How We Lost the Bible

The Bible makes no explicit condemnations of transgenderism. It makes no claims as to the morality of abortion. It encourages racial reparations. Such claims can be found virtually everywhere in corporate media like the Washington Post, New York Times, or CNN, which seek to promote the various political objectives of the Democratic Party.

During his campaign for president, Episcopalian Pete Buttigieg argued that Jesus never mentioned abortion and that Bible verses censuring homosexuality were culturally conditioned, not eternal truths. The Washington Post, in turn, cites secular academics, who offer Biblical exegesis of a progressivist, feminist, and racial identitarian variety.

Of course, the Bible has always been a political document. The Old Testament was not only a religious and liturgical text but one that had much to say about the governance of the ancient kingdom of Israel. Jesus told his followers to respect and pay taxes to the Roman Empire. St. Paul described the temporal ruler as “God’s servant for your good.” (Romans 13:3-4)

For most of ecclesial history, the primary interpreters of Holy Scripture were not journalists, politicians, or secular academics, but the Catholic Church herself. Most early Church Fathers were priests or bishops. Ecumenical councils like Nicea, Chalcedon, or Lyon made determinations on theology, morality, and the meaning of the Bible.

But beginning in the fourteenth century, scholars like Marsilius of Padua and William of Ockham began questioning the hierarchy’s hold on biblical interpretation. Instead, they proposed, the Bible should be under the authority of scholarly experts supported by secular political authorities. Though it would take several centuries for their ideas to proliferate, this thinking came to fruition in the Reformation and Enlightenment, and inspire trends in scriptural exegesis to this day.

This story is the focus of Scott Hahn’s and Benjamin Wiker’s book, The Decline and Fall of Sacred Scripture: How the Bible Became a Secular Book. Less than three-hundred pages, the book summarizes the central arguments of the authors’ 2012 Politicizing the Bible: The Roots of Historical Criticism and the Secularization of Scripture 1300-1700, which is more than twice the size. This is a welcome development; it makes their important contributions accessible to a larger audience.

While the story begins with Marsilius and Ockham and their Erastian belief in the supremacy of the state over the Church, the reader will encounter many familiar faces. John Wycliffe, esteemed by Protestants as the “Morning Star” of the Reformation, argued that “the pope ought, as he formerly was, to be subject to Caesar.” The monarch would then employ “doctors and worshipers of the divine law” to interpret the Bible. Martin Luther also called for the German princes to wrest ecclesial power away from corrupt bishops and the Roman pontiff, and grant him unequaled interpretive authority. Indeed, Luther asked the prince of Saxony to expel fellow reformer Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt because of the latter’s radical teachings. Around the same time, Machiavelli viewed the biblical text as material for furthering secular political ends.

All of these men influenced the court of English King Henry VIII, who recognized that the Reformation offered an opportunity to consolidate his political power. Thus, he pursued the Act of Supremacy in 1534 to grant him “supreme” headship over the Church of England, followed by the dissolution of monasteries, closure of shrines, and seizure of Church wealth. His King’s Book then declared that individuals must be subject to the “particular church” of the region in which they live, and obey the “Christian kings and princes” to whom they are subject.

Other Englishmen would further endorse this thinking. In Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes asserts that there is only “one chief Pastor” who is “according to the law of Nature. . .the civil sovereign.” Hobbes also rejected many of the supernatural elements of Scripture, as well as Heaven and Hell. John Locke, dismayed by the violence and distemper caused by the English Civil War, endorsed a state-controlled church whose most important feature would be “toleration,” since religious sentiments were private matters “of the mind.” For Locke, Jesus was ultimately a political messiah whose teachings focused on the perpetuation of a “civil morality.”

There are many other actors in this torrid tale – Baruch Spinoza, J. Richard Simon, John Toland – but enough is clear from the above to appreciate the consequences of these religio-political trends. Proto-Reformers called for dethroning the Catholic hierarchy’s supremacy over biblical interpretation. The Reformers, relying on princes and kings, put that wish into practice. And political philosophers and state-sanctioned scholars normalized it. Wherever the Catholic Church ceased to exert ecclesial authority, the state took up the reins.

There has always been this tension between Church and state. St. Ambrose excommunicated the emperor Theodosius because of his execution of 7,000 citizens of Thessalonica. Pope Gregory VII excommunicated the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV because of a dispute over investiture. And Thomas Becket’s resistance to English King Henry II’s attempts to control the Church resulted in his murder at Canterbury Cathedral.

There is actually something healthy about this tension: when the state and the Church both operate strong spheres of power and influence, they serve as checks upon one another. Kings and governments cannot pursue any policy without risking moral condemnation from ecclesial leadership that will undermine their popular support. And Church corruption and nepotism can be used by secular authorities eager to usurp power.

Hahn’s and Wiker’s history tracks the growing imbalance in favor of the state, a disparity whose roots can be traced back to the late Medieval period. The ubiquitous promotion of Biblical interpretations that serve secular, liberal political agendas related to sex and race is only the latest manifestation of this centuries-old trend. To reverse it requires a return to a more ancient understanding that the Bible is, before all else, the book of the Church, rather than the state or its acolytes in the media or the academy. Catholics need to support and celebrate churchmen who appreciate and seek to realize that essential mission.

Casey Chalk

Casey Chalk is a contributor for Crisis Magazine, The American Conservative, and New Oxford Review. He has degrees in history and teaching from the University of Virginia and a master's in theology from Christendom College.

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