Calvin, Trent, and the Vulgate: Misinterpreting the Fourth SessionJun 13th, 2011 | By Barrett Turner | Category: Blog Posts
*Update* I have made finding my responses to critics easier by linking to them at the end of the post.
When I first began to take interest in theology, and in Reformed theology in particular, during college, I learned the story of how the Catholic Church closed herself off to serious study of the Holy Bible at the Council of Trent (1545-1563). The act in question is the Council’s enshrining the Vulgate, Jerome’s Latin translation of Bible, in its first decree, which was adopted during the fourth session on April 8th, 1546. After listing the exact books of the biblical canon to clarify that the so-called deuterocanonical books were indeed Sacred Scripture, the Tridentine Fathers also identified which version of the Bible the Church would adopt. They declared, “If anyone should not accept as sacred and canonical these entire books and all their parts as they have, by established custom, been read in the catholic church, and as contained in the old Latin Vulgate edition [in veteri vulgata latina editione], and in conscious judgment should reject the aforementioned traditions: let him be anathema.”1
That the Catholic Church did such a thing only confirmed my predilection for the Reformed tradition. The latter seemed more concerned with understanding the Bible rightly in its insistence on the importance of studying both Hebrew and Greek. This desire to understand with precision what the Bible meant was ordered to the further goal of teaching people about Christ. In employing the historico-grammatical methodology of early Humanism to critically determine and interpret the text, the Reformed offered simultaneously both a measure of clarity and realism about what the Scriptures communicate and also a check against foisting human speculation, no matter how pious-sounding, onto the Christian faithful. One needed only to crank the canon of Scripture, which is primarily known to the individual by the immediate testimony of the Holy Spirit rather than through the mediate testimony of the Church,2 through human reason’s ability to grasp the truth as repaired and guided by the same Holy Spirit. The prospect of learning the original languages of Hebrew and Greek also whetted my longing for intellectually challenging ways to help others and also, unfortunately, my prideful desire to appear smart and authoritative to others.3
In contrast, the Catholic Church seemed to me very stupid and ignorant. She was an ostrich thinking it could fly who nevertheless kept plunging her head into the dirt in order to avoid any talk that might upset her fantasies. The abuses in the Church that preceded the Protestant movement indicated, to me and the tradition I was growing to love, a lack of contact with God through special revelation. Instead of turning to the source of renewal, the Word of God, the Catholics inoculated their communion against the cure. Everyone knew that the Vulgate had acquired errors that provided purportedly divine authorization for the Catholic view of justification, Purgatory, the penitential system, the veneration of Mary and the saints, and spurious sacraments such as confirmation and marriage.4 Trent made it the official version in an astounding act of arrogance, locking her faithful up in the prison of ignorance about the Scriptures and thus about Christ. I believed this story as did several of my friends.
When my wife and I began the process of learning more about the Catholic Church, I found that several friends also had concerns about the implications of this story. Having studied Hebrew and Greek for several years, I was worried that my training would be useless in the Church. Perhaps the Church was only holding its nose at the use of the original languages. Would we not be joining a group that had rejected Scripture, if not in name, then in method by arrogantly raising up a Latin translation over the very sources of that translation? The Vulgate’s status as the “authentic version” of the Catholic Church revealed that the recent renaissance of Catholic biblical scholarship was something borrowed from genuine Protestantism, picking up some elements of liberal Protestantism as well. Many of the books I used to learn Hebrew and Greek grammar in fact were written by Catholics and published by the Vatican.5 Yet I thought I could say that they were really “one of us Calvinists” because it seemed that they were inconsistently studying the original languages and not following their Church’s discipline regarding the Vulgate.
The problem is that this story is a myth. It is a myth like the myth that the Catholic Church officially opposed the translation of Sacred Scripture into other vernacular languages in itself. When I was seeking Protestant sources and arguments to keep me from converting to Catholicism, I found that this misinterpretation came down to me from the very pen of John Calvin.6 In reading Calvin’s Antidote (1547) to the Council of Trent, I found him accusing the Council of exalting the Latin Vulgate with the intention of shutting the mouth of the true reformers such as himself. So the Frenchman writes:
But as the Hebrew or Greek original often serves to expose their ignorance in quoting Scripture, to check their presumption, and so keep down their thrasonic boasting, they ingeniously meet this difficulty also by determining that the Vulgate translation only is to be held authentic. Farewell, then, to those who have spent much time and labor in the study of languages, that they might search for the genuine sense of Scripture at the fountainhead! […]
In condemning all translations except the Vulgate, as the error is more gross, so the edict is more barbarous. The sacred oracles of God were delivered by Moses and the Prophets in Hebrew, and by the Apostles in Greek. That no corner of the world might be left destitute of so great a treasure, the gift of interpretation was added. It came to pass–I know not by what means, but certainly neither by judgment nor right selection–that of the different versions, one became the favorite of the unlearned, or those at least who, not possessing any knowledge of languages, desired some kind of help to their ignorance. Those, on the other hand, who are acquainted with the languages perceive that this version teems with innumerable errors; and this they make manifest by the clearest evidence. On the other hand, the Fathers of Trent contend, that although the learned thus draw the pure liquor from the very fountain, and convict the infallible Vulgate of falsehood, they are not to be listened to. No man possessed of common sense ever presumed to deprive the Church of God of the benefit of learning. The ancients, though unacquainted with the languages, especially Hebrew, always candidly acknowledge that nothing is better than to consult the original, in order to obtain the true and genuine meaning. I will go no further. There is no man of ordinary talent who, on comparing the Vulgate version with some others, does not easily see that many things which were improperly rendered by it are in these happily restored. The Council, however, insists that we shall shut our eyes against the light that we may spontaneously go astray.
Who could have imagined they would be so senseless as thus boldly to despise the judgments of good men, and hesitate not to make themselves odious and detestable to all? Those who were aware that they had nothing useful in view, were yet persuaded that they would make some show of it to the world, and assign to some of their sworn adherents the task of executing a new version. In this instance, however, they use no deceit. They not only order us to be contented with a most defective translation, but insist on our worshipping it, just as if it had come down from heaven; and while the blemishes are conspicuous to all, they prohibit us from desiring any improvement. Behold the men on whose judgment the renovation of the Church depends!7
For Calvin, the Tridentine decree is a sure sign of the Catholic Church’s ignorance, imprudence, insecurity, and malice. According to Calvin, Trent swept away the need for studying Greek and Hebrew in marking the Vulgate as the authentic text of the Church. Yet Calvin has read more into the decree than the decree says. Calvin, a man with a great talent for sober and elegant writing and interpretation, here gave way to impassioned “eisegesis” of what Trent really said. Trent nowhere forbids the use of the original languages, as if St. Jerome had not used them to revise the Old Latin texts or make his own translations. One may add here that certain Reformers were perhaps overly optimistic about their Hebrew text or even about the manuscripts of the New Testament which they currently had in their possession. Modern biblical scholarship, especially after the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, has deemed various Greek translations of the Old Testament to more accurately preserve the Hebrew Vorlage than the Masoretic text in some books. Further, the New Testament text used by early Protestant translators as the basis for the Geneva and the King James Bibles, the so-called textus receptus, no longer has priority in critical editions of the New Testament, such as Nestle-Aland’s Novum Testamentum Graece. Modern vernacular Bibles therefore no longer use the textus receptus as their base text. What a benefit it is to the Church to have the faith passed down both by a written mode and by the mode of Tradition, such that the faith does not depend on the vicissitudes of textual discovery! The manuscript discoveries misused by the Reformers in articulating their principle of sola scriptura do not give God’s people the faith. Rather, the valid critical study of manuscripts supports the faith but does not establish it.
The truth was surprising for me, someone who had come to share in this misinterpretation of the fourth session of Trent. The Catholic Church made the Vulgate the official version of the Church without prejudice to Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek manuscripts. The Reformers were not the only problem on the Council’s agenda but were merely one symptom of an underlying need for reform. Trent set out to reform the Church, and all its decisions against Protestant formulations or preferences must be kept within that context. If one were to make Trent a narrow reaction against Lutherans, Calvinists, and Anabaptists, one would fail to appreciate the intent of the Fathers of the council and their enduring success in reorganizing and focusing the Catholic reform, which had started before Luther ever thought to instigate a revolt against the Church. Trent was concerned with strengthening the Church through clerical and liturgical reform in addition to clarifying the doctrine of the faith over against Protestant errors.
I learned that I had accepted a myth only after I did two important things toward learning what the Catholic Church actually teaches: 1) I talked to a faithful Catholic priest and 2) I read Trent and some other Catholic sources with an ear that was at least open to being corrected. One does not want to look in the mirror and see an ostrich, after all.
I had met my priest at a conference on economics and Christian social teaching. He was of Latin American provenance and had a wonderful combination of pastoral zeal and theological vigor. I asked him about the decree of Trent on the Vulgate. He told me that the decree was above all aimed at standardizing the Latin text of the Bible for the Church, especially the Latin Rite. The problem was not the use of Greek and Hebrew by the Reformers, as embarrassing as that was for some Catholic polemical authors. After all, scholars who remained within the Catholic Church had begun to use the original languages before Protestants started openly defying the Church’s leadership and traditions. One need look no further than the Complutensian Polyglot (1516), completed in Alcala, Spain, under Cardinal Ximenes, who dedicated the work to Pope Leo X,8 or the Greek edition of the New Testament edited by Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536). Such scholars desired to see greater familiarity with Sacred Scripture and were no less ardent in calling for the reform of abuses than were Protestants. For example, Cardinal Ximenes wrote that one reason for printing the Complutensian Polyglot is the following.
[W]herever there is diversity in the Latin manuscripts or the suspicion of a corrupted reading (we know how frequently this occurs because of the ignorance and negligence of copyists), it is necessary to go back to the original source of Scripture, as St. Jerome and St. Augustine and other ecclesiastical writers advise us to do […] And so that every student of Holy Scripture might have at hand the original texts themselves and be able to quench his thirst at the very fountainhead of the water that flows unto life everlasting and not have to content himself with rivulets alone, we ordered the original languages of Holy Scripture with their translations adjoined to be printed and dedicated to your Holiness.9
One might have expected such Humanistic words from the pen of John Calvin, aside from addressing Leo X as “your Holiness” or calling Jerome and Augustine saints. Later in the preface the Cardinal defends the usefulness of an accurate understanding of the literal sense as the foundation for spiritual exegesis, which is a point of departure with Calvin due to the latter’s rejection of spiritual exegesis.10 The spiritual sense of Scripture contains that of which “the realities and events” of the literal sense are signs. This sense emerges from the unity of God’s redemptive plan for mankind as revealed in the writings of which he is the primary author.11 Recently, Pope Benedict XVI expressed himself in similar terms to Cardinal Ximenes and St. Jerome, writing:
Throughout the history of the Church, numerous saints have spoken of the need for knowledge of Scripture in order to grow in love for Christ. This is evident particularly in the Fathers of the Church. Saint Jerome, in his great love for the word of God, often wondered: “How could one live without the knowledge of Scripture, by which we come to know Christ himself, who is the life of believers?”. He knew well that the Bible is the means “by which God speaks daily to believers”. […] Let us follow the example of this great saint who devoted his life to the study of the Bible and who gave the Church its Latin translation, the Vulgate, as well as the example of all those saints who made an encounter with Christ the center of their spiritual lives. Let us renew our efforts to understand deeply the word which God has given to his Church: thus we can aim for that “high standard of ordinary Christian living” proposed by Pope John Paul II at the beginning of the third Christian millennium, which finds constant nourishment in attentively hearing the word of God.12
The Holy Father here reaffirms the need to know Sacred Scripture in order to know Christ, an essentially Catholic idea.
