Twentieth Question: The Supreme Judge of Controversies and Interpreter of the Scriptures

Whether the Scriptures (or God speaking in them) are the supreme and infallible judge of controversies and the interpreter of the Scriptures. Or whether the church or the Roman pontiff is. We affirm the former and deny the latter against the papists

I. This is a primary question and almost the only one on account of which all the other controversies about the Scriptures were started. From no other cause is either the authority of the Scriptures called in question by the papists or their integrity and purity attacked or their perspicuity and perfection argued against, than to prove that the Scriptures cannot be the judge of controversies and the necessity of having recourse to the tribunal of the church.

Statement of the question.

II. On the state of the question keep in mind: (1) that the question does not concern any kind of judgment (i.e., whether any judgment belongs to the church and its officers in controversies of faith). The orthodox refute the charge made against them by their practice. Rather the question concerns only the supreme and infallible judgment by which everything must necessarily stand or fall—whether this belongs to the Scriptures themselves (as we hold) or to some man or assembly composed of men (as the papists maintain).

III. The threefold judge must be accurately distinguished here. First is the supreme and autocratic (autokratorikos), which judges by legislative and absolute authority after the manner of the highest prince, which enacts laws and from which there is no appeal. Second is the subordinate (hypēretikos) or ministerial, which interprets the laws after the manner of a public minister. Third is an idiomatic (idiōtikos) or private, which both from the laws and from their interpretation judges in the way of private discretion. The first gives a judgment of final and absolute decision. The second gives a judgment of public determination, but subordinate and in accordance with the laws. The third gives a judgment of private discretion without any public authority. Here we dispute not about the ministerial and private judgment, but the supreme and infallible.

IV. The question is not whether the Scriptures are the rule and standard of controversies. This the papists do not object to, at least they appear to be willing to hold it, although what they give with one hand they take away with the other, arguing their obscurity and imperfection. But the question is whether the Scriptures are a total and full rule, not a partial and imperfect rule. For they want it to be only a partial rule, and indeed so it is explained according to the mind of the Roman Catholic church.

V. The opinion of the papists comes to this. (1) They distinguish between the rule and the judge (who ought to bring judgment from the Scriptures). They acknowledge the Scriptures indeed to be a rule, but partial and inadequate to which unwritten (agraphos) tradition must be added. The Scripture is not sufficient for settling controversies unless there comes in the sentence of some visible and infallible judge clearly to pronounce which party has the better cause. For otherwise there would be no end of contentions. Now such a judge can be found nowhere else than in the church where they erect four tribunals from which there is no appeal: (1) the church; (2) the councils; (3) the fathers; (4) the pope. But when the votes are properly counted, the pope remains solus(alone), to whom they are accustomed to ascribing that supreme and infallible judgment.

VI. That such is their opinion this passage from Andradius (who was in the Council of Trent) proves: “This high authority of interpreting the Scriptures we grant not to individual bishops, but to the Roman pontiff alone, who is the head of the church, or to all the chief officers collected together by his command” (Defen. triden. fidei, lib. 2+). “That judge cannot be the Scriptures, but the ecclesiastical prince; either alone or with the counsel and consent of the fellow bishops” (Bellarmine, VD 3.9*, p. 110). “The Roman pontiff is the one in whom this authority, which the church has of judging concerning all controversies of faith, resides” (Gregory of Valentia, Analysis fidei catholicae 7 [1585], p. 216). Still this is not the opinion of all. For although they who exalt the pope above the council ascribe this authority of a judge to him, yet they think differently who hold the council to be above the pope finally. Others, to reconcile these two opinions, think the pope (in the council) or the council (approved by the pope) is that infallible judge.

VII. Now although we do not deny that the church is a ministerial and secondary judge, able to decide controversies of faith according to the word of God (although as to internal conviction [plērophorian] we hold that the Holy Spirit, as the principle, must persuade us of the true interpretation of the Scriptures), yet we deny that as to the external demonstration of the object any infallible and supreme judge is to be sought besides the Scriptures. Much less is the pope to be admitted to perform this office. For we think that the Scriptures alone (or God speaking by them) are sufficient for that.

The Scriptures alone are the supreme judge of controversy.

