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

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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 (Matthew 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.

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