Neither the Cardinal nor Erasmus confused the agenda of reform with the rejection of essential elements of the faith. They thus remained in the Church while many around them were beginning to entertain Protestant positions, to despair, or to leave.13 To see that Catholic biblical scholarship did not cease with the hardening of the Protestant schism but that it could attain linguistic and theological heights on the other side of Trent, one need only read the work of Cornelius à Lapide (1567-1637), the great Jesuit commentator, priest, and professor of Hebrew.
In this way, the Catholic priest I met at the conference prepared me to see that the first decree of Trent’s fourth session was clarified by the second decree. The second decree shows that the primary intention of Trent was to identify one standard Latin edition of the Bible for the Latin-speaking Church to use in the liturgy and in scholastic disputation. The reluctance of the Council to ban translations of the Bible into vernacular languages opened the door for translations such as the Reims New Testament (1582) and the entire Douai-Reims Bible (1609-1610). More to the point, in the second decree of its fourth session, the Council, which otherwise had no difficulty signaling an intention to correct Protestant errors in its other decrees and canons, explained the promotion of the Vulgate in the following way.
Moreover, the same holy council considers that noticeable benefit can accrue to the church of God if, from all the Latin editions of the sacred books which are in circulation, it establishes which is to be regarded as authentic. It decides and declares that the old well known Latin Vulgate edition [ipsa vetus et vulgata editio] which has been tested in the church by long use over so many centuries should be kept as the authentic text in public readings, debates, sermons and explanations; and no one is to dare or presume on any pretext to reject it. […T]he council decrees and determines that hereafter the sacred scriptures, particularly in this ancient Vulgate edition, shall be printed after a thorough revision […]14
We should see three things in this decree. First, we see that the primary intention of the council was to standardize the Latin text of the Church. Remember that the context of Trent is overall reform, not merely smashing Protestantism. In this light, we see a Council eager to correct the problem of the multiplication of Latin translations and editions in Medieval Europe. The proliferation was caused by the sloppy transmission of the Latin manuscripts of Sacred Scripture as well as isolated attempts by scholars and bishops to revise the Latin texts they received, whether of the Old Latin, Jerome’s Vulgate, or some eclectic amalgamation.15
Second, the council approved the Latin because Latin was the common language of the educated classes, both ecclesiastical and lay, in Europe for centuries. It was thus the “common” [vulgatus] language of the Western Church. This is the reason why St. Jerome’s translation was initially called the Vulgate, because it was in the “vulgar” tongue, much like koine Greek was the “common” or “vulgar” language of the Mediterranean world at the time of the Gospel. Due to the Church’s use of the Vulgate over the centuries in liturgy, theology, and devotion, she was eager to preserve that translation tradition. She did not want to dump the Latin altogether while she was open to using the original languages to maintain continuity with the past. Most Protestant theologians did not do away with Latin either but continued to write their theological treatises in that language for centuries, presumably for the same reasons of a common language allowing for communication both across national or ethnic lines and for keeping touch with the Latin Fathers of the Church.
Third, the council provides a way to achieve this reform in decreeing that a “thorough revision” of the Latin Bible is to be made. The council does not deny what everyone already knew, namely, that the text of the Vulgate had been corrupted in places by transmission errors. Enshrining the Vulgate as the “authentic” edition does not mean that the Vulgate cannot be revised in light of the best Latin manuscripts or that one may never correct the Latin text using the Hebrew or Greek manuscript traditions. In this openness to humanistic textual criticism, the Tridentine Fathers order that the Vulgate be corrected after the Council such that one version attaining as closely as possible to Jerome’s original translation would find universal use. The employment of Greek and Hebrew to correct the Latin was not forbidden in any way. The revision of the Vulgate was completed under popes Sixtus V and Clement the VIII and published in 1598. The Church has again endorsed a revision of the Vulgate as the authentic version for the Latin rite in liturgical and theological use. The letter in which John Paul the Great promulgated this Nova Vulgata (“New Vulgate”) edition in 1979 can be found here. The history of these revisions are interesting but too complicated to rehearse here.16
The Magisterium of the Catholic Church has understood the Tridentine reform in precisely this way. Pius XII explained in his famous encyclical on Sacred Scripture and biblical studies, Divino afflante Spiritu (1943), that:
And if the Tridentine Synod wished “that all should use as authentic” the Vulgate Latin version, this, as all know, applies only to the Latin Church17 and to the public use of the same Scriptures; nor does it, doubtless, in any way diminish the authority and value of the original texts. For there was no question then of these texts, but of the Latin versions, which were in circulation at that time, and of these the same Council rightly declared to be preferable that which “had been approved by its long-continued use for so many centuries in the Church.” Hence this special authority or as they say, authenticity of the Vulgate was not affirmed by the Council particularly for critical reasons, but rather because of its legitimate use in the Churches throughout so many centuries; by which use indeed the same is shown, in the sense in which the Church has understood and understands it, to be free from any error whatsoever in matters of faith and morals; so that, as the Church herself testifies and affirms, it may be quoted safely and without fear of error in disputations, in lectures and in preaching; and so its authenticity is not specified primarily as critical, but rather as juridical.18
Pius is therefore teaching that the Vulgate was established as the authentic version of the Church because it is the Latin Church’s family heirloom, the text which when read puts one not only into contact with Christ but also with all the Latin-speaking theologians and spiritual writers of the Church’s theological tradition. Yet Pius does not hold that the absence of dogmatic and moral errors disallows the study of Hebrew and Greek or the direct translations of vernacular Bibles from the original languages.19 He writes,
Wherefore this authority of the Vulgate in matters of doctrine by no means prevents – nay rather today it almost demands – either the corroboration and confirmation of this same doctrine by the original texts or the having recourse on any and every occasion to the aid of these same texts, by which the correct meaning of the Sacred Letters is everywhere daily made more clear and evident. Nor is it forbidden by the decree of the Council of Trent to make translations into the vulgar tongue, even directly from the original texts themselves, for the use and benefit of the faithful and for the better understanding of the divine word, as We know to have been already done in a laudable manner in many countries with the approval of the Ecclesiastical authority.20
The myth of what Trent really did persists among many Protestants, as other myths about Protestants persist among Catholics. In this little post, I hope that I have done enough to show that the Church was not opposed to the use of the Greek and Hebrew languages in the fourth session of Trent, contrary to Calvin’s misinterpretation. The more myths of this nature are dispelled, the closer Protestants and Catholics come to reconciliation and to the healing of long-held suspicions.
Almighty God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the Word and the Revelation of your Love, we ask that you bring all into the full unity of the Church in order that we may tell of your mighty works, recorded for us in the Sacred Scriptures. Teach us your truth, that we may all attain eternal life. You sent the Holy Spirit upon the Church at Pentecost to empower her as she reads, contemplates, and teaches the Sacred Scriptures. Confirm us in this sure knowledge of salvation, for your glory and our good. Amen.
St. Jerome, pray for us!
*Update* I have responded to criticisms of this post in some lengthy replies in comment 38, comment 39, and comment 40 below. Among my ripostes are some relevant translations of St. Robert Bellarmine not found in English elsewhere.
