THE TIME OF THE REFORMATION
VIEWS ON THE CHURCH
In our last article we called attention to the fact that the Romish doctrine of Tradition must not be confused or identified with the truth which advocated development in the knowledge of the Holy Scriptures. Protestantism surely believes in such a development and advancement. We believe in the perspicuity, transparency, and also in the profundity of the written Word of God. There will surely always remain hidden nuggets, treasures, unfathomable riches in the Word of the Lord. However, these riches were always present in the Scriptures. They must never be viewed as revelations of the truth in addition to the Bible. This, we understand, is exactly what Rome means when it speaks of the authority of its traditions. But the Church of God simply advances and grows in its knowledge of these truths which were always present in the Word of God. In this article we wish to continue our critical analysis of the Roman Catholic doctrine of Tradition as decreed in the Romish Council of Trent.
First, the Romish doctrine of Tradition simply involves us in a natural impossibility. It is simply impossible. We do not deny, of course, that Christ and His apostles said more than what is recorded in the books of the New Testament canon, the New Testament. And neither do we deny that these sayings of Jesus, in addition to what is recorded in the New Testament, are just as infallible as these books of the New Testament. We certainly believe that, as far as the apostles are concerned, they, too, wrote and said more than what is written in the New Testament. And they were surely infallibly guided and led by the Holy Spirit whenever they were busy in their official capacity as apostles. We know, for example, that there were more than two epistles to the church at Corinth. And that third epistle must also have been infallibly written. However, it is not the question whether there was more said by Christ and His apostles than what is recorded in Holy Writ. Protestantism maintains that not all the sayings of Jesus and His apostles were intended to constitute a part of the permanent rule of faith and doctrine to the Church.
However, we remarked that the Romish doctrine of Tradition involves us in a natural impossibility. Who will determine what belongs to these unrecorded sayings of Jesus and His apostles and what does not belong to them? We can understand, of course, that these unwritten sayings of Jesus and His apostles could be authoritative in the very early days of the Church in its New Testament infancy. These sayings then were passed on from mouth to mouth. One can conceive of the possibility of this at the beginning of the Church in the New Dispensation. But, as the days of Jesus and the apostles receded more and more into the past, and the distance became increasingly wider between them and the Church, the impossibility of a reliable and infallible tradition became more and more apparent. Does man, because of the presence of the power of sin in him, have the clearness of perception, the retentiveness of memory, or the power of presentation to enable him to give a trustworthy account of a discourse once heard a few years or even a few months after its delivery? Does man, sinful man have the ability to give a trustworthy and reliable account of the sayings of Jesus and His apostles after years and centuries have elapsed since their delivery?
This, however, is not all. We must bear in mind that man is sinful. Would the Lord entrust His infallible Word to the memory of sinful men? Are not all men by nature blind to the things that are of the Spirit? Is it not man’s natural disposition and inclination to pervert and misrepresent the truth to suit his own prejudices and purposes? Would God, for example, entrust to man the writing of His Word? There are those, we know, who believe that the Word of God is in the Bible. They do not claim that the Bible is the Word of God but they would maintain that the Bible contains the Word of God, as, for example, a cradle contains a baby. Would God simply instruct a man to write, as in the epistle to the Romans, on the general theme of the Righteousness of God, and leave it to him to write on it and develop it in his own way? And then we should regard Tradition as of equal authority with the Word of God? How can Tradition be a reliable source of religious knowledge? Imagine if the retention of what Jesus or the apostles had said were left to the memory of man! How easy it would be to distort and pervert such truths as are recorded in Romans 9 where “we read that the Lord is the Potter and we are the clay, that the living God has the sovereign right to make of the clay whatever He pleases, that He makes vessels of honour and of dishonour, and that no man can or may reply against Him! The danger would surely exist that man would distort and corrupt these sayings to suit his own natural likes and dislikes. However, even this is not all. Still more can and must be said. Again we ask the question: who will determine whether these sayings of Jesus and of His apostles have been correctly reproduced? The Church of God in Africa protested against the exaggerated value which was attributed to Tradition especially in the second century. Cyprian appealed to texts such as Isaiah 29:13, Matt. 15:9, I Tim. 6:3-5 to counteract tradition as the ground upon which the bishop of Rome attempted to maintain himself. The question is therefore inevitable: who determines the value and purity of these traditions? Is the Church of God the organ which safeguards the infallibility of traditions? But, the church of God could surely not be this organ as far as its general membership is concerned. That is an obvious fact. How could the common membership of the church be in a position to read and interpret countless traditions and sayings of past centuries, also considering the fact that these traditions have come down to us in many and various languages? Distinction can be made in the church of God between those who hear and those who teach. One can hardly expect the hearing element of the church (the laity) to determine what is true or false. Does this teaching element (as, for example, the bishops) determine this question individually or when they are gathered in a council? And if they determine this question only when they are gathered in a council, does then the majority of votes determine the final outcome of the matter? How great must this majority be? Is a majority of one vote sufficient? And so the papal system went one step farther and ascribed infallibility to the pope. Hence, the infallibility of the pope, of one man, is the final result of this development of the doctrine of Tradition throughout the ages. One man, one ordinary mortal controls this tremendously important and vital question.
