Tuesday, January 12, 2016

St. Francis de Sales on Trying to Sail without an Authoritative Steersman

The following is from St. Francis de Sales's classic work, written in the sixteenth century and published in London in 1886 by Burns and Oates under the title of The Catholic Controversy (translated by Rev. Henry Benedict Mackey, O.S.B.).  The text (Chapter I from the section "The Authority of the Church") is from www.goodcatholicbooks.org and found here.

In this selection, de Sales points out the problem that arises when we attempt to make the Scripture our supreme authority without any infallible authoritative interpreter--we get unsolvable mass chaos.  The reason why is well summarized in this paragraph from an article by an Atheist libertarian:


The likelihood of conflicting interpretations of special revelation did not pose as much of a theoretical problem for Catholics as it did for Protestants. In the Catholic Church the pope was the ultimate arbiter of doctrinal controversies. His function was rather like that of the Supreme Court in American law; what the pope said was final, and that was the end of the matter (at least in theory). But Protestants, in rejecting papal authority and in maintaining that each person should use his or her own conscience to understand Scripture, generated a serious problem for themselves. Hundreds of Protestant sects arose, and their conflicting interpretations of the Bible frequently spilled over into politics. Thus Catholic critics of Luther, Calvin, and other Reformers were basically correct when they predicted that the Protestant approach to the Bible would result in a type of religious anarchy, as each individual viewed himself as the supreme authority in religious matters. Reverting to my previous analogy, the result was similar to what would happen if America had no Supreme Court, or judicial system of any kind, and each American was free to interpret and implement law according to his own judgment.

Theoretically, Sola Scriptura could work, if the Bible were so clear that no reasonable problems of interpretation over any important matters could arise.  But it isn't; and the more one really tries consistently and thoroughly to follow Sola Scriptura, the more this becomes apparent (or so suggests my own experience).  This is not to say that the Bible is not crystal clear beyond interpretative doubt on some things, but once we get beyond the very basic level of teaching (God exists, Christ is the Son of God, Christ died and rose again, etc.) and try to deal with things like infant baptism, the structure and government of the church, the nature of the Lord's day and how it should be observed, etc., the interpretative issue becomes much more of a problem.  The Bible simply doesn't settle a number of questions that need to be settled for the theoretical and practical life of the Church.  We find that we can only function by bringing in extra-biblical assumptions or rules of interpretation (whether we recognize we are doing so or not).  Many Protestants never feel the difficulties here, because they never really try very hard to practice Sola Scriptura.  They think they are practicing it, but they are really relying more than they realize on the traditions of whatever church they are a part of, their pastor's judgment, etc.  Take away those props, and the difficulty will be truly felt.

But here is de Sales:


