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The Reformation and Churchly Scripture

There is a tension in Protestant ecclesiology that Timothy George only hints at in his treatment of the “churchly context of reading Scripture” and in his dismissal of the Maritainian critique of Luther’s radical individualism (“Reading the Bible with the Reformers,” March).

Either the Church is ontologically and theologically prior to the inspired Scriptures or it is not. If it is, then sola scriptura “based challenges to the Church are out of order today just as they were in 1517. But if the Church is not prior, then ecclesial activity (in any compelling sense) cannot extend to the establishment of exegeses, creeds, or disciplines that go one iota beyond what can be apprehended by every individual reader of the Scriptures.

Alas, denominations have multiplied over the past five hundred years because the sacred text is not self-interpreting. To claim that “Reformation exegesis resisted the disintegrating impulse of deconstruction” invites the rebuttal that the Reformation’s rejection of ecclesial priority was itself a factor in the eventual rise of deconstructionism. A return to Lutheran and Calvinist exegesis, it may well be feared, can only amount to reentering the familiar cycle of disintegration at a point long since passed.

There is a deep divide between a “churchly” approach to the Scriptures that is merely collective and one that is, in the final analysis, magisterial. The former may enlarge, but does not in essence transcend, the individualism Maritain spoke of, while the latter does transcend it.

Stan Grove
LANDER, Wyoming

Timothy George’s fine article is a bracing call, reminding us of one of the most significant features of the reform movements of the sixteenth century. The reformers were first and foremost dependent upon the Word of God, the written text of the Bible, for their insights into the problems of the Church. Indeed, if judged solely on their literary output, many reformers would have to be considered primarily scriptural commentators.

The Bible was their highest norm for faith and life, but the reformers did not come to the Bible alone. They did so in the context of a community, made up of the living as well as the dead, the whole “communion of saints,” as the Creed puts it. They understood themselves to be standing largely “on the shoulders of giants” in the faith and, for all of their criticism of the excesses and abuses in the Church, they were self-consciously inheritors of a holy deposit of the faith, what George identifies as the regula fidei , the rule of faith.

This sense of tradition, of relationship with those who have gone before, characterizes the ways in which the reformers picked up (albeit sometimes with sharp critique) the inherited legacy of the medieval period. It is instructive on this point that the result of biblical exegesis does not typically resolve itself along confessional, or even generational, lines.

George rightly points out that we have many helps unavailable to the reformers, including computer and digital tools as well as archeological and textual findings. But in far too many cases today these can become substitutes for rather than aids to true knowledge of the biblical message.

George’s great service in this essay is to remind us that, in reading the Bible with the reformers, we too stand on the shoulders of giants. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer once put it, “We must learn to know the Scriptures again, as the reformers and our fathers knew them . . . . One who will not learn to handle the Bible for himself is not an evangelical Christian.” This imperative, which involves engaging the biblical text itself as well as the history of its interpretation, truly is a matter of life and death.

Jordan Ballor

Here’s hoping that the lack of full disclosure and fuzzy ecclesiology in Timothy George’s “Reading the Bible with the Reformers” are rectified in the volume from which that article came. First, readers need to know why George recommends the reformers specifically while also trying to minimize their differences with the Benedictine monks of the Middle Ages and with Augustine, whom he cites as examples of Scripture-centered Christians. Second, what different ways of reading Scripture did the Reformation bring (George summarizes how the literal sense changed)? Third, the magnitude of this change needs to be fully stated, along with how the reformers’ rule of faith differed from that employed by the Church Fathers and how the reformers differed among themselves in their reading of Scripture.

Lastly, how can readers accept the notion that “while in many cases [the reformers] broke with the received interpretations of the fathers and the Scholastics who came before them, theirs was nonetheless a churchly hermeneutics,” when there is no definition of the church offered and no acknowledgment of how reformers read the Bible in ways that empowered them to divide bodies of Christians from one another?

Mark Reasoner

First, a disclaimer: I am absolutely, unyieldingly, and unequivocally one of those papists that Fr. Martin Luther, the Augustinian monk, and the other “reformers” opposed. This will definitely color any of the remarks that follow. I have loved and respected the Bible as the inspired Word of God ever since the summer of my sixth grade when I read it”all of it”balancing it on one knee with a dictionary perched on the other. I read Timothy George’s article hoping for some new understanding of the reformers and their view of the Bible.

However, after reading the article, I find I have no more understanding of, nor comfort in, the plethora of types of exegesis described, and George’s references to the copying and chanting of Benedictine monks are no help whatsoever. The “reformers” have left behind a book truncated to suit their own purposes. When did the Bible become the “inerrant and inspired Word of God”? Was it when Holy Mother Church, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, finally collected and codified all the books of sacred Scripture, or was it when the reformers removed what clashed with their views and then labeled those books Apocrypha ?

