"I come to the right of interpreting [the Bible], which they arrogate to themselves.... It is theirs, they say, to give the meaning of Scripture, and we must acquiesce." Thus Calvin summarizes the fourth and final point of Trent's teaching on Scripture. Trent's words were as follows: "No man... [should] dare to interpret the Holy Scripture contrary to that sense which holy mother Church, to whom it belongs to judge of the true sense and interpretation of the Holy Scriptures, has held and holds" (emphasis mine).
Few things annoyed Calvin and other reformers of the sixteenth-century more than Rome's repeated claim, in the midst of theological disputes, to own the exclusive right to determine what the Bible actually says about the matters disputed. The intent of that claim, of course, was to force an immediate stop to all conversation, let alone controversy, about what Scripture teaches regarding justification, the sacraments, religious images, indulgences, and so on. Luther expressed his frustration with such posturing on Rome's part thus: "Were this true" -- that is, were it true that sola Roma possessed the right and requisite spiritual gift to interpret Scripture -- "where [then] were the need and use of the Holy Scriptures" at all? "Let us burn them," Luther continued, "and content ourselves with the unlearned gentlemen at Rome, in whom the Holy Ghost dwells.... If I had not read it, I could never have believed that the devil should have put forth such follies at Rome and [have found] a following."
Nearly three decades after Luther wrote those words, Calvin sounds a similar note of annoyance and disbelief in his response to Trent's teaching: "What hinders them," he asks, "from raising a trophy, and coming off victorious to their hearts' content, if we concede to them what they have comprehended in [this] decree?"
To gain some sense of the reformers' frustration at Roman claims of an exclusive right to interpret Scripture, one might imagine how a wife might feel if, in the midst of a dispute about who said what and thereby broke the marital peace, her husband invoked his own infallible knowledge of what was actually said, as well as his own unimpeachable right to declare the same and level blame or demand repentance accordingly.
Calvin's actual argument against Rome's claim to own the right of biblical interpretation is similar to his argument against Rome's claim that extra-scriptural tradition, in addition to the Bible, constitutes a source of saving truth (see part one of this series). Calvin could, of course, have simply required Rome to prove that she alone was entitled to adjudicate competing readings of the Bible. After all, the burden of proof clearly rests upon those who would hazard such obviously dubious claims, just as the burden of proof would rest with the husband in our proposed analogy to prove his infallible knowledge of what was said and his right to interpret the same.
Calvin takes a different tack, appealing again, albeit negatively this time, to tradition. He recounts examples of official but clearly preposterous Roman interpretations of Scripture, which he reckons anyone endued with any degree of sense will see for what they are. These examples are all taken from the seventh ecumenical council in Nicaea which defended the existence and veneration of images of Christ, Mary, and the saints in places of worship. So, for instance, Calvin observes that this council cited Psalm 16:3 ("As for the saints in the land, they are the excellent ones, in whom is all my delight") in defense of religious images, on the rather ludicrous assumption that the "saints" mentioned by the Psalmist were those depicted on the walls of some worship space.
As far as ridiculous Roman interpretations of Scripture go, I personally would have cited Pope Boniface VIII's use of Luke 22:38 in the papal bull Unam sanctam to establish his claim that ultimate ecclesiastical and civil authority are divinely entrusted to the papacy. But to each his own; Calvin's references do the job.
Calvin is, however, sensitive to a potential counter-charge from Rome -- namely, that each reformer rejected Rome's fallible interpretation of Scripture in favor of his own fallible interpretations of Scripture, and so failed to improve upon Rome's position (by effectively establishing as many popes as there are Protestants, and, in that process, destroying the unity of the faith).
In response, Calvin -- rather remarkably -- acknowledges the need for individual interpreters of Scripture to "willingly submit" their own judgments about Scripture's meaning "to the judgment of the Church." Calvin, in other words, unabashedly prefers a corporate, churchly interpretation of Scripture to any private individual's judgment regarding Scripture's meaning. "We neither contemn nor impair the authority of the Church; nor do we give loose reins to men to dare what they please."
Remarkably, then, Calvin ends up asserting something like the position of Rome against which he argues -- that is, that "it belongs" to the Church "to judge of the true sense and interpretation of the Holy Scriptures." But Calvin's own view differs from Rome in three essential regards: First of all, he recognizes the Church (with a capital C) as the collective body of visible churches (lower case c) where God's Word is rightly preached and God's sacraments are rightly administered -- where, in other words, there is integrity of doctrine and practice. Calvin thus deems it doubtful that the institution which, under the authority of the papacy, answers to the name "Roman Catholic Church" is even part of the true Church, much less the whole of it.
Secondly, Calvin entrusts doctrinal authority in the visible Church to persons properly trained to study Scripture from every age and region of the church, rather than any given person (the pope) or ecclesiastical body (a council) at any given point in time. This makes corporate, churchly judgments regarding the meaning of a text rather more difficult to discern, and -- since the Church consists of believers yet to be born -- points to the necessarily open-ended nature of ecclesiastical judgments about Scripture's meaning.
Thirdly, Calvin freely acknowledges the fallibility of the Church, which once again points to the provisional nature of corporate, churchly judgments regarding Scripture's meaning. The Church, being fallible, must intentionally and constantly render itself correctable in relation to God's infallible Word.
Calvin's argument against Rome's claim of an exclusive right to interpret Scripture might surprise many Reformed believers today. In the final analysis, Calvin assaults Rome's claim to the title "Church" more than Trent's claim that biblical interpretation properly belongs to the Church. "I wish," he concludes, "they would shew us such a Church as Scripture itself portrays; we should easily agree as to the respect" -- and privilege? -- "due to it. But when, falsely assuming the name of Church, they seize upon the spoils of which they have robbed it, what else can we do than protest?"
Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida.