Private Judgment: Its Meaning and How it is Viewed by Protestants and Catholics

 One of my goals in the present paper is to show that Protestant and Catholic views on this subject are actually not nearly as far apart as both sides suppose, and that there is much needless misunderstanding. As so often occurs in Protestant-Catholic discussion, we largely talk past each other.

Differences of definition cause untold problems of communication and resolution of this issue. In my first paper on this topic, I had made an argument that Protestants Bruce and Pink used the same definition I did, and that they agreed with the concept, whereas I and all Catholics reject it.

I also brought forward as a "witness" for my definition (i.e., the standard scholarly one, as far as I have been able to determine), renowned  Presbyterian theologian Charles Hodge (1797-1878). The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (2nd edition, 1983, 654), describes Hodge as a "defender of traditional Calvinism" and stated that he "has a real claim to be considered one of the greatest of American theologians, and he had a great influence and following." Baptist Church historian Kenneth Scott Latourette thought Hodge was:

. . . the outstanding representative in America in his lifetime of Augustinianism in its stiff Calvinistic form.
Latourette also notes the influence on Hodge of another Calvinist theologian, much-beloved in Reformed circles:
In his own theological thinking he especially felt the impress of Francois Turretin (1623-1687), a staunch Calvinist, vigorous defender of the Synod of Dort, and of the Helvetic Consensus (1675).

(Christianity in a Revolutionary Age: Volume III: The Nineteenth Century Outside Europe, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1970 edition, 167)

I need not spend any further time establishing Hodge's credentials. Few Calvinists (or even any student of the history of Christianity and theology in America) will dispute those. Hodge defined private judgment, in his famous Systematic Theology,  as follows (emphases added, as throughout this paper in the citations; the lengthier citation and source information can be seen in my earlier paper):
. . . the right of private judgment. This, as understood by the Reformers, is the right of every man to decide what a revelation made by God to him requires him to believe. It was a protest against the authority assumed by the Church (i.e., the bishops) of deciding for the people what they were to believe. It was very natural that the fanatical, in rejecting the authority of the Church, should reject all external authority in matters of religion. They understood by the right of private judgment the right of every man to determine what he should believe from the operations of his own mind and from his own inward experience, independently of the Scriptures.
Note how Hodge takes a middle position between Catholicism ("bishops . . . deciding for the people") and a fanatical sectarian Protestantism ("reject all external authority in matters of religion"). This is precisely what I regard as an intelligent, ecclesiologically-oriented, historical (as opposed to a-historical) mainstream "Reformation" Protestant position, and the best (and classical) form of sola Scriptura.

Protestants often erroneously define "private judgment" as "the faculty of choosing itself."  But it does not mean simply a choice or an individual making up his mind. It refers to a formal rule of faith and is intimately connected with sola Scriptura. For this reason it is nonsensical to apply the term to Catholics as any sort of description of their system.

To give an example, Charles R. Biggs is a pastor in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, founded by the well-known figure J. Gresham Machen, and is a graduate of Westminster seminary. He defines private judgment according to its connection with sola Scriptura (exactly how I and Charles Hodge view it):

To be persuaded by what Scripture teaches alone. If Luther had not stood at Worms (April 1521), humanly speaking, the Reformation would have never occurred.


It is obviously regarded as a corