What Does the Council of Trent Say about Scripture and Tradition?

Pardon the departure from scholastic thought per se. I post this because I’m in a catholic moral theology class whose professor has loud and long lamented the loss of biblical reflection in catholic moral theology. I have been attempting to argue to some catholic colleagues concerned for my conversion that this is not a coincidence. There’s a good reason that most catholics didn’t really read the Bible much less engage in serious exegesis before the 60’s–because the church didn’t want them to. This post is meant to corroborate some of those claims as well as to bring forward some historical texts for our consideration.

[I wanted to post some quotes from the council of Trent about the relationship of Scripture and tradition and then supplement these with some quotes from Bellarmine and Melchior Cano. Alas, my hours trawling the sordid underbelly of the internet didn’t turn anything up. I wasn’t even able to find a Latin edition of the council of Trent. Where’s your wikipedia now, Jimmy Wales?]

At any rate, I did find the English translation of Trent.

Here are some quotes, followed by my brief interpretation of them:

“. . . this truth and discipline are contained in the written books, and the unwritten traditions which, received by the Apostles from the mouth of Christ himself, or from the Apostles themselves, the Holy Ghost dictating, have come down even unto us, transmitted as it were from hand to hand; (the Synod) following the examples of the orthodox Fathers, receives and venerates with an equal affection of piety, and reverence, all the books both of the Old and of the New Testament–seeing that one God is the author of both –as also the said traditions, as well those appertaining to faith as to morals, as having been dictated, either by Christ’s own word of mouth, or by the Holy Ghost, and preserved in the Catholic Church by a continuous succession.” p. 18

2 Interesting points: (1) The word “dictated.” Is a dictation theory of inspiration catholic dogma? (2) The phrase “unwritten traditions.” If there are unwritten but authoritative traditions this would seem to indicate that part of the deposit of faith is located in the written tradition (Scripture) and part of it in the unwritten oral teaching handed down from one bishop to another, no? I wanted to find some quotes from Cano and Bellarmine because I think they both believed that the Word of God was contained “partly” in the Bible and “partly” in the unwritten tradition, alas Google failed me. I’ll have to go to a real mortar and brick library and dig those quotes up later.

“But if any one receive not, as sacred and canonical, the said books entire with all their parts [previous paragraph listed the books of the Bible including the deuterocanon], as they have been used to be read in the Catholic Church, and as they are contained in the old Latin vulgate edition; and knowingly and deliberately contemn the traditions aforesaid; let him be anathema. Let all, therefore, understand, in what order, and in what manner, the said Synod, after having laid the foundation of the Confession of faith, will proceed, and what testimonies and authorities it will mainly use in confirming dogmas, and in restoring morals in the Church.” p. 19

1 interesting points: (1) The word “anathema”. If you don’t think Tobit is canonical, you are anathema, period. None of that wishy-washy Vatican II ‘separated brethren’ nonsense.

“Moreover, the same sacred and holy Synod,–considering that no small utility may accrue to the Church of God, if it be made known which out of all the Latin editions, now in circulation, of the sacred books, is to be held as authentic,–ordains and declares, that the said old and vulgate edition, which, by the lengthened usage of so many years, has been approved of in the Church, be, in public lectures, disputations, sermons and expositions, held as authentic; and that no one is to dare, or presume to reject it under any pretext whatever.” Ibid.

Interesting point: the word “authentic”. This is where I really wish I had a copy of the Latin. Because whatever the Vulgate is, it isn’t authentic. There are serious translation problems in the Vulgate, cf. Rom. 5.12 where Jerome translates eph’ho (because) as in quo (in whom) which got Augustine into all that trouble with original sin.

“Furthermore, in order to restrain petulant spirits, It decrees, that no one, relying on his own skill, shall,–in matters of faith, and of morals pertaining to the edification of Christian doctrine, –wresting the sacred Scripture to his own senses, presume to interpret the said sacred Scripture contrary to that sense which holy mother Church,–whose it is to judge of the true sense and interpretation of the holy Scriptures,–hath held and doth hold; [Page 20] or even contrary to the unanimous consent of the Fathers; even though such interpretations were never (intended) to be at any time published. Contraveners shall be made known by their Ordinaries, and be punished with the penalties by law established.” pp. 19-20

And here’s the nub. Why should a catholic moral theologian try to look in the Bible past proof texts? If the magisterium says that Romans 5.12 means that everybody sinned in Adam, and if the magisterium is always right, then that’s what Romans 5.12 means. You don’t need to be able to read Greek (the Vulgate is “authentic” enough) and you certainly don’t need to do a historical-critical exegesis of the text to try to figure out what it meant in its original context. If original sin is ever taught as a part of the universal and ordinary magisterium on the basis of Romans 5.12 (don’t have a quote handy, but it’s bound to be, right?) then that’s what Romans 5.12 means, exegesis and hermeneutics be damned. If you dare to form your own private judgment, based on your own skill and expertise (as a philologist, say) and point out that Jerome’s translation’s faulty and the dogma based on it questionable, then you should be punished in a court of law for usurping the prerogatives of holy mother church.

