was confirmed by miracles (Acts 10:41; 2 Corinthians 12:12; Hebrews 2:3-4; 2 Peter 1:16; 1 John 1:1-3).  This doesn’t correspond to Ignatius’ “Rule Thirteen.”  The apostles’ teaching should be believed if it is supported by Scripture, involves eyewitness testimony, and is accompanied by supernatural signs.  Yet Ignatius says that the hierarchical Church should be believed unreservedly, even though it is not supported by Scripture, it doesn’t involve eyewitness testimony, and is not accompanied by supernatural signs.  In addition, Ignatius’ rule doesn’t take into account what the New Testament teaches about false teachers.  Almost every book in the New Testament speaks about false prophets or false teachers, all of whom are or were part of the visible church, and nowhere does the New Testament present the hierarchical Church’s decisions as the antidote to false teaching.

Concluding that Ignatius’ “Rule Thirteen” is impractical and antithetical to Scripture, when then did the Protestant Reformers propose instead?  How did they view the authority of the hierarchical Church?  “I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other,” is a line traditionally ascribed to Martin Luther’s speech at the Diet of Worms in 1521.  Whether he actually said this or not, it exemplifies the Protestant response.  The hierarchical Church cannot be trusted unreservedly because it contradicts itself.

The Protestant confessions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, in opposition to Ignatius’ rule and in accordance with the teaching of the Scriptures, affirm that Scripture can be trusted, as “the only sufficient, certain and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith and obedience.”[2]  What is to be believed is determined by Scripture, not the hierarchical Church.  In fact, the teachings of the hierarchical Church are themselves to be judged by Scripture.  It is “the supreme judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits are to be examined.”[3]

There came from the sixteenth century debates, then, two different irreconcilable views towards the relative authority of Scripture and the hierarchical Church.  Ignatius’ “Rule Thirteen” from his Spiritual Exercises chose the impractical and unscriptural view that the hierarchical Church should always be trusted.  The Protestants instead saw that unchanging Scripture needed to be viewed as the “absolute norm”[4] rather than the changing hierarchical Church, whose popes and councils have contradicted each other.









Ignatius of Loyola.  The Spiritual Exercises and Selected Works.  Edited by George E. Ganss, S.J.  New York: Paulist, 1991.


Renihan, Mike, ed.  A Confession of Faith, 1677.  AKA: The Second London Baptist Confession & the “1689”.  Auburn, MA: Baptist & Reformed, 2000.


Waldron, Samuel E.  A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith.  3rd ed.  Durham, England: Evangelical Press, 1999.


[1]. Ignatius of Loyola, The Spiritual Exercises and Selected Works, ed. by George E. Ganss, S.J. (New York: Paulist, 1991), 211-214.

[2]. Mike Renihan, ed., A Confession of Faith, 1677.  AKA: The Second London Baptist Confession & the “1689” (Auburn, MA: Baptist & Reformed, 2000), 1.  See also Chapter 1 of the Westminster Confession of Faith and Chapter 1 of the Savoy Declaration of Faith for virtually identical statements earlier from the Presbyterians and Congregationalists.

[3]. Ibid., 9.

[4]. Samuel E. Waldron, A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, 3rd ed. (Durham, England: Evangelical Press, 1999), 42.


About Nate Milne

Historical Theology student at Westminster Seminary California.
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