The Vatican Files N. 4: A Reply to Ref21’s Leonardo De Chirico

Jul 20th, 2011 | By | Category: Blog Posts

Leonardo De Chirico

Leonardo De Chirico is a Protestant lecturer in theology at IFED (Istituto di Formazione Evangelica e Documentazione) in Padova, Italy. He edits the theological journal Studi di teologia. He also worked in Italy for twelve years as a Reformed Baptist church planter. Over the past few months De Chirico has posted a series of articles called “The Vatican Files” on the well-known Reformed website Reformation21.org, interacting with twenty-first century Catholicism. Much of the content of these articles is explanatory, and I agree with a good deal of what he says. Here I focus on only a few of his criticisms of Catholic teaching, in his most recent article in the series.

In his most recent article, “The Vatican Files N.4,” De Chirico writes about Pope Benedict’s 2010 Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini. (All paragraph numbers from Verbum Domini are from this pdf document.)

De Chirico writes:

In this respect, Benedict XVI writes: “The Church lives in the certainty that her Lord, who spoke in the past, continues today to communicate his word in her living Tradition and in sacred Scripture. Indeed, the word of God given to us in sacred Scripture as an inspired testimony to revelation, together with the Church’s living Tradition, it constitutes the supreme rule of faith” (18). The Bible is upheld, but the Bible is always accompanied and surmounted by the wider, deeper, living tradition of the Church which is the present-day form of the Word. Amongst other things, this means that the Bible is not sufficient in itself to give access to the Word and is not the final norm for faith and practice. The Bible needs to be supplemented by the Catechism of the Catholic Church which is “a significant expression of the living Tradition of the Church and a sure norm for teaching the faith” (74).

De Chirico seems to think that according to the Catholic Church, the “living tradition” [rather than sacred Scripture] is “the present-day form” of the word of God. It is possible that I have misunderstood him here. But from the Catholic point of view, the present-day form of the word of God given to us through Christ is what it has been since the first century, namely, the word both preached and written, within the Church. In other words, the Catholic understanding is not that sacred Scripture was for the Church of some time past, whereas in the present-day we receive the word through “living tradition.” Rather, the Catholic understanding is that in the present day we receive the word of God as contained both in sacred Scripture and in the living tradition of the Church. The word of God revealed by Christ was first received by the early Christians as preached, and only later as preached and written. Sacred Scripture remains part of the “present-day form” of the word of God, but the full present-day form of the word of God is still contained in both Scripture and Tradition, preserved and handed down by the Church as the divinely appointed steward to which this word was entrusted.

A bit later in the article De Chirico writes:

According to VD [Verbum Domini], Scripture must never be read on one’s own. Reading must be always an “ecclesial experience”, i.e. something done in communion with the Church. The issue at stake is not only methodological, as if private readings were to be replaced by study groups at a parish level presided over by a priest, but also hermeneutical. “An authentic interpretation of the Bible must always be in harmony with the faith of the Catholic Church” (30). Reading the Bible needs to be an exercise done in accordance with the institutional church, both in its forms and outcomes. Apparently, there is much wisdom in these statements, especially considering the real risks of fancy, individualistic, awkward interpretations by isolated readers of the Bible.

De Chirico refers to the notion that “Scripture must never be read on one’s own.” There he is drawing from paragraph 30 of Verbum Domini, which reads:

Saint Jerome recalls that we can never read Scripture simply on our own. We come up against too many closed doors and we slip too easily into error. The Bible was written by the People of God for the People of God, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Only in this communion with the People of God can we truly enter as a “we” into the heart of the truth that God himself wishes to convey to us. Jerome, for whom “ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ”, states that the ecclesial dimension of biblical interpretation is not a requirement imposed from without: the Book is the very voice of the pilgrim People of God, and only within the faith of this People are we, so to speak, attuned to understand sacred Scripture. An authentic interpretation of the Bible must always be in harmony with the faith of the Catholic Church. He thus wrote to a priest: “Remain firmly attached to the traditional doctrine that you have been taught, so that you may exhort according to sound doctrine and confound those who contradict it”. (Verbum Domini, 30)

The notion that Scripture “must never be read on one’s own” is not forbidding private study or private meditation on Scripture, as though Scripture can rightly be read only in the physical or liturgical company of other Catholics. The idea is that even when we read the Bible in the privacy of our own home or in the solitude of a desert retreat, we should read it as informed by the Tradition handed down in the Church, so that we read it and meditate on it with the mind of Christ as it as been more deeply revealed in His Church by the Holy Spirit through the living Tradition. Otherwise, it would be very easy to misinterpret Scripture, and fall into heretical error.

De Chirico then writes:

Yet, there is something missing here. For a Church that has forbidden for centuries the reading of the Bible in vernacular languages, it is at least unfortunate that not a single word of repentance is offered. For a Church that has prevented the people from having access to the Bible until fifty years ago, it is at least puzzling that not a single word is spent to underline the Church’s need for self-correction and vigilance.

De Chirico expects an apology for something that did not happen. See chapter 11 of Henry Graham’s Where We Got the Bible: Our Debt to the Catholic Church.

De Chirico continues:

Moreover, if reading the Bible must always be done under the rule of the institution, what happens if the institution itself is caught in error, heresy or apostasy? How does the Spirit correct a sinful church if not by the biblical Word? In the history of the Church, the teaching of the Bible had to sometimes be played against the institutional church and against its consensus. Only a self-proclaimed indefectible Church can ask total submission to “the watchful eye of the sacred magisterium” (45) without having a final, ultimate bar. Here at stake is the question: Who has the final word? The Bible or the RC Church? Since the Church is “the home of the word” (52), VD responds: the latter!

The first thing to say is that De Chirico’s criticism of the Catholic doctrine concerning interpreting Scripture in the Church presupposes the Protestant theological paradigm. It presupposes some form of ecclesial deism according to which the Church could formally fall into false doctrine, and need correction from some prophetic person’s re-discovery of the right interpretation of Scripture. But if the Church is indefectible, then this criticism begs the question, i.e. presupposes precisely what is in question between Catholics and Protestants. If the Church could define as dogmas what are actually heresies, and it belonged to each individual interpreter to judge for himself between the orthodox dogmas and the heretical dogmas, there would be no reason to submit to the Catholic Magisterium, because in that case each individual interpreter of Scripture would have more interpretive authority than does the Magisterium. There is no point in criticizing one paradigm by way of some presupposition intrinsic to (and specific to) another paradigm. To do so is equivalent to asserting the truth of one’s own paradigm. To compare paradigms, one must use criteria common to both paradigms, viewing the available evidence from the perspectives of both paradigms.

The second thing to say is that De Chirico’s criticism here raises a dilemma for Protestantism. On the one hand, Protestants like Keith Mathison claim that Scripture should be interpreted according to the tradition which provides the rule of faith. (See “Keith Mathison’s Reply.”) But on the other hand, Protestants like De Chirico claim that Scripture must be allowed to correct tradition and the Church. On the one hand, if the elements of tradition are to be accepted or rejected according to their agreement or disagreement with the individual’s interpretation of Scripture, then tradition cannot function as that normative interpretive context through which Scripture is to be rightly interpreted, because that would reduce ‘tradition’ to whatever conforms to the individual’s interpretation of Scripture.1 But on the other hand, if the elements of tradition have normative authority and provide the necessary interpretive context in which and according to which Scripture is to be interpreted rightly, then the elements of tradition are not subject to acceptance or rejection by each individual interpreter of Scripture. Either tradition and the Church are authoritative, in which case they ought to govern the individual’s determination of which interpretations of Scripture are orthodox and which are heretical, or, if individuals have the authority to judge tradition and the Church according to the standard of their own interpretation of Scripture, then tradition and the Church are not authoritative, and Protestantism’s sola scriptura reduces to solo scriptura, for reasons Neal and I explained in “Solo Scriptura, Sola Scriptura, and the Question of Interpretive Authority.”

Next, De Chirico writes:

Fourthly and finally, the liturgical context of a proper approach to Scripture. Reading the Bible as an ecclesial experience means that it needs to occur in a liturgical context set forth by the RC Church. “The privileged place for the prayerful reading of sacred Scripture is the liturgy, and particularly the Eucharist, in which, as we celebrate the Body and Blood of Christ in the sacrament, the word itself is present and at work in our midst” (86). The hearing of God’s Word is fruitful when certain conditions are present: the administration of the Eucharist (54) and other sacraments (61), the Liturgy of the Hours (62), the practice of gaining indulgences (87), and recital of the Holy Rosary (88). According to VD, the Bible can never be alone, but must always be surrounded by ecclesiastical paraphernalia which inform, direct and govern Biblical reading and interpretation. In so doing, the Bible is never free to guide the Church, but always conditioned by some extra-biblical practices of the Church.

When Protestants are confronted with the problems of biblicism and “solo scriptura,” they tend to respond like Keith Mathison does by appealing to the authority of tradition and the Church. (See “Solo Scriptura, Sola Scriptura, and the Question of Interpretive Authority.” See also Scot McKnight’s discussion of Christian Smith’s recent book The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism is not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture, [Brazos Press, 2011].) But at the same time, when confronted with the authority of tradition and the Church, they respond like De Chirico does here by claiming that such authority prevents the Bible from being “free” to guide the Church or correct tradition. And this shows that Protestantism is trying to stand in an impossible middle position. It wants the primacy of the authority of the individual’s interpretation of Scripture so that individuals may correct both tradition and the Church according to the standard of their own interpretation of Scripture. At the same time, it wants to avoid the individualistic and fragmentary implications of biblicism and solo scriptura, and submit to the authority of the Church and tradition. The problem, however, is that these two positions are logically incompatible, and so Protestantism cannot have it both ways. As Protestants realize this, they either move toward the individualism of emergentism and do-it-yourself-religion, or they turn toward “paleo-orthodoxy” and become Catholic or Orthodox.

In his closing paragraph, De Chirico writes:

The papal pronouncement encourages the reading of the Bible and this is good news. The fundamental question remains: Whose word is the Verbum Domini? The Bible’s and/or the Church’s?

From a Catholic point of view, there is no either/or, but a both/and. If, as Verbum Domini teaches, Scripture is rightly understood only within the divinely established community to whom it was entrusted, then the word of God is located both in Scripture and in the Church, not as two separate sources of the word of God, but as two principles that function together, along with sacred Tradition, that we may hear and rightly understand God’s word. For this reason, the Catechism teaches:

“It is clear therefore that, in the supremely wise arrangement of God, sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture and the Magisterium of the Church are so connected and associated that one of them cannot stand without the others. Working together, each in its own way, under the action of the one Holy Spirit, they all contribute effectively to the salvation of souls. (CCC 95)

According to the Catholic paradigm, Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium are like a three-legged stool; none functions rightly without the others. By contrast, the “or” in De Chirico’s “and/or” question refers to a paradigm in which Scripture and the Church function independently, not as one. Only if Scripture functions rightly independently of the Church can the individual justifiably appeal to his own interpretation of Scripture to judge the Church and the tradition. Only if Scripture functions rightly independently of the Church does a question like “The Bible’s or the Church’s?” make sense. These two paradigms explain the two conceptions of the act of faith, as described by the late Fr. Neuhaus in an article titled “That They May Be One:”

[T]here are two kinds of Christians: those whom I would call ecclesiological Christians, and those for whom being a Christian is primarily, if not exclusively, a matter of individual decision. There are those for whom the act of faith in Christ and the act of faith in the Church is one act of faith. And those for whom the act of faith in Christ is the act of faith, and the act of faith in the Church, if there is one, is secondary, or tertiary, or somewhere down the line.

  1. Update: On this point see “Sola Scriptura Redux: Matthew Barrett, Tradition, and Authority.” []
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3 comments
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  1. I love the last quote by Fr. Neuhaus as it goes straight to the heart of the Catholic/Protestant divide. How closely is the Church related to Christ? Is the Church His body, and what does that mean – exactly? How one answers such questions determines what one means, and what one is actually doing, when placing their “faith in Christ”.

    Pax Christi,

    Ray

  2. […] The Vatican Files N. 4: A Reply to Ref21′s Leonardo De Chirico – Bryan Cross, C. T. C. […]

  3. When Protestants are confronted with the problems of biblicism and “solo scriptura,” they tend to respond like Keith Mathison does by appealing to the authority of tradition and the Church. … But at the same time, when confronted with the authority of tradition and the Church, they respond like Leonardo does here by claiming that such authority prevents the Bible from being “free” to guide the Church or correct tradition. And this shows that Protestantism is trying to stand in an impossible middle position. It wants the primacy of the authority of the individual’s interpretation of Scripture so that individuals may correct both tradition and the Church according to the standard of their own interpretation of Scripture. At the same time, it wants to avoid the individualistic and fragmentary implications of biblicism and solo scriptura, and submit to the authority of the Church and tradition. The problem, however, is that these two positions are logically incompatible, and so Protestantism cannot have it both ways. As Protestants realize this, they either move toward the individualism of emergentism and do-it-yourself-religion, or they turn toward “paleo-orthodoxy” and become Catholic or Orthodox.

    Either do-it-yourself-religion or paleo-orthodoxy … :-)
    Sign me up for paleo- orthodoxy, please!

    I believe the logical end of sola scriptura is do-it-yourself-religion, and it is impossible for me see the do-it-yourself paradigm in scriptures. A friend once told me about a conversation that she had with two fourteen-year-old Protestant girls . These two girls told my friend that they believed that their church was too lax in its acceptance of divorce, and that when the got old enough, that they were going to start their own church where they would bring back stoning to death as punishment for adultery. My first thought was this, if it is “biblical” to found your own personal church, why should these fourteen- year-old girls have to wait until they are “old enough” to found their own church? Just how old does a girl have to be before she can found her own Protestant denomination? How old was Aimee Semple McPherson when she founded her own Protestant denomination?

    See also Scot McKnight’s discussion of Christian Smith’s recent book The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism is not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture,

    Steven A. Hunt, from Gordon College makes this comment in his review Christian Smith’s book:

    While affirming Scripture’s inspiration and authority, Smith says out loud what any number of protestant readers of Scripture have been wondering about and puzzling over for a long time: if Scripture is so clear, so sufficient, etc., then why are protestants so incredibly fragmented, so increasingly unconcerned with their lack of real unity on important theological issues? And his description of our substantive disunity here is overwhelming. …. Smith’s charitable, well-argued, carefully researched book challenges readers of Scripture finally to admit that there is a difference between the truth of Scripture and their opinions about it.

    There is indeed a difference between the truth of Scripture and Calvin’s opinion, or Aimee Semple McPherson’s opinion, or my opinion, of the truthfulness of a particular interpretation of scriptures.

    All appeals to Scripture are appeals to interpretations of Scripture. The only real question is: whose interpretation? – Keith Mathison, as quoted in the CTC article “Solo Scriptura, Sola Scriptura, and the Question of Interpretive Authority

    … Protestantism is trying to stand in an impossible middle position. It wants the primacy of the authority of the individual’s interpretation of Scripture so that individuals may correct both tradition and the Church according to the standard of their own interpretation of Scripture. At the same time, it wants to avoid the individualistic and fragmentary implications of biblicism and solo scriptura, and submit to the authority of the Church and tradition.

    Sola sciptura is not a doctrine that is fundamentally about the inspiration and inerrancy of scriptures. Sola scriptura is fundamentally about primacy – when it comes to accepting an interpretation of scriptures, does primacy ultimately reside with the individual, or with the church? If it is the church, then it has to be the church that Christ founded, and not a church founded by a man or a woman, otherwise, we are right back to do-it-yourself-religion based on the private interpretation of scriptures.