Was Catholicism the Avowed Enemy of The Bible In the Middle Ages ?

The text below for the Catholic Response was taken, with permission, from Dave Armstrong’s web site.



In order to obscure the plain meaning of the text of the Bible the Catholic Church said that the Bible was to be understood as only having symbolic, or mystical, meaning. 

Catholic Response:

As Newman argued above, the orthodox Catholic viewpoint, in the patristic period and ever since, was to interpret Scripture both in a literal and mystical sense. Those who denied this tended towards heresy, as we saw in the sad case of the See of Antioch. 

During the Middle Ages the Catholic Church had forbidden lay Catholics to read the Bible.   The Catholic Church did not want her followers to read the Bible out of fear that her doctrines would be found out to be false.  So, she kept the Bible in Latin only so that her members could not read it.

Catholic Response:

This is classic contra-Catholic rhetoric, repeated endlessly ever since the 16th century and very difficult to dislodge from the Protestant's (or even secular person's) mind. But it is an outrageously selective and thus ultimately deceiving (again, I don't claim that this is deliberate, just misinformed) presentation. I shall treat this whole subject of the Catholic Church's reverence for, and attitude towards Scripture at some length, since it is supremely important and so vastly misunderstood, even by Protestant scholars, who ought to know better, to put it mildly.

Well-known Catholic author Peter Kreeft observes: 

The classic Protestant suspicion is that Catholics fear the Bible; that the Church forbade the laity to read it for centuries because if that had been allowed, people would have seen how unscriptural Catholic doctrines were. This is simply untrue, of course, but is still widely believed among Protestants. The belief is declining, though, in the face of the strong encouragement by Vatican II and all recent Popes to Catholic laity to read Scripture regularly. This has done more to win Protestant respect than perhaps anything from Rome since the Reformation. Protestants have suspected that we fear the Bible ever since Luther discovered its dynamite.

{"Protestant, Catholic Views on the Bible," National Catholic Register, 3 November 1991, p.10}

Likewise, Henry G. Graham: 

The common and received opinion about the matter among non-Catholics in Britain, for the most part, has been that Rome hates the Bible . . . If she cannot altogether prevent its publication or its perusal, at least she renders it as nearly useless as possible by sealing it up in a dead language which the majority of people can neither read nor understand . . . 
The Protestant account of pre-reformation Catholicism has been largely a falsification of history . . . She has been painted as all black and hideous, and no beauty could be seen in her. Consequently people came to believe the tradition as a matter of course, and accepted it as history.

{Where We Got the Bible, St. Louis: B. Herder, rev. 1939, pp. 1,4} 

And now three Protestant writers:

Roman Catholicism has a high regard for Scripture as a source of knowledge . . . Indeed, official Roman Catholic statements concerning the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture would satisfy the most rigorous Protestant fundamentalist.

{Robert McAfee Brown, The Spirit of Protestantism, Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1961, pp. 172-173}

There was never a time in the history of the western Church during the 'Dark' or 'Middle' Ages when the Scriptures were officially demoted. On the contrary, they were considered infallible and inerrant, and were held in the highest honour.

{Peter Toon, Protestants and Catholics, Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Books, 1983, p. 39} 

After quoting 19 eminent Church Fathers to the effect that Scripture is infallible and held in the highest regard (bolstering his own thesis in this book), Harold Lindsell, former editor of Christianity Today and well-known evangelical scholar, has this to say about the Catholic reverence for Scripture: 

The view expressed by Augustine was the view the Roman Catholic Church believed, taught, and propagated through the centuries . . . It can be said that the Roman church for more than a thousand years accepted the doctrine of infallibility of all Scripture . . . The church has always (via Fathers, theologians, and popes) taught biblical inerrancy . . . The Roman church held to a view of Scripture that was no different from that held by the Reformers.

{The Battle For the Bible, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1976, pp. 54-56} 

In the same way that Popes, Councils, theologians, always resorted to the scriptural argument as the really fundamental one, the practice of the great spiritual writers of every epoch attests the fully traditional character of a devotion based on the Bible . . . The same is true of the great teachers of the Middle Ages . . . Not only did they know the Bible and make abundant use of it, but they moved in it as in a spiritual world that formed the habitual universe of all their thoughts and sentiments. For them, it was not simply one source among others, but the source par excellence, in a sense the only one . . .

What in fact was for so many monks the most important of their religious practices, the one which virtually contained all the others? It was what the Benedictine rule, which only codified in this the practice of the sixth century, called the 'lectio divina.' This 'lectio,'. . . was nourished exclusively on the Bible . . .

Not only with the approval of the hierarchy but by the positive and emphatic insistence of the Pope himself, there has come about a general return to the close study of Scripture, which has been restored, not only as the base, but as the source, of all teaching of theology.

{Louis Bouyer [convert from Lutheranism], The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism, tr. A.V. Littledale, London: Harvill Press, 1956, pp. 164-165} 

Many more quotes could be produced. The reader desiring further evidence is urged to peruse the Vatican II document "Divine Revelation," and the papal encyclicals of Leo XIII (1878-1903): 
"On the Study of Holy Scripture"  (Providentissimus Deus - 1893), 

and Pius XII (1939-58): 
"Promotion of Biblical Studies"  (Divino afflante Spiritu - 1943).

These are sometimes found in the beginning of Catholic Bibles, and can be easily located online (note that I have linked to two above). 

It would be to perpetuate a prejudice . . . founded on Luther's often false or at least exaggerated statements, were one to fail to recognise how widely the Bible was known even before Luther's day and to what extent it was studied among educated people. Modern research, not seldom carried out by open-minded Protestants, has furnished some surprising results in this respect.

{Hartmann Grisar, Luther, tr. E.M. Lamond, ed. Luigi Cappadelta, 6 vols., London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 1917, v. 5, p. 536} 

The publisher of the Cologne Bible [1480] writes . . . :

All Christians should read the Bible with piety and reverence, praying the Holy Ghost, who is the inspirer of the Scriptures, to enable them to understand . . . The learned should make use of the Latin translation of St. Jerome; but the unlearned and simple folk, whether laymen or clergy . . . should read the German translations now supplied, and thus arm themselves against the enemy of our salvation.

The rapidity with which the different editions followed each other and the testimony of contemporary writers point to a wide distribution of German Bibles among the people.

{Johannes Janssen, History of the German People From the Close of the Middle Ages, 16 vols., tr. A.M. Christie, St. Louis: B. Herder, 1910 (orig. 1891), v. 1, pp. 58-60} 

It says at the end of a Koberger Vulgate of 1477:

The Holy Scriptures excel all the learning of the world . . . All believers should watch zealously and exert themselves unremittingly to understand the contents of these most useful and exalted writings, and to retain them in the memory. Holy Scripture is that beautiful garden of Paradise in which the leaves of the commandments grow green, the branches of evangelical counsel sprout . . .

These words admirably describe the attitude which the Church in the Middle Ages held with regard to Holy Scripture. That the Bible at that time was a book lying under a bank is an unhistorical assertion . . .

First and foremost the study of the Bible was urgently enjoined on the priests . . . The Breviary and the Missal . . . are for the most part made up of words from Holy Scripture . . . Thomas a Kempis, in agreement with the Fathers, compares the Word of Christ with the Eucharist, the body of Christ, and declares that without the Eucharist and the Holy Scriptures, his food and his light, life would be unbearable to him.

{Ibid., v. 14, pp. 381-383} 

In Catholic countries the walls of churches and monasteries and convents, and even cemeteries, are covered with pictures representing Scriptural scenes . . . Stained glass windows may be mentioned in the same category . . .

The simple truth is that the Catholic Church adopted every means at her disposal in these old days to bring a knowledge of God's Word to those who could not read, as well as to those who could. Bibles were not printed because there was no printing press; but whose fault was that? Is the Church to blame for not inventing printing sooner?

{Graham, ibid., pp. 85-6} 

The Canon of the Bible . . . was framed in the fourth century. In that same century Pope Damascus commanded a new and complete translation of the Scriptures to be made into the Latin language, which was then the living tongue not only of Rome and Italy, but of the civilized world. If the Popes were afraid that the Bible should see the light, this was a singular way of manifesting their fear. The task of preparing a new edition of the Scriptures was assigned to St. Jerome, the most learned Hebrew scholar of his time. This new translation was disseminated throughout Christendom, and on that account was called the Vulgate, or popular edition.

In the 6th and 7th centuries the modern languages of Europe began to spring up like so many shoots from the parent Latin stock. The Scriptures, also, soon found their way into these languages.

{James Cardinal Gibbons, The Faith of Our Fathers, NY: P. J. Kenedy & Sons, rev. ed., 1917, p. 74} 

There were just two classes of people then: those who could read, and those who could not read. Now, those who did read could read Latin, and, therefore, were perfectly content with the Scriptures in Latin. Those who could not read Latin could not read at all . . .

The whole mistake in peoples' minds arises, of course, from the supposition they make that Latin was then a dead language, whereas it was really a living one in every sense of the term, being read and spoken and written universally in Europe.

{Graham, ibid., pp. 89,91} 

The Bible and other books were chained in the libraries and churches in the Middle Ages to preserve them from theft, and especially to make them accessible to students . . . The Reformers adopted this custom of having chained Bibles in their churches, and the practice lasted for over 300 years. There were chained libraries at Grantham (1598), Bolton (1651) and Wimborne (1686), England, and chained Bibles in most of the English churches . . . The Oxford Colleges of Eton, Brasenose and Merton did not remove the chains until the 18th century, while some libraries removed them only in the 19th (Manchester, Cirencester, Llanbadarn). At the present time we have records of over 5000 chained books in eleven Protestant and two Catholic libraries.

{Bertrand Conway, The Question Box, NY: Paulist Press, 1929, p. 86. Sources: Lenhart, Chained Bibles, Savage, Old English Librarie} 

The desire to possess the Holy Scriptures in the mother tongue is already met with on German soil in the time of Charlemagne [742-814]; and, strange to say, it is just the earliest translators of the Middle Ages who have come nearest to perfection in this task.

{Janssen, ibid., v. 14, p. 384} 

The number of translations . . . of the complete Bible, was indeed very great . . . Between this period [1466] and the separation of the Churches at least fourteen complete editions of the Bible were published in High German, and five in the low German dialect. The first High German edition was brought out in 1466 by Johann Mendel, of Strasburg . . .

[Other editions in High German: Strasburg: 1470,1485 / Basel, Switzerland: 1474 / Augsburg: 1473 (2),1477 (2),1480,1487,1490,1507,1518 / Nuremburg: 1483]. Bible Translations in Low German: Cologne: 1480 (2) / Lubeck: 1494 / Halberstadt: 1522 / Delf: before 1522]

{Janssen, ibid., v. 1, pp. 56-57; v. 14, p. 388} 

Raban Maur, born in Mainz in 776, translated the Old and New Testament into the Teutonic, or old German, tongue. Some time later, Valafrid Strabon made a new translation of the whole Bible. Huges of Fleury also translated the Scriptures into German, and the monk Ottfried of Wissemburg rendered it into verse . . .

Hallam, the non-Catholic historian, in his work on the Middle Ages, chap. 9, part 2, says:

In the 8th and 9th centuries, when the Vulgate ceased to be generally intelligible . . . translations were freely made into the vernacular languages, and, perhaps, read in churches.

{Patrick F. O'Hare, The Facts About Luther, Rockford, IL: TAN Books, rev. ed., 1987 (orig. Cincinnati, 1916), pp.183,185} 

The well-known Anglican writer, Dr. Blunt, in his History of the Reformation (Vol. I. pp. 501-502), tells us that:

There has been much wild and foolish writing about the scarcity of the Bible in the ages preceding the Reformation . . . that the Holy Scripture was almost a sealed book until it was printed in English by Tyndale and Coverdale, and that the only source of knowledge respecting it before them was the translation made by Wyckliffe. The facts are . . . that all laymen who could read were, as a rule, provided with their Gospels, their Psalter, or other devotional portions of the Bible. Men did, in fact, take a vast amount of personal trouble with respect to the productions of the Holy Scriptures . . . The clergy studied the Word of God and made it known to the laity; and those few among the laity who could read had abundant opportunity of reading the Bible either in Latin or English, up to the Reformation period.

{O'Hare, ibid., pp. 185-186}

We shall . . . 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. To anyone that has investigated the real facts of the case, this fondly-cherished notion must seem truly ridiculous; it is not only absolutely false, but stupidly so, inasmuch as it admits of such easy disproof . . .

To begin far back, we have a copy of the work of Caedmon, a monk of Whitby, in the end of the 7th century, consisting of great portions of the Bible in the common tongue. In the next century we have the well-known translations of the Venerable Bede, a monk of Jarrow . . . In the same (8th) century we have the copies of Eadhelm . . . of Guthlac, . . . and of Egbert . . . these were all in Saxon, the language understood and spoken by the Christians of that time. Coming down a little later, we have the free translations of King Alfred the Great . . . and of Aelfric, Archbishop of Canterbury . . . After the Norman conquest of 1066, Anglo-Norman or Middle-English became the language of England, and consequently the next translations of the Bible we meet with are in that tongue . . . such as the paraphrase of Orm (about 1150) and the Salus Animae (1250), the translations of William Shoreham and Richard Rolle . . . (d.1349) . . . 

The translators of the Authorised Version, in their 'Preface,' refer to previous translations . . . :

Much about that time [1360], even 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 . . . but hath been . . . put in practice of old, even from the first times of the conversion of any nation.

{Graham, ibid., pp. 98-101} 

From 1450 to 1520 [there were] many translations of the whole Bible . . . seventeen German, eleven Italian, ten French, two Bohemian, one Belgian, . . . and one Russian edition.

{Grisar, ibid., v. 5, p. 536. Data from Franz Falk, The Bible in the Middle Ages, Cologne: 1905, pp. 24, 91 ff.} 

Says another Protestant scholar, . . . :

It can no longer be said that the Vulgate alone was in use and that the laity consequently were ignorant of Scripture . . . We must admit that the Middle Ages possessed a quite surprising and extremely praiseworthy knowledge of the Bible, such as might in many respects put our own age to shame.

{Ibid., v. 5, p. 537. Citation of E. v. Dobschutz, Deutsche Rundschau, 101, 1900, pp. 61ff.} 

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 . . .

In Italy there were more than 40 editions of the Bible before the first Protestant version appeared, beginning at Venice in 1471; and 25 of these were in the Italian language before 1500, with the express permission of Rome. In France there were 18 editions before 1547, the first appearing in 1478. Spain began to publish editions in the same year, and issued Bibles with the full approval of the Spanish Inquisition (of course one can hardly expect Protestants to believe this). In Hungary by the year 1456, in Bohemia by the year 1478, in Flanders before 1500, and in other lands groaning under the yoke of Rome, we know that editions of the Sacred Scriptures had been given to the people. In all . . . 626 editions of the Bible, in which 198 were in the language of the laity, had issued from the press, with the sanction and at the instance of the Church, in the countries where she reigned supreme, before the first Protestant version of the Scriptures was sent forth into the world . . . What, then, becomes of the pathetic delusion . . . that an acquaintance with the open Bible in our own tongue must necessarily prove fatal to Catholicism? . . .

Many senseless charges are laid at the door of the Catholic Church; but surely the accusation that, during the centuries preceding the 16th, she was the enemy of the Bible and of Bible reading must, to any one who does not wilfully shut his eyes to facts, appear of all accusations the most ludicrous . . .

We may examine and investigate the action of the Church in various countries and in various centuries as to her legislation in regard to Bible reading among the people; and wherever we find some apparently severe or unaccountable prohibition of it, we shall on enquiry find that it was necessitated by the foolish or sinful conduct on the part either of some of her own people, or of bitter and aggressive enemies who literally forced her to forbid what in ordinary circumstances she would not only have allowed but have approved and encouraged.

{Graham, ibid., pp. 98,105-106,108,120} 

The online Catholic Encyclopedia article on SCRIPTURE, 
by A.J. Maas elaborates:


The attitude of the Church as to the reading of the Bible in the vernacular may be inferred from the Church's practice and legislation. It has been the practice of the Church to provide newly-converted nations, as soon as possible, with vernacular versions of the Scriptures; hence the early Latin and oriental translations, the versions existing among the Armenians, the Slavonians, the Goths, the Italians, the French, and the partial renderings into English. As to the legislation of the Church on this subject, we may divide its history into three large periods:

(1) During the course of the first millennium of her existence, the Church did not promulgate any law concerning the reading of Scripture in the vernacular. The faithful were rather encouraged to read the Sacred Books according to their spiritual needs (cf. St. Irenaeus, "Adv. haer.", III, iv).

(2) The next five hundred years show only local regulations concerning the use of the Bible in the vernacular. On 2 January, 1080, Gregory VII wrote to the Duke of Bohemia that he could not allow the publication of the Scriptures in the language of the country. The letter was written chiefly to refuse the petition of the Bohemians for permission to conduct Divine service in the Slavic language. The pontiff feared that the reading of the Bible in the vernacular would lead to irreverence and wrong interpretation of the inspired text (St. Gregory VII, "Epist.", vii, xi). The second document belongs to the time of the Waldensian and Albigensian heresies. The Bishop of Metz had written to Innocent III that there existed in his diocese a perfect frenzy for the Bible in the vernacular. In 1199 the pope replied that in general the desire to read the Scriptures was praiseworthy, but that the practice was dangerous for the simple and unlearned ("Epist., II, cxli; Hurter, "Gesch. des. Papstes Innocent III", Hamburg, 1842, IV, 501 sqq.). After the death of Innocent III, the Synod of Toulouse directed in 1229 its fourteenth canon against the misuse of Sacred Scripture on the part of the Cathari: "prohibemus, ne libros Veteris et Novi Testamenti laicis permittatur habere" (Hefele, "Concilgesch", Freiburg, 1863, V, 875). In 1233 the Synod of Tarragona issued a similar prohibition in its second canon, but both these laws are intended only for the countries subject to the jurisdiction of the respective synods (Hefele, ibid., 918). The Third Synod of Oxford, in 1408, owing to the disorders of the Lollards, who in addition to their crimes of violence and anarchy had introduced virulent interpolations into the vernacular sacred text, issued a law in virtue of which only the versions approved by the local ordinary or the provincial council were allowed to be read by the laity (Hefele, op. cit., VI, 817).

(3) It is only in the beginning of the last five hundred years that we meet with a general law of the Church concerning the reading of the Bible in the vernacular. On 24 March, 1564, Pius IV promulgated in his Constitution, "Dominici gregis", the Index of Prohibited Books. According to the third rule, the Old Testament may be read in the vernacular by pious and learned men, according to the judgment of the bishop, as a help to the better understanding of the Vulgate. The fourth rule places in the hands of the bishop or the inquisitor the power of allowing the reading of the New Testament in the vernacular to laymen who according to the judgment of their confessor or their pastor can profit by this practice. Sixtus V reserved this power to himself or the Sacred Congregation of the Index, and Clement VIII added this restriction to the fourth rule of the Index, by way of appendix. Benedict XIV required that the vernacular version read by laymen should be either approved by the Holy See or provided with notes taken from the writings of the Fathers or of learned and pious authors. It then became an open question whether this order of Benedict XIV was intended to supersede the former legislation or to further restrict it. This doubt was not removed by the next three documents: the condemnation of certain errors of the Jansenist Quesnel as to the necessity of reading the Bible, by the Bull "Unigenitus" issued by Clement XI on 8 Sept., 1713 (cf. Denzinger, "Enchir.", nn. 1294-1300); the condemnation of the same teaching maintained in the Synod of Pistoia, by the Bull "Auctorem fidei" issued on 28 Aug., 1794, by Pius VI; the warning against allowing the laity indiscriminately to read the Scriptures in the vernacular, addressed to the Bishop of Mohileff by Pius VII, on 3 Sept., 1816. But the Decree issued by the Sacred Congregation of the Index on 7 Jan., 1836, seems to render it clear that henceforth the laity may read vernacular versions of the Scriptures, if they be either approved by the Holy See, or provided with notes taken from the writings of the Fathers or of learned Catholic authors. The same regulation was repeated by Gregory XVI in his Encyclical of 8 May, 1844. In general, the Church has always allowed the reading of the Bible in the vernacular, if it was desirable for the spiritual needs of her children; she has forbidden it only when it was almost certain to cause serious spiritual harm.

See also the online articles:

          Catholicism and the Bible (Albert Vanhoye)

The Catholic Church on Reading the Bible (John Hellmann)

Bible Reading Prohibited? (John Hellmann)

Latin  Or  Vernacular  Bibles,  Which  Were  The  Best  ?  (John Hellmann) 
Did the Catholic Church Forbid Bible Reading? (Joseph Jenkins)