The Canon in Protestant Dogmatics, pt. 2


See series index

Auguste Lecerf’s Introduction to Reformed Dogmatics deals with the formal principle of the Reformation — the authority of scripture alone — in six chapters, of which I will excerpt from the first three:

8. Christian Dogmatics must be Protestant

9. The Formal and External Principle of the Reformed Faith

10. The Testimony of the Holy Spirit and the Authority of Scripture: The Canon of the New Testament

The subsequent chapters deal with the canon of the Old Testament (ch. 11), the unity of the Church (ch. 12), and the primacy for dogmatic loci of the formal principle (ch. 13).

Chapter 8, partially excerpted below, deals with the “protest” in evangelical dogmatics of the Reformation and its parallel with the infant church of the apostles.


For the Reformers, there was no question as to whether the Church, the visible institution, was of divine origin; nor even whether, under certain conditions, it was infallible and indefectible. On these two points Calvin gives as categorical an affirmative as Luther. Neither the one nor the other had the least doubt as to the divine institution of the ministry of the Word and of the sacraments.

They did not deny that the Church had authority in matters of faith and discipline. Normally, the Christian cannot be conceived to the life of faith except in the bosom of the mother of the faithful, which is the Church. On her teaching and authority he depends all the days of his life.

In referring to churches subject to the yoke of error and superstition, Calvin declares that they are still churches, for this reason, among others, that “the Lord wondrously preserves in them a remnant of His people, however scattered they may be.” (Inst. IV, ii. 12.) By this very circumstance the efficacy of Christ’s promises is assured. He is with His ministers when they teach, even if their teaching is tainted with ignorance or error. He is even with an unfaithful preacher, when he prevents any but the elements of truth contained in his defective preaching from entering into the souls of the faithful. The example of the conversion of Mere Angelique of Port Royal furnishes a striking proof of this.

When evil grows in the Church to such an extent that it becomes unfit as an institution to fulfil its function, God can if it please Him, raise up by an extraordinary vocation such men as Calvin calls evangelists and we call Reformers. He thus re-establishes, in sufficient clarity and purity, the proclamation of the evangelical message and the administration of the sacraments.

As to the formal principle of Protestantism, Scripture as the unique source and rule of faith and life, it is justified scientifically by a verification which is based on historical evidence.

It is evident that Christianity, confronted by the Synagogue, could only make good its claim to be the succession Church of ancient Israel by basing itself on the very principle which became the formal principle of the Reformation when confronted by the Church of Rome. In relation to the Synagogue and the Sanhedrin, the primitive Church was in exactly the same position as the Reformed Church in relation to the Papacy and the Council.

Christianity is formally a Protestantism opposing legitimist and traditionalist Judaism. Because Judaism has been vanquished and the centuries have rolled away, Christians of the sacerdotalist type have forgotten all this. But they would not be here to oppose Protestants with their legitimist prepossessions, that is to say, the preliminary legitimist question, under pretext that the Protestants have broken with legitimate authority; they would not be here, we say, if our Lord and His disciples had not adopted the same attitude toward the priesthood of Jerusalem as Luther and Calvin later adopted toward the priesthood of Rome.

What is the precise point which formally distinguishes historic Protestantism from Rome and Constantinople? It has already been said that there is no question of denying to ecclesiastical authority the right of declaring its sentiments and of judging in matters of religious controversy, provided it takes for its supreme rule the Word of God. Still less is it a question of encouraging the pride of private individuals by giving them the right to base themselves on their autonomous reason or sensibility, in order to reject that which is confessed by the representative Church.

The question is just this: when the representative Church — which is not necessarily to be identified with the Church pure and simple — claims in an arbitrary fashion to place her authority or her “tradition of the elders” on the same footing as the Word of God, does her decision bind before God the consciences of the members of the Church?

In other words, if a believer refuses to accept the instruction of an ecclesiastical tribunal, out of respect for the Word of God, is he necessarily and a priori a proud man? The Roman Church says “Yes”; the Reformed, “No.”

In support of her affirmation, Rome cites certain well-known passages of Scripture: the famous Tu es Petrus (Matthew 16:18) and the not less celebrated Dic Ecclesiae (Matthew 18:17). But in so doing she encloses herself in a vicious circle. For, on the one hand, it is claimed that the private individual can only judge of the sense of Holy Scripture by basing himself on the infallible authority of the Church; while, on the other hand, texts of Scripture are quoted to him in order to prove this assertion. Thus an appeal is made to the judgment of the individual to decide, in his independence, the sense of Scripture which is is claimed that the representative Church alone has the right and power to judge.

But we need not insist on this point. Let us note simply what has happened historically since the foundation of Christianity (of the Christian Church, we grant, despite the denials of certain neo-Protestants). At the time when our Lord exercised His “irregular” ministry, there existed a Church by divine right: the Synagogue. Rome will not dispute this. The regular authorities of this Church were able to base their authority on a passage of the Old Testament as clear as those texts of the New Testament invoked by Rome, namely, Deuteronomy (17: 8-13).

In this passage we read that, should difficult questions arise, the priest and the judge must decide, and that if anyone, through pride, refuses to submit to his sentence, he must be cut off, that thus the people may be preserved from presumption.

Now, He whom we recognize as the Christ was condemned in the place which the Lord had chosen, as the text of the Law prescribes (Deuteronomy 17:8), by the priest and the judge, for having followed the example of the most faithful prophets of the Old Testament, who had judged that theirs was not a case of resistance through pride.

Unless we condemn the infant Church, which no Christian could think of doing, it must be acknowledged that there are, in fact, cases in which resistance to the regular ecclesiastical authority does not imply a revolt through pride; that there are some cases in which private individuals, like the fishers of Galilee, were obliged in conscience to make appeal from the sentence of the priests to that which impressed their minds as the faithful interpretation of the prophecies of Scripture.

(pp. 294, 296-8)



  1. “Thus an appeal is made to the judgment of the individual to decide, in his independence, the sense of Scripture which is is claimed that the representative Church alone has the right and power to judge.” This bit presumes a stark individualism that is foreign to Catholic tradition. Instead, Catholicism proposes that individuals educate and form their conscience according to Church teaching and that one should strive to ‘think with the Church.’

  2. I don’t see how it is “stark individualism.” It’s a question of apologetic method, necessarily addressed to “individuals” outside the Church. And it is to the individual that “texts of Scripture are quoted to him in order to prove this assertion [of infallibility].” There’s no getting around this. It is true that the Catholic Church is calling individuals to come out of their individualism and into the collective mind of the Church, but the call is still made to individuals who must decide by personal judgment.

  3. I see that what’s being critiqued is the attraction of Protestants to the Catholic Church on the basis of several texts. Insofar as this is an apologetic method used by Catholics, it’s a weak one that lacks the breadth and diversity of tradition. It especially lacks a balanced approach to Scripture in its totality. This is not the method described by Fr. Vincent Donovan in his book, Christianity Rediscovered (about his mission to the Massai in Africa). It’s not the method which was used by Jesuits in New France (America). It’s not the method described by Joseph Ratzinger in his concise book Gospel, Catechesis, Catechism.

    As for individualist anthropology, man is essentially a political animal, a social creature — whether an atheist or a believer. Time is short – more later!

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