Saturday, August 25, 2007

Critique of Martin Chemnitz' Examination of Trent: Scripture and the Catholic Rule of Faith

By Dave Armstrong (8-25-07)

This is from my series of replies to 16th century prominent Lutheran theologian Martin Chemnitz' Examination of the Council of Trent, Part I (St. Louis: Concordia Pub. House, 1971; translated by Fred Kramer). 

* * * * * 

As of writing, I have read the first one hundred pages. At this point, Chemnitz has not yet dealt with a single word of the Tridentine decrees. As I see it, he is thus far engaged (consciously or not) in a huge effort of what is known in logic as "poisoning the well." The reader of the Examen, Part I, is already (unfortunately) well used to, by now, almost ubiquitous potshots and digs at Catholicism and Catholics, per the usual Lutheran invective of the time period (unfortunately reflected in the confessional Book of Concord).

I've always been struck and saddened by the mentality often seen in early Protestants (and, to be fair, also 16th century Catholics) and those today (again, on both sides) who want to continue the ill will and mutual distrust and hostility between Catholics and Protestants, of attributing only the lowest and basest motivations to theological opponents.

As I have long argued, when it comes to Protestants and their consideration of Catholicism, they come to the table already burdened by foundational presuppositions that will only allow them to grant very little of any worth to their Catholic opponents (or "enemies" as the case may be). They need not necessarily be emotionally or personally hostile at all (though often we find that they are). It is simply part and parcel of what it means to be a Protestant (as that affiliation was initially understood in its origins). To be a Protestant was to inevitably be vehemently opposed to the Catholic Church, by definition.

Now, theologically, and in terms of the usual competition of ideas and worldviews and ultimate commitments, this is altogether understandable. Folks can and do have honest disagreements concerning deeply held, highly important religious and theological beliefs. But what is so tragic in all this, is that the disagreements so often cannot be held without caricaturing and running down both opposing beliefs and motivations in holding them. Charity, benefit of the doubt, routine attribution of good will in our opponents quickly goes out the window.

With Protestants and sola Scriptura, and the overall relationship of Bible, Church, and Tradition, this is very much the case. It seems that many (most?) of the Protestants who are intent on passionately defending sola Scriptura literally cannot comprehend any other viewpoint of the vexed issue of Bible, Church, and Tradition, other than their own. They are truly fish in water, or (to use a wonderful C. S. Lewis analogy), flatlanders unable to comprehend a three dimensional world.

They simply cannot fathom how a person could reject sola Scriptura and yet still be "for" Scripture, or love the Bible, or not be opposed to it; indeed, to venerate it (as Catholics surely do). To reject sola Scriptura (just one approach to Scripture, and one that is -- as I have argued endlessly -- itself unbiblical, unhistorical, unreasonable, and quite difficult to even carry through in practice) IS to reject Scripture itself, in this mindset. The two are one and the same. Period. End of sentence; end of discussion. There can be no other opinion on the issue that is permissible or even thinkable.

But why does that have to be the case? I have never felt the slightest need to run down Protestants' love of Scripture. As a former Protestant myself, I know that they love it, with a great and deep passion and commitment and devotion. But one doesn't have to have first hand experience in another camp in order to grant them their sincerity and take them at their word. Why can't so many Protestants figure out that Catholics also deeply love Scripture, even if they (gasp!!!!) also take a high view of Tradition and Church authority (notions also firmly grounded in the Bible itself) that the Protestant disagrees with and finds distasteful and "unbiblical"?

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to understand that one can love two things at once. It's not a zero sum game, where if one cup is filled, a second one must lose the same quantity of liquid that the first gains. Scripture and Tradition are not like a teeter-totter, where when one gains in elevation, the other necessarily decreases in equal measure. I should think that this is rather obvious, but it is not, for millions of Protestants who are taught to think one way, and one way only, and who cannot understand any other "equation" and cannot help but attribute nefarious motives and essences to these other views, as if they were evil and wicked through and through.

Wholly apart from the rather complex issue itself, it is not necessary at all that a person must "hate" Holy Scripture to the extent that he speaks highly of Tradition. This is the oft-seen "either/or" dichotomous mindset of classical Protestantism, that I and many Catholic apologists have often noted.