Once when Absalom wished to form a faction against his good father, he sat in the way near the gate, and said to all who went by: ”There is no man appointed by the king to hear thee…O that they would make me judge over the land, that all that have business might come to me, and I might do them justice. (2 Kings xv.). Thus did he undermine the loyalty of the Israelites. But how many Absaloms have there been in our age, who, to seduce and distract the people from obedience to the Church, and to lead Christians into revolt, have cried up and down the ways of Germany and of France: There is no one appointed by the Lord to hear and resolve differences concerning faith and religion; the Church has no. power in this matter!" If you consider well, Christians, you will see that whoever holds this language wishes to be judge himself, though he does not openly say so, more cunning than Absalom. I have seen one of the most recent books of Theodore Beza, entitled: Of the true, essential and visible marks of the true Catholic Church; he seems to me to aim at making himself, with his colleagues, judge of all the differences which are between us; he says that the conclusion of all his argument is that "the true Christ is the only true and perpetual mark of the Catholic Church,"-understanding by true Christ, he says, Christ as he has most perfectly declared himself from the beginning, whether in the Prophetic or Apostolic writings, in what belongs to our salvation. Further on he says: "This was what I had to say on the true, sole, and essential mark of the true Church, which is the written Word, Prophetic and Apostolic, well and rightly ministered." Higher up he had admitted that there were great difficulties in the Holy Scriptures, but not in things which touch faith. In the margin he places this warning, which he has put almost everywhere in the text: "The interpretation of Scripture must not be drawn elsewhere than from the Scripture itself, by comparing passages one with another, and adapting them to the analogy of the faith." And in the Epistle to the King of France: " We ask that the appeal be made to the holy canonical Scriptures, and that, if there be any doubt as to the interpretation of them, the correspondence and relation which should exist among these passages of Scripture and the articles of faith, be the judge." He there receives the Fathers as of authority just as far as they should find their foundation in the Scriptures. He continues: "As to the point of doctrine we cannot appeal to any irreproachable judge save the Lord himself, who has declared all his counsel concerning our salvation by the Apostles and the Prophets." He says again that "his party are not such as would disavow a single Council worthy of the name, general or particular, ancient or later, (take note)-" provided," says he, "that the touchstone, which is the word of God, be used to try it." That, in one word, is what all these reformers want--to take Scripture as judge. And to this we answer Amen: but we say that our difference is not there; it is here, that in the disagreements which we shall have over the interpretation, and which will occur at every two words, we shall need a judge. They answer that we must decide the interpretation of Scripture by collating passage with passage and the whole with the Symbol of faith. Amen, Amen, we say: but we do not ask. how we ought to interpret the Scripture, but- who shall be the judge? For after having compared passages with passages, and the whole with the Symbol of the faith, we find by this passage:Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I shall build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it, and I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven (Matt. xvi), that S. Peter has been chief minister and supreme steward in the Church of God: you say, on your side that this passage: The kings of the nations lord it over them... but you not so (Luke xxii.), or this other (for they are all so weak that I know not what may be your main authority): No one can lay another foundation, etc. (1 Cor. iii. 11), compared with the other passages and the analogy of the faith makes you detest a chief minister. The two of us follow one same way in our inquiry concerning the truth in this question - namely, whether there is in the Church a Vicar General of Our Lord - and yet I have arrived at the affirmative and you have ended in the negative; who now shall judge of our difference? Here lies the essential point as between you and me.

I quite admit, be it said in passing, that he who shall inquire of Theodore Beza will say that you have reasoned better than I, but on what does he rely for this judgment except on what seems good to himself, according to the prejudgment he has formed of the matter long ago? -and he may say what he likes, for who has made him judge between you and me?

Recognize, Christians, the spirit of division: your people send you to the Scriptures; -we are there before you came into the world, and what we believe, we find there clear and plain. But, -it must be properly understood, adapting passage to passage, the whole to the Creed; -we are at this now fifteen hundred years and more. You are mistaken, answers Luther. Who told you so? Scripture. What Scripture? Such and such, collated so, and fitted to the Creed. On the contrary, say I, it is you, Luther, who are mistaken: the Scripture tells me so, in such and such a passage, nicely joined and adjusted to such and such a Scripture, and to the articles of the faith. I am not in doubt, as to whether we must give belief to the holy Word; -who knows not that it is in the supreme degree of certitude? What exercises me is the understanding of this Scripture -the consequences and conclusions drawn from it, which being different beyond and very often contradictory on the same point, so that each one chooses his own, one here the other there-who shall make me see truth through so many vanities? Who shall give me to see this Scripture in its native color? For the neck of this dove changes its appearance as often as those who look upon it change position and distance. The Scripture is a most holy and infallible touchstone; every proposition, which stands this test I accept as most faithful and sound. But what am I to do, when I have in my hands this proposition: the natural body of our Lord is really, substantially and actually in the Holy Sacrament of the Altar. I have it touched at every angle and on every side, by the express and purest word of God, and by the Apostles' Creed. There is no place when I do not rub it a hundred times, if you like. And the more I examine it the finer gold and purer metal do I recognize it to be made of. You say that having done the same you find base metal in it. What do you want me to do? All these masters have handled it already, and all have come to the same decision as I, and with such assurance, that in general assemblies of the craft, they have turned out all who said differently. Good heavens! who shall resolve our doubts? We must not speak again of the touchstone or it will be said: The wicked walk about (in circuitu)(Ps. xi. 9). We must have some one to take it up, and to test the piece himself; then he must give judgment, and we must submit, both of us, and argue no more. Otherwise each one will believe what he likes. Let us take care lest with regard to these words we be drawing the Scripture after our notions, instead of following it. If the salt hath lost its savor, with what shall it be salted? (Matt. v. 13). If the Scripture be the subject of our disagreement, who shall decide?

