"I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history." -Cardinal Francis George

Monday, June 20, 2011

Did the Church in the "Dark Ages" keep the Bible from the people?

I was recently told in front of a large group of people, (with impressionable women and children present) that the Catholic Church kept the Bible out of the peoples hands in the "Dark Ages". I responded that that was a bald lie with not even a hint of truth, and that in fact the opposite was the case, and that I could provide proof of that fact. At that time I was asked to provide that proof, which I will now do. Unfortunately, my guess is that only one or two of those present will take the time necessary (15-30 minutes) to read this response and the recommended reading. So the damage is most likely done. They quite possibly will be repeating the same fanciful tale a decade from now. Lord have mercy on that kind of slander that grows legs and not ears. If one has the time to make uninformed statements, they should have the time to be corrected and repent of their ignorance and defamation. In my experience however, it is rarely done. As St. James says in Ch. 3 of his letter:
"For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and creature of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by mankind. But no man can tame the tongue. It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison."

Saying that the institutional Catholic Church, the sole religious authority of an entire continent for the thousand years of the medieval period, was keeping the bible away from people either physically or by preventing translation into their vernacular language is a big, bold claim. One that should pop out of the history books if true (or if false). And if true, the Catholic Church would have been gravely evil. But if false, it would be quite a slander for someone to claim this. Of course this is a common narrative for Protestants though and is often just repeated without inquiry. It has become part of the "founding myth" of Protestants who fancy themselves the protectors and promoters of the Bible. So lets briefly examine the claim. I will pass on a couple links that if read will leave absolutely no doubt in the mind of a serious human being of good will that the claim is false.
Henry Graham's Where We Got the Bible is what I found most helpful. Chapters 9-12 are amazing. But if you only have a half hour or so, chapter 11 is an absolute must. If you cant take the time to read Ch. 11, please do not comment here or broach the topic with me ever again. I will not play games with the truth. And like I said, to make big statements but not wish to engage critically about them is just slimy. Better to not pontificate at all than to throw empty words of slander out there with no proof. So I encourage any Protestant reader here to read chapter 11.
Here is the opening paragraph and some passages from chapter 11 with my emphasis.
...people who could read at all in the Middle Ages could read Latin: [DM: the Latin Vulgate was widely available of course] hence there was little need for the Church to issue the Scriptures in any other language. But as a matter of fact she did in many countries put the Scriptures in the hands of her children in their own tongue. (I) We know from history that there were popular translations of the Bible and Gospels in Spanish, Italian, Danish, French, Norwegian, Polish, Bohemian and Hungarian for the Catholics of those lands before the days of printing, but we shall confine ourselves to England, so as to refute once more the common fallacy that John Wycliff was the first to place an English translation of the Scriptures in the hands of the English people in 1382.

Here (from Ch. 11) is a taste of what St. Thomas More had to say about the topic in the 16th century (my emphasis):
Thomas More, Lord Chancellor of England under Henry VIII who says: 'The whole Bible long before Wycliff's day was by virtuous and well-learned men translated into the English tongue, and by good and godly people with devotion and soberness well and reverently read' (Dialogues III). Again, 'The clergy keep no Bibles from the laity but such translations as be either not yet approved for good, or such as be already reproved for naught (i.e., bad, naughty) as Wycliff's was. For, as for old ones that were before Wycliff's days, they remain lawful and be in some folks' hand. I myself have seen, and can show you, Bibles, fair and old which have been known and seen by the Bishop of the Diocese, and left in laymen's hands and women's too, such as he knew for good and Catholic folk, that used them with soberness and devotion.'

(2) But you will say, that is the witness of a Roman Catholic. Well, I shall advance Protestant testimony also...

[dm: Next is where the myth breaks down badly. The translators of the Authorized Version explode it themselves (my emphasis): ]

The translators of the Authorised Version, in their 'Preface', referring to previous translations of the Scriptures into the language of the people, make the following important statements. After speaking of the Greek and Latin Versions, they proceed:

'The godly-learned were not content to have the Scriptures in the language which themselves understood, Greek and Latin ... but also for the behoof and edifying of the unlearned which hungered and thirsted after righteousness, and had souls to be saved as well as they, they provided translations into the Vulgar for their countrymen, insomuch that most nations under Heaven did shortly after their conversion hear Christ speaking unto them in their Mother tongue, not by the voice of their minister only but also by the written word translated.'
Now, as all these nations were certainly converted by the Roman Catholic Church, for there was then no other to send missionaries to convert anybody, this is really a valuable admission. The Translators of 1611, then, after enumerating many converted nations that had the Vernacular Scriptures, come to the case of England, and include it among the others.
'Much about that time,' they say (1360), even in our King Richard the Second's days, John Trevisa translated them into English, and many English Bibles in written hand are yet to be seen that divers translated, as it is very probable, in that age . ... So that, to have the Scriptures in the mother tongue is not a quaint conceit lately taken up, either by the Lord Cromwell in England [or others] ... but hath been thought upon, and put in practice of old, even from the first times of the conversion of any nation.'
This testimony, from the Preface, (too little known) of their own Authorised Bible, ought surely to carry some weight with well disposed Protestants.

So having read at least chapter 11 you can now admit this fantasy of the medieval Catholic Church squirrelling away the scripture is false and that the opposite is the case, the Catholic Church was the guardian and disseminator of the Scriptures in the Middle Ages, as even the King James preface says.
Feel free to comment below.

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