Belloc on Bibliolatry

The following is a quote from Hilaire Belloc’s magisterial magnum opis, Survivals and New Arrivals. He is discussing the attack against the Catholic Church on the grounds that the Church does not teach a literal interpretation of the books of the Bible.

The decision of the Church to stand by the Jewish Scriptures was not maintained without difficulty. The documents were alien to that glorious civilization of the Mediterranean which the Church penetrated and transformed. Their diction was, in its ears, uncouth and irrational. The deeds they recounted (with approval) sounded barbaric and often absurd: taken as moral examples, some were found repulsive, others puerile: and the whole was of another and (to Greek and Roman) lesser and more degraded world. We have remaining echoes of the reaction against them including the fury of those heretics who ascribed them to the Devil; and even after they had been flooding Christian study for nearly four hundred years you may find such an ardent follower of them as St. Augustine confessing that they had disgusted his cultivated taste and that their alien style had presented for him an abject contrast to the noble tradition of classical letters.

But the Church firmly maintained their supernatural value and revered them as Divine Oracles bearing testimony to Her Founder. She did not indeed accept them of themselves. Of themselves they would not have concerned her. As law they were superseded. […]

The Church added to the Canon further books which were of greater moment, for these were not adumbrations and forerunners but records of the essential doctrines whereon She was founded. The precepts of Our Lord Himself as collected by His companions and their immediate associates, the chief events of His Mission, His Passion, His Rising from the Dead, the inward meaning of all this as He revealed it to the Apostolic group whom He had chosen (and in particular to St. John) these formed the Gospels of the Church […] To them were added the letters and exhortations written by the first propagators of the Faith and their successors, as also apocalyptic and symbolic treatises.

The process of deciding what among the books read in the Churches should be admitted as inspired was long. There was a sifting of the older Hebrew books, which left some of them outside the Canon; of the newer Christian books, which excluded some of these also (as the Epistles of Clement, the Shepherd of Hermas). By the fourth and fifth centuries the thing was fixed. Its original Greek version in the East, its Latin translation in the West, had reached final form and Europe was henceforward in possession of the Holy Bible preserved and imposed by the Authority of the Catholic Church.

[…] Therefore it was, on account of the Church’s own practice in the matter and the Education she had given Europe therein, that when the great revolt broke out against Her four hundred years ago, Her own teaching was abused against Her. By a pretty irony, that Catholic thing which only the overwhelming authority of the Church over men’s minds had compelled them to accept, was taken up as a weapon to destroy Her.

The men of the sixteenth century could only live by Authority, in religious matters as in civil. If the Primary Authority, the Catholic Hierarchy, was to be dispossessed, the secondary authority must be established as all sufficing: thus Bibliolatry appeared. The Bible, stark, uninterpreted, was set up as the one and only guide to truth. By the seventeenth century the Bible became an idol; and the intellectual effects of so base a perversion were not slow to appear. Men came to know so little of their own past that all the symbolic use of Scripture, all the allegorical spirit of the early Fathers, was forgotten. A dead document bound all.

The worst social effect of this was the ruining of the Renaissance. That mighty fountain of youth restored, that return to ancient order and beauty and to knowledge, was deflected, warped and fouled. Our opportunity for a full resurrection of culture was destroyed by the Reformers.

[…] Just when the religious upheaval was at its height a Polish Canon, Copernicus, revived in a more precise form, the old Pythagorean doctrine of the earth’s motion, and communicated to many his speculation that the sun was the center of our system and that the earth revolved. At last, as he died, he printed it, with a dedication to the Pope of the day. This new hypothesis—so typical of the Renaissance advance in discovery—excited in the heart of civilization the interest it deserved. It was lectured on in the Papal Schools, and the lecturers splendidly rewarded. It was taught at Bologna. But the Bible worshippers were furious. On the authority of “the Bible only” they denounced the movement of the globe. Luther’s own University of Wittenburg expelled its professor of mathematics for teaching the evil thing. Luther, Melanchthon and their followers roared against the blasphemy of a moving earth in scores of broadsides, and the evil example spread so far that it even infected Italy at last, and at Rome itself Galileo was condemned a lifetime later; though not indeed for advancing the hypothesis but for quarrelsomely teaching it as proved fact, which, as yet, it was not.

Another dreadful consequence of Bibliolatry was the outbreak of vile cruelty in the persecution of witches. The hundreds of poor wretches—mostly women—who were tortured and burnt, or hanged (especially in East Anglia) during the worst of the mania owed their sufferings mainly to such inspiration. But indeed cruelty in general was fostered by the strange new fashion of accepting all the relations of the Old Testament as an infallible moral guide to the conduct of life. Another was the attitude towards the natives of new-discovered lands: your Bibliolater did not attempt their conversion but their extermination.

