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The Bible, the Reformation, and G.K. Chesterton

The Protestants, in separating the Bible from the Church, turned the Bible against the Church. Forgotten was the fact that it was the Church that gave us the Bible. Forgotten was the fact that the Bible was, and still is, a Catholic document. Forgotten, too, was that the Protestant Bible is an abridgement of the Catholic Bible.

The Bible of St. Paul Outside the Walls, dating from the 9th century, is included in a two-part exhibition on the menorah at the Vatican May 15. The second part of the exhibition, which runs through July 23, is at the Jewish Museum in Rome. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

“I suppose it will take centuries to unwind the coil of confusion and stupidity, which began when the Reformers quite irrationally separated the Bible from the Church.”

Although G.K. Chesterton is admired by both Protestants and Catholics and even non-Christians, the above line does not exactly ooze with Ecumenism. But since we are this year observing the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we may as well point out how Chesterton exactly identifies the problem that has plagued the Christian world for half a millennium. It has to do with the best of all books: the Holy Bible.

Beginning five centuries ago, Martin Luther, then John Calvin and the other leaders of what is known as the Reformation, opened a giant rift in Christian Europe by separating themselves and their followers from the Catholic Church. They replaced the authority of the Church with the authority of Scripture. They not only separated the Bible from the Church, to the exclusion of the Church, they separated faith from reason, to the exclusion of reason. Confusion followed. Protestants began to believe that somehow Catholic teaching was not “scriptural” and consequentially, they deprived themselves of the Sacraments. Baptism and Communion became mere symbols, devoid of their supernatural power. There was no longer any need for Confession, because salvation came through one act of grace on the cross, and Christ was then removed from the cross, lest we should dwell on that unpleasant business, or worse, worship a graven image on a crucifix. The wedding of man and woman lost its divine element, and subsequently sex became separated from marriage, and the family began to dissolve. Priests went from being spiritual guides, ushering souls into heaven, to being regarded as agents of hell and darkness.

The Reformer’s separation of the Bible from the Church was aided by the invention of the printing press—a Catholic invention in a Catholic society, Chesterton points out, but one that “has been largely used to turn out whole libraries of lies against that society.”
The Protestants continued to protest not only against the Catholic Church but against each other, as new groups splintered away into even narrower sects with even narrower interpretations of the Bible and what Christianity should be. Purity and righteousness was replaced by Puritanism and self-righteousness, where, rather than condemning the bad uses of good things, the good things themselves were condemned.

Calvin’s emphasis on the Sovereignty of God unwittingly introduced a long string of philosophies that were fatalistic, to the exclusion of free will. What was first a theological predestination paved the way to biological, economic, political, social and psychological determinism, where people were no longer responsible for their own actions but could lay the blame on something outside of themselves that they could not control.

The chaos of the modern world, says Chesterton, “did not come from Christendom but from the disruption of Christendom.”

The Protestants, in separating the Bible from the Church, turned the Bible against the Church. Forgotten was the fact that it was the Church that gave us the Bible. Forgotten was the fact that the Bible was, and still is, a Catholic document. Forgotten, too, was that the Protestant Bible is an abridgement of the Catholic Bible. The Reformers discarded several books and relegated them to the category, “Apocrypha,” which means doubtful. Doubt, the opposite of faith.

But then secular scholars spread the doubt to the rest of the Bible. They began taking apart Scripture through the pretence of textual criticism, and the Protestants found that their one authority had collapsed. They were left with nothing. And most of them left.

The irony is that the very people who warned against an idolatry of sacred writings created a culture that suffers from an idolatry of all writings. Chesterton says, “There is seldom so much superstition in kissing the Book as in consulting the dictionary. Modern people, especially urban people, think that anything which has got itself printed has somehow passed an examination and received a diploma; has somehow, in fact, shown itself to be true… They will believe an encyclopedia against an eyewitness; nay, they will believe a newspaper against the naked eye. They buy the newspaper next morning to find out what the meeting they attended last night was really like.”
And all this left the Bible in a rather curious position. Chesterton summarised that position almost a hundred years ago, but it is still mostly accurate. He’s especially right when he says “ignorance is increasing about these things.”

First, there are the Fundamentalists, who appeal to the Bible without daring to appeal to the authority which actually fixed the Canon of the Bible. It is, says Chesterton, “a mythology asserting that the elephant stands on a tortoise and the tortoise stands on nothing.” Secondly, there are the “Broad Churchmen” who are actually quite narrow, proposing to use only selections of the Bible in public, the rest being unsuitable. Thirdly, there are the Modernist scholars who accuse the Catholic Church of having done in “the midnight of the Dark Ages” what the Broad Churchmen are now doing: making arbitrary selections from the Bible and keeping back the rest from the people. (This is the accusation made against the Church in the popular book The Da Vinci Code.) The Church, says Chesterton, “has been accused of hiding the Bible; but had it been true, it would have been a less astonishing achievement than that of the Reformation, which succeeded in hiding everything else.” Mainline Protestantism succeeded in concealing Western civilization from its own history.

