Calvin contra Rome on Scripture (Part 4)
"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
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
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.