Christianity / History

Notes on Religious History

I don’t often write about history from any sort of a religious perspective, reserving my fire for hypocritical idiocies such as “Second Amendment” ministries. I on one hand would rather avoid trudging into Ed Kilgore’s excoriation of Rick Santorum…until Kilgore fans the flames of the 16th century:

Okay, if you don’t know your religious history, the irony here is that a great deal of the conflict during the Reformation was over lay access to the Bible, especially in the vernacular. In England, it was a big and radical thing when Henry VIII ordered that every church in England have one English Bible available for anyone to read (though he later banned its reading by women or anyone from the “lower orders”). Meanwhile, the great English Bible translator, William Tyndale, was executed by strangulation and then burned at the stake by the Catholic Church in his Netherlands exile.

Some of us know our religious histories, Mr. Kilgore, and the rest have access to the internet. Tyndale’s The Practyse of Prelates in 1530 royally angered Henry VIII for its opposition to divorce (a minor sticking point for King Henry). Tyndale’s Judas in Antwerp, fellow Englishman Henry Phillips, betrayed Tyndale at the direction of the Crown:

The British Library tells us that Tyndale believed the Church should not have such great power over the people:

Tyndale’s mission was to make the Bible accessible to all. His translation was undeniably Lutheran in tone, replacing traditional words with new ones that argued a shift in the balance of religious power: ‘Congregation’ instead of Church; ‘elder’ in place of priest; and ‘repentance’ for penance.

Such an approach was inconsistent with the objectives of the church hierarchy.  Tyndale would have to be punished, and Henry Phillips was selected to put the process in motion:

…Phillips must have been told to be extremely careful about secrecy … Phillips was known to Cromwell as a persistent enemy of the State.  (William Tyndale: A Biography, by David Daniell, page 368.)

Yet … Tyndale’s arrest was not under the jurisdiction of English law.  He was arrested in Belgium, which (at the time) was part of the Holy Roman Empire.  The ruler-in-charge was Emperor Charles V, not Henry VIII.

What was Tyndale’s crime?  For what was he arrested, imprisoned for so long, and eventually condemned to death?  Phillips, [John] Foxe explains, had so ingratiated himself with the Court at Brussels by his declared hatred of King Henry that he was able to arrange for “the procurer-general, which is the emperor’s attorney no less, to go with him, with other officers, to Antwerp, to arrest Tyndale.  In other words, the charge was heresy, with not agreeing with the Holy Roman Emperor – in a nutshell, being a Lutheran.  (William Tyndale: A Biography, by David Daniell, page 365.)

After spending more than a year in a cell, Tyndale was condemned to death as a heretic:

Early in August 1536, when Tyndale had been in his cell at Vilvorde for four hundred and fifty days, he was formally condemned as a heretic, degraded from the priesthood, and handed over to the secular authorities for punishment – that is, burning at the stake.

The Catholic Church obviously does not come out of this incident with any accolades for its behavior, but the shame extends to two monarchs as well—and Tyndale singled out one in particular. From many sources, William Tyndale’s last words were “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes.”

I mean not to excoriate Ed Kilgore personally, who isn’t a hypocrite or an idiot—he merely seems misinformed:

Yes, that was a long time ago, and no, the Catholic Church no longer discourages lay Bible readership (though it most definitely maintains the belief that the Church created Scripture rather than the reverse, an idea that horrifies conservative evangelical Protestants).

[Italics and bolding mine.]

Apparently this ancient trope bothers liberal Protestants as well. At first blush, the statement appears to indicate Catholics believe Rome wrote the Old and New Testament, which clearly cannot be true (the Old Testament predates Christ himself by thousands of years, let alone the churches he spawned). But upon closer inspection, one remembers this is a statement made by a Protestant about Catholic belief (which Kilgore, I will demonstrate, doesn’t understand); a statement he likely has heard repeated at length for years if not decades. It is a goofy falsehood, which mistakes the work of an executive editor for the work of an author.

Canon—the Defense when you don’t have Cannons

The magisterium set the canon of the Bible on 28 August 397:

[Translated from Latin.]

It was also determined that besides the Canonical Scriptures nothing be read in the Church under the title of divine Scriptures. The Canonical Scriptures are these: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua the son of Nun, Judges, Ruth, four books of Kings, 3 two books of Paraleipomena, 4 Job, the Psalter, five books of Solomon, 5 the books of the twelve prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezechiel, Daniel, Tobit, Judith, Esther, two books of Esdras, 6 two books of the Maccabees. Of the New Testament: four books of the Gospels, one book of the Acts of the Apostles, thirteen Epistles of the Apostle Paul, one epistle of the same [writer] to the Hebrews, two Epistles of the Apostle Peter, three of John, one of James, one of Jude, one book of the Apocalypse of John. Let this be made known also to our brother and fellow-priest Boniface, or to other bishops of those parts, for the purpose of confirming that Canon because we have received from our fathers that those books must be read in the Church. Let it also be allowed that the Passions of Martyrs be read when their festivals are kept.

