One of the latest blog entries from Called to Communion (CTC) is entitled Calvin, Trent, and the Vulgate: Misinterpreting the Fourth Session. The writer explains the “Reformed” popularly portray Trent as “enshrining the Vulgate” at the expense of Biblical linguistic research. Note the following excerpts:

When I first began to take interest in theology, and in Reformed theology in particular, during college, I learned the story of how the Catholic Church closed herself off to serious study of the Holy Bible at the Council of Trent (1545-1563). The act in question is the Council’s enshrining the Vulgate, Jerome’s Latin translation of Bible, in its first decree, which was adopted during the fourth session on April 8th, 1546… That the Catholic Church did such a thing only confirmed my predilection for the Reformed tradition.

Trent made it the official version in an astounding act of arrogance, locking her faithful up in the prison of ignorance about the Scriptures and thus about Christ. I believed this story as did several of my friends.

Everyone knew that the Vulgate had acquired errors that provided purportedly divine authorization for the Catholic view of justification, Purgatory, the penitential system, the veneration of Mary and the saints, and spurious sacraments such as confirmation and marriage. Trent made it the official version in an astounding act of arrogance, locking her faithful up in the prison of ignorance about the Scriptures and thus about Christ. I believed this story as did several of my friends.

The basic thrust of complaint is that Reformed Protestants say Trent’s Vulgate decision was done in order to promote ignorance. Who exactly taught this? Which college taught this? Was it a Reformed college? The CTC blogger doesn’t say, but does go on to locate the ultimate Reformed culprit, John Calvin:

The problem is that this story is a myth. It is a myth like the myth that the Catholic Church officially opposed the translation of Sacred Scripture into other vernacular languages in itself. When I was seeking Protestant sources and arguments to keep me from converting to Catholicism, I found that this misinterpretation came down to me from the very pen of John Calvin.


So it was none other than John Calvin that probably popularized the “myth” that Romanism officially authorized an inferior Latin translation of the Bible to be her “official” translation to keep her people ignorant.  CTC later states, “According to Calvin, Trent swept away the need for studying Greek and Hebrew in marking the Vulgate as the authentic text of the Church.” According to CTC, the truth is that the decree of Trent “was above all aimed at standardizing the Latin text of the Bible for the Church, especially the Latin Rite.” Trent’s decree had nothing to do with keeping the Roman church ignorant. Rather, Trent simply wanted to standardize the Latin text.

It is quite true that there were problems with the Latin manuscripts during this period of history. William Whitaker’s Disputations on Holy Scripture outlines this problem succinctly (see the discussion beginning on page 128). However, the notion that John Calvin perpetuated a Reformed (or Reformation) “myth” is not the case. Nor do I think CTC understands Calvin’s actual arguments or the actual issues surrounding the Vulgate during this time period. 

CTC quotes Calvin’s Antidote to the Council of Trent (1547). Henry Beveridge notes, “It is believed to be the earliest publication in which the proceedings of that body were fully and systematically reviewed.” Calvin’s introduction is dated November 21,1547. Take notice that it was only a short time previous (April 8, 1546) that Trent’s Insuper decree stated:

Moreover, the same holy council considering that not a little advantage will accrue to the Church of God if it be made known which of all the Latin editions of the sacred books now in circulation is to be regarded as authentic, ordains and declares that the old Latin Vulgate Edition, which, in use for so many hundred years, has been approved by the Church, be in public lectures, disputations, sermons and expositions held as authentic, and that no one dare or presume under any pretext whatsoever to reject it.

John Steinmueller explains that this decree is commonly held to be a disciplinary Decree based upon the dogmatic fact that the Vulgate conforms substantially with the originals, and therefore contains no errors in faith and morals (John Steinmueller, S.T.D., S.Scr.L., A Companion to Scripture Studies (New York: Wagner, 1941), Volume I, General Introduction to the Bible, p. 186, n.13). When Trent picked the Old Latin Vulgate, she meant business. It appears in Trent’s collective mind, the old Vulgate was at least faithful enough to serve the church as her official Bible. John Calvin died in 1564.  The actual revised Vulgate appeared in 1590. Therefore, throughout John Calvin’s entire life, an inferior Bible translation was indeed the standard for Roman Catholicism. The Insuper decree is dated 1547. So it was actually 43 years later in which a new edition of the Vulgate came out, and even that translation was a mess (including an interesting subterfuge / cover up perpetuated by Bellarmine and Gregory XIV). The first Calvin quote utilized by CTC states:

But as the Hebrew or Greek original often serves to expose their ignorance in quoting Scripture, to check their presumption, and so keep down their thrasonic boasting, they ingeniously meet this difficulty also by determining that the Vulgate translation only is to be held authentic. Farewell, then, to those who have spent much time and labor in the study of languages, that they might search for the genuine sense of Scripture at the fountainhead!