Well, color me a protestant, but it seem to me that the way infallibility and teaching authority works in the catholic church would incline aspiring young priests to read the Bible as a big handbook of prooftexts that just confirm what the magisterium infallibly teaches. I’m not trying to offend here–God knows I spent my teenage years reading the Bible as a handbook full of proof texts for a magisterium much less qualified than the catholic one–my point is merely that there is a very, very good reason that catholic laity didn’t read much of the Bible. That was the priest’s job. And there’s a good reason the priests didn’t exegete much of the Bible–the magisterium’s already done that authoritatively.


3 Responses to What Does the Council of Trent Say about Scripture and Tradition?

  1. mamasboy2100 says:

    “1 interesting points: (1) The word “anathema”. If you don’t think Tobit is canonical, you are anathema, period. None of that wishy-washy Vatican II ’separated brethren’ nonsense.”

    Keep in mind that anathemas only applied to Catholics. The idea is that someone has had the fullness of truth found in the Catholic Church and has chosen to instead reject it. The world of the mid 1500s was much different than the world of the mid 1900s, not only in the religious composition of the populace (how many people had been raised Protestant at the time of Trent), but also their philosophical outlooks and consequently what methods were effective in reaching them pastorally.

    When one studies the actual documents of Vatican II, one finds that the teaching itself hasn’t changed. Here is a quote from the VII document Lumen Gentium. One might note the last sentence in the context of Trent and the nature of conversion in the 16th century vs. the 20th. “14. This Sacred Council wishes to turn its attention firstly to the Catholic faithful. Basing itself upon Sacred Scripture and Tradition, it teaches that the Church, now sojourning on earth as an exile, is necessary for salvation. Christ, present to us in His Body, which is the Church, is the one Mediator and the unique way of salvation. In explicit terms He Himself affirmed the necessity of faith and baptism(124) and thereby affirmed also the necessity of the Church, for through baptism as through a door men enter the Church. Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ, would refuse to enter or to remain in it, could not be saved.”
    This Rock magazine had an interesting article awhile back on the topic of salvation outside the church. You might find it interesting, though it is written for the layman and not the scholar. http://www.catholic.com/thisrock/2005/0512fea3.asp

    “I wanted to find some quotes from Cano and Bellarmine because I think they both believed that the Word of God was contained “partly” in the Bible and “partly” in the unwritten tradition”
    I would be very careful in taking something out of context in this regard, not that I’m saying you are, I’m just encouraging you to be careful. I’ve heard lots of people write about how the Catholic Church teaches this or that in the wake of Dr. Beckwith’s return to Rome. It should be of note that Dr. Beckwith says he can be Catholic and still hold to the ETS statement of faith which states, “the Bible alone and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written and is therefore inerrant in the autographs.” Rather than trying to explain to you why that is and potentially muddying the waters, I would encourage you to read about why that is true and use then that information to help inform your interpretation of Trent.

    “(1) The word “dictated.” Is a dictation theory of inspiration catholic dogma?”
    I could be totally off base here, so feel free to tell me I am. It seems that you are referring to a specific idea which you refer to as a “dictation theory of inspiration.” Was this theory defined back then as you define it now? If such a theory had a specific definition back then, would the same words have been used? My first impression is that two different concepts are being referred to.

    Just a thought on your statement of bad reasons to convert. As a husband and father with a full-time job that has practically nothing to do with theology, I’m quite glad that I don’t have to figure out all the doctrines of the Bible from scratch but can rely on a given authority. I don’t think this lets me off the hook from learning or study, especially when it regards how to apply what is known doctrine to my life in 2007. I personally find living out my faith in charity daunting enough without having to prove to myself based on Scripture alone that the Holy Spirit is really God and why the oneness Pentecostals are wrong or whether or not the book of Maccabees should be in the Bible and what that means for whether or not I should consider praying for Grandpa John (God rest his soul). Hey, it’s great to be able to do that and more, but there are some things that I’m glad are settled for me already. I think it gives me greater opportunity to focus on loving my family and teaching them a faith that I can have confidence in. If I was teaching my kids about the Holy Spirit and the apocrypha/deuterocanonicals based on my own sola scriptura study and subjective listening to the Holy Spirit, I would spend much more time studying the basic fundamentals and have far less confidence in the results. Considering certain things to be settled has for me been quite freeing, and I guess you could say it has brought me greater “joy” similar to the man you quoted.