Christ is the true husband in the most complete sense of the term. He loves and cares for His bride, the Church, no matter how abused, soiled, and bedraggled she may be. He is faithful to her and has promised that the “gates of hell” shall not prevail against her. Considering the untold pain and confusion the reformers caused, I cannot say I am impressed by their reading of any version of the Bible. I can only pray that God may give the descendents of the “reformers” the grace to return to His Church, His Bible, and His Sacred Tradition.

Gina Nakagawa

Timothy George replies:

Among the respondents, the score is one for, three against. I thank them all for their comments.

Jordan Ballor has summarized well the central thrust of my argument, which was to place the Reformation and its focus on the Bible in the context of the ongoing history of the people of God. The wonderful quote from Bonhoeffer reminds us that the great struggle of his life also involved a proper recovery of Reformation exegesis. Nineteen hundred and thirty-three, the year of Hitler’s ascendancy, was also the 450th anniversary of Luther’s birth. The German church struggle involved an intense battle over how to “read the Bible with the reformers.”

Grove, Reasoner, and Nakagawa all seem to assume that the Reformation was the cause of the disintegration of a unified Church. But this belief will not bear close historical scrutiny. Already in 1054 the churches of the East had gone their separate way. The extravagant claims of Boniface VIII (to whom Dante assigned an uncomfortable afterlife) were challenged not only by Lollards and Hussites but also by the conciliar movement within the bosom of the Church. The Council of Constance succeeded in ending the scandal of three simultaneous popes. Until the sixteenth century, the Church had not settled the doctrine of justification, the extent of the canon, or the relationship of Scripture and Tradition.

In this fluid and unsettled situation, the reformers sought to listen afresh to the living voice of the gospel in the written Word of God. Both Catholic and Protestant scholars studied the Scriptures on the basis of new critical editions of the Hebrew and Greek texts, which were then translated and disseminated for the unlatined laity in all the vernacular languages of Europe. The result was an amazing profusion of biblical comment that greatly enriched the preaching and spiritual life of the Church.

Many of the questions raised by my readers will, I trust, be answered in my book Reading Scripture with the Reformers . Here I can only comment briefly on several of them. The distinction between consensual and magisterial approaches to the Bible is a false antithesis. Any church that is willing to excommunicate anyone for any reason whatsoever has a magisterium. A community that would never consider such can hardly be called a church in any meaningful sense. In the present pontiff the Catholic Church is blessed to have one of the most able theologians ever to occupy the chair of Peter. All Christians can be grateful for his theological and exegetical work, especially his two-volume Jesus of Nazareth .

But I do not see how the positing of an infallible teaching office has prevented the flourishing of extraordinarily diverse interpretations of the Bible, including some that contradict not only the Holy Father’s reading of the New Testament but also the most basic axioms of historic Christian orthodoxy. This is not to play the “you have more heretics than we do” game, at which the Protestants would surely lose. But it is to say that adherence to a particular view of the Church’s magisterium is no guarantee of interpretive unity or even fidelity.

Finally, when did the Bible become the inerrant and inspired Word of God, during the early Church or in the Reformation era? The answer is: neither. The Church is creatura divini verbi , not its creator. That prerogative belongs to God alone, who inspired the prophetic and apostolic writers of the sacred text. But that the Church certainly did”and does”have a providential role in the recognition of the canon as well as its transmission, translation, and interpretation is not doubted. So thank God for those Benedictine monks.


After reading David Mills’ evocative short essay (“Real Death, Real Dignity,” March), it occurred to me that we have no further to look in the Easter season for a reply to those who espouse “death with dignity” than the mystery of Christ’s passion and death, which St. Paul so aptly declared a “stumbling block” to the Jews and inexplicable to the Gentiles.

James Lumberg
pebble beach, California

I am a new subscriber and have received only two or three issues of FIRST THINGS , but your March issue arrived in our mailbox at a most appropriate time.

Eighteen months ago, my husband was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia. He underwent three rounds of chemotherapy and was in remission until two months ago. My husband told his doctor that he wanted to die at home.

When the March issue arrived, my husband and I had just had a discussion with his daughter about living wills and durable powers of attorney for healthcare and related “end of life” issues. I tried to convey to her that the documents mean you have the right to say not when you are going to die but rather how. When I read David Mills’ essay, I cried, not only for Mills’ loss but also for the wonderful example of dignity reflected in his father’s death.

Individuals who want “death with dignity” are playing God; the long-term results of this on society as a whole cannot be imagined.

I am blessed to be sharing this time with my husband. Each day, each moment, is a gift of God, and I would not trade a nanosecond of it. Many times, we just sit together in quiet and thank God for the gift He has given us. We pray together, and, most of all, we laugh”a lot, for, if we did not laugh, we would end up in tears. People tell us they admire our courage. I don’t know if we’re courageous, but we are trying to live (and die) according to God’s will, and that’s good enough for us.

Marcyanna Fritz

I chewed on the ideas in David Mills’ touching remembrance of his father’s death. His direct and plainspoken rejection of the euphemisms of euthanasia was convincing, but something else was not:

But you are not God, and, the Christian believes, the decision of when to leave this life is not one He has delegated to you. It is not your call. The Father expects you to suffer if you are given suffering and to put up with indignities if you are given indignities. The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away; blessed be the name of the Lord. And that, as far as dying goes, is that.

This dismissive line, “The Father expects you to suffer if you are given suffering,” tossed off after “you are not God,” gives the sense of a writer who, though believing what he says, has seen little of death himself.

As a son I also attended the death of a parent”my mother. As a physician I have attended many other deaths, and I remain unpersuaded by Mills’ assessment.

Instead, I find compassion and wisdom in the Catechism : “The use of painkillers to alleviate the sufferings of the dying, even at risk of shortening their days, can be morally in conformity with human dignity if death is not willed as either an end or a means, but only foreseen and tolerated as inevitable” ( Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2279 ).

James Brewer III, M.D.

I am sure many correspondents have written to express their appreciation for the article by David Mills about dignity and the death of his father. He tells us of the indignities his ailing father had to suffer. Clearly, one does not have to be dying to suffer indignities. Dignity in treatment is thus a topic on its own.

I want here simply to emphasize the difference between indignities and embarrassments. One can suffer indignities when one is unconscious and hence entirely saved from embarrassment. On the other hand, one can be embarrassed by this or that aspect of one’s care without in the least suffering indignity, as when a shy patient consults an ordinarily decent doctor.

It does a certain mischief to refer, let us say, to having one’s bottom wiped as “an indignity.” Nor need it necessarily be an indignity to be seen drooling or grimacing. David Mills suggests it is somehow not dignified for an elderly man to find himself having to be dressed by a cheerful young woman the age of his granddaughter.

I think we should resist this thought. It stigmatizes dependency. It is no insult to a baby to wipe its bottom. Nor need it be an insult to any one of us, when we become dependent in that way. The ideology of death-with-dignity trades on these unlovely confusions.

Christopher Miles Coope

David Mills replies:

I thank James Lumberg and Marcyanna Fritz, as well as those who wrote privately, for their kind responses, and Christopher Coope for his important refinement or correction. I’ve seen more of death than I’d like, including the death of my mother, but more to the point, I don’t see how any Christian can deny, as James Brewer does, that God has not given us the decision of when to leave this life and that this may well require us to accept more suffering than we want. Of course we will want to reduce the suffering as much as we can. My father was, blessedly, in little physical pain in the last weeks of his life, but nevertheless suffered (and felt intensely) the embarrassments that come with the process of dying.


Kudos to Douglas Farrow for exposing the legal conundrum of “hate crimes” (“Blurring Sexual Boundaries,” March). When the law intrudes on the slippery slope of who is entitled to “hate protection,” it ventures onto a pathway beyond its capacity or purpose. How shall we define with legal precision every potential source of hatred of which the human condition is capable?

It is the task of the law to deal with the results of such hatred and not to dabble in prospective psychoanalysis. For instance, some would argue, with logical sufficiency, that Farrow’s assertion of a “basic binary logic of sex” is flawed and a hateful idea that discriminates against those of other “genders.” Hence, the slippery descent begins at the outset.

Richard Whicker

Douglas Farrow writes that adding gender identity and gender expression to the “prohibited grounds of discrimination” amounts to “an attack on one of the existing grounds: sex.” I have thought for some time that the earlier addition of “sexual orientation” to the recognized ground of discrimination allowed homosexual men to discriminate against women on the basis of sex, which ought to have upset feminists very much, but apparently did not.

If the “anti-discriminatory” trend in Canada proceeds logically enough, our courts may eventually rule that a man who marries a woman is discriminating, on the basis of sexual orientation, against a homosexual who wants to “marry” him.

Vincent Colin Burke

Douglas Farrow replies:

Vincent Colin Burke’s scenario, suggesting a hidden danger for the bisexual who is sued by a jilted lover, seems the stuff of a comedy sketch. But it raises a serious point. Sexual orientation is territory of which the law should have been much warier. Not only because it is fraught with ambiguities both of nature and of nurture but because it has been used to traffic in contraband goods.

Civil rights law tried to curtail discrimination based on fixed human features, such as race or sex or disability, which are independent of personal choice. The addition of sexual orientation as a prohibited ground changed that, however, opening the door to a chaotic horde of conflicting rights claims.

This addition was often justified on the basis that orientation, too, is fixed by nature, the aforementioned ambiguities notwithstanding. But sexual orientation has always been understood at law as incorporating elements of choice and action, that is, of “lifestyle.” This has given rise to intractable problems that are at once philosophical (nature“freedom issues) and pressingly practical (civil freedom issues).

Nowhere is that more evident than in the inevitable conflict with religious rights, which are of another kind: a kind that engages nurture, choice, and action in a direct and more principled way; a kind that takes account of human nature on a spiritual as well as a biological level.

Marriage law is the obvious intersection for this conflict, but that is a topic for another article. In the present one I was trying to point out how the chameleon-like character of “sexual orientation” prepared the way for the new category of “gender identity and expression” to undermine sex itself as something fixed by nature. Or, more accurately, to undermine the significance of what is biologically constructed in favor of what is socially”dare we say, spiritually?”constructed.

I called this neo-Gnostic, and so it is. One can have fun with Gnosticism, of course, as St. Irenaeus did, but in the last analysis it is the stuff of tragedy, not comedy. And the tragedy in question will not befall a few hapless individuals. It will, by undermining the whole range of our rights discourse, befall our entire society.


Speaking as a recent graduate, I think the lack of “refinement of taste and delicacy of temperament” among most undergraduate students that Fr. Edward T. Oakes speaks of in “Newman’s Ideal University” (March) could be tied directly to the rise of postmodernist thought, which fails entirely in assisting students to develop dispositions toward truth, especially coupled with many graduates’ extreme careerism and the replacement of the well-rounded, ordered traditional liberal arts curriculum with the fragmented postmodern pastiche.

Newman’s vision for an ideal university that would awaken students to truth and sharpen their moral sensibilities could perhaps be realized once the postmodern emperors are dethroned”a prospect that grows increasingly likely as humanities and language departments are called on to justify their existence. Market forces and proposed cuts in higher education funding may play a key role in reestablishing the primacy of recession-proof “universal knowledge” in many humanities departments that have embraced the wiles of one or another discredited French philosopher. Today’s Delphic oracles may be forced into retreat, surviving perhaps only under the patronage of private universities with the discretionary funds to sustain dubious academic departments and programs.

Newman would definitely be dismayed at the hodgepodge curricula at some of America’s best universities, but he would also be heartened by efforts of those outside the academy, such as the French writer Alain de Botton, eager to make the humanities serve a didactic purpose. At the current rate, the negligence modern universities display in the moral and ethical formation of their students may prove to be their own undoing.

John Paul Makilya


Thomas Albert Howard’s description of the American double helix of religion and democracy (“The Dialectic and the Double Helix,” March) calls to mind the image invoked by Pope John Paul II in Fides et Ratio : “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.” Indeed, it is precisely because of the union of faith and reason that the American double helix was possible.

Democracy, more than any other form of government known to history, requires the exercise of reason on the part of the citizenry. Such a government demands much of its citizens and depends on wise and moral decisions. Skepticism of the average person’s capacity to reason and suborn immoral impulses led some of the great minds of political theory to dismiss the possibility of a successful democratic constitution.

Were democracy dependent on the unaided reason of the voting public, there might very well be cause for doubting the long-term viability of democratic government. For those who would not come to the morally sound decision through reason, faith supplies the boundaries within which democratic deliberation can take place, and for those who do arrive at the truth by reason, faith serves as reason’s indispensable”indeed, its superior”companion.

Howard’s double-helix thesis is thus a natural extension of the union of faith and reason. Through this unity, religion becomes, in the words of George Washington’s farewell address, one of the “indispensable supports” of successful government.

Joel Alicea


In his review of Javier Leach’s Mathematics and Religion (“Can We Know What We Know?” March), David Goldman covers a vast expanse of ground superficially in order to make his case, only hinting at huge metaphysical questions germane to the book. For example, even George Cantor conceded that “the absolute can only be acknowledged and admitted, never known, not even approximately.” In order to substitute one symbol for another, both mathematics and logic must impose a “sameness” on things only “similar.” This brings a pretended precision at the price of a reduction in scope.

Further, our human makeup has both rational and emotional poles, so attempts at total understanding must incorporate not only explanations but narratives as well. In short, whether he argues to it properly or not, Leach’s conclusion, which Goldman notes in the last sentence of the penultimate paragraph (that metaphysical judgments are unprovable but communal and value-laden), seems defensible. Alas, I myself have treated this all too cursorily.

C. G. Conway