December 02, 2003

Pearls before swine

Dan Darling of Regnum Crucis, a blog I confess I hadn't seen before, has taken issue with some posts of my own I won't bother to link (he's linked them all if you care to see them) on the Reformation & Islam. His critique starts here, and continues further up. It's lengthy, but there's a few points I should make in reply.

Darling writes, in response to an analogy I suggested in which an imaginary Islamic hierarchy prevented the faithful from reading the Qur'an as analogous to the situation of Christians prior to the translating zeal of the Protestants,

Ideofact here is presenting a false dilemma because he is presupposing that Catholic doctrine (the doctrine now, not the well-documented abuses or clerical corruption that occurred in its name) is both skewed and unbiblical - I don't believe that this is in fact the case or I wouldn't be Catholic. Furthermore, he is inadvertently repeating a piece of 500 year-old propaganda: that the Church sought to keep the Bible from the masses to prevent them from learning how messed up its teachings were. This is both demonstrably false and rather hypocritical given how freely Luther and others deliberately altered the canon of Scripture in order to remove those Deuterocanonicals like 2 Maccabees, Tobit, Sirach, and Wisdom that might otherwise contain "proof texts" for Catholic teachings concerning Purgatory, the saints, ect.

It is not my intention to refight the wars of the Reformation. To begin with, I should state that I'm at best a lapsed Protestant -- I grew up in a rather secular household, and while my religious roots, such as they were, were in something of a Calvinist denomination (and yes, my distant forefathers were in fact "Puritans"), my own views on religion are decidedly eclectic. The charming Camassia wrote of me, "...he has no particular attachment to orthodox Christianity that I can see," which is perhaps only partially true -- I have an attachment that derives more from aesthetics and mere curiosity than from any religious conviction. So I do not mean to cast aspersions on anyone's belief in, say, Purgatory, if only because, were it not for purgatory, we'd be missing, to give one example, a third of Dante's Divine Comedy.

That said, there was a great program of translation undertaken by the opponents of the rather repressive, corrupt and backward Catholic Church, and the Church's response was to insist that Latin was the only proper language for Greek and Hebrew scriptures. Luther, Tyndale, Coverdale and others let the cat out of the bag, and published translations of the Bible; as the Reformation raged, the Catholics held their Council of Trent to craft a response. The Catholic Encyclopedia entry on the Council notes that, during the fourth session, held on April 8, 1546,

...they declare at the same time that in matters of faith and morals the tradition of the Church is, together with the Bible, the standard of supernatural revelation; then taking up the text and the use of the sacred Books they declare the Vulgate to be the authentic text for sermons and disputations, although this did not exclude textual emendations. It was also determined that the Bible should be interpreted according to the unanimous testimony of the Fathers and never misused for superstitious purposes. Nothing was decided in regard to the translation of the Bible in the vernaculars.

It doesn't sound quite like the Catholic hierarchy was especially eager to provide believers with a text of the Bible in a language they could understand, which by and large was my point in the passage Darling critiques. They also argued that Church tradition has equal weight with Scripture, which is a little like equating Hadith with the Qur'an itself (of course, the Christian Bible, even for the most fundamentalist believers, is not regarded by Christians in quite the same way as the Qur'an is by Muslims). Church tradition wasn't precisely in accord with the Scriptures.

I think the implications of the Protestant insistince on the Scriptures, and nothing but the Scriptures, are well described in this commentary from the Asia Times (and thanks to both Meryl Yourish, whom I don't like to bother with links but read daily, and Judith Weiss, who sent Meryl the link):

Modern (as opposed to ancient Greek or Roman) democracy stems from the Protestant motto "solo scriptorum", "only the Bible", by which every man must interpret scripture for himself. To begin with, Protestantism was unimaginable without Jewish theologians (who exposed the incompatibilities of free will and original sin), not to mention Jewish bible translators. In such a world, congregations must elect their church elders (Presbyterians) or even their pastors (Congregationalists), rather than accept church hierarchy. If democracy rules ecclesiastical affairs, why not then secular affairs as well?

I quibble with the idea of Jewish Bible translators -- neither Luther (a clunky translator) nor Tyndale (a gifted one) were Jewish -- but the concept is basically sound: Once the monopoly of interpretation exercised by the Catholic Church was broken, and the faithful themselves were able, in a republican form, to choose their leaders in sacred matters, it was ridiculous for them to defer to aristocrats in secular affairs. Tyndale, by the way, was central in this -- his stated intention was to translate the Bible so that plough boys would know the word of God (he might have added better than the Pope and Bishops). In the Protestant project, there was a faith in the individual -- even humble individuals.

Contrast that with this example, quoted from Benson Bobrick's Wide as the Waters: The Story of the English Bible and the Revolution It Inspired. After noting that English Catholics began their own project to translate the Bible, Bobrick writes

...this represented a break from the past position of the Church. That position had been succinctly stated after the Spanish conquest of Granada in 1492 by Cardinal Ximenes, the great biblical scholar and compiler of the Complutensian Polyglot, who discouraged a fellow bishop from translating Scriptures into Arabic for the instruction of the Moors. "It would be throwing pearls before swine," he said. "For the word of God should be wrapped in discreet mystery from the vulgar, who feel little reverence for what is plain and obvious. It was for this reason that our Saviour himslef clothed his doctrines in parables, when he addressed the people. The Scriptures should be confined to the three ancient languages, which God, with mystic import, permitted to be inscribed over the head of his crucified Son."

Addendum: In a later post in the series, Darling also makes this assertion:

No less statesmen than Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin held what we would likely consider abhorrent and bigoted views towards both the Jesuits and Jews.

First, I think it's rather an odd equation -- Jesuits and Jews -- one can't help being Jewish, but it requires some effort to become a Jesuit. But beyond that, I would be interested to hear these abhorrent views quoted, particularly regarding Jews (there were quite reasonable grounds historically to hold Jesuits in rather low regard).

Posted by Ideofact at December 2, 2003 11:32 PM

Just read your response and enjoyed it, should have my own up a little later this week.

Posted by: Dan Darling at December 3, 2003 03:20 PM

I look forward to it, and I'm sure I'll find it as thought provoking as your previous posts on this subject.

Posted by: Bill at December 3, 2003 04:56 PM