But the truly relevant issue that comes into play at this juncture is the Church Fathers' view of the matter. At length it can and will be rather easily demonstrated in the course of this ongoing critique, that the Fathers' perspective and consensus is far more analogous to the Catholic view than it is to the 16th century Protestant novelty / innovation of sola Scriptura. I've already proven this myself, over and over (as far as I am concerned), in many previous papers on this very topic of patristic notions of the rule of faith and Christian authority.

Chemnitz' (and modern-day Lutherans') dilemma and conundrum, then, will be to deal somehow with the fact that the Fathers simply do not accept their view of sola Scriptura. In fact, so far are they from adopting it, that (as several Protestant historians have stated) it would have been incomprehensible to them; a useless, meaningless dichotomy: to pit Scripture against Tradition and/or the Church. It would have never crossed their mind to think in such a fashion. So say eminent Protestant historians (not just I and other Catholics). Here are two striking examples:

    As regards the pre-Augustinian Church, there is in our time a striking convergence of scholarly opinion that Scripture and Tradition are for the early Church in no sense mutually exclusive: kerygma, Scripture and Tradition coincide entirely. The Church preaches the kerygma which is to be found in toto in written form in the canonical books.
    The Tradition is not understood as an addition to the kerygma contained in Scripture but as the handing down of that same kerygma in living form: in other words everything is to be found in Scripture and at the same time everything is in the living Tradition.
    It is in the living, visible Body of Christ, inspired and vivified by the operation of the Holy Spirit, that Scripture and Tradition coinhere . . . Both Scripture and Tradition issue from the same source: the Word of God, Revelation . . . Only within the Church can this kerygma be handed down undefiled . . .
( [Lutheran] Heiko Oberman, The Harvest of Medieval Theology, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, revised edition of 1967, 366-367)

It should be unnecessary to accumulate further evidence. Throughout the whole period Scripture and tradition ranked as complementary authorities, media different in form but coincident in content. To inquire which counted as superior or more ultimate is to pose the question in misleading terms. If Scripture was abundantly sufficient in principle, tradition was recognized as the surest clue to its interpretation, for in tradition the Church retained, as a legacy from the apostles which was embedded in all the organs of her institutional life, an unerring grasp of the real purport and meaning of the revelation to which Scripture and tradition alike bore witness.
( [Anglican] J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1978 edition, 47-48)

Therein lies the problem that Chemnitz and Lutherans today have to overcome. I shall argue in due course that it is insurmountable for them. Their position in this regard and others ultimately will be shown to be self-defeating. The Fathers believed as Catholics do today, regarding this question of Scripture and Tradition. But in the Lutheran schema and self-perception, this simply cannot be. They must establish that the Fathers are on their side, by the very fact that they claimed (and claim) to be a reform; that is, a return to the way of the ancient Church, rather than an overthrowing of those early Christian beliefs. This is part and parcel of Protestant and Lutheran identity. Hence, translator Fred Kramer wrote in the Biographical Sketch of Chemnitz (my italics):

He believed that there was a consensus in doctrine within the ancient church, though he was not unaware of the aberrations which had occurred in every period of the church. He believed that Luther and the adherents of the Augsburg Confession had returned to this consensus in their theology, and he labored ceaselessly both as churchman and theologian to keep the church with this consensus.

(pp. 23-24)
So what happens (for the historically-minded Protestant) when this cannot be shown, and indeed, where the contrary can be proven? I don't know. In my own experience in debating Lutherans on these very questions (many such debates can be found on my site), they simply split and cease the discussion after it was shown that the patristics don't line up on their side (where their views conflict with Catholics) . The historical reality clashed with their dogmatic necessities as Lutherans: i.e., always supposedly being the legatees of the Fathers, over against the corrupt, innovative Catholics. History conflicts with dogma, when it is not supposed to, according to what might be called the "Lutheran Myth of Early Church History and Supposed Lutheran Continuity With It."

For Chemnitz and those who follow his views, then (traditional, confessional Lutheranism), the huge difficulty is the impossibility of the following two statements existing together:

1) Catholics have an incorrect, objectionable view of Scripture insofar as they elevate Tradition and Church Authority higher in the scheme of things than they ought to.

