St. Francis De Sales on Sola Scriptura

As I’ve mentioned before, I try and make it over to the Catholic Information Center at noon for Mass during the workweek. Since the chapel is literally inside a bookstore, it’s natural to peruse through some books afterwards for a bit. Once, I read a passage which was just so good it bowled me over, but forgot almost immediately where I’d read it. I mistakenly thought it was from St. Edmund Campion’s Ten Reasons (a great book on its own), but it turns out that it was from St. Francis De Sales (h/t to Chris for posting a big chunk of this on his blog). Being familiar with his Introduction to the Devout Life, I think of him more as a devotional writer than an apologist, but his Catholic Controversy is just fantastic. The book is a series of apologetical tracts which De Sales, as Bishop of Calvinist Geneva, wrote. Catholicism, at the time, was illegal, yet through Catholic Controversy and other methods, St. Francis De Sales managed to convert something like 72,000 Calvinists back to Catholicism.

The tract I found most persuasive was called “The Protestant Violation of Holy Scripture,” and I find that it just turns the sola Scriptura critiques right around. St. Francis goes through three chapters showing first, that Scripture is a true rule of Faith; second, that we should guard Scripture jealously; and third, that Scripture includes the Deuterocanon, as defined by the ecumenical Councils of Trent and Florence, and which had previously been established at the Council of Carthage well over a thousand years before the Reformation.

Having affirmed the very thing which Catholics are alleged to deny (that Scripture is a rule of Faith which should be jealously guarded in all of Her parts), St. Francis turns the tables onto the Reformers, asking in Chapter 4, “Such are the sacred and canonical books which the Church has unanimously received and acknowledged during twelve hundred years. And by what authority have these new reformers dared to wipe out at one stroke so many noble parts of the Bible? They have erased a part of Esther, and Baruch, Tobias, Judith, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, Machabees. Who has told them that these books are not legitimate, and not to be received? Why do they thus dismember the sacred body of the Scriptures?” He spends chapter 4 answering back (easily) all of the usual oppositions to the Deuterocanon, showing that arguments like “these are Greek books, not Hebrew” aren’t even true of all of the books (since books like First Maccabees were written in Hebrew). By the end of the chapter, it’s clear that most of the anti-Deuterocanonical arguments are pretextual. St. Francis also does a lot with the writings of St. Augustine, who he notes lived prior to Pope Gregory the Great, “before whose time Calvin confesses that the Church was still in its purity.” The Council of Carthage, of course, was also pre-Gregorian. So the pure Church (in either a Calvinist or a Catholic history) believed in the Deuterocanon.

St. Francis is at his finest in dismantling Calvin’s argument that true Christians simply know which books are Scriptural based upon the light of the Holy Spirit:

Calvin takes away seven books of the Scripture: (In prologis Bib. Et horum lib.) Baruch, Tobias, Judith, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, and the Machabees; Luther has removed the Epistle of S. James, that of S. Jude, the second of S. Peter, the 2nd and 3rd of S. John, the Epistle to the Hebrews; he ridicules Ecclesiastes, he holds Job as a fable. Reconcile, I pray you this false spirit, who takes away from Luther’s brain what he puts back in that of Calvin. Does this seem to you a trifling discord between these two evangelists? You will say you do not hold Luther’s intelligence in great account [remember, he’s writing to Calvinists]; his party think no better of that of Calvin. But see the progress of your fine church, how she ever pushes on further. Calvin had removed seven books, she has further thrown out the 8th, that of Esther; in Daniel she cuts off the canticle of the Three Children (c. iii.), the history of Susanna (c. xiii.), and that of the dragon slain by Daniel (xiv). In the Gospel of S. John is there not doubt among you of the history of the woman taken in adultery? S. Augustine had indeed said formerly that the enemies of the faith had erased it from their books, but not from all, as S. Jerome says. Do they not wish to take away these words of S. Luke [Luke 22:20], which shall be shed for you, because the Greek text clearly shows that what was in the chalice was not wine but the true blood of our Lord ? As if one were to say in French: Cecy est la coupe du Nouveau Testament, en mon sang, laquelle sera respandue pour vous: this is the chalice, the New Testament in my blood, which (chalice) shall be shed for you? For in this way of speaking one sees clearly that what is in the cup must be the blood, not wine, since the wine has not been shed for us, but the blood. In the Epistle of S. John have they not taken away these noble words: every spirit. who dissolveth Jesus is not of God (iv. 3)? What say you, gentlemen ? If your church continues in this liberty of conscience, making no scruple to take away what she pleases, soon the Scripture will fail you, and you will have to be satisfied with the Institutes of Calvin, which must indeed have I know not what excellence, since they censure the Scriptures themselves!
Herein who sees not the profanation of this sacred vase of the holy letter,
in which was preserved the precious balm of the Evangelical doctrine? For would
it not have been a profanation of the Ark of the Covenant to maintain that
everybody might seize it, carry it home, take it all to pieces, and then give it
what form he liked provided that it had some semblance of an ark? And what but
this is it to maintain that one may take the Scriptures and turn and adjust them
according to one’s own sense?

I’ve heard it frequently claimed – even by people with little idea of what the Catholic Church teaches – that She has little regard for the Bible, or at least, less regard than Her separated Evangelical brethren. My hope in quoting St. Francis De Sales at such length today is to demonstrate that this simply isn’t so.

1 Comment

  1. It’s a little disheartening to see the Saint lumping treating Job as a fable with ripping books out of the canon, isn’t it? The former seems to be an attempt to read the text as it was intended, which seems unobjectionable, right?

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