Shortly before I left for Rome, I ran into a group of Baptists preaching on the street corner. I went over to greet them, because I know from experience how tough public evangelization can be. I was wearing a Roman collar, so they were quick to hand me a tract claiming that Catholics aren’t Christians.
One of the men told me that Catholics weren’t saved because we believe that Baptism saves us. I had him read 1 Peter 3:21 outloud and try to explain how that doesn’t say that Baptism saves us. He was visibly surprised by the verse, and suggested maybe it only applied to Jews. He then changed the subject: didn’t I know that the Catholic Church had all sorts of unbiblical doctrines, and had covered this up by keeping the Bible in Latin, and out of the hands of ordinary believers?
This is a common accusation. Once it becomes clear that Catholics can defend the Church’s teachings from Scripture, many opponents of the Catholic Church will stop debating Scripture, and start debating history. And because neither side tends to know what they’re talking about, this tends to be an unproductive debate. So today, I want to consider one of the most common accusations: that, in the run up to the Reformation, the Catholic Church was suppressing Sacred Scripture, and trying to keep it (and the Gospel) out of the hands of ordinary believers.
The standard objection goes something like this: the Reformation was necessary because the Catholic Church had all sorts of unbiblical doctrines; and it took years for people to know this, because the Church prohibited people from reading the Bible to find out what it really said. To keep people from comparing Church teachings to the Bible, the Church required all Bibles to be in Latin.
It wasn’t until Luther that the Bible was translated into the common language. Even after this, those who tried to get Bibles into the hands of ordinary people (or in ordinary language) were burnt at the stake. Until these brave Protestants thwarted the Catholic conspiracy against the Bible, the pre-Reformation Catholic was a superstitious peasant with little knowledge of Scripture.
There are variations on this “history,” some versions more conspiratorial than others. But that’s the general outline… and it’s almost completely false.
There are two major points that the objectors get right: namely, that Bibles before the Reformation were typically in Latin, and that most ordinary people didn’t have access to Bibles. But there are obvious reasons for this. First, for most of the history prior to the Reformation, the written language for /virtually everything was Latin, and reading and writing in Latin was taught in school. For much of that time, it was also the language commonly spoken by ordinary people.
In the ancient world, it wasn’t unusual to speak one language, and write in another. For Protestants to criticize this is to betray a lack of historical understanding, and to attack the Evangelists. Remember that at the time of Christ, there were a wide variety of spoken languages throughout the Roman Empire, as Acts 2:5-8 makes clear. Yet the New Testament was written in Greek, not each local vernacular. Why? Because Greek was the standard written language. If you were literate, there was a good chance that, regardless of what you spoke, you read Greek.
By the fourth century, the standard written language in the West was Latin. This was also the language that most Westerners spoke. To respond to this shift, Pope Damasus ordered the Bible to be translated from the now-inaccessible Greek into more accessible Latin. As a result, this Bible became known as the Vulgate, because it was designed to reach the “vulgar” (common) people.
In other words, the Bible wasn’t in Latin to be inaccessible, but so that any literate Western European could read it. Even as Latin gradually devolved into French, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese, Latin remained the standard language for writing. That the Bible was in Latin rather than the local dialects is no more surprising than that modern Protestants prefer the King James Bible over a Bible written in, say, a southern dialect or Ebonics or Australian.
Latin also ensured that you could reach people who didn’t speak your local dialect. Having Latin as the standard language meant, for example, that St. Thomas Aquinas (an Italian) could learn under St. Albert the Great (a German) at the University of Paris, in France. The universality of Latin is also why many of the most famous writings of the Reformers, like John Calvin’s Institutes of Christian Religion, were written in Latin.
|The Galgolitic alphabet|
Latin, as I mentioned, was the norm for the Western half of the Church, particularly in the former Roman Empire. For the Eastern half, Greek remained the norm. But what about those areas that hadn’t been in the Roman Empire, and didn’t speak either? Often, the Scriptures and Christian writings would be translated into the local language.
Sometimes, this involved truly extraordinary efforts. For example, in the ninth century, St. Cyril and Methodius, with the support of Pope Nicholas I and Pope Adrian II, went to convert a number of Eastern Europeans who hadn’t heard the Gospel.
They quickly discovered that, not only did these people not speak Greek or Latin, but they didn’t even have a written language. So Cyril and Methodius invented an entire alphabet for them, called the Glagolitic alphabet. They did this so that they could have a written language, and so that they could receive the Scriptures. A descendant of that alphabet, fittingly called called “Cyrillic” in honor of St. Cyril, is used by a quarter-billion Eastern Europeans and Russians to this day. Does that sound like a Church that hates Scripture, and wants to keep it out of the hands of ordinary people? I’d gladly take the Church’s track record here and compare it with those who have named themselves “Bible Christians”: who has actually done more to spread the Gospel and the Scriptures?
While it’s true that most people didn’t have a household Bible prior to the Reformation, that’s because (1) hand-printed, hand-copied Bibles were extremely time-consuming (and expensive) to produce prior to the printing press, and (2) ordinary Europeans were often illiterate. Gutenberg first invented the printing press in the 15th century, not long before the Reformation. And one of the very first mass-printed works he started to churn out was, you guessed it, the Latin Vulgate.
The whole idea an ordinary Christian is qualified to fact-check Church teachings against his personal reading of his family Bible is a novelty that would have been unthinkable prior to the printing press.
Given that many people didn’t have a Bible, and couldn’t have read it if they did, how did the know what the Scriptures said? Through the Church. Ironically, this is the way of encountering Scripture that Scripture itself calls for. Revelation 1:3 says, “Blessed is he who reads aloud the words of the prophesy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written therein; for the time is near.” One person getting up and reading Scripture within the hearing of the gathered believers, adding an explanation needed to make sure the people understand it: that’s the Scriptural norm.
It’s what Moses does in Exodus 24:7, it’s what he instructs the Levites (the Old Testament priests) to do in Deuteronomy 31:9-11, it’s what Joshua does in Joshua 8:34-35, it’s what we the Levites do in Nehemiah 8:7-8 (the Levites “helped the people understand the law, while the people remained in their places,” by reading “from the book, from the law of God, clearly; and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.”), and it’s what Jesus does in Luke 4:15-22 when He goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath to publicly read and interpret Isaiah.
It’s why St. James says that “from early generations Moses has had in every city those who preach him, for he is read every sabbath in the synagogues” in Acts 15:21. It’s why St. Paul says to the Colossians, “when this letter has been read among you, have it read also in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you read also the letter from Laodicea” (Col. 4:16). And to the Thessalonians: “I adjure you by the Lord that this letter be read to all the brethren” (1 Thes. 5:27). And it’s why he instructs Timothy to “attend to the public reading of Scripture” (1 Tim. 4:13). This notion that Scripture is meant to be read and interpreted privately is both ahistorical and unscriptural.
Still, as modern Christians, we might wonder: how well did the ordinary believer really know Scripture? It turns out, quite well. There have been several recent works showing this: for example, Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580 looks at pre-Reformation popular devotions, and finds that the ordinary English believer understood Scripture and Church teachings better than you might think.
But there’s an obvious witness to this truth that we can easily overlook: religious art. Why is art so important? Because as Pope St. Gregory I said, “images are the books of the unlearned,” a saying so well-known by the time of the Reformation that John Calvin felt the need to respond to it directly in his Institutes.
And what did this religious art say to laypeople then about Scripture? And what does it say to us today about the beliefs of the pre-Reformation Church?
There are several places to look for beautiful religious art, but I’m going to use some examples from where I am right now: Umbria, in central Italy. While we’ve been studying in Assisi, a few of us went on a daylong excursion to nearby Perugia (the capital of the state of Umbria). There, we went to the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria, which features local Umbrian art, much of it from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. A lot of this art was at the local monasteries or in parish churches. So if you want an insight into the religious life of Catholics immediately prior to the Reformation, this is a good place to start.
A number of the paintings were striking, but for several reasons, this one really jumped out at me:
Let’s consider three aspects of this painting, and those like it:
One point, almost too obvious to mention, is that these paintings are frequently of scenes from Scripture: with a little effort, you can find reference to virtually every Book of the Bible, and to virtually every major event in the life of Christ. Here, the painting is of the Annunciation (Luke 1:26-38). So these paintings served a clear catechetical role, in that they reminded people of the Scriptures that they heard proclaimed. As Pope St. Gregory said, “what writing presents to readers, this a picture presents to the unlearned who behold, since in it even the ignorant see what they ought to follow; in it the illiterate read.”
They also reflect the Scriptural literacy of the painters, of course: the painters include details that suggest that they have a thorough knowledge of Scripture, down to the finest points. In the painting above, we find St. Luke, with an ox behind him, sitting at the feet of the Virgin Mary. What’s going on here? In Revelation 4:6-7, we see an image of “four living creatures” before the throne of God: a lion, an ox, a man, and an eagle. The earliest Christians (including St. Irenaeus, in the second century) recognized this as a reference to the four Evangelists and the four Gospels. Typically, Luke was associated with the ox or calf. As St. Augustine explained, this is fitting, because the calf was “the pre-eminent sacrifice made by the priest,” and St. Luke’s Gospel features the priesthood prominently:
For in that Gospel the narrator’s account commences with Zacharias the priest. In it mention is also made of the relationship between Mary and Elisabeth. In it, too, it is recorded that the ceremonies proper to the earliest priestly service were attended to in the case of the infant Christ; and a careful examination brings a variety of other matters under our notice in this Gospel, by which it is made apparent that Luke’s object was to deal with the part of the priest.
So, Luke is associated with the sacrificial calf, because his Gospel highlights Christ’s connection to the priesthood.
But why is Luke here, at the Annunciation? Because the details of the Annunciation are only recorded by St. Luke (they’re alluded to by St. Matthew, but he doesn’t give details). Luke’s Gospel records the events of Christ’s conception, birth, and childhood from Mary’s perspective. He’s the one, for example, who says that “Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19; Luke 2:51), and Luke mentions Mary more often than every other Scriptural writer combined. He lets us catch a glimpse into Mary’s heart, and the reason seems to be that he sat with her and listened to her tell the Gospel in her own words. This painting captures that: we can see Mary “painting the picture” of the Annunciation, while St. Luke writes everything down. Thus, the painting doesn’t reflect a Biblically-ignorant Church, but one with an intimate familiarity with the Gospels.
Not only is this religious artwork Biblically-literate, it’s theologically sophisticated. Look at the interplay of the Three Persons of the Trinity: the Father is seen breathing forth the Spirit to overshadow Mary with the Son. Mary, for her part, is presented as a Tabernacle. If you’re not familiar, the tabernacle is where the Eucharist, the Body and Blood of Christ, is reposed. To imagine what a tabernacle in Umbria would have looked like during the fourteenth or fifteen century, look at this (from the same gallery):
The tabernacle itself isn’t present here, but this is where it would have gone: in that ambo-shaped semi-circle. Now look at where the painter has placed Mary in the above painting: in the spot where the tabernacle normally is. This turns out to be a common theme in art from the period; for example, we find Mary in the pace of a tabernacle (seated on an altar!) here:
and (more subtly) here:
The Tabernacle contains Jesus; at the Annunciation, Mary became the tabernacle for Christ’s Incarnation. This religious artwork is expressing that clearly, if subtly. So just as the religious art is Biblically-literate, it’s also theologically orthodox and sophisticated. Finally…
We’ve already considered the extensive knowledge of Scripture required to make the sort of art we’re seeing here. But perhaps even more to the point, this religious artwork, aimed at the very masses that Catholics were supposedly keeping the Bible from, repeatedly encourages the reading of Scripture. Look at Mary at the Annunciation in the first picture: she’s reading the Scriptures. This, too, is a repeated theme:
Here, it almost looks like she’s holding her place in the Bible so that she can start reading again after the Angel Gabriel leaves:
And here, we see almost all of the elements we’ve looked at so far, wrapped into one:
Take a closer look:
She’s not only reading Scripture (probably the Psalms), she’s got several other Scriptures within arm’s reach.
Of course, this isn’t confined to images of the Annunciation: Scripture is featured throughout all sorts of religious art. The Evangelists are presented holding up the Scriptures that they wrote: for example, St. Paul is almost always presented holding a Book, to represent his many contributions to the New Testament. Later Saints are presented reading Scriptures, and writing their great spiritual works. But there’s a particular connection being made here, between Mary’s conceiving of the word of God in her heart through the reading of Sacred Scripture, and her conception of the Word of God at the Annunciation.
So here, in art inside the ordinary churches that ordinary Catholics attended weekly (or even daily), in art directed to the masses of believers, we see the Church reminding everyone of the importance of Sacred Scripture.
Rather than hiding the Scriptures from the masses of ordinary Catholic believers, we see the Church (1) presenting the Scriptures through religious art, (2) explaining them through sound theology, and (3) encouraging the reading of Scripture.
This is the same Church that has, for the last two thousand years, spread the Gospel to the four corners of the earth, proclaiming the Name of Jesus Christ to all nations… even if it takes creating an entirely new alphabet and written language to do so. And we’re to believe that all of this is part of a conspiracy to hide the Gospel from people?
P.S. I took all of those photos at the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria in Perugia, Italy, on Saturday. If you want to see the full set, you can find about 160 photos of religious art from the region here.