2) Church Fathers take a correct, "Protestant" view of Scripture even though they, too (very much like Catholics then and now), elevate Tradition and Church Authority higher in the scheme of things than they ought to.
If #1 is true, #2 cannot also be true (in its first clause, granting the second clause). It is ultimately a dispute of historical fact. We say that if the Catholic view is rejected, then the Fathers must necessarily go down with it, because the two are essentially the same. The Protestant (apologist, polemicist, partisan advocate; pick your term) arguing this case denies that the Fathers take these views in the first place. One can only determine the outcome by recourse to particular historical discussion on what the Fathers actually believed.

If the Fathers indeed turn out to be far more like Catholics, then what becomes of the Lutheran "Myth" that Lutheranism (on this issue of Scripture and Tradition) is truly the "patristic" view, brought back and "reformed" and that the lowly, despised Catholics have supposedly forsaken same? Well, it falls flat. And to refute Lutheranism in the historical sense just described is simply an exercise of accumulating instances such as these, where the Fathers can be shown to be in accord with Catholic understanding, over against Lutheran. How many "dominoes" must fall before the entire "wall" collapses? Each person must determine this for himself or herself.

I've already engaged at great length in such historical discussion (and have never yet been disappointed in or troubled by the outcome), and am prepared to do much more of the same argumentation, over against Martin Chemnitz' claims to the contrary. He can be as brilliant as he can be, but if in fact he is fighting against fact and truth, his arguments will be found wanting. I hope some of my Lutheran friends will take up the challenge and try to overthrow my historical argumentation. It's tough to fight an uphill, losing battle; a lost cause. But I admire those who will at least try to do so, in defense of their own cherished and sincere (though greatly mistaken) beliefs.

But I am already ahead of myself. I've offered a little sneak preview of what I see as the important, key issues in the debate, and how it can and must proceed. In any event, Chemnitz, in his first 100 pages (minus some introductory material from the editor / translator), has scarcely begun making this argument. He has cited some Fathers (notably St. Irenaeus) praising Scripture and venerating it as the standard of doctrine. Since that never has been in dispute, it is irrelevant to relative Lutheran and Catholic claims. No one denies it. Therefore, I need not deal with those statements for my present purpose.

Rather, at this early juncture, I would like to document how Chemnitz (much like Luther and Calvin, but with far less vehemence and polemics) seems to almost deliberately poison the well, and to cast aspersions upon his opponents. Catholics must despise and hate Scripture, to believe as they do, so reasons Chemnitz. Perhaps some of his human opponents at the time did (though I highly doubt it). Chemnitz has provided little or no documentary proof that this is so, and it is his burden to do so, since he keeps making the claims. The following is about the most he will grant to Catholic good intentions and faith and sincerity, and even it is a left-handed compliment (Chemnitz's words will be in blue henceforth):

The method of debate on the part of the papalists is far different now than it was at the time of Eck, Emser, and others like them. These men did not refuse to fight with us with the weapons of the Scripture. Pighius, however, has perceived that this arrangement has done the papal kingdom more harm than good. (p. 71)

Apart from that (thus far) isolated utterance, almost invariably when he refers to Catholic views of Scripture, it is in an insulting sense:

Catholic Doctrine is Intrinsically Unbiblical and Anti-Biblical

. . . infinite license to invent and decree what they pleased outside of, beside, and against the Word of God. (p. 32)

[T]he papalists have in their church many, yes, mostly such things which they can in no way prove, establish, and defend with testimonies and proofs from the canonical Scripture. Therefore, they seek other proofs outside of and beyond the Scripture, in order that, when they are pressed and attacked with testimonies from Scripture, they may not be compelled to yield to the truth but may have other aids ready for use, a refuge, as it were, to which they may turn.

