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§ 6. The Authority of the Scriptures.


The objective principle of Protestantism maintains that the Bible, as the inspired record of revelation, is the only infallible rule of faith and practice; in opposition to the Roman Catholic coordination of Scripture and ecclesiastical tradition, as the joint rules of faith.

The teaching of the living church is by no means rejected, but subordinated to the Word of God; while the opposite theory virtually subordinates the Bible to tradition by making the latter the sole interpreter of the former and confining interpretation within the limits of an imaginary consensus patrum. In the application of the Bible principle there was considerable difference between the more conservative Lutheran and Anglican Reformation, and the more radical Zwinglian and Calvinistic Reformation; the former contained many post-scriptural and extra-scriptural traditions, usages and institutions, which the latter, in its zeal for primitive purity and simplicity, rejected as useless or dangerous; but all Reformers opposed what they regarded as anti-scriptural doctrines; and all agreed in the principle that the church has no right to impose upon the conscience articles of faith without clear warrant in the Word of God.

Every true progress in church history is conditioned by a new and deeper study of the Scriptures, which has "first, second, third, infinite draughts." While the Humanists went back to the ancient classics and revived the spirit of Greek and Roman paganism, the Reformers went back to the sacred Scriptures in the original languages and revived the spirit of apostolic Christianity. They were fired by an enthusiasm for the gospel, such as had never been known since the days of Paul. Christ rose from the tomb of human traditions and preached again his words of life and power. The Bible, heretofore a book of priests only, was now translated anew and better than ever into the vernacular tongues of Europe, and made a book of the people. Every Christian man could henceforth go to the fountain-head of inspiration, and sit at the feet of the Divine Teacher, without priestly permission and intervention. This achievement of the Reformation was a source of incalculable blessings for all time to come. In a few years Luther’s version had more readers among the laity than ever the Latin Vulgate had among priests; and the Protestant Bible societies circulate more Bibles in one year than were copied during the fifteen centuries before the Reformation.

We must remember, however, that this wonderful progress was only made possible by the previous invention of the art of printing and by the subsequent education of the people. The Catholic Church had preserved the sacred Scriptures through ages of ignorance and barbarism; the Latin Bible was the first gift of the printing press to the world; fourteen or more editions of a German version were printed before 1518; the first two editions of the Greek Testament we owe to the liberality of a Spanish cardinal (Ximenes), and the enterprise of a Dutch scholar in Basel (Erasmus); and the latter furnished the text from which, with the aid of Jerome’s Vulgate, the translations of Luther and Tyndale were made.

The Roman church, while recognizing the divine inspiration and authority of the Bible, prefers to control the laity by the teaching priesthood, and allows the reading of the Scriptures in the popular tongues only under certain restrictions and precautions, from fear of abuse and profanation. Pope Innocent III. was of the opinion that the Scriptures were too deep for the common people, as they surpassed even the understanding of the wise and learned. Several synods in Gaul, during the thirteenth century, prohibited the reading of the Romanic translation, and ordered the copies to be burnt. Archbishop Berthold, of Mainz, in an edict of January 4th, 1486, threatened with excommunication all who ventured to translate and to circulate translations of sacred books, especially the Bible, without his permission. The Council of Constance (1415), which burnt John Hus and Jerome of Prague, condemned also the writings and the hopes of Wiclif, the first translator of the whole Bible into the English tongue, to the flames: and Arundel, archbishop of Canterbury and chancellor of England, denounced him as that "pestilent wretch of damnable heresy who, as a complement of his wickedness, invented a new translation of the Scriptures into his mother tongue." Pope Pius IV. (1564), in the conviction that the indiscriminate reading of Bible versions did more harm than good (plus detrimenti quam utilitiatis), would not allow laymen to read the sacred book except by special permission of a bishop or an inquisitor. Clement VIII. (1598) reserved the right to grant this permission to the Congregation of the Index. Gregory XV. (1622), and Clement XI. (in the Bull Unigenitus, 1713), repeated the conditional prohibition. Benedict XIV., one of the liberal popes, extended the permission to read the Word of God in the vernacular to all the faithful, yet with the proviso that the translation be approved in Rome and guarded by explanatory notes from the writings of the fathers and Catholic scholars (1757). This excludes, of course, all Protestant versions, even the very best. They are regarded as corrupt and heretical and have often been committed to the flames in Roman Catholic countries, especially in connection with the counter-Reformation of the Jesuits in Bohemia and elsewhere. The first edition of Tyndale’s New Testament had to be smuggled into England and was publicly burnt by order of Tunstall, bishop of London, in St. Paul’s church-yard near the spot from which Bibles are now sent to all parts of the globe. The Bible societies have been denounced and condemned by modern popes as a "pestilence which perverts the gospel of Christ into a gospel of the devil." The Papal Syllabus of Pius IX. (1864), classes "Societates Biblicae" with Socialism, Communism, and Secret Societies, calls them "pests frequently rebuked in the severest terms," and refers for proof, to several Encyclicals from November 9th, 1846, to August 10th, 1863.99    Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, II. 218; Köllner, Symbolik II. 351, sqq.; Hase, Handbuch der Protestant. Polemik, fourth ed., 1878, p. 68 sqq. There were indeed vernacular translations of the Bible long before the Reformation; but it is a most astounding exaggeration when Perrone, as quoted by Hase, asserts (Praelect. Theol. III. § 317): "Per idem tempus 800plus minus editiones Bibliorum aut N. T. ante Reformationem prodierant, ac per universam Europam catholicam circumferebantur, antequam vel protestantis nomen agnosceretur. Et ex his 200 versiones in linguis vernaculis diversarum gentium omnium manibus libere versabantur."

Such fulminations against Protestant Bible societies might be in some measure excused if the popes favored Catholic Bible societies, which would be the best proof of zeal for the spread of the Scriptures. But such institutions do not exist. Fortunately papal bulls have little effect in modern times, and in spite of official prohibitions and discouragements, there are zealous advocates of Bible reading among modern Catholics, as there were among the Greek and Latin fathers.1010    See L. Van Ess,Auszüge über das nothwendige und nützliche Bibellesen aus den Kirchenvätern und anderen kathol. Schriften, second ed., 1816; also the preface to his translation of the New Testament. Nor have the restrictions of the Council of Trent been able to prevent the progress of Biblical scholarship and exegesis even in the Roman church. E pur si muove. The Bible, as well as the earth, moves for all that.

Modern Protestant theology is much more just to ecclesiastical tradition than the Reformers could be in their hot indignation against the prevailing corruptions and against the papal tyranny of their day. The deeper study of ecclesiastical and secular history has dispelled the former ignorance on the "dark ages," so called, and brought out the merits of the fathers, missionaries, schoolmen, and popes, in the progress of Christian civilization.

But these results do not diminish the supreme value of the sacred Scripture as an ultimate tribunal of appeal in matters of faith, nor the importance of its widest circulation. It is by far the best guide of instruction in holy living and dying. No matter what theory of the mode and extent of inspiration we may hold, the fact of inspiration is plain and attested by the universal consent of Christendom. The Bible is a book of holy men, but just as much a book of God, who made those men witnesses of truth and sure teachers of the way of salvation.



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