VIII. The reasons are: (1) God in the Old and New Testaments absolutely and unconditionally sends us to this judge—“and thou shalt do according to the law which they shall teach thee” (Dt. 17:10); “to the law and the testimony, etc.” (Is. 8:20); “They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them” (Lk. 16:29). Christ does not say they have the priests and scribes (who cannot err), but they have Moses and the prophets (viz., in their writings), implying that they are abundantly sufficient for full instruction and that their authority must be acquiesced in. Nor is the meaning of Christ different in Mt. 19:28 where he promises that after his departure the apostles “should sit upon twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” This must be referred to the judicial power they would obtain in the church through the word. Thus, “ye do err,” said Christ to the Sadducees, “not knowing the Scriptures” (Mt. 22:29). And elsewhere he enjoins upon the Jews the searching of the Scriptures (Jn. 5:39).

From the practice of Christ and the apostles.

IX. (2) The practice of Christ and his apostles confirms this for in controversies of faith they appeal to the Scriptures (Mt. 4:46722:29Jn. 5:3910:3435Acts 17:21118:2826:22) and profess to know nothing besides Moses and the prophets (Lk. 24:44Acts 26:22). Peter compares the word to a heavenly vision, as a more sure word (logon bebaioteron), whereunto we do well to take heed (2 Pet. 1:19), nothing at all being said about his own privilege or of papal infallibility. The Bereans are commended (Acts 17:11) for comparing what they heard with the rule of the Scriptures, not consulting any oracle of infallibility. On the contrary, the Pharisees and Sadducees are condemned because they departed from them (Mt. 15:322:29).

From the nature of an infallible judge.

X. (3) A supreme and infallible judge is one who never errs in judgment, nor is he able to err; is uninfluenced by prejudice and from whom is no appeal. Now these requisites can be found in neither the church, nor councils, nor pope, for they can both err and often have erred most egregiously, and they are the guilty party. They are accused of being falsifiers and corruptors of the Scriptures and from them appeals are often made to the Scriptures (1 Jn. 4:1Is. 8:20Jn. 5:39Acts 17:11). But God speaking in the Scriptures claims these as his own prerogatives alone, as incapable of error in judgment, being truth itself, uninfluenced by partiality, being no respecter of persons (aprosōpolēptēs); nor can any appeal be made from him because he has no superior.

Because every man is liable to error and God alone is infallible.

XI. (4) Man cannot be the infallible interpreter of the Scriptures and judge of controversies because he is liable to error. Our faith cannot be placed in him, but upon God alone from whom depends the sense and meaning of the Scriptures and who is the best interpreter of his own words. As the only teacher, he can best explain the meaning of the law (Mt. 23:810); our lawgiver who is able to save and to destroy (Jam. 4:12). If the rulers of the church are influenced by the Holy Spirit, they do not cease to be men and therefore fallible. For their inspiration is only ordinary and common, not extraordinary and special (conferring the gift of infallibility which the apostles and prophets had).

Because the Scriptures recognize none except God.

XII. (5) If there were such a judge as the papists maintain: (a) it is a wonder that the Lord never mentions this interpreter who is so essential; (b) that Paul in his epistles (and especially in that to the Romans) does not inform them even by a single word of so great a privilege; (c) that Peter in his catholic epistles did not arrogate this as about to be transmitted to his successors, much less exercise it; (d) that the popes were neither able nor willing by that infallible authority to settle the various most important controversies which the Romish church cherished in her own bosom (i.e., between the Thomists and Scotists, the Dominicans and Jesuits, the Jesuits and Jansenists, etc). For why did they not at once repress those contentions by their infallibility and untie the tangled knots? If they could not, what becomes of their infallibility? If they could, why did they not save the church from such scandals?

Because the church cannot be a judge in her own cause.

XIII. (6) The church cannot be regarded as the judge of controversies because she would be a judge in her own cause and the rule of herself. For the chief controversy is about the power and infallibility of the church, when the very question is whether the church is the judge, or whether the church can err. Shall the same church sit as judge, and must we believe her just because she says so? Must she be supported in denying the Holy Scriptures to be the judge (which all acknowledge to be the infallible word of God); in wishing the church or the pope to sit as judge in her own cause and to be the infallible judge of her own infallibility (concerning which there is the greatest doubt) and which is most evidently not only liable to err, but has often erred? For the papists themselves are forced to confess that not a few popes were heretics or wicked men and devoted to magical arts (Adrian VI, in 4 Sent.+).