    On the topic of bad reasons, I have seen too many conversions for the sake of “marriage,” and would consider that to be a very bad reason to convert. I had a deist classmate once get very upset with me when I told him that I didn’t think he should become a Catholic just because he thought if he didn’t do it now he never would. He had specifically stated that he didn’t believe the creed but didn’t know if he ever would. Despite the lack of belief, he somehow had the urge to go through with this and state that he did at the Easter vigil two weeks later. He heeded my advice to not go through with it and sadly quit studying the faith altogether. While I’m still convinced the reasons he had for joining were bad, I wonder if there was different way I could have approached him that could have helped him to find faith in Christ. Why was it that God placed me in his life and not someone more knowledgeable, eloquent and kind?

    God bless your own search for Truth Incarnate.


  2. scholasticus says:

    Hi Doug,

    One of the concerns I had about writing both the “Bad Reasons to Turn Catholic” bit and the current one (and another that I’m considering) is that I don’t want people to get the impression that somehow I’m anti-catholic. I have close friends whose conversions to catholicism were milestones in spiritual renewal and I would not for a moment want to try to rain on that.

    But I am a Protestant for a reason. And I’m writing these posts because there are times where the triumphalistic edge of some catholic apologetics gets on my nerves, whether because of straw men presentations of the protestant position (“Protestants don’t read the fathers because they believe only in scripture and not in tradition”) or whether because of the facile nature of their arguments for catholicism (“The Bible says Peter is the rock, therefore the pope has universal jurisdiction over all the other bishops”) or whether I get tired of things catholics say to me (“You’ll convert to catholicism in the end, because we get all the ones that read book.” There is salvation outside the church. Vatican II wants to make it all relevant upon the individual’s knowledge. You are only excluded if you know that the catholic church is the right one, but choose not to believe in it or something. But Vatican II’s interpretation of these texts doesn’t strike me as plausible. I like the conclusions vatican II comes to, but that’s because I think the old view was wrong, not that it somehow just needed a little clarification that was really present all the time.

    2. I’m convinced Cano and Bellarmine (or one of their near contemporaries) did really believe that the the Bible was only partly the word of God, and this isn’t because I’m trying to play gotcha, or because I don’t know that the post Vatican II church denies this. It’s because I read a book on Bellarmine’s view of the Bible that had a long section on the relationship of scripture and tradition, but I don’t have it handy to quote from unfortunately. Bellarmine was one of the leading cardinals of the council of trent (and a doctor of the church to boot!) so it would be nice to be able to prove that he was interpreting Trent in this way. The point of this comment was some guff that people were giving protestants for critiquing this “partly . . . partly view” as if it was some kind of straw man that the protestants had made up. It wasn’t.

    3. The dictation theory of inspiration is that God sat somebody down and told them the words to write, just like a boss would dictate a memo to a secretary. I personally thought it was a much more recent development, but it seems to be what the trent fathers are endorsing, although I couldn’t find the latin text, my latin dictionary gives as a meaning of the verb dictare, “dictate (for writing)” so it’s possible.

    4. Sola scriptura means that scripture alone is the final authority in dogma, it does not mean you have to prove the trinity for yourself or anything like that. You as an individual christian have a responsibility for the things you believe, yes, because you should be “studying to show yourself approved,” etc. etc. etc. But not everybody has the time, leisure or ability to be a biblical scholar, which is why God appoints some people pastors and academics and so on. Ultimately you do have a responsibility for the things that you believe, because you will stand before the Judgment seat alone. But, God has provided an entire church full of people to help you, teach you, and encourage you.

    There can be something very, very dangerous about considering things as settled. Whatever is obvious to everybody is usually the thing that everybody is wrong about. The intellectual and emotional inferiority of women to men, for instance. That was pretty much a settled issue for most of the church’s life, wasn’t it?

    5. Not a canon lawyer so I can’t give you canon legal advice, but my understanding of the sacraments is that they only count if done with faith. If somebody doesn’t believe in the power of baptism, then he isn’t baptized, howsoever many times he is sprinkled, dunked or whatever. (Babies and martyrs are exceptions, but your friend’s case is not.)

    On the other hand, it wasn’t your responsibility to convert him. God alone can bring that spiritual awakening to a person. So it would not matter how eloquent or kind you might have been. Or at least that’s the way it seems to me.

    Yours cordially,


  3. scholasticus says:

    “There is salvation outside the church.” I”m not sure why this sentence is in the second paragraph of what i wrote above. i wish i had a comment editing feature.


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