And then there is the one Church that has kept the unabridged Bible, filling its liturgy with it, chanting its prayers day after day, and applying its ageless wisdom to this age. It has also painstakingly preserved the other ancient documents that not only testify to the truth of Scripture, but demonstrate on the face of them the difference between an inspired and uninspired text. The Catholic Church, which still teaches the whole Scripture, that can point to all of its own doctrines in the Bible: that baptism is being born again (John 3:5), that marriage is a permanent bond (Mark 10:11) reflecting Christ and his bride the Church (Rev. 19:7), that we must confess our sins (James 5:16) and show ourselves to a priest (Matt. 8:4), that Jesus founded a Church and appointed its first leader (Matt. 16:18), that he gave his apostles the authority to forgive sins (John 20:23), that unless we eat the flesh of Jesus and drink his blood we have no life in us (John 6:53).

Which brings us back to Ecumenism in the wake of the Reformation. We still have a great duty to appeal to a common love for God and His Son with our Protestant friends, but we also have a responsibility to get them to look honestly at the Bible and at the whole story of what really happened when the Reformers separated the Bible from the Church. It is not an impossible task. I’ve seen it done quite successfully. It was a faithful, loving, truth-telling Catholics who patiently ushered me from the Baptist church to the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. First he appealed to what we had in common. Then he made me realize what I was missing. It helped because he had gone through the same journey himself. His name was G.K. Chesterton.

About Dale Ahlquist 22 Articles
Dale Ahlquist is president of the American Chesterton Society, creator and host of the EWTN series "G.K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense," and publisher of Gilbert Magazine. He is the author and editor of several books on Chesterton, including The Complete Thinker: The Marvelous Mind of G.K. Chesterton.

16 Comments

  1. Appreciate your concise precis of the Reformation debacle and its consequences. Luther had a good argument regarding the primacy of faith. But during dialogue with Rome prior to his excommunication refused the appeal to reason on the need to perform works of charity. That personalistic stance led to predeterminism similar to Calvin’s predestination. David Hume set the tone for philosophy and Protestantism in Britain and eventually the world by attempting to prove that reason beginning with causality is based on association of ideas not irrepressible fact. Consequently faith is said to be emotive. The Protestant intellectual world like their predecessor Luther rejected reasoning, inference from fact and relied on feeling and appearance. The exception was Kant. Nevertheless in The Critique of Pure Reason he postulates the Law is a moral imperative not subject to reason. Whatever reason indicates otherwise must be repelled. Perfect for Nazism. As you clearly indicate the Bible became a weapon against the institution by Christ of a Hierarchal Church, priesthood, formal confession, and as Carl Olson noted in a recent article the disregard of certain scriptures particularly those referencing the Real Presence. I can only say thanks to God despite all the errors of the Reformers they could not extinguish the human soul with its capacity to employ reason and apprehend justice. I recall a quite elderly Methodist couple who stopped in dead of night on a remote forest road to help me repair a tire. It seems that converts like Chesterton Olson et Al assent to the rationale of truth. With the light of grace. Even there we all assent to that light. The two faith and reason are complementary.

    • Another point that needs to be made is that Luther somewhat hesitatingly, and Zwingly forthrightly, denied that the book of Revelation was divine Scripture. Calvin never wrote a commentary on it. The fact that all Protestants today receive it as Scripture is probably down to the work of Bullinger, whose literary output exceeded that of all the other three combined.

  2. The entire article is constructed on the false premise that the Roman Catholic Church is THE church. Therefore it must resort to what can only be defined as spiritual subterfuge to make its point. It would be tedious to point out every error so we will think about the primary error the Bible was given to us by the Roman Catholic Church.

    First of all, the Roman Catholic Church was not an organization in the first couple hundred years of the Christian Church. Catholicism, as an organization with a central figure located in Rome, did not occur for quite some time in spite of its claim that one can trace the Papacy back to Peter.

    Second, the Christian Church RECOGNIZED what was Scripture. It did not ESTABLISH it. This is a very important point.  The Christian Church discovered what God had inspired as authentic and pronounced it as such. 

    Third, the Roman Catholic Church did not give us the Old Testament which is the Scripture to which Christ and the apostles appealed.  If the Roman Catholic Church wants to state that it gave us the Bible, then how can they rightfully claim to have given us the Old Testament which is part of the Bible? 

    Fourth, when the apostles wrote the New Testament documents, they were inspired by the power of the Holy Spirit.  There wasn’t any issue of whether or not they were authentic. Their writings did not need to be deemed worthy of inclusion in the Canon of Scripture by a group of men, particularly men in the Roman Catholic Church.  To make such a claim is, in effect, to usurp the natural power and authority of God himself that worked through the Apostles.

    • You seem to be sincere. Go and read the Fathers of the Church and you’ll see that the teachings that they wrote about in the first centuries are the same as the teachings of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church today.

    • Catholics reading the Bible can be just as dangerous as anyone else. “I found a line that proves adultery isn’t a sin” or “I don’t see where it says you have to go to confession” When we’re encouraged to read the bible, it has to be as Catholics. I.e. within the context of the Faith. Understanding or interpreting it according to what we know to be true from the whole of the Apostolic tradition.

    • Your statement must come from a lack of knowledge, otherwise you would know that the Mass is completely Biblical, with a Gospel reading, and one-two epistle readings, as well as a psalm for every Mass. The words of the Sanctus and Agnus Dei, as well as the Our Father come straight from the Bible. If you were to go to Mass every day for three years, you would have heard almost the entire Bible read and prayed IN CONTEXT, something you will never get as a Protestant.
      You would also know that at all Catholic schools the Bible is the source of religious instruction.

  3. “First, there are the Fundamentalists, … Secondly, there are the “Broad Churchmen” …. Thirdly, there are the Modernist scholars.”

    Oh, and then there are the intelligent Evangelicals who are giving us most of the quality orthodox Biblical scholarship today.
    It is annoying that a polemical essay of such length neglects that real state of play on the ground today, versus GKC’s antiquated caricature of his own time. He was a striking composer of paradox and florid argument, but like DA here out of his depth when it came to understanding the best of Protestantism. Agree with it our not, it should be represented accurately. Same plea we always make for Catholicism.

  4. Well, my first response wasn’t posted. The Reformation took place when corruption in the Church was very high. Let’s face it, corruption has taken place in humankind throughout history even in Judaism (God’s Covenant people), in the Church both Catholic and Protestant. However, the Reformation made God’s Word available to believers in their own languages, as the Jews had God’s Word available to them in their language. Mr. Ahlquist failed to provide the historical background of why the Reformation took place. Nonetheless, whether Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant, straying from God’s divinely revealed directives have taken place in all three. It’s time to stop attempting to diminish one another and to recognize various Branches of the Church have recuperated the principles and practices so clearly revealed to us through what is called the “sword of the Holy Spirit,” that is, the Word of God. If each branch of the Church would show a bit more humility, perhaps the world would see a genuine and true presentation of Christ’s atonement and message to a lost world.

    • You obviously do not realize that there were bibles available in the native languages of the people long before the Reformation. There were fourteen bibles written in German before Luther was born, and twenty-two German before Luther published his theses. The knowledge that there were so many bibles published in the vernacular in Germany before the Reformation led one eminent Lutheran churchman and historian of the nineteenth century to say that most of what Protestants have been taught about the Reformation bringing the bible to the masses in the vernacular is a lie.

      You also make another blunder. You state that the Jews had God’s word available to them in their language. This is untrue. At the time of Christ, the Scriptures were written and read in the original Hebrew, whilst the Jews of Jesus time spoke Aramaic. There were no Scriptures in Aramaic. Yet not once do we see Jesus chiding the Jews for not getting Scripture to the people in the vernacular. Whilst there are many similarities between the two, there would still be confusion upon hearing the Scriptures in Hebraic, when you only spoke Aramaic.

      • Greek was the common language during the time of Jesus. The Old Testament references in the New Testament primarily came from Septuagint Greek text while a minority came from the Heberw text.

  5. Pope Gregory XVI in encyclical May 8, 1844, quotes a frustrated St. Jerome, translator of the Bible into Latin circa 400AD, “they make the art of understanding the Scriptures without a teacher common to babbling old women and crazy old men and verbose sophists, and to anyone who can read, no matter what his status. Indeed, what is even more absurd and almost unheard of, they do not exclude the common people of the infidels from sharing this kind of a knowledge.” 2nd letter St Peter, writing same topic : “There are some things in them (St Paul’s letters) that are hard to understand, which the ignorant twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.”Roy Shoeman Jewish convert spoke about the Jewish synagogue custom in time of Christ, where the Jewish scriptures were read within the ‘synagogue community gathered’ followed by a teacher to give the true meaning . Frankly, only by sticking to Apostolic teaching surrounding Christ’s words can anyone ever “go you into all nations teaching whatever I have commanded you, baptising them……..”

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