From the fathers.

XIV. (7) The ancients here agree with us. Constantine (after stating what he thought was clearly taught concerning God in the gospels, the apostolical and prophetical books) adds, “therefore laying aside warring strife, we may obtain a solution of difficulties from the words of inspiration” (tēn polemopoion oun apelasantes erin, ek tōn theopneustōn logōn labōmen tōn zētoumenōn tēn lysin, to the Nicene fathers according to Theodoret, Ecclesiastical History 1.6*[NPNF23:44PG 82.920]). Optatus writes, “You say it is lawful, we say it is not lawful; between your permission and our prohibition the minds of the people fluctuate and waver. No one believes you, no one believes us, a judge must be sought from heaven, on earth we can get no decision; but why should we knock at the door of heaven when we have the Testament here in the gospel?” (De Schismate Donatistarum: Adversus Parmenianum 5.3 [PL 11.1048–49]). Augustine says, “We are brethren, why should we contend? Our father did not die intestate; he made a will … open it, let us read, why should we wrangle?” (Psalm 21* [ACW 29:224; PL 36.180]). And: “This controversy requires a judge. Christ shall judge; the apostle with him shall judge” (On Marriage and Concupiscence 2.33 [NPNF15:306PL 44.470]). Lactantius says, “God speaks in the divine writings as the supreme judge of all things, to whom it belongs not to argue, but to pronounce” [Divine Institutes 3.1 [FC 49:166; PL 6.350]). Gregory of Nyssa writes, “The inspired writing is a safe criterion of every doctrine” (kritērion asphales epi pantos dogmatos hē theopneustos graphēAgainst Eunomius 1.22 [NPNF25:62PG 45.341]); cf. Cyprian, Letter 63, “To Caecilius,” (ACW 46:98); Chrysostom, “Homily 23 on the Acts of the Apostles” (NPNF111:148–55); Augustine, On Baptism, Against the Donatists 2.6(NPNF14:428).

XV. As a prince must interpret his own law, so also God must be the interpreter of his own Scriptures—the law of faith and practice. And the privilege allowed to other authors of interpreting their own words ought not to be refused to God speaking in the Scriptures.

Sources of explanation.

XVI. When we say that the Scriptures are the judge of controversies, we mean it in no other sense than that they are the source of divine right, and the most absolute rule of faith by which all controversies of faith can and should be certainly and perspicuously settled—even as in a republic, the foundations of decisions and of judgments are drawn from the law. So a judge may be taken widely and by metonomy of the adjunct for a normal and not a personal judge. Hence he must not be confounded with the subordinate judge who decides controversies according to the rule of the law and applies the authority of the law to things taken singly (ta kath’ hekasta). This accords with the Philosopher’s rule, “The law must govern all, but the magistrates and the state must decide as to individuals” (dei ton nomon archein pantōn, tōn de kath’ hekasta tas archas kai tēn politeian krineinAristotle, Politics 4.4.33–34 [Loeb, 21:304–5]).

XVII. It is not always necessary to make a distinction between the judge and the law. The Philosopher confesses that in prescribing universal rights the law has the relation of a judge; but in the particular application (in things taken singly, en tois kath’ hekasta) the interpreter of the law performs the office of judge, but a ministerial and subordinate one (Aristotle, Politics 3.6 [Loeb, 21:219–31]). In this sense, we do not deny that the church is the judge, but still always bound by the Scriptures. As in a republic, the decision of a magistrate is so far valid as it is grounded on the law and agrees with it. Otherwise, if at variance with it, it is invalid and appeal may be made from it. Thus in the church the judgment of pastors can be admitted only so far as it agrees with the Scriptures.

XVIII. Although the Scriptures cannot hear the arguments of the contending parties (nor always so give its decision as to acquit by name this one and condemn that one), it does not follow that they are not the supreme judge and perfect rule. For these are not necessary to the supreme but to the ministerial judge, who is bound to give his decision according to the law and must examine witnesses and arguments and inspect the laws because he acts de facto not de jure. But the supreme judge is he who (aside from every controversy) ordains as to universal rectitude what must be done and avoided and whose prescriptions subaltern judges are bound to observe. Nor do we ever read in the laws the express condemnation of this or that person, Titus or Maevius. Thus it is here, as the cause is of faith de jure and not de facto, since the question is what must be believed or disbelieved (which the law and the judge can decide without hearing the parties).

XIX. It is not necessary for the supreme judge speaking in the Scriptures to declare a new word to us every day on account of new heresies springing up. For he (who knew all that would happen) so pronounced his truth in the word that faithful ministers may recognize universal truth by it and so refute all errors. Hence from the Scriptures, the fathers most triumphantly refuted the heresies of Pelagius, Arius, Macedonius and others, although nothing is said expressly about them.

XX. It is not necessary that there should be another visible, infallible judge than the Scriptures for settling all controversies. (1) An end of controversies is not to be expected in this life—“for there must be also heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you” (1 Cor. 11:19). Even in the time of the apostles, various heresies crept in which were not entirely removed. (2) It is one thing to convince an adversary de facto and to stop his mouth so that he cannot answer anything; another to convince him de jure so that he may have what will be sufficient to convince him, if he is not obstinate. Although the Scripture does not always do the former on account of the perversity of men, yet it always does the latter, which is sufficient. (3) As in a well-administered republic it is sufficient if there are good laws by which things taken singly (ta kath’ hekasta) can be decided by subordinate judges, so in the church it is enough if there is an infallible written word whence individual pastors may draw a rule of judgment in particular controversies. (4) A visible judge among the papists has not hindered the rise of innumerable controversies, which he has not yet settled by his infallible authority.

XXI. The Scriptures may have various and ambiguous senses, not from the nature of the thing affirmed or the intention of the affirmer, but from the unskillfulness or obstinacy of the distorter. Therefore this ambiguity and obscurity (if such there is) does not take away their authority, but shows the necessity of the Spirit of illumination and of the minister to explain them.

XXII. Although there may be a dispute about the true interpretation of a passage of Scripture, it is not necessary that there should be any visible, infallible judge besides the Scriptures. They interpret themselves. Man must not be regarded as the author of the interpretation he gives in accordance with them because nothing of his own is mixed with it. He adds nothing to them, but only elicits and educes from the Scriptures what already was contained there, even as one who legitimately deduces a conclusion from premises does not form it at pleasure, but elicits it from the established premises and as latent in them.

XXIII. In the dispute concerning the judge of controversies, we do not properly treat of the principles (i.e., of the questions which relate to the Scriptures), which are here taken for granted to be the principles, not proved to be so. Rather we treat of things principiated (i.e., of the doctrines contained in the Scriptures), which (granting the authority of the Scriptures) we think can be sufficiently ascertained from the Scriptures themselves. We do not deny that the Scriptures prove themselves (as was before demonstrated) not only authoritatively and by way of testimony, but also logically and by way of argument.

XXIV. The Scriptures can be called mute and speechless in reference to judgment, no more than the church in her councils and the fathers in their writings, who nevertheless, the papists maintain, can both speak and judge. If a father speaks in his will and a king in his edicts and letters, why may we not say that our heavenly Father speaks with the clearest voice to us in each Testament and the King of Kings in his divine oracles? Nor can there be a doubt on this point, since the Scriptures (or the Holy Spirit in them) are so often said to speak to, accuse and judge men. The law is said to speak to those who are under the law (Rom. 3:19). “They have Moses and the prophets,” said Abraham to the man who fared sumptuously (Lk. 16:29), not indeed alive and seeing, but neither mute nor speechless; yea even speaking and hearing. So Isaiah is said to “cry out” (Rom. 9:27). Moses accuses the Jews (Jn. 5:45). The law judges (Jn. 7:51). “He that receiveth not my words, hath one that judgeth him (echei ton krinonta): the word that I have spoken, the same shall judge him in the last day” (Jn. 12:48). In the same sense, the word of God is said to be kritikos—“a judge of the thoughts” (Heb. 4:12).

XXV. An earthly judge in the external court ought to be furnished with compulsory power, but the spiritual judge in the court of conscience holds a different relation. The kingdom of God is not to be advanced by bodily compulsion, but by the spiritual demonstration of the truth (1 Cor. 2:4). Again, although physical compulsion has no place here, even a spiritual and internal compulsion is not desirable, both with respect to believers (whom God, speaking in the Scriptures, gently and sweetly draws and moves to obedience, Jn. 6:442 Cor. 10:4) and with respect to the wicked and unbelieving whose consciences he vexes and torments.

XXVI. The example of Moses and Aaron cannot be applied to establish a supreme and infallible judge besides the Scriptures. For each was a ministerial not autocratic (autokratorikos) judge; one extraordinary, the other ordinary. They decided controversies not by their own authority, but according to the law and commands of God: Moses, as a mediator, by appealing to God (Ex. 18:19), but Aaron by answering from the law and according to it—“according to the sentence of the law which they shall teach thee, thou shalt do” (Dt. 17:11). Otherwise, if they spoke contrary to the law, they were not to be heard. (2) The matter here treated of is not as to controversies of faith, but of rites—the judging between blood and blood, leprosy and leprosy. (3) It treats not only of the high priest, but of the whole Levitical priesthood whose decision is binding when done in accordance with the prescriptions of the law. Otherwise, if absolutely binding, Jeremiah (26:1213), Christ (Jn. 9) and the apostles (Acts 313), who departed from it, committed a capital crime. (4) From the high priest theconsequence does not hold good to the pope because in the New Testament there is no high priest except Christ, of whom Aaron was a type.

XXVII. The “one shepherd” (Ecc. 12:11) does not mean the typical priest of the Old Testament, but Jesus Christ, the true priest of the New, who is that good shepherd of his people (Ezk. 34:23Jn. 10:11). From him all the words of wisdom came because men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Ghost (2 Pet. 1:21), as the papists themselves (Tirinus, Menochius, Cornelius a Lapide) explain it.

XXVIII. In Hag. 2:11 and Mal. 2:7, not any one priest, but indefinitely priests are commanded to be interrogated and, being interrogated, to answer according to the law. Nor does this prove their infallibility, but their duty. Mal. 2:8 nevertheless intimates they did not always do this since it adds, “but ye are departed out of the way.”

XXIX. The “seat of Moses” (Mt. 23:2) is not the succession in the place and office of Moses or the external court of a supreme judge to whom the authority in question belongs (for the seat of Moses was not in existence nor was any such privilege attached to it); rather it is the promulgation of the true doctrine delivered by Moses (as the ordinary gloss on Dt. 17 has it, “The seat of Moses is wherever his doctrine is”), and the chair of Peter is wherever his doctrine is heard. So those who have been teachers of the law delivered by Moses are considered to have taught in Moses’ seat, as Hilary observes (Commentarius in Matthaeum 24.1 [PL 9.1048]). Therefore the Pharisees teaching in Moses’ seat were to be heard as far as they faithfully proposed to the people his doctrine, without any admixture of their own.

XXX. Although Christ sends us to the voice of the church (which if anyone will not hear, he is to be regarded as a heathen man and a publican, Mt. 18:17), yet he does not constitute it the infallible judge in matters of faith. (1) For he does not speak of controversies of faith, but of private offenses and fraternal admonition which (if unsuccessful in private) must be referred to the public censure of the church. Not one infallible prelate is to denounce this to all churches, but individual pastors to their own flock. (2) He alludes here to a custom of the Jewish system which excommunicated the contumacious. This applies no more to the Romish church than to every particular church within proper limits. (3) If the argument is drawn from similarity, the church is commanded to be heard as long as she hears Christ and speaks his words; otherwise, if she recedes from Christ and speaks in opposition to him, she is to be anathematized (Gal. 1:8).

XXXI. The councils sometimes asked from absent popes, not confirmative authority, but fraternal assent. Otherwise they could not claim for themselvesthe right of deposing them, of examining and abrogating their acts (which they did). The fathers and particular churches could in more difficult ecclesiastical affairs consult them, not as infallible judges (to whose decrees they were bound to submit their consciences), but as honorary and prudent arbiters who (before they were poisoned by the breath of pride, superstition and tyranny) were held in great esteem among the churches on account of the dignity (prōteia) of the city.

XXXII. Although in the external court of the church every private person is bound to submit to synodical decisions (unless he wants to be excommunicated), and such judgment ought to flourish for the preservation of order, peace and orthodoxy, and the suppression of heretical attempts; it does not follow that the judgment is supreme and infallible. For an appeal may always be made from it to the internal forum of conscience, nor does it bind anyone in this court further than he is persuaded of its agreement with the Scriptures.

XXXIII. Although we allow to individual believers the judgment of private discretion (because “he that is spiritual judgeth all things” [1 Cor. 2:15], and the apostle commands us to “prove all things” [1 Thess. 5:21]), we do not therefore assert in opposition to Peter (2 Pet. 1:20*) that the Scriptures are of private interpretation (idia epilysis). For epilysis here does not mean the interpretation of the Scriptures so much as the origin of the prophetic oracles. They may be said to have been written, not by each one’s own private impulse and instinct (which is said of those who run although not sent by God, Jer. 23:21), but by the dictation of the Holy Spirit who moved them. Thus epilysis here does not pertain to the office of an interpreter, hearer or reader of the Scriptures, but to the power or impulse of prophesying; or to that notion by which the prophet was impelled to speak and to write. This is favored by a comparison with the preceding and following verses in which the question is not Who has the right of interpreting the prophecies? but By whose impulse and influence did the prophets write, and in what regard ought we to hold the prophecies; what reverence is due to them, and why is faith to be placed in them as the unquestionable oracles of God (viz., because they did not flow from man’s own impulse and will as if they were a human invention or man’s device, but from the impulse and influence of the Holy Spirit by whom holy men of God were moved)? In this sense, epilysis will signify the mission of the men of God to prophesy, by which God opened for them as it were the barriers to running (in allusion to the ancient racers who, as soon as the bars at the starting point were removed, rushed forward). But if the word is here taken to mean interpretation (as is done by many from the force of the word epilysis, which signifies to expound and explain, Mk. 4:34Acts 19:39), prophecy will be denied to be of private interpretation (idias epilyseōs) (which is such as to principle and origin, i.e., from one’s own mind, but not as to subject). So that private interpretation here is not opposed to the common or public, but to the adventitious gift of the Holy Spirit.

XXXIV. From this judgment of private discretion attributed to each believer, they are wrong who infer that human reason is the judge of controversies and interpreter of the Scriptures (which the Socinians maintain and has already been refuted by us, Topic I, Question 8). Here the believer is not only moved by the light of reason, but more specially by the influence of the Spirit. And although the interpreter may examine the conceived sense of the Scriptures by natural reason, yet he cannot oppose a dictate of reason to the Holy Scriptures or withhold from it faith on account of some preconceived opinion of reason in opposition to it. Human reason (which is deceptive and slippery) is surely more likely to deviate from the truth of a thing than the Scriptures (which are the word of truth and even truth itself). Thus reason here must be brought under subjection to faith (2 Cor. 10:5) not exalted above it.

XXXV. The uncertainty of human judgment does not prove that God speaking in the Scriptures cannot be a fit judge in our cause, since it cannot be known either who has the Holy Spirit or whether he may actually be obtained. In this matter there is no need of knowing immediately and a priori who has the Spirit, but only who speaks according to the Scriptures. When this becomes known by a reference to the Scriptures, we can readily judge a posteriori who utters the words of the Spirit and speaks from him. Thus the Bereans did not inquire a priori whether Paul who preached to them was moved by the Holy Spirit (for this was known to God alone, the searcher of hearts, kardiognōstē), but whether Paul spoke according to the Scriptures. Hence from his agreement with them, they inferred that he spoke not from himself, but by the Spirit. We conclude with the golden words of Basil: “Let the divinely inspired Scriptures then judge for us and let the vote of truth be given to those among whom doctrines are found harmonizing with the Scriptures” (ouk oun hē theopneustos hēmin diaitēsatō graphē, kai par’ hois an heurethē ta dogmata synōda tois theiois logois, epi toutois hēxei pantōs hē theia tēs alētheias psēphosLetter 189, “To Eustathius the physician” [NPNF28:229PG 32.688]).