According to CTC, here Calvin went beyond what Trent said: “Trent nowhere forbids the use of the original languages.” There are though a few things that should jump out from this Calvin quote. The first is “Hebrew or Greek original” and secondly, “the Vulgate translation only is to be held authentic” and thirdly, the relationship of these two statements. Calvin’s concern here is to protect the actual text of the Bible: the Hebrew and Greek manuscripts. That is, if one wants to declare what the authentic text is, look no further than the Bible written its original tongue. But shouldn’t it go without saying that the Hebrew and Greek texts are the authentic text of Scripture? Shouldn’t it be assumed Trent held that the Hebrew and Greek were included among the authentic text? Actually, no. In David King’s book Holy Scripture The Ground and Pillar of Our Faith Volume 1 (Battle Ground: Christian Resources inc., 2001),  there is a fairly detailed discussion on Rome and the Latin Vulgate (pp. 162-169). Speaking on the proceedings at Trent, King states,

Cardinal Pacheco demanded that all other versions excepting the Vulgate be condemned, but this was largely rejected by the Tridentine Council. Cardinal Pole requested that the ‘Hebrew and Greek originals’ be included among the authentic text. This request was likewise rejected (p.162).

In laying out the points of Trent, Calvin states in the Antidote, “Thirdly, repudiating all other versions whatsoever, they retain the Vulgate only, and order it to be authentic.” He later goes on to state, “What! are they not ashamed to make the Vulgate version of the New Testament authoritative, while the writings of Valla, Faber, and Erasmus, which are in everybody’s hands, demonstrate with the finger, even to children, that it is vitiated in innumerable places?” Calvin’s concern is that Trent picked a severely handicapped and inferior translation as the official Bible of the church. The Cambridge Companion to John Calvin points out, “Calvin was furthermore disappointed that instead of going to the original Greek and Hebrew texts of the Bible, it chose the Latin Vulgate as the authoritative version.”

William Whitaker also provides an interesting look at this period in history verifying Calvin’s concern. One of the major arguments during this time period was over what exactly constituted the authentic text of Scripture. Whitaker states, “Our adversaries determine that the authentic scripture consists not in the Hebrew and Greek originals, but in the Vulgate Latin version. We, on the contrary side, say that the authentic and divinely-inspired scripture is not this Latin, but the Hebrew edition of the old Testament, and the Greek of the new.” Whitaker then states actual Roman Catholic arguments as espoused by Bellarmine in favor of the Vulgate Latin being the actual authentic text of the Scriptures: “He proposes his First argument in this form: For nearly a thousand years, that is, from the time of Gregory the Great, the whole Latin church hath made use of this Latin edition alone” (p. 135). Bellarmine goes on to make a number of arguments in favor of the Latin text, all responded to by Whitaker.  Whitaker also documents that it simply wasn’t Bellarmine arguing for the Latin Vulgate:

Certain English popish divines, who have taken up their abode in the seminary of Rheims, some years since translated the new Testament into the English tongue, not from the Greek text, but from the old Latin Vulgate. In order to persuade us of the wisdom and prudence of this proceeding, they produce in their preface ten reasons to prove that this Latin Vulgate edition is to be followed in all things rather than the Greek (p.141).

These “popish divines” went on to argue that “The sacred council of Trent, for these and many other very weighty reasons, hath defined this alone of all Latin translations to be authentic” (p.143). Whitaker raises some interesting objections, noting that even at the time Trent spoke, what she said was open to interpretation:

I answer: In the first place, that Tridentine Synod hath no authority with us. Secondly, What right had it to define this? Thirdly, It hath proposed no grounds of this decree, except this only, -that that edition had been for a long time received in the church; which reason, at least, every one must perceive to be unworthy of such great divines. Fourthly, I desire to know whether the council of Trent only commanded this Latin edition to be considered the authentic one amongst Latin editions, or determined it to be absolutely authentic? For if it only preferred this one to other Latin translations, that could be no reason to justify the Rhemists in not making their version of the new Testament from the Greek; since the council of Trent prefers this, not to the Greek edition, but to other Latin translations. Do they, then, make both this Latin and that Greek edition authentic, or this Latin only? Indeed, they express themselves in such a manner as not to deny the authenticity of the Greek, while nevertheless they really hold no edition of either old or new Testament authentic, save this Latin Vulgate only. This is the judgment of these Rhemists who have translated the new Testament from the Latin; and this the Jesuits defend most strenuously, maintaining that, where the Latin differs from the Greek or Hebrew, we should hold by the Latin rather than the Greek or Hebrew copies. And it is certain that this is now the received opinion of the papists (p.143).

So one of the main arguments during this time period was: what exactly constituted the authentic text of the Bible? Whitaker’s entire discussion is a worthy read. I wonder if the CTC author even had this basic text during the years he claims to have been “Reformed.” When dealing with history Roman Catholic converts are often prone to look down from their current perspective and chastise someone (like John Calvin) without at least trying to understand what informed his perspective in the first place. There is indeed “myth” going on here, but it isn’t from Calvin’s hand. Rather, I think CTC has missed Calvin’s main concern and also engaged in a bit of anachronism.

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