Ah! whoever says that Our Lord has placed us in the bark of his Church, at the mercy of the winds and of the tide, instead of giving us a skillful pilot perfectly at home, by nautical art, with chart and compass, such a one says that he wishes our destruction. Let him have placed therein the most excellent compass and the most correct chart in the world, what use are these if no one knows how to gain from them some infallible rule for directing the ship? Of what use is the best of rudders if there is no steersman to move it as the ship’s course requires? But if every one is allowed to turn it in the direction he thinks good, who sees not that we are lost?

It is not the Scripture which requires a foreign light or rule, as Beza thinks we believe; it is our glosses, our conclusions, understandings, interpretations, conjectures, additions, and other such workings of man's brain, which, being unable to be quiet, is ever busied about new inventions. Certainly we do not want a judge to decide between us and God, as he seems to infer in his Letter. It is between a man such as Calvin, Luther, Beza, and another such as Eckius, Fisher, More; for we do not ask whether God understands the Scripture better than we do, but whether Calvin understands it better than S. Augustine or S. Cyprian. S. Hilary says excellently (Lib. 2 de Trin. xviii.) "Heresy is in the understanding, not in the Scripture, and the fault is in the meaning, not in the words." and S. Augustine (In Joan. Tr. xviii, i.): "Heresies arise simply from this, that good Scriptures are ill-understood, and what is ill-understood in them is also rashly and presumptuously given forth." It is a true Michol's game; it is to cover a statue, made expressly with the clothes of David (1 Kings xix.) He who looks at it thinks he has seen David, but he is deceived, David is not there. Heresy covers up, in the bed of its brain, the statue of its own opinion in the clothes of Holy Scripture. He who sees this doctrine thinks he has seen the Holy Word of God, but he is mistaken; it is not there. The words are there, but not the meaning. "The Scriptures," says S. Jerome, ( Adv. Lucif. 28. ) "consist not in the reading but in the understanding:" that is, faith is not in the knowing the words but the sense. And it is here that I think I have thoroughly proved that we have need of another rule for our faith, besides the rule of Holy Scripture. "If the world last long “said Luther once by good hap (Contr. Zwin. et. Oecol)”, “it will be again necessary, on account of the different interpretations of Scripture which now exist, that to preserve the unity of the faith we should receive the Councils and decrees and fly to them for refuge." He acknowledges that formerly they were received, and that afterwards they will have to be.

I have dwelt on this at length, but when it is well understood, we have no small means of determining a most holy deliberation.

I say as much of Traditions; for if each one will bring forward Traditions, and we have no judge on earth to make in the last resort the difference between those which are to be received and those which are not, where, I pray you, shall we be? We have clear examples. Calvin finds that the Apocalypse is to be received, Luther denies it; the same with the Epistle of S. James. Who shall reform these opinions of the reformers? Either the one or the other is ill formed, who shall put it right? Here is a second necessity which we have of another rule besides the Word of God.

There is, however, a very great difference between the first rules and this one. For the first rule, which is the Word of God, is a rule infallible in itself, and most sufficient to regulate all the understandings in the world. The second is not properly a rule of itself, but only in so far as it applies the first and proposes to us the right doctrine contained in the Holy Word. In the same way the laws are said to be a rule in civil causes. The judge is not so of himself, since his judging is conditioned by the ruling of the law; yet he is, and may well be called, a rule, because the application of the laws being subject to variety, when he has once made it we must conform to it.

The Holy Word then is the first law of our faith; there remains the application of this rule, which being able to receive as many forms as there are brains in the world, in spite of all the analogies of the faith, there is need further of a second rule to regulate this application. There must be doctrine and there must be some one to propose it. The doctrine is in the Holy Word, but who shall propose it? The way in which one deduces an article of faith is this: the Word of God is infallible; the Word of God declares that Baptism is necessary for salvation; therefore Baptism is necessary for salvation. The 1st Proposition cannot be gainsayed, we are at variance with Calvin about the 2nd;- who shall reconcile us? Who shall resolve our doubt? If he who has authority to propose can err in his proposition all has to be done over again. There must therefore be some infallible authority in whose propounding we are obliged to acquiesce. The Word of God cannot err, He who proposes it cannot err; thus shall all be perfectly assured.

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