Another argument that may be voiced against the Roman Catholic doctrine of Tradition is that which revolved around the Roman Catholic doctrine of “common consent.” Rome, we know, glories in its unanimity. Roman Catholicism ridicules Protestantism because the latter is so hopelessly divided, cut up into hundreds of churches and denominations. We must bear in mind that, until the middle of the eleventh century, there was but one church of Christ in the midst of the world. It was in the middle of the eleventh century that the great schism occurred between the Latin and Greek sections of the Church of God, between the East and the West, between Rome and Constantinople. And then another tremendous break took place in the sixteenth century, at the time of the Reformation. And we know that since that time the Roman Catholic Church has remained intact; Protestantism, however, has suffered one break after another. Rome points to this fact with pride, seeks in its own unity and unanimity the earmark of its being the true church, and regards the splitting up of the Protestant churches as a sure indication that they are false. And Rome also sees in its own unity and unanimity a certain proof of the infallibility of Tradition. It calls attention to the fact that all the doctrines which they have adopted as based upon tradition must be true because these various doctrines enjoy such universal endorsement and approval.
To counter this argument of Roman Catholicism we may remark, in the first place, that Rome’s unity is merely external. Protestantism’s divisions and schisms are certainly to be deplored. This, of course, does not mean that we may ever seek the reunion of churches at the cost of the truth. However, any departure from the truth is always deplorable and terrible. Rome’s unity, however, is merely external. There all the people are held together in one faith and doctrine by an outward hierarchy, as loops around a barrel. The reason why Protestantism is split up into so many parts and segments is because the Reformation returned the Bible to the people. Give the people the liberty to read and interpret the Holy Scriptures and the invariable result will be that the evil of the human heart will always assert itself. This, of course, is no reflection on the Word of God and its clearness, but on the natural evil of the human heart and mind. The unity of the Roman Catholic Church is not internal and spiritual but outward and forced. That all the people of the Roman Catholic Church accept all the doctrines of Rome, also those doctrines which are based on tradition, is not because they chose them but because they have been imposed upon them.
Besides, in connection with Rome’s appeal to the argument of “common consent,” we must bear in mind that this argument of Rome is based upon the utterly preposterous assumption that the Romanists are the only Christians in the midst of the world. They claim that there is no salvation outside of the Church, and they claim that the Church is the Romish Church. Rome claims that the Church of Rome receives certain doctrines upon the authority of tradition. They also claim that the Church of Rome includes all the Christians in the midst of the world. And so they conclude that all the Christians throughout the world are in favour of these doctrines. And whereas the Christians throughout the world are in favour of these doctrines these doctrines must be true. This is their argument of “common consent.” Of course, this argument falls as soon as it becomes evident that all the Christians in the world are not confined to the Church of Rome. And the claim that all the Christians in the world are confined to the Church of Rome is surely preposterous. The movement of the Reformation was the work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of men, and this is clear from the fact that they sought to maintain the principle that the Bible alone is authoritative for life and doctrine and that our justification before God is not based in any sense of the word upon any work of man but only upon free and sovereign grace.
Finally, continuing our criticism of Rome’s’ appeal to the argument of “common consent,” let us presuppose, for the sake of argument, that the Romish Church is the whole Church of God in the midst of the world, and admit that that Church is unanimous in its maintaining of certain teachings and doctrines. Would in that case the appeal of Rome to this unanimity be conclusive? By no means. Rome must not only prove that they are unanimous today in what they teach. But they must also prove that the Church was always unanimous also in the past. The Lord willing, we will continue with this discussion in our following article.