The Synod of 397 in Carthage primarily was reacting to the Arians. Arianism—the denial of the true divinity of Jesus Christ—was supposedly resolved with the First Council of Nicea in 325 and the First Council of Constantinople in 381. However, the followers of Arius were so influential in the post-Edict of Milan Roman Empire that Arius was immediately exonerated under pressure from Constantine following Arius’s excommunication in 325; and he was only declared a heretic again after his death in 336. Moreover, there was no guarantee the decrees from Constantinople in 381 would stop the rising Arian tide.

The Councils of Carthage, spread out between 255 and 484, concluded with an attempt by the King of the Vandals Huneric to convert all Catholics in North Africa to Arian Christianity. True to the name, the Arian Vandals began persecuting common Catholics (priests and virgins had been under Vandal threat since 480) when the bishops refused to convert. Persecution doesn’t have the same ring to it today that it did 1,531 years ago—Huneric tortured and killed his loyal proconsul Victorian and four Adrumentum merchants (two named Frumentius) when the five Catholic men refused to convert to Arianism on 23 March 484. God did have a sense of humor—Huneric died precisely nine months later. This was the tail-end of Huneric’s reign of ungodly terror, which generated the Martyrs of Africa.

Arius’s writings are or are approaching 1,700 years of age, which casts under suspicion contemporary texts such as the Gospel of Judas when it was unearthed in 2006. Perhaps the Catholic Church can be forgiven for its authoritative efforts to declare certain texts non-canonical (and heretical) in light of the Arian disaster. In reality, if controlling canon is the same as writing the texts almost all Protestant churches are guilty of “maintain[ing] the belief that the Church created Scripture rather than the reverse.”

16th Century Canon

Martin Luther was all about the canon—specifically questioning the authenticity of what became known as the Apocrypha (in the Old Testament) and the Antilegomena (in the New Testament). The Apocrypha consists of the books from the Old Testament that do not appear in the Hebrew Masoretic texts, which Luther moved to a section between the canonical (Lutheran) testaments. The Antilegomena was not relegated to non-canonical status by Luther, but like the Apocrypha the Book of Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation were grouped together at the end of the Lutheran New Testament. Luther cited as his inspiration St. Jerome, who had stipulated that Old Testament texts written in Greek instead of Hebrew were not canonical.

Born out of a sense that the previous canon (Synod of 397) had texts that were not divinely inspired (but nevertheless had value, just not to the degree of the canonical books), many Protestant churches followed the advice of St. Jerome: only the protocanonical books of the Old Testament are generally accepted as true scripture (outside of the New Testament). St. Jerome’s authority is referenced in the 1571 statement finalizing the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England. St. Jerome, in turn, is listed as a saint in both the Anglican and Lutheran Churches. So, when can we expect the Catholics to excommunicate him?

They won’t. St. Jerome was elevated to from canonized saint to Doctor of the Church in 1298, one of the original four. St. Jerome was best known for living an ascetic lifestyle…and translating the Bible into Latin (he must have been spinning in his grave when Tyndale was strangled and burnt in 1536). So, why didn’t the Catholic Church listen to one of its greatest heroes when it came to setting its canon? It did—in A.D. 397.

Scripture is Set in Stone…

St. Jerome was a Catholic priest who was 50 years old during the Synod in Carthage and lived until 30 September 420. His voiced his opinion on protocanonical texts during the final 15 years of his life, eight years after it mattered. The Carthage canon was revisited during the Council of Florence on 4 February 1442 and Council of Trent on 4 April 1546 and settled on…the exact same canon that had been in use since 28 August 397. At Trent, the Catholic Church further made St. Jerome’s 382 Latin translation, the Vulgate, the authoritative text (above the Hebrew and Greek originals, as Protestants were arguing). The Catholic bishops were unmoved by Luther’s arguments concerning the Apocrypha and Antilegomena, and settled on a single-language translation to further solidify the Carthage-era canon in stone. This likely is the source of the rumor that the Vatican “created” Scripture, when in fact the magisterium was essentially saying “no more arguing—we got it right in 397.”

Is it arrogant for the Catholic Church to make such a powerful statement? Perhaps…but why does it matter? No Christians are pushing to add books to the Bible, and even with the Apocrypha (deuterocanonical to the Catholic Bible) not one page will be removed. At long last, are there major points on which Catholics and Protestants can agree upon?

(Continued in Part 2)

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One thought on “Notes on Religious History

  1. Pingback: Notes on Religious History, Part 2 | In The Corner, Mumbling and Drooling

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