The fellas over at Called to Communion (C2C) are behaving like young boys with a new bike. And that new “bike” is what they describe as their “Interpretive Paradigm” (hereafter, IP). Just as a shiny new bike makes a young lad feel superior to his friends – at least until the first scratch or dent – so the C2C crowd seems to feel around their new IP. But the funny thing – it’s really not funny – is that this new IP actually contradicts the history of the Roman Catholic Church. And in so doing puts C2C in a precarious position vis-à-vis their intention of shoring up belief in the Roman Communion.
What I will attempt here is to define this novel, new IP as described by C2C. Then, in keeping with the theme of Reformation 500, I will apply this IP specifically to the Roman Catholic Church at the time of the Reformation. What we will find is that not only did this IP not apply to Roman Catholics at that time, but the very subject matter intended to be scrutinized by the IP was systematically eradicated by Rome thereby making the IP worthless. In other words, at the time of the Reformation the C2C paradigm would have had nothing to interpret. We will also find that the IP used by the Roman Church in Italy was very different than that used by Roman Catholics in other parts of Europe which negates the very nature of the paradigm.
As nearly as I can tell, the C2C IP was born out of an analysis that Bryan Cross did with Neal Judisch on Keith Mathison’s book, “ The Shape of Sola Scriptura”. You can read the whole thing here. I believe an accurate reduction of the idea is this, in the words of the C2C authors:
The person becoming Catholic, by contrast, is seeking out the Church that Christ founded. He does this not by finding that group of persons who share his interpretation of Scripture. Rather, he locates in history those whom the Apostles appointed and authorized, observes what they say and do viz-a-viz the transmission of teaching and interpretive authority, traces that line of successive authorizations down through history to the present day to a living Magisterium, and then submits to what this present-day Magisterium is teaching. By finding the Magisterium, he finds something that has the divine authority to bind the conscience.
So there we have it. The superiority of the Roman Catholic IP consists in the claim that, 1.) it can be located in history, 2.) it has divine authorization, and 3.) it is consistent “through history”. Fair enough. C2C should be allowed to define its own terms and I hope I have been reasonable in my representation of them.
If we were to test this IP we would look for a laboratory that contained only those items needed by the IP but was free from any contaminants not needed by it. And fortunately for us, history provides just such a laboratory – the Papal States. The Papal States was a European country entirely under the control of the Roman church and its hierarchy. It existed for 700 years until 1870 and was at its peak during the 16th century. The Vatican exercised complete and total control over every aspect of life within those borders and therefore qualifies as the perfect laboratory to test the IP. (And just to be clear, Bryan’s piece was in response to Dr. Mathison’s work on Scripture so we may confine our investigation thereto.)
Scripture in the Papal States
Implicit in the C2C IP is the availability of the Scriptures to every parishioner as is the case today. That the Scriptures are available is the minimal requirement from which questions about Scripture can arise. Today’s Roman Catholic has access to the Scriptures and to his/her priests and bishops in order to have their questions answered. And that is what undergirds the C2C IP. But such was not the case in the Papal States in the 16th century:
If an alert visitor from northern Europe tried to get to grips with the religious scene in Italy, one absence would be immediately obvious: there were no vernacular Bibles in the house of the laity. Pope Paul V was perfectly serious when in 1606 he furiously confronted the Venetian ambassador with the rhetorical question ‘Do you not know that so much reading of Scripture ruins the Catholic religion?’[i]
I suppose that some may quibble over the phrase “so much reading of Scripture” but to the Supreme Pontiff of that day “so much” really meant “any”:
Bibles were publicly and ceremonially burned, like heretics; even literary versions of scriptural stories in drama or poetry were frowned on. As a result, between 1567 and 1773, not a single edition of an Italian-language Bible was printed anywhere in the Italian peninsula.[ii]
It is worth a moment to pause and reflect at this point. The boys at C2C want us to believe that the Magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church is the only God-given instrument whereby Scriptures can be properly and authentically interpreted. And yet in a place and time where the Roman Catholic Church reigned supreme not only did they not exercise their alleged responsibility, but they used their temporal power to eliminate the Scripture to the greatest extent possible. If the Pontiff thinks that reading the Scripture is the “ruin” of the Catholic religion, it is risible to maintain that he would stand as the head of an organization charged with giving “the divinely inspired interpretation” of that same Scripture. Unless, of course, that “divinely inspired interpretation” is the burning of the Bible!
Scripture in the rest of Europe
The second nail in the coffin of the C2C IP for the period under investigation is that there was no uniformity of doctrine within the Roman Catholic Church in Europe. For those Catholics who lived in northern Europe and had to interact with biblically literate Protestants, the Roman doctrine would have meant ecclesial suicide:
Even a visitor from the Catholic parts of Germany would find this astonishing: there a ban on Bibles would have been highly dangerous to a Church constantly confronting biblically literate Protestants[iii].
And one wouldn’t have to go as far as Germany. The Republic of Venice vigorously maintained an independent stance from Rome. The Catholic Church of Venice was outspoken against the reforms of the Council of Trent, which obviously included the Roman version of the canon of Scripture.
Reflect with me for a moment. In northern Europe the availability of and familiarity with the Scriptures was necessary to the continued existence of Roman Catholicism. But where the Magisterium was most powerful, Scriptures were the “ruin” of the Catholic religion and no Bibles in the vernacular were printed for over 200 years! How could it even be possible for a Roman Catholic parishioner to avail himself of this marvelous IP when he would not have access to the very thing about which question might have been asked? That is very troubling, indeed.
The IP being promoted by the C2C crowd fails all of its own criteria. The first of which is historicity. Our examination has shown that the Popes of the Papal States in Europe had not the slightest interest in interpreting the Scriptures. The historical record is clear that Pope Paul V especially, was committed to the eradication of Scripture from his domain. The claim that Rome or its Magisterium would have exercised any interpretive authority is null and void.
The second criteria placed on the C2C IP is its alleged divine authorization. That claim cannot be supported by virtue of the fact that Rome was engaged in the destruction and eradication of the Scriptures which have been central to the Judeo Christian heritage for 3,000. Further, the “divine” nature of the paradigm is called into question because it was not used in the majority of Roman Catholic churches throughout Europe. Neither the Catholic churches in Venice , nor the Catholic churches in northern Europe nor the Catholic churches in Spain would have granted a divine aspect to anything Rome did.
And lastly, the obvious fact that the C2C IP differs so radically from the historical record of the Roman Catholic church negates the third attribute claimed for it.
We must necessarily conclude therefore, that the Interpretive Paradigm offered us by Bryan Cross and the folks at Called to Communion is an anachronism. And an historical investigation shows that the IP fails to display any of the three criteria which its authors claim for it and is therefore to be disregarded.
Soli Deo Gloria
[i] MacCulloch, Diarmaid. The Reformation. New York: Penguin Books, 2003. P. 406
[ii] MacCulloch, Diarmaid. Op. cit.. P. 406
[iii] MacCulloch, Diarmaid. Op. cit.. P. 406