Whereas the Council of Trent (1545-1563) dogmatically defined the doctrine of the Church of Rome in a series of decrees and anathemas, it fell to Robert Bellarmine to provide all the theological underpinnings and, by controversy, to counter every argument of Protestantism, whether Lutheran, Calvinist or whatever. He did so principally by his lectures to young Jesuits training to be the foot soldiers of the Counter-Reformation, and by his printed Controversies. Hitherto these Protestant arguments were not easily encountered by Roman Catholics because the Protestant writings in which they appeared were placed on the Index of Forbidden Books. But to address Protestant arguments in the Controversies it was necessary to set them out accurately, comprehensively and at length, which offended certain in the Church of Rome, who called for the Controversies to be suppressed. Pope Sixtus V was himself infuriated that the Controversies maintained that the pope exercised only indirect temporal jurisdiction over the kingdoms of the world beyond the Papal States. Sixtus reacted by placing the Controversies on the Index, but he passed away before he could officially promulgate the ban, and his successor Urban VII immediately cancelled Bellarmine’s listing.

The key battleground was and remains the doctrine of Scripture, for wherever any ground thereof is conceded to Rome she will smuggle through the rest of her false doctrines. To combat the Protestant position on the authority, perspicuity, and sufficiency of Scripture, Bellarmine had to argue the contrary, that the Scriptures have no authority than what is given them by the Church of Rome; that they are neither necessary nor sufficient without the unwritten traditions of Rome; and that they are too obscure to be understood apart from the infallible teaching of the papacy. It is instructive to follow Bellarmine’s reasoning since it represents the very best apologetics that Rome could muster against the Reformers for centuries.

Against the perspicuity of Scripture

Bellarmine seeks to establish that the Scriptures are not perspicuous enough to settle controversies of faith:

The Scriptures are very obscure, for they convey supreme mysteries, and a great part of Scripture contains prophecies than which nothing is more difficult. There are many things in the Scriptures that seem contradictory. There are ambiguous words and statements, incomplete statements, inverted statements, idiomatic phrases, figures of speech, and innumerable other things of this sort.

Protestants confess that some things in Scripture may appear obscure when viewed in isolation, but hold that all matters necessary for salvation are plainly set forth and can be comprehended by the use of ordinary means. Bellarmine soon played his trump card, the apostolic authority of Peter: ‘As also in all [Paul’s] epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood’. But although translations in English (‘in which’) and Latin (‘in quibus’) introduce ambiguity, the point made evident in the Greek is that Paul also deals with ‘these things’ that Peter has mentioned (the second coming of Christ, the resurrection, the last judgment, and the renewal of the cosmos). The difficulty is not in understanding what God will accomplish, but how and when God will realize them. They may indeed remain ‘mysteries’ in respect of timings and method, but Scripture speaks perspicuously and plainly of them as events to be believed.

For a proper refutation Bellarmine would need to prove his principal assertion that ‘the Scriptures are very obscure’, not in a few isolated instances but everywhere, or that too little was plain. Since he cannot, Bellarmine’s method is to throw sand in the eyes by multiplying individual instances of difficulty without addressing the main issue of perspicuity in matters touching salvation. His argument soon runs out of steam and degenerates to the absurd, questioning why Protestants bother to write commentaries if the Scriptures are as perspicuous as they allege. The reason, of course, is that the Scriptures might be understood all the better, not that they might be understood at all.

Now taking as his premise that ‘Scripture is obscure and needs an interpreter’, Bellarmine proceeds to ask ‘whether the interpretation of Scripture must be sought from a single, visible, and common judge or left to each one’s decision.’ This method instances the fallacy of false dichotomy: rightly persuade the reader that private interpretation is unsatisfactory, and he will swallow the alternative that ‘a single, visible, and common judge’ (i.e. an infallible pope) is necessary. Bellarmine later introduces the aspect of audibility, that God does not speak with an audible voice today, so we have need of a living, visible, speaking pope. It need only be remarked that physical characteristics are red herrings, and that the single, common author of all of Scripture, the Holy Spirit, is the judge than whom none higher can be sought.

