Chapter II.

Scripture and Tradition.

Papists concur with Protestants in admitting that God is the source of all obligation and duty, and that the Bible contains a revelation of his will. But while the Papist admits that the Bible is a revelation of the will of God, he is far from admitting, with the Protestant, that it is the only revelation. He holds, on the contrary, that it is neither a sufficient rule of faith, nor the only rule; but that tradition, which he terms the unwritten word, is equally inspired and equally authoritative with the Bible. To tradition, then, the Papist assigns an equal rank with the Scriptures as a divine revelation. The Council of Trent, in its fourth session, decreed, "that all should receive with equal reverence the books of the Old and New Testament, and the traditions concerning faith and manners, as proceeding from the mouth of Christ, or inspired by the Holy Spirit, and preserved in the Catholic Church; and that whosoever knowingly, and of deliberate purpose, despised traditions, should be anathema."[1] In the creed of the Council of Trent is the following article:-"I do most firmly receive and embrace the apostolical and ecclesiastical traditions, and other usages, of the Roman Church." "The Catholics," says Dr. Milner, "hold that the Word of God in general, both written and unwritten,-in other words, the Bible and tradition taken together,-constitute the rule of faith, or method appointed by Christ for finding out the true religion."[2] "Has tradition any connection with the rule of faith?" it is asked in Keenan's Controversial Catechism. "Yes," is the answer, "because it is a part of God's revealed Word,-properly called the unwritten Word, as the Scripture is called the written Word." "Are we obliged to believe what tradition teaches, equally with what is taught in Scripture?" "Yes, we are obliged to believe the one as firmly as the other."[3] We may state, that the traditions which the Church of Rome has thus placed on a level with the Bible are the supposed sayings of Christ and the apostles handed down by tradition. Of course, no proof exists that such things were ever spoken by those to whom they are imputed. They were never known or heard of till the monks of the middle ages gave them to the world. To apostolical is to be added ecclesiastical tradition, which consists of the decrees and constitutions of the Church. It is scarcely a true account of the matter to say that tradition holds an equal rank with the Bible: it is placed above it. While tradition is always employed to determine the sense of the Bible, the Bible is never permitted to give judgment on tradition. What, then, would the Church of Rome lose were the Bible to be set aside? Nothing, clearly. Accordingly, some of her doctors have held that the Scriptures are now unnecessary, seeing the Church has determined all truth.

In the second place, Papists make the Church the infallible interpreter of Scripture. The Church condemns all private judgment, interdicts all rational inquiry, and tells her members that they must receive the Scriptures only in the sense which she is pleased to put upon them. She requires all her priests at admission to swear that they will not interpret the Scriptures but according to the consent of the fathers,-an oath which it is impossible to keep otherwise than by abstaining altogether from interpreting Scripture, seeing the fathers are very far indeed from being at one in their interpretations. "How often has not Jerome been mistaken?" said Melancthon to Eck, in the famous disputation at Leipsic; "how frequently Ambrose! and how often their opinions are different! and how often they retract their errors!"[4] The Council of Trent decreed, that "no one confiding in his own judgment shall dare to wrest the sacred Scriptures to his own sense of them, contrary to that which hath been held, and still is held, by holy Mother Church, whose right it is to judge of the true meaning and interpretation of the sacred writ." And they further enact, that if any disobey, they are to be denounced by the ordinaries, and punished according to law.[5] In accordance with that decree is the following article in Pope Pius's creed:-"I receive the holy Scripture according to the sense which holy Mother Church (to whom it belongeth to judge of the true sense of the holy Scriptures) hath held and doth hold; nor will I ever receive and interpret it otherwise than according to the unanimous consent of the fathers." "Without the authority of the Church," said Bailly the Jesuit, "I would believe St. Matthew no more than Titus Livius." So great was the fervour for the Church, of Cardinal Hosius, who was appointed president of the Council of Trent, that he declared, in one of his polemical writings, that were it not for the authority of the Church, the Scriptures would have no more weight than the fables of Aesop.[6] Such are the sentiments of modern Papists. Dr. Milner devotes one of his letters to show that "Christ did not intend that mankind in general should learn his religion from a book."[7] "Besides the rule," says he, "he has provided in his holy Church a living, speaking judge, to watch over it, and explain it in all matters of controversy."[8]

Such is the rule of faith which Rome furnishes to her members,-the Word of God and the traditions of men, both equally binding. And such is the way in which Rome permits her members to interpret the Scriptures,-only by the Church. And yet, notwithstanding that the Church forbids her members to interpret Scripture, she, as a Church, has never come forward with any interpretation of the Word of God; nor has she adduced, nor can she adduce, the slightest proof from the Word of God that she alone is authorized to interpret Scripture; nor is the consent of the fathers, according to which she binds herself to interpret the Word of God, a consent that has any existence. Her claim as the only and infallible interpreter of Scripture implies, moreover, that God has not expressed, or was not able to express, his mind, so as to be intelligible to the generality of men,-that he has not given his Word to all men, or made it a duty binding on all to read and study it.

The Church of Rome has farther weakened the authority and polluted the purity of God's holy Word, by assigning to the Apocrypha a place in the inspired canon. The inspiration of these books was not made an article of the popish faith till the Council of Trent. That Council, in its fourth session, decreed the divine authority of the Apocrypha, notwithstanding that the books are not found in the Hebrew Bible, were not received as canonical by the Jews, are never quoted by Christ or by his apostles, were repudiated by the early Christian fathers, and contain within themselves manifold proofs that they are not inspired. At the same moment that the Church of Rome was exposing herself to the curse pronounced on those who shall add to the words of inspiration, she pronounced an anathema on all who should refuse to take part with her in the iniquity of maintaining the divine authority of the Apocrypha.

The Roman Catholic arguments in support of tradition as a rule of faith resolve themselves into three branches: first, passages from scripture; second, the office of the Church to attest the authenticity and genuineness of the Bible; and third, the insufficiency of private judgment.

First, we are presented with a few texts which seem to look with some favour upon tradition. These are either utterly inconclusive, or they are plain perversions. "Hear the Church," from the frequency with which it is quoted, would seem to be regarded by Roman controversialists as one of their greatest strongholds. The words, as they stand by themselves, do look as if they inculcated submission to the Church in the matter of our belief. When we examine the passage in connection with its context, however, we find it refers to a supposed dispute between two members of the Church, and enjoins the appeal of the matter to the decision of the Church, that is, of the congregation, provided the offending party refuse to listen to the remonstrances of the offended; which is a different thing altogether from the implicit submission of our judgments in matters of doctrine. Common sense teaches every man that there is no comparison between a written and an oral account of a matter, as regards the degree of reliance to be placed on each. Every time the latter is repeated, it acquires a new addition, or variation, or corruption. It is inconceivable that the truths of salvation should have been conveyed to us through a medium so inaccurate, fluctuating, and doubtful. Was it not one main design of Christ and his apostles, in committing their doctrine to writing, to guard against the uncertainties of tradition? In places innumerable, are not traditions, as a ground of faith, explicitly and pointedly condemned, and the study of the Scriptures strenuously enjoined? Besides, why should the Church of Rome offer proofs from Scripture on this or any other point? Does she not act inconsistently in doing so, inasmuch as she at the same instant forbids and requires the exercise of private judgment?

