The Bible of the Church: Vignettes and Lessons from a Reformation Controversy

Editor’s Note: This article is part of an October 2017 series of posts on the Reformation and Protestantism written by O&H authors and guest writers marking the 500th anniversary of the nailing of Martin Luther’s 95 theses to the church door at Wittenberg on October 31, 1517. Articles are written by Orthodox Christians and discuss not just the Reformation as a historical event but also the spiritual heritage that descended from it.

As I sought to reflect for this post on the legacy of the 16th-century Reformation (both Protestant and Catholic) on its ostensible quincentennial, I happily chanced upon the following paragraph in Adolf Deissmann’s 1929 Haskell Lectures at Oberlin College (p. 65):

It was the period of the Reformation which gave to the Roman Catholic Church a conclusive Canon. After the old opinions and doubts [about the limits of the canon] had partly reappeared [during the Reformation,] the Tridentine Council in 1546 declared the entire contents of the Vulgate, without distinction, to be divine; in the New Testament twenty-seven books: four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, fourteen letters of Paul, seven Catholic Epistles, and the Revelation of John.

Given my perennial preoccupation with matters exegetical, it struck me as especially serendipitous that Deissmann, an epoch-making Greek philologist and New Testament scholar, should so sharply direct his attention (and ours) to the Reformation’s legacy in a series of lectures devoted to The New Testament in the Light of Modern Research (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran, & Co., 1929). He is, of course, undoubtedly right: as even a passing acquaintance with matters of New Testament introduction would make clear, no formal or official pronouncement on the contents of the biblical canon was ever made by an ecclesiastical communion or body prior to the Council of Trent and the various confessions of the Reformation.

To be sure, this hardly means that no notion of canon or its limits really existed prior to this (as though these things were merely a product of historical process), or that canon formation is at heart a response to the doctrinal and ecclesiastical controversies of the Reformation (as though it were all simply a function of crisis response). Nevertheless, Deissmann’s chief point still stands: it was precisely the period of the Reformation that bequeathed us, in matters of canon, hardened lines neatly marking our confessional divides.

Fascinating as these considerations may be, my real interest here is not in what books belong to the canon as such, neatly listed or otherwise, but ultimately in the text that makes up those books, as we shall see in due course. Thus it is Deissmann’s comment on Trent and the Vulgate, which puts before us a lively Reformation controversy, that will provide us with a springboard into that ancillary subject.

As we have seen, Deissmann tells us that in 1546 the Council of Trent “declared the entire contents of the Vulgate, without distinction, to be divine.” Of course, he is speaking here of the canon, as the context makes clear, but even then the tenor of the language strikes one as at least somewhat hyperbolic. After all, Deissmann himself notes immediately before this that “in the Middle Ages, in many manuscripts of the Vulgate, that is, of the official Latin Bible, there was to be found a spurious letter of Paul, the letter to the Laodiceans”—which was therefore part of the “entire contents of the Vulgate” as then known, but was somehow not “declared … to be divine”!

Such carelessness of expression, even when considering the narrow scope of the statement, suggests to me an at least unwitting dependence on the Protestant polemical rhetoric, sometimes unsparingly mordant, regarding Trent’s decree on the Vulgate. Of this we have a superior example from the pen of Edward Gibbon, the well-known 18th century “armchair historian” (a description cheerfully borrowed from Sarah Bond!), who took up the subject with characteristic flare in his Vindication (6.2), a rejoinder to a tract sharply critical of his Decline and Fall. There he asserts at length:

When the Council of Trent resolved to pronounce sentence on the Canon of Scripture, the opinion which prevailed, after some debate, was to declare the Latin Vulgate authentic and almost infallible; and this sentence, which was guarded by formidable Anathemas, secured all the books of the Old and New Testament which composed that ancient version ‘che si dichiarassero tutti in tutte le parte come si trovano nella Biblia Latina, esser di Divina è ugual autorità’ [‘which were declared whole and in every part as found in the Latin Bible to be of divine and equal authority’]. When the merit of that version was discussed, the majority of the Theologians urged, with confidence and success, that it was absolutely necessary to receive the Vulgate as authentic and inspired, unless they wished to abandon the victory to the Lutherans, and the honours of the Church to the Grammarians. … The sagacious Historian [i.e., Paolo Sarpi], who had studied the Council, and the judicious [Pierre François] Le Courayer, … consider this ridiculous reason as the most powerful argument which influenced the debates of the Council[.]

Thus on the witness of two well-known Catholic dissenters, Gibbon splendidly articulates the Protestant imagination’s worst possible construction of the Tridentine decree: we are told the Latin Vulgate was declared “almost infallible” (clearly a term of opprobrium) lest the “Lutherans” and the “Grammarians” emerge victorious, and that this “ridiculous” proposition was “guarded by formidable Anathemas” to squash all opposition. There, in one fell swoop, we are presented with a picture of ecclesiastical ignorance and hubris only surpassed by the specter of doctrinal corruption and oppressive pettiness, putting Medieval darkness in sharp contrast with Reformation light. This is antipopery at its finest. Yet here as elsewhere, amid the self-congratulation and mockery, Gibbon manages to convey one crucial piece of information regarding the Tridentine decree: namely, that its chief burden was to declare the Vulgate “authentic.”

Now what exactly did the Council of Trent mean by this word, “authentic”? Here we may finally have a look at the first paragraph of the decree itself, drawn from that Council’s Fourth Session, and long available to English speakers in such commonplace collections as Philip Schaff’s Creeds of Christendom:

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.

For a start, we might note that this decree follows immediately after a more extensive and indeed conclusive one on the biblical canon, and so this section must necessarily be addressing itself not to that question, but to a separate (yet related) one. As should be obvious from the decree itself, the question is that of text, in view of the many Latin translations and editions of the Bible then available (including, in the 16th century, a number of entirely new ones: the lone-wolf translator is hardly a modern phenomenon).

In effect, Trent seeks to establish what amounts to an “official,” “reliable,” or even “authorized” (cf. KJV!) Latin text of Scripture for all ecclesiastical purposes, and this on the grounds that the Vulgate has been “approved by the Church” through “the lengthened use of so many years.” This long ecclesiastical use and approval witnesses that, as the decree goes on to say beyond this first paragraph, the received text of the Vulgate translation does not contradict the sense in which the Church did and does interpret Scripture, or the unanimous consent of the Fathers—both criteria being opposed here to the private judgment of those who force the Scriptures to their own senses, whether translators or commentators, named or unnamed.

Needless to say, then, the decree of Trent is rather more nuanced than usually granted by the Gibbonses (and even the Deissmanns!) of the world. In fact, given these qualifications and from our own vantage point, we might venture to say that the decree was essentially correct, albeit incomplete, in what it sought to do. Perhaps the reader will allow me, by way of conclusion, to extrapolate from the foregoing report along these lines.

It is correct in realizing, in spite of the 16th-century explosion of Greek and Hebrew learning and the multiplication of biblical texts in both of those languages and Latin, that there is such a thing as an “ecclesiastical text” of the Scriptures, and that the grounds on which it is judged and tested is its reception and use by the Church. This is true not only of the Latin Vulgate or the Syriac Peshitta, but indeed even of the ecclesiastical text of the Old and New Testaments in Greek.

But it is also correct in placing this “received text” precisely in the context of its ecclesiastical use (and especially, its use in the liturgy). That the Vulgate (and by extension, the “ecclesiastical text” in its pluriformity) is “authentic” does not at all mean that it is identical or superior to the original. What it does mean is that it is the trustworthy, reliable, etc., vehicle through which the Scriptures have been transmitted to the people of God, and that it is therefore a critical part of this transmission which merits careful study on its own merits.

This realization, moreover, should encourage and not inhibit text-critical work whose goal is to establish the text of the original, even (or perhaps especially!) when this is found to be at variance with the received ecclesiastical text. The fact of the matter is that, by and large, the ecclesiastical text is how God chose to see through the transmission of the Scriptures to his people throughout the ages, and the story of how that came about is indelibly part of that transmission. Surely this is meant to be both challenging and instructive, while at the same time cautioning us to avoid easy solutions.

It is incorrect in universalizing that which is particular, and thus focusing solely on the authentication and correct printing of the Vulgate for ecclesiastical use, rather than the full extent and varieties of the biblical textual witness. This refers not only to the Greek, Syriac, and other ecclesiastical texts, but as hinted above, the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek originals, which they do not replace, as well as to the careful documentation of textual variants in all of these, which not only explain to us the meaning of these texts, but constitute the living history of its interpretation.

And this is not, I should mention, merely an academic daydream—a wistful and misty-eyed vision of your own personal Hexaplacumapparatus in the study—but rather something I believe to be of direct relevance to the serious layperson exploring their faith.

Consider the following: in the context of the formulation of Nicene dogma, St Athanasius and Arius both went to work on the exegesis of Proverbs 8 not on the basis of the Hebrew, but rather of the Greek. Therefore it seems clear that Christians who wish to follow where their Fathers have led ought to have access precisely to this Greek text, even if only in translation, as a key element in their apprehension of Christian doctrine. But of course, generally speaking, the Greek Old Testament was, is, and forever will be a translation from Hebrew, and therefore also an interpretation of it—one, of course, finally received by the Church as explicitly Christological. (Incidentally, this is why the late Archimandrite Ephrem Lash, whom I reverentially venture to call the English Jerome, would quip only partly tongue-in-cheek that he was not really anti-Protestant, but only could not forgive the Reformers for having replaced the Christian Bible [i.e., the Septuagint] with the Hebrew one!)

Needless to say, however, the comparative study of how the Greek translation receives, interprets, and indeed transforms its Hebrew original, even if only through English’s glass darkly, is bound to shed light on the ways in which we ourselves can and should read and receive the Scriptures—in light of Christ.


  1. Thanks for sharing the breadth of your research. If you were to chose a scripture translation in English of the Hebrew Aramaic text to read alongside a Greek Septuagint text, what translation would you choose? ie. From your studies, what Greek and Hebrew translations would you recommend being read side by side for the student not trained in Greek or Hebrew?

    1. Thank you for your comment! I hope that, in our lifetimes, the total answer to this will be the English edition of the Bible in Its Traditions project, which aims to bring all of these textual traditions together in a single publication (see examples from the French, English, and Spanish editions in the above link). Until then, for English translations of the Hebrew text, I would recommend for comparison and study purposes especially those translations that do not modify difficult places in the received Masoretic Text by reference to the Septuagint or other witnesses, or by conjectural emendation. The New American Standard Bible (NASB) and New King James Version (NKJV) are fairly good at this, but I myself have consulted in the past the Jewish Publication Society translation, and very profitably at that. For the Septuagint, the New English Translation of the Septuagint (NETS) is the lone acceptable option. For the New Testament, the NKJV is very useful, because it notes (most, but not all!) differences between the Byzantine/Majority Text and the “Critical Text” in its textual footnotes. But these are all very formal translations, sometimes too woodenly literal, which can be most detrimental precisely to the student without the languages since they would be unacquainted with, e.g., figures of speech, and thus might be easily tempted to overinterpretation. To smooth those edges, I would recommend consulting something like the New Living Translation (NLT), newly available in a revised edition with the Anaginoskomena/Deuterocanonicals, whose dynamic and often periphrastic readings can helpfully break down some of the difficulties of the original, even in translation. I hope that helps!

  2. I don’t understand the following part of this post: “as even a passing acquaintance with matters of New Testament introduction would make clear, no formal or official pronouncement on the contents of the biblical canon was ever made by an ecclesiastical communion or body prior to the Council of Trent and the various confessions of the Reformation.”

    What about the Council of Florence, which gave a definitive list of the Old and New Testament canon in a universal way for the Roman Catholic Church? Also there are the local councils of Hippo, Carthage and Rome, which give the canon on a regional level.

    1. The key word there is contents. That is, no body had made a specific text authoritative, in contrast with a canonical list of books. And the question of text itself is indeed the whole point of this post.

      1. Makes sense. When I think of contents of the canon I think of the table of contents for the canon. I see what was meant with the clarification provided. Thanks!

  3. Thank you, Fr. Esteban, for a lucid presentation on a timely subject. The 500th Anniversary of the Reformation is giving vent to all kinds of commentary, from the “continuing enormities of Rome” to the damage caused to the Church in the West by the fractiousness of Protestantism run amok. As an Episcopalian priest, with very deep roots in Rome, I am grateful when someone who could be scholarly in polemic contra the Western Church, sticks to the issue at hand and reminds us of the limits of language and translation.

Comments are closed.