Bellarmine shifts to that ground to question where the Holy Spirit is to be found:

Blessed Peter proves that the Scriptures should not be expounded by one’s own genius, because they were not written by human genius, but by inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The whole question, then, is where the Holy Spirit is. We say that the judge of the true sense of Scripture and of all controversies is the Church, i.e. the Pontiff with the Council.

Bellarmine attempts to show that Moses was the Supreme Pontiff and Supreme Judge (Ex 18) and that he instituted recourse to the earthly priesthood to settle matters of law (Deut 17, Ecc 12:11, Hag 2:11, Mal 2:7), and that such judgment of God’s law continues on for ‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat’ (Matt 23: 2). None of these passages strikes any blow to Protestantism, which holds that God sends pastors and teachers to strengthen and nurture the church, and that the church is indeed to be heard when it enjoins what Christ commands. But Bellarmine seeks to close a trap by insisting that if we are to follow teaching only insofar as it is faithful to Scripture, then the individual becomes the judge of whether the Scriptures are faithfully exegeted, which reduces to a matter of private interpretation. However cogent and formidable this argument may appear at first sight, the conclusion does not logically follow without smuggling in a hidden premise that the individual must be the final arbiter, which is then begging the question. If, however, one maintains with the Westminster Confession that the supreme judge is ‘no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the scripture’, and that ‘our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth [of Scripture]…is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit’, then Bellarmine’s trap can never be sprung. If it be objected that these attributions to the Holy Spirit are themselves premises, this is frankly acknowledged, with this difference: these premises are properly deduced from the Scriptures once they are accepted as the Word of God.

Bellarmine argues that the Holy Spirit is not to be resorted to as the judge of the true sense of Scripture, since Christ handed over his keys and thereby divested the authority of interpreting Scripture to Peter and his successors as Bishops of Rome: ‘And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.’ However, as is clear from Matt 18:18, the power of binding and loosing was not the special prerogative of Peter, nor does it denote the power of infallible interpretation but of preaching the gospel.

Bellarmine’s favourite text to defend the infallibility of the pope is Luke 22:32 ‘But I have prayed for thee [Peter] that thy faith fail not.’ His point is that Christ expressly singles out Peter, and his prayer would not have been answered had not Peter been endued henceforth with infallibility. Bellarmine insisted that popes were thus infallible teachers, no matter they were monsters of iniquity and eternally damned (he believed that Sixtus V, who proscribed his Controversies, went to hell). However, the faith that Christ mentions is Peter’s saving, justifying faith, as the context makes clear, and not ‘the doctrine of faith’ in respect of a teaching office. Moreover, the argument proves too much, for if the prayer of Christ was strictly for Peter and no other then it could not include a succession of popes.

Bellarmine seeks to head off these objections by establishing papal primacy and succession from John 21:16, where Christ instructs Peter to feed his sheep:  

What is said to Peter is also said to his successors; for Christ did not want to provide for his Church for twenty-five years only; “feed” is understood in particular of doctrine; and the “sheep” signifies all Christians, for he who does not wish to be fed by Peter is not of the sheep of Christ.

The Scriptures, however, do not establish papal primacy, since it is clear that not only all the apostles but also all presbyters who succeed them until the end of the world are commissioned to feed the flock of God (Matt 28:19; Acts 20:28; 2 Pet 5:2) under the primacy of the Chief Shepherd, who is Christ and not the pope.

Bellarmine would have none of it, and contends from Gal. 2:2 that

The Church would not believe Paul unless his gospel had been confirmed by Peter. Therefore it was Peter’s role then to judge the doctrine of faith, and accordingly his successor’s role now.

Apart from begging the question in respect of succession, Paul states in that verse that he conferred not with Peter only but with ‘them which were of reputation’, with specific mention of ‘James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars’, v.9, and it was they who perceived the grace of God in Paul and they who extended the right hands of fellowship. No papal primacy or infallibility can possibly be wrung out of this passage; indeed the subsequent verses show that Peter was rightly resisted by Paul in respect to his deportment towards the Gentiles.

Bellarmine advanced the standard Roman position that the correct interpretation of Scripture was that which had the unanimous consent of the Church Fathers. Suffice it to say that the ‘unanimous consent of the Fathers’ was not and could not always have been the rule of interpretation in the Church, so it should not be made the rule now. In any case, we do not know all the opinions of all the Fathers, though we do know that did not always agree. Even so, Bellarmine shamelessly misquotes the Church Fathers for support against the perspicuity of Scripture. For example, he says ‘Irenaeus [Against Heresies] book III chapter 2 teaches that controversies cannot be ended from the Scriptures alone, because heretics expound the words differently.’ Irenaeus taught no such thing, merely citing this position as the false argument of the heretics:

When [the heretics] are confuted from the Scriptures, they turn round and accuse these same Scriptures, as if they were not correct, nor of authority, and that they are ambiguous, and that the truth cannot be extracted from them by those who are ignorant of tradition.

Thus Irenaeus. The irony is that Bellarmine, when confuted from the Scriptures by the Reformers, based his rebuttals on those very arguments of the heretics condemned by Irenaeus, viz that the Scriptures were not correct (only the Latin Vulgate approved by the papacy being authoritative), nor of authority (other than that conferred by the pope), and were ambiguous (needing a visible, audible interpreter, the pope), and not sufficient for extracting the truth (needing to be supplemented by Roman tradition).

Bellarmine argued that Scripture cannot be its own interpreter because a judge of law must be distinct from the lawgiver. But that is projecting onto God an arrangement from the world of man. The supreme judge must have the character that he cannot be influenced by partiality, and his judgment, from which no appeal can be made, must be unquestionably true. Neither the church nor the pope has these qualities, but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scriptures has them all. He alone who has the power to engender faith has supreme authority in interpreting the very Scriptures that he gave.

Against the Sufficiency of Scripture

Robert Bellarmine sets out the Roman position over against the Protestant doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture as follows:

The controversy between us and the heretics consists in this: that we assert that the whole doctrine necessary for faith and morals is not expressly contained in the Scriptures; and therefore besides the written word of God there is also required the unwritten word of God, that is, divine and Apostolic traditions. But they teach that everything necessary for faith and morals is contained in the Scriptures, and that therefore there is no need for any unwritten word.

To be clear, confessional Protestants accept as ‘contained in the Scriptures’ what is ‘expressly set down’ as well as what may be validly deduced from Scripture. Bellarmine seeks to demonstrate insufficiency by claiming that there are many things that must be believed for salvation which are not contained in Scripture, such as doctrines of Mary and five additional sacraments. But how could he know this unless he first accepted extra-biblical revelation? And if he accepts extra-biblical revelation then he has already denied the sufficiency of Scripture and so is begging the question: using as a premise the thing to be proved. Similarly, his argument to see off criticism of Rome’s traditions is a self-referential fallacy:

Whatever is held to descend from Apostolic tradition in those churches where the succession from the Apostles is complete and continued is without doubt to be believed. Since there is lacking a definite Apostolic succession in all churches besides the Roman, therefore from the testimony of this Church alone can a definite argument be taken to prove Apostolic tradition.

Such arguments reveal that Bellarmine was less interested in genuine engagement with Protestantism than in confirming his Jesuit students in their prejudices. Yet Bellarmine needed to be seen to demonstrate insufficiency by the testimony of Scripture itself, so he contends from John 16:12 (‘I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now’) that Jesus secretly imparted many ‘reserved doctrines’ to the apostles, which were transmitted down uniquely to the Roman church. But claiming something does not make it true, and Rome is quite unable to prove that her ‘unwritten doctrines’ are things that Christ revealed to the apostles but were not written. Here Augustine is pertinent: ‘All the most foolish heretics who would have themselves called Christians, endeavour to colour their daring figments by the occasion of this passage.’ Some necessary things were not revealed by Jesus before his death, but the Holy Spirit who inspired the Scriptures later led the apostles into the truth of them all (v.13). It does not follow logically that because there were things that Jesus did not say at certain times, or things that he did say but were not written, therefore all necessary things were not written, for as Augustine remarks, ‘Those things that were seen to be sufficient for the salvation of believers were chosen to be committed to writing.’