But, in the second place, from the Church, say the Romanists, you received the Bible; she transmitted it to you, and you take her authority for its authenticity and genuineness.[9] We admit the Church, that is, the universal Church, and not exclusively the Church of Rome, to be a main witness as to the authenticity and genuineness of the Scriptures, on the ground that they have come down to us through her; but that is another question altogether from her right to solely and infallibly interpret Scripture. The messenger who carries a letter may be a very competent witness as to its authenticity and genuineness. He had it from the writer; it has not been out of his possession since; and he can speak very confidently and authoritatively as to its expressing the will of the person whose signature it bears; but is he only, therefore, entitled to interpret its meaning? He may be a very competent authority on its authenticity, but a very incompetent authority on its sense. The Church of Rome has confounded the question of authenticity and the question of interpretation. Because the Church carried this divine letter to us, we will listen to what she has to say on its authenticity; but inasmuch as this letter is addressed to us, and touches questions which involve our eternal welfare, and contains not the slightest hint that it needs to be either interpreted or supplemented by the bearer, we will use the right and responsibility of interpreting it for ourselves.

As regards the insufficiency of private interpretation, it is hard to say whether Rome has conjured up more difficulties on the side of the Bible or on the side of man. She has made the most of the few difficult passages which the Bible contains, overlooking its extraordinary plainness and clearness on the great matters of salvation, and has laboured to show that, however the Bible may be fitted for a higher order of intelligences, it is really of no use at all to those for whom it was written. When a Romanist declaims on this topic, we cannot help fancying that we are listening to the pleadings of some acute, ingenious, and thoroughly in earnest infidel. And, as regards man, to believe Rome, one would think that reason and right understanding is a gift which has been denied the human family, or, at most, is confined to some scores of bishops and cardinals whom she denominates the Church. The Bible is to be subjected to the same rules of criticism and interpretation to which we daily subject the statements of our fellow-men and the works of human composition, and by which we search out the hidden principles and fundamental laws of physical and moral science. The faculties which can do the one can do the other. The moral obliquity which prevents the heart from receiving what the intellect can discover in the field of revelation, and which sheds darkness upon the understanding itself, is not to be overcome by papal infallibility, but by the promised assistance of the Divine Spirit. The Roman Catholic Church has also found a specious argument against the sufficiency of private judgment, in the differences of opinion on subordinate matters which exist among Protestants. These she has greatly magnified; but whatever they may be, she is not the party to reproach us, as we shall afterwards show. It is well known what a nest of diverse, unclean, and monstrous things is that over which the mighty Roman mother, Infallibility, sits brooding. Peter, it is maintained, frowned upon private interpretation, when he wrote as follows respecting the Epistles of Paul:-"In which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other Scriptures, unto their own destruction." Now, first, this shows that they who so wrested the Scriptures had free access to them; second, the statement is limited to the Epistles of Paul, and in these it is only some things that are hard to be understood, showing that the many are not so. But what preservative does the apostle recommend for this evil? Does he blame those negligent pastors who allowed their people to read the Scriptures? Does he enjoin Christians to hear the living authority in the Church?-and there were then some really infallible men in her: no; he has recourse to no such expedient; but, seeing they were the unlearned and the unstable who so wrested the Scriptures, he enjoins them to "grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ." But how are men to grow in the knowledge of Jesus Christ?" Unquestionably by the study of that book that reveals him; agreeably to his own injunction, "Search the Scriptures; they are they which testify of me." "Prove all things; hold fast that which is good."

But the Church of Rome, in the very act of forbidding the exercise of private judgment, and demanding of men implicit submission to her own authority, requires of them the exercise of their faculties. She makes her appeal to those very faculties which she forbids them to use, and calls upon them to exercise their private judgment in order that they may see it to be their duty not to exercise their private judgment. The appeal of Rome is, that men should submit to her infallibility; but she herself shows that she is conscious that a rational being can submit to this appeal only in the use of reason, because she recommends her appeal with arguments. Why does she urge these arguments, if our reason be unfit to determine the question? Before we can submit to infallibility, we must first satisfy ourselves as to several things, such as the truth of Christianity, the vicarship of Peter, and the transmission of the supremacy down to the living pontiff; for on these grounds is the infallibility based. The private judgment that can determine these momentous points might, one should think, competently decide others. To affirm that the sound judgment of men can conduct them so far, but no farther, looks very like saying, that the moment men submit to the infallibility they take leave of their sound judgment. Their reason is unfit, says the Church of Rome; and yet they are required, with an unfit reason, to reason fitly out the unfitness of their reason. If they succeed in reasoning out this proposition, does not their very success disprove the proposition? and if they do not succeed, how can they know the proposition to be true? And yet the Church of Rome continues to exhort men to use their reason to discover that reason is of no use; which is just as sensible as to bid a man walk a few miles along the highway, in order to discover that his limbs are incapable of carrying him a single yard from his own door. This conclusion, that reason is of no use, is true, or it is false. If it is true, how came men to arrive at a sound conclusion with a reason that is altogether useless? and if it is false, what becomes of the dogma of Rome? To tell a man, "Your reason is useless, but here is infallibility for your guide, only you must reason your way to it," is very like saying to a man in a shipwreck, "True, friend, you cannot swim a single stroke; but there is a rock half a league off; you can take your stand on it."

The Protestant rule is the Scripture. "To the Scripture the Roman Catholic adds, first, the Apocrypha; second, traditions; third, acts and decisions of the Church, embracing numerous volumes of the Popes' bulls, ten folio volumes of decretals, thirty-one folio volumes of acts of councils, fifty-one folio volumes of the Acta Sanctorum, or the doings and sayings of the saints; fourth add to these at least thirty-five volumes of the Greek and Latin fathers, in which, he says, is to be found the unanimous consent of the fathers; fifth, to all these one hundred and thirty-five volumes folio add the chaos of unwritten traditions which have floated to us down from the apostolic times. But we must not stop here; for the expositions of every priest and bishop must be added. The truth is, such a rule is no rule; unless an endless and contradictory mass of uncertainties could be a rule. No Romanist can soberly believe, much less learn, his own rule of faith."[10]

But even granting that all this infallibility is centred in the person of the pontiff, and that, practically, the guide of the Romanist is the dictum of the Pope; how is he to interpret its meaning, unless by an operation of judgment of the same kind with that by which the Protestant interprets the dictum of Scripture? Thus there is no scheme of infallibility which can supersede the exercise of private judgment, unless that of placing an infallibility in the head of every man, which shall guide him, not through his understanding, but in the shape of an unreasoning, unquestioning instinct.

[1] Can. et Dec. Concilii Tridentini, p. 16; Lipsiae (1846.) [Back]

[2] Milner's End of Controversy, letter viii.; Dublin, 1827. [Back]

[3] Controversial Catechism, by the Rev. S. Keenan,-Rule of Faith, chap. vi.; Edin. 1846. [Back]

[4] D'Aubigné's History of the Reformation, vol. ii. p. 71. [Back]

[5] Concil. Trid. Sess. iii. [Back]

[6] Bayle's Dictionary, art. Hosius. [Back]

[7] Milner's End of Controversy, letter viii. [Back]

[8] M. J. Perrone, the present Professor of Theology in the Collegio Romano at Rome, says:-"To the Church, that is, to the clergy, as forming one body with the Roman pontiff, their head, has been given the power of infallibly publishing the gospel, of truly interpreting it, and inviolably preserving it." These high prerogatives he founds upon Matthew, xxviii. 19,-"Go ye, therefore, and teach all nations;" &c. "Christ does not say to his apostles," argues Perrone, "go and write, but, go and teach: nor does he say, 'I am with you for a time only, but always.'" By the "all things whatsoever I have commanded you," we are to understand not only what is written in the New Testament, but what tradition has handed down as the sayings of Christ. The Professor makes great account of the variety of interpretations to which written language is liable, but no account at all of the far greater variations, not in interpretation only, but in the subject-matter also, to which traditionary language is liable. (Praelectiones Theologicae, quas in Collegio Romano Societatis Jesu habebat J. Perrone, tom. i. p. 171-174 ; Parisiis, 1842.) [Back]

[9] Milner's End of Controversy, letter ix. [Back]

[10] Elliott's Delineation of Romanism, p. 13; London, 1851.[Back]