For he had read that those not “of the Law” were to be put to the sword, and as for those among whom he found himself he might massacre them cheerfully as so many Canaanites. Was he not of a Chosen Race, and was not everybody unlike himself an inferior in the eyes of the Creator?

For the dogma that this particular printed book was the sole and final authority upon all doctrine, morals, and the rest of it, meant that we are bound to imitate in every particular the deeds and the ethical code discoverable in that text.

It had another effect. What was not discoverable in the text must be abhorred. Thus the word “Mass” is not used for the Eucharist in the text—therefore it is an abomination. The war against the Mass had other origins, but this petty argument had strange force. Everything described by a word later than the words used in the latest book in the Canon must go.

It had another. Images were to be condemned; and art was suspect not only in worship but in all life—with consequences we can see around us.

The action was not consistent. Sunday took the place of Saturday (without Scriptural warrant) as a Taboo Day. Human sacrifice was not adopted, even as an exception. A priesthood—the center of the old books—was abhorrent. The elaborate ritual of the Jewish priesthood in its worship was not copied—rather was such a practice to be condemned, because the Church had adopted it. Black Puddings also were permitted, and one might eat a chicken though the gardener had wrung its neck. [n.b.: Belloc is being ironic here. Eating Black Puddings offends the Kosher prohibition against consuming blood, as does consuming a chicken not slaughtered with a sharp knife.]

But, take it in the large, the Biblical attack on the Church was the main one for three centuries […] it remained vigorous in nations of Protestant culture to the last third of the nineteenth century—anyone over fifty in Britain or the United States can remember it in full activity. [n.b.: the passage was written in 1929, and the Third Great Awakening of 1850-90 was within living memory.]

It had already sunk into Literalism: the idea that the English text of the Hebrew scriptures, as published under James I 300 years ago, gave an exact historical and scientific description of all therein contained.

The Literalist believed that Jonah was swallowed by a right Greenland whale, and that our first parents lived a precisely calculable number of years ago, and in Mesopotamia. He believed that Noah collected in the ark all the very numerous divisions of the beetle tribe. He believed, because the Hebrew word JOM was printed in his Koran, “day,” that therefore the phases of creation were exactly six in number and each of exactly twenty-four hours. He believed that man began as a bit of mud, handled, fashioned with fingers and then blown upon.

These beliefs were not adventitious to his religion, they were his religion; and when they became untenable (principally through the advance of geology) his religion disappeared.

It has receded with startling rapidity. Nations of the Catholic culture could never understand how such a religion came to be held. It was a bewilderment to them. When the immensely ancient doctrine of growth (or evolution) and the connection of living organisms with past forms was newly emphasized by Buffon and Lamarck, opinion in France was not disturbed; and it was hopelessly puzzling to men of Catholic tradition to find a Catholic priest’s original discovery of man’s antiquity (at Torquay, in the cave called “Kent’s Hole”) severely censured by the Protestant world. Still more were they puzzled by the fierce battle which raged against the further development of Buffon and Lamarck s main thesis under the hands of careful and patient observers such as Darwin and Wallace.

So violent was the quarrel that the main point was missed. Evolution in general—mere growth—became the Accursed Thing. The only essential point, its causes, the underlying truth of Lamarck’s theory, and the falsity of Darwin’s and Wallace’s, were not considered. What had to be defended blindly was the bald truth of certain printed English sentences dating from 1610.

All this I say was Greek to the man of Catholic culture. He could not understand it at all. But we, living in a Protestant society, know well enough what it was and the general collapse that has followed. For, with the defeat of Literalism, Bibliolatry went by the board; and the Biblical attack on the Faith, a standby for centuries, has dwindled to insignificance.

Its disappearance in one area after another has been extending rapidly. Men of my age can remember all Britain and America, you may say, based on Bibliolatry. […] Bibliolatry would seem to be nowadays a quaint chapter which the generality of educated men regard as unworthy of mention, or, at any rate, of so little account that it might be neglected by anyone dealing with the major problems of religion in our moment.

Well, it is true that even in the Protestant culture no one who counts would tolerate the serious discussion of such rubbish on lines familiar only half a lifetime ago; yet it must be admitted as a Survival—though the most exhausted of them all—because its effect, in the English-speaking world at least, is still felt.

[…] Mr. H. G. Wells has been at great pains to discuss the fall of man, in which considerable catastrophe he puts no faith. But when he discusses the fall of man he always has in mind the eating of an apple in a particular place at a particular time. When he hears that there is no Catholic doctrine defining the exact place or the exact time—not even the name of the apple, he shrewdly suspects that we are shirking the main issue. He thinks in terms of the Bible Christian—with whom he disagrees.