Bellarmine asserts that Paul’s written account of the Lord’s Supper was incomplete (and thus insufficient) because he concluded with ‘and the rest I will set in order when I come’ (1 Cor 11:34), thereby avoiding written disclosure of secret details necessary for salvation pertaining to the Roman priesthood and the ceremonies and mysteries of the Roman mass. These are nowhere found in Scripture, which is why we reject them, but the charge of insufficiency plainly fails. For later in this letter Paul assured the Corinthians that there was nothing outstanding in the doctrine of salvation that he had not already delivered to them: ‘I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand; by which also ye are saved’ (15:1-2), which he then proceeds to set down in writing. Therefore ‘the rest’ that he would ‘set in order’ cannot relate to anything necessary for salvation via a sacramental system to be set up.

Mystery religion

Bellarmine contends that the exalted status of the Roman church rests on such secret details that cannot be accessed by any outside its priesthood. This amply secures for Romanism its just denunciation as ‘Babylon, mystery religion’:

The Catholic Church alone knows all the mysteries of the true religion and is conscious of the secrets of [Christ] the spouse. But if everything were written very openly, as the heretics wish, the Church would have no privilege. For the heretics, pagans, and Jews would know nothing less about the mysteries of our faith than we ourselves and our priests know. The dignity of many mysteries demands silence, nor is it fitting that they be explained in the Scriptures, which are read by the whole world.

This is a telling argument, for here Bellarmine moves from an ‘is’ to an ‘ought’, from alleged facts of insufficiency and opacity, to a necessity for insufficiency and opacity upon which the very existence and survival of the Church of Rome depends. The whole superstructure of that Church, then, is built upon a hellish foundation that makes a virtue out of alleged insufficiency and opacity of Scripture, and makes sufficiency and perspicuity to be attributes that Scripture must never possess. In their place come unwritten traditions imposed by an infallible papacy; indeed, Bellarmine effortlessly recycled his arguments against the perspicuity of Scripture to bring in papal infallibility and deny the sufficiency of Scripture:

Very often Scripture is ambiguous and perplexing, so that unless it is explained by someone who is infallible it cannot be understood; therefore Scripture alone does not suffice.

We have not yet reached the full extent of Bellarmine’s blasphemies and impiety, for to buttress his argument that the Scriptures are inherently insufficient he unfavourably compares Scripture with the spurious writings of infidels:

We read in the Koran of Mohammed that it was sent from heaven by God, but we do not believe it. Therefore the necessary dogma that Scripture is divine cannot be sufficiently adduced from Scripture alone. And since faith rests on the word of God, we will have no faith unless we have an unwritten word of God.

One must know not only which are the sacred books but also that the ones now in our hands are those very books, which certainly cannot be got from the Scriptures. For how would I determine from the Scripture that Mark’s Gospel is not spurious, as the Mohammedans say? From nowhere else than from unwritten tradition do we know that the Scripture is divine and which are the sacred books.

Here is the very epitome of Roman argument that their unwritten traditions are necessary for faith itself. Whilst some agency other than the very letter of the Word is necessary for saving faith, Bellarmine is entirely mistaken to locate this ‘nowhere else’ than in unwritten Roman tradition, thereby supplanting the whole operation, illumination, and witness of the Holy Ghost in the hearts of believers.

In truth, the mysteries of our faith are not to be sought in occult practices and hermetic knowledge beside Scripture that might distinguish the visible church and her priesthood, and give her power and prestige, such as Rome craves. Knowledge and understanding of Scripture is twofold; one is of the letter, which all can know, and to which the visible church has no privilege; the other is of the Spirit, whereby the elect—the invisible church—are taught of God.

Heresy re-purposed

But since heretics do not have the Spirit, one can engage with them in controversy only according to the letter, which Bellarmine claims is not sufficient for rebuttal. He examples the Council of Nicaea (AD 325), and opines that Constantine, as a layman, ‘did not know the secrets of religion’ when he exhorted thus:

The Gospels, the apostolical writings, and the oracles of the ancient prophets clearly teach us what we ought to believe. Let us then seek the solution of the questions at issue in the divinely-inspired word.

Bellarmine sneers that this cannot be taken seriously, for ‘Constantine was a great Emperor but not a great doctor of the Church’ to think that the written Word of God would be sufficient to resolve the Arian controversy.  Bellarmine avers that ‘since Arius also professed the Scriptures’, the bishops were compelled to condemn him ‘from an  unwritten doctrine handed down by the hands of the Fathers’. But here Bellarmine adopts the very cavil of the Arians themselves, who rejected as ‘unwritten doctrine’ any theological words not found in Scripture. Athanasius, who was present at the Council as his bishop’s secretary, explains:

The bishops collected from Scripture those passages that say of Christ that he is the glory, the fountain, the stream, and the express image of the person…They then briefly declared that the Son is ‘of one substance with the Father’; for this, indeed, is the signification of the passages quoted. The complaint of the Arians that these precise words are not to be found in Scripture is groundless…The bishops did not discover their expressions for themselves, but received their testimony from the fathers, and wrote accordingly. Indeed, there were bishops of old time…who condemned those who asserted that the Son is not ‘of one substance with the Father’.

This readily exposes Bellarmine’s disingenuousness in taking the Arian part in their attempt to re-brand developing theological vocabulary as ‘unwritten doctrine handed down by tradition’. But Bellarmine favours this tack, for once establish the necessity for ‘unwritten doctrine handed down by tradition’ to resolve theological disputes and the sufficiency of Scripture is exploded.

Necessity of Scripture denied

Bellarmine’s approach is to make what is unwritten (i.e. tradition) necessary so that he can assert that what is written (Holy Scripture) is unnecessary:

For 2,000 years was religion kept by tradition alone; therefore is Scripture not simply necessary. For  just as the ancient religion could be kept without Scripture for 2,000 years, so the doctrine of Christ could be kept without Scripture for 1,500 years.

It is breathtaking to encounter such an unalloyed Romish perspective as Bellarmine’s, who teaches that the Apostles were commissioned by Christ to transmit only unwritten dogma and practice, so that those of their number who did write were acting on their own initiative without a divine mandate, and with little intention of conveying doctrine:

It is false to say that God commanded the Apostles to write. For we read in the last chapter of Matthew a mandate to preach the gospel; but we never read that they should write. Therefore God did not expressly command them to write.

Had they intended to consign their doctrine to letters, they would certainly have  written a catechism or a like book. Yet they handled disputes about dogmas only by the by.

That John was commanded to write the Apocalypse presents ‘no obstacle’, says Bellarmine, since he was restricted merely to recording ‘arcane visions’, whereas our dispute concerns the sufficiency of Scripture for faith and morals.

As for the argument that the church of the Patriarchs possessed only the unwritten word of God, and therefore the Christian Church could now be run entirely ‘without Scripture’ on Romish traditions, it is an established principle that one cannot argue from the lesser to the greater or from the particular to the general. It is an egregious fallacy to suggest that what is not necessary at one place and time must therefore be unnecessary forever and everywhere. And thus it is absurd to argue that because the Word of God was not written when it was believed by an extended family inhabiting a small region, it was therefore not necessary to be recorded in order to be published to every nation, and believed by every people, tribe and tongue in all the world to the end of the age. As far back as the Exodus, God ordained that his will be recorded by Scripture, thereby making it necessary. And in the Apostolic age, the gospel and knowledge of Christ, hitherto largely confined to the Jewish Church, were ‘by the scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the everlasting God, made known to all nations for the obedience of faith’ (Rom 16:25-26), thereby making those scriptures necessary also.

Scripture attests to its sufficiency and divine origin, being all ‘God breathed’, and able to make one ‘wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus’, and ‘profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works’, which most certainly implies sufficiency for faith and morals.

In darkness unto the end

We have examined in the formulations of Rome’s greatest champion, Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, the best arguments that the Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation could muster against the Protestant Reformation’s doctrine of Scripture. We conclude that Bellarmine’s bark was bigger than his bite. But so jealous was he of his reputation as the hammer of heretics that on his deathbed (September 1621) he secured that no credible report could be raised that he ever resiled from any of his attacks on Protestants, having an attestation drawn up and subscribed by witnesses that ‘what­soever he had written or printed concerning matters of faith against the heretics and he­resies of these times, now on his deathbed he did most resolutely avouch again, ratify, and confirm the same.’ And as Bellarmine had earlier claimed that ‘I only pass on to others what our Catholic Mother has herself passed on to me’, he thereby entrained the Church of Rome in all the horrible attacks he made, and those ultimately upon the very Author of Scripture himself.