- Translation taken from Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, ed. Norman Tanner, SJ, 2 vol. (Georgetown University Press, 1990), 2:664. [↩]
- E.g., WCF I.v. [↩]
- Later, I began to see the limitations of relying solely on the historico-critical method without also submitting to the Church’s reception of the canon of Scripture. I had relied on Sacred Tradition without knowing it in assuming the Protestant canon at the beginning of my criticism. I could not acknowledge this dependence without conceding the importance of Tradition, and so had to ultimately assert the canon on faith. This does not discount having good historical reasons for preferring the four Gospels and much of the Pauline corpus, but many have come to doubt the authenticity of certain Pauline writings. There was also plenty of debate about other books in the formation of the New Testament. I cannot here even begin to broach the problem of the Old Testament canon for Protestantism. For more on the deficiencies of the Reformed approach to determining the canon, see Tom Brown’s excellent article, The Canon Question. For the Reformed then, humanistic and critical study of Scripture can only happen after a fideistic determination of which books constitute the canon. So-called liberal Protestants have simply taken the critical method and set it over against the fideistic element. [↩]
- Jaroslav Pelikan, Reformation of Church and Dogma (1300-1700), vol. 4 of The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine (University of Chicago Press: 1984), 306-310. Cf. John Calvin, Antidote, in Tracts and Treatises in Defense of the Reformed Faith, trans. Henry Beveridge, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1958), 68-69. [↩]
- E.g., Paul Joüon & T. Muraoka, A Grammar of Biblical Hebrew, 2nd ed. (Rome: Editrice Pontificio Istituto Biblico, 2006); Maximilian Zerwick, SJ, Biblical Greek, 4th ed. adapted by Joseph Smith, SJ (Rome: Editrice Pontificio Istituto Biblico, 2009); ibid., A Grammatical Analysis of the Greek New Testament (Rome: Editrice Pontificio Istituto Biblico, 1996). [↩]
- Apparently Philip Melanchthon also misinterpreted Trent in the same way, but I have not found the source for this assertion. [↩]
- John Calvin, Tracts and Treatises in Defense of the Reformed Faith, trans. Henry Beveridge, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1958), 68, 71-72. One should note that I do not intend to take up Calvin’s other complaints against the Council, for example, his protest against the Council reserving the right of arbitrating competing interpretations of unclear passages. Notice also that Calvin arrogates to himself the “gift of interpretation” and thus presents himself as a competing Magisterium. Scholars such as Bruce Gordon have shown how Calvin saw himself as a prophet of God, called to reform the Church by his authority and scholarship. The problem for Calvin is not the need for a final ecclesiastical court of interpretation. The problem is that Trent did not recognize Calvin, and the learned divines whom Calvin recognized, as that court. Calvinists are just as committed as Catholics to retaining an interpretive class constituted by official pastors. For our purposes here we need only see that Calvin has misinterpreted the fourth session of Trent. One might also see how Calvin is perpetually dependent on having accurate manuscripts for his knowledge of the deposit of faith, as if he were not also dependent on Sacred Tradition. [↩]
- The cardinal’s preface to the Polyglot is worth reading. A translation can be found in John C. Olin, Catholic Reform: From Cardinal Ximenes to the Council of Trent, 1495-1563. An Essay with Illustrative Documents and a Brief Study of St. Ignatius Loyola (Fordham University Press, 1990), 61-64. [↩]
- Ibid., 62-63. [↩]
- Preceding Ximenes by two and half centuries, St. Thomas Aquinas also insisted that spiritual exegesis proceed from a firm foundation in the literal sense. Cf. Summa theologiae I, q. 1, a. 10 ad 1. [↩]
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, §§ 115-117. [↩]
- Verbum Domini, § 72. [↩]
- Cardinal Ximenes died in 1517, just as the Protestant movement was beginning, so it may be unfair to say what he would have done. Given the Cardinal’s loyalty to the Church and that the biblical scholarship which he oversaw had confirmed his confidence in the Church’s teaching, one doubts that he would have become a Protestant. [↩]
- Trans. from Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, 2:664. [↩]
- For more information, see The New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2nd ed., s.v. “Vulgate.” [↩]
- Again, I refer readers to The New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2nd ed., s.v. “Vulgate.” [↩]
- I assume the Holy Father means in distinction from the Eastern Catholic Churches. [↩]
- DAS, § 21. [↩]
- A reader might wonder how the Church could determine whether the text lacked errors pertaining to faith and morals. The Church determined this in the same way that she partially confirmed that she was receiving the correct books from God in the canon: by comparing the contents of those books to that which had been received by the other mode of revelation’s transmission, namely, Sacred Tradition. In this way, Tradition and Scripture purify and clarify each other’s transmission of the deposit of faith. The Vulgate, even with the scribal errors, said nothing which contradicted the faith. It was an adequate translation of Scripture even if its reading of this or that verse needed updating. This is a great benefit of the Catholic teaching concerning the unity of Scripture and Tradition, such that even if one part of Scripture is unclear due to manuscript variants, we will not lose anything essential to the Faith because of the transmission of the same Faith through Tradition. [↩]
- DAS, §22. [↩]