These many and varied defenses outside of, beyond, yes, against, the Scripture they have placed and drawn up in convenient places in such a way that they clearly indicate that they have come together not with ther intention of correcting anything according to the norm of Scripture, but that they may by other aids retain, defend, and impose upon the church all kinds of errors and abuses, which have so far been pointed out, reproved, and refuted from the Word of God. (p. 40)

. . . people who flee the light of Scriptures. This title fits no kind of men better than the assembly at Trent. (p. 41)

. . . those things which cannot be defended from the Scripture (and these make for the greater part of the papal kingdom) . . . (p. 71)

Catholics Willfully Abuse and Hate Holy Scripture

. . . abusive words of individual papalists against Holy Scripture . . . (p. 46)

I know quite well why they like to bypass the mention of the use and authority of the Old Testament Scriptures. They sense that by that mere mention all their arguments which they heap up against the Scripture of the New Testament are overthrown and destroyed. (p. 62)

. . . identical with the weapons employed by Jewish treachery against the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God in the Scripture. (p. 64)

. . . the words of the Scripture are to be bent to agree with the unwritten traditions . . . (p. 65)

We do not concede to the papalists that they may with impunity mock the church with their arbitrary interpretations outside of and against the words of the text. (p. 73)

. . . that meaning which the papalists invent against the Scripture. (p. 77)

Sacred, Apostolic (Catholic) Tradition is Inherently Opposed to Scripture

. . . traditions which are either patched on the Scripture on the plea that it is incomplete, or set up in opposition to it on the plea that it is ambiguous and obscure. (p. 63)

. . . those things outside of Scripture which were current under the name of traditions should be accepted and esteemed with equal reverence and pious affection, even though they did not agree with the Scripture or were even in opposition to it. (p. 65)

. . . they, too, pretend that also the observance of the unwritten traditions is necessary according to the Scripture of the New Testament. (p. 66)

. . . so great is the similarity that there can be no doubt that both the fictions of the Talmudists and of the papalists concerning traditions have one and the same architect and maker, namely, him who sows and mixes tares with good seed. (p. 67)

[whereas, Chemnitz, of course, like quasi-prophet Martin Luther before him, has a far more sublime assurance: "I am convinced that the materials of my answer have been offered and shown to me by God" -- p. 29]

Here I only wanted to show the great affinity and similarity between the Talmudists and the papists when they dispute concerning the unwritten traditions outside and beyond Scripture. The very same spirit, which under the veil of traditions has set snares for the Old Testament, tries also in the New Testament to foist on the church under the name of tradition things that cannot be proved by the Scripture, and he employs the same trick so consistently on both sides that it is easy to recognize one and the same author. (p. 69)

. . . now in whole books they do almost nothing but dispute against the Scripture in behalf of the unwritten traditions. Into this fortress also the Council of Trent places all its resources and therefore its very salvation. (p. 71)

. . . their newly-invented traditions against the Scripture. (p. 75)

. . . they are about to fight against the Scripture of the New Testament in behalf of their traditions. (p. 76)

Catholics are Invariably Sophistical, Conniving "Tricksters"

. . . with what trickery the [Tridentine] degrees [should be decrees, I think] were fabricated . . . (p. 30)

. . . examples of the tricks of the papalists. (p. 96)

. . . Tridentine cunning . . . extreme impudence. (p. 97)

The Pope is Antichrist and a God-like Figure

A certain other man, in his prayer criminally distorting the words of the Gospel which befit only the Son of God, applied them to the pope and exclaimed: "The pope came into the world, a light," so that there was no doubt that at the very beginning of the Synod of Trent that was fulfilled which Paul prophesied 2 Thess. 2:3-4, that "the man of sin and the son of perdition, who opposes and exalts himself above all that is called God . . ., sits in the temple of God, proclaiming himself as if he were God." From these beginnings one can judge what progress and outcome may be expected. (p. 34)

Now, I freely confess that I know next to nothing about Jacob Payva de Andrada: Chemnitz's most direct opponent in his treatise, or Pighius, or some other Catholics whom he mentions. Were they all avowed enemies of Scripture? I can't say that I know one way or the other; hence I plead ignorance. But I highly suspect that Chemnitz is presenting a self-serving, cynical picture of the situation, since this was standard practice in 16th century polemics on both sides.

But let's assume for a moment that Chemnitz is right about them. Does this prove that the Catholic Church is hostile to Scripture? Not at all. These men may have had deficient views themselves; they may have not accurately represented the Church's view; they may have suffered from various methodological defects, leading to a wrong impression perceived by their opponents, they may have suffered from a defect characteristic of that particular age, etc. Any number of things may be the case. Do they represent all Catholic thought on the matter (again, assuming for the sake of argument that their strong critic Chemnitz accurately presents their viewpoint)?

No. For example, I submit the work St. Francis de Sales, not too long after this period (1596), from his classic treatise, The Catholic Controversy. The great saint and Doctor of the Church and Catholic apologist devotes some 55 pages to Scripture itself, followed by about 95 in defense of Catholic positions on the Church and Tradition. Did he, too, "hate" Holy Scripture? I am fully content to let readers judge for themselves if they can locate such animus in the following words (version published by TAN Books [Rockford, IL], 1989, translated by Henry Benedict Mackey):
The Christian faith is grounded on the Word of God. This is what places it in the sovereign degree of certainty, as having the warrant of that eternal and infallible truth. Faith which rests on anything else is not Christian. Therefore, the Word of God is the true rule of right-believing, as ground and rule are in this case one and the same thing. (p. 83)

. . . the sole and true rule of right-believing is the Word of God preached by the Church of God. (p. 87)

Holy Scripture is in such sort the rule of the Christian faith that we are obliged by every kind of obligation to believe most exactly all that it contains, and not to believe anything which may be ever so little contrary to it: for if Our Lord himself has sent the Jews to it to strengthen their faith, it must be a safe standard. The Sadducees erred because they did not understand the Scriptures . . . (p. 88)
The great Doctor later writes, in his usual delightful fashion, in defense of Tradition, stating, among many other arguments:
. . . you will see almost all your ministers . . . making mighty harangues to show that human tradition is not to be put in comparison with the Scriptures. But of what use is all this save to beguile the poor hearers? -- for we never said it was [he thus reveals this to be the mere pointless straw man tactic that it is; he then notes the common Protestant recourse to alleged "proof text" for sola Scriptura: 2 Timothy 3:16-17] . . . Whom are they angry with? This is to force a quarrel. Who denies the most excellent profitableness of the Scriptures, except the Huguenots who take away as good for nothing some of its finest pieces? The Scriptures are indeed most useful, and it is no little favour which God has done us to preserve them for us through so many persecutions; but the utility of Scripture does not make holy Traditions useless, any more than the use of one eye, of one leg, of one ear, of one hand, makes the other useless. (pp. 143-144)

And if you closely consider how the Council compares Traditions with the Scriptures you will see that it does not receive a Tradition contrary to Scripture: for it receives Tradition and Scripture with equal honour, because both the one and the other are most sweet and pure streams, which spring from one same mouth of our Lord, as from a living fountain of wisdom, and therefore, cannot be contrary, but are of the same taste and quality; and uniting together happily water this tree of Christianity which shall give its fruit in due season. (p. 145)

If we are to add nothing to what our Lord has commanded, -- where has he commanded that we should condemn Apostolic Traditions? Why do you add this to his words? Where has our Lord ever taught it? . . . Is it not the Holy Scripture of St. Paul which says: "Therefore, brethren, hold fast the Traditions which you have received, whether by word or by our epistle"? (2 Thess. 2:14). "Hence it is evident that the Apostles did not deliver everything by Epistle, but many things also without letters. They are, however, worthy of the same faith, these as much as those," are the words of S. Chrysostom in his commentary on this place. (p. 147)
So Martin Chemnitz or his modern admirers want to confront Catholics with Andrada or Pighius and their alleged low, hostile views of Sacred Scripture? We reply with St. Francis de Sales, a Doctor of the Church; therefore of very high authority as a spokesman for same. And we can also assuredly counter with Trent's own words, once we start discussing that. But picking out a few men and claiming that they speak for the entire Church, or represent the sum total and part and parcel of her teachings (and that is assuming that they suffer from the deficiencies alleged, in the first place), is a ludicrous methodology.

Chemnitz and his more articulate modern disciples of Lutheran confessionalism ought to know that, and hence, concede this point: that Catholics (at least the eminent, devoted ones) love Holy Scripture and regard it as a theological standard and seek to conform their beliefs to it just as much as any Protestant ever has. I'm all for a complete, vigorous discussion of the vexed, frequently misunderstood issue of the relationship of Bible and Tradition, but can we not cease with the stupid personal or sweeping insults and questioning of each others' love for the written Word of God, the Bible? That would be nice, wouldn't it?


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