The main issue for European civilization in general is whether man fell or no. Whether man was created for beatitude, enjoyed a supernatural state, fell by rebellion from that state into the natural but unhappy condition in which he now stands, subject to death, clouded in intellect and rotted with pride, yet with a memory of greater things, an aspiration to recover them, and a power of so doing by right living in this world of his exile; or whether man is on a perpetual ascent from viler to nobler things, a biped worthy of his own respect in this life and sufficient to his own destiny.

On that great quarrel the future of our race depends. But the inventors of Bible Christianity, even when they have lost their original creeds, do not see it thus. They take the main point to be, whether it were an apple—who munched it—exactly where—and exactly when. They triumphantly discover that no fruit or date can be established, and they conclude that the Christian scheme is ruined and the Fall a myth.

It is clear then that the most eminent writers in the Protestant culture can still be concerned with Literalism. It is almost equally clear that they have never grasped that full doctrine of the Fall—the sole doctrine explanatory of our state—upon which, coupled with that of the Incarnation, the Catholic Church bases all Her theology.

To put the thing in epigram (and therefore, of course, quite insufficiently), they are certain that we are animals which have risen. They have not met the idea that we may be a sort of angel who fell.

Now I submit that if men of this eminence take the Literalists thus seriously—one solemnly arguing with them, another not understanding that there has been any other kind of believer—there must be trace of life in Literalism still.

There are, of course, innumerable other instances. You can hardly find an article in any newspaper discussion on religion—save the very few by Catholics, which are occasionally admitted as a favor—but takes it for granted that advance in physical science has shaken something which the writer calls “religion.” He can only mean the religion of the Bible Christian. For in what way could Physical Science affect the Catholic Church?

You can hardly get an allusion to the evolutionist writers (in this country it is always Darwin) without the same idea cropping up: “The Conflict of Science with Religion.” But with what religion can Science conflict save Bibliolatry?

My comment: The meme that Christianity consists of nothing but science-hating science haters who are all Biblical literalists and ‘Young Earth’ theorists is so widespread that even relatively intelligent ignoramuses of the Intellectual school cannot dislodge it from their minds, no matter what the contrary evidence might be. (Intellectuals are not famed for intellectual exercise such as rigor of logic or heeding evidence.)

If I may be forgiven an implied criticism of my Protestant brethren, I notice that in at least two battles of the spiritual warfare through the ages against the enemies of the faith, the Protestant weapon against the Catholic has been wrested from their hand and turned against them by the Secularists.

First, had it not been for Protestant ‘Sola Scriptura’ replacing the authority of the Church with the authority of the Church’s books and lecture notes known as a the Bible, Biblical Literalism would not have arisen, and this ridiculous alleged conflict between science and revelation, faith and reason, would have had no rhetorical force.

Second, had it not been for anti-catholic Protestant propaganda, the period of Late Antiquity after the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, which was one of the greatest periods of technical and scientific advances in the history of world (equaled only by the marvels of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Century) would not be dismissed as a period of Witch-hunting superstition and gross ignorance.

The Thirteenth Century, which the Church founded the modern University and Academic system still in use today, taught logic rather than Critical South American Lesbian Novella-Writers Studies of the Twentieth Century Body Image Gender Oppression Theory. The names of the logical forms and fallacies we still use today are based on Medieval mnemonics, and Latin, the language of Rome, is still the language of science.

Nonetheless, it aided the Protestant cause to depict themselves as the party of reason and scholarship, hence to condemn their fathers and grandfathers as ignorant and obscurantist; and when the newer schism of the secularist heresy arose in the modern world, lo and behold, having been told and taught that the most rational and rigorously logical thinkers of all history, the schoolmen of medieval Academia, where superstitious witch-hunters, the secularists now besmirched their Protestant fathers and grandfathers with the selfsame accusation.

Hence the alleged and entirely fictional war between Reason and Revelation, Church and Science was born.

End of comment. Let me give Mr. Belloc the last word. He is discussing whether or not Biblical Literalism will be used in the future as a basis for attack on the Catholic Church. Now he indulges in a trifle of science fictional speculation:

The good fortunes of stupidity are incalculable. One can never tell what sudden resurrections ignorance and fatuity may not have. Most of us, asked to make a guess, would say that in fifty years no odd Literalist could still be found crawling upon the earth. Do not be too sure. Our children may live to see a revival of the type in some strange land. Or it may come later. These aberrations have great power. We might, if we came back to life 300 years hence, find whole societies in some distant place indulging in human sacrifice, massacring prisoners of war, prohibiting all communications on Saturdays, persecuting science, and performing I know not what other antics in the name of James I’s Old Testament—especially if James I’s Old Testament should have become by that time (as it probably would have become by that time) a Hierarchic book preserved in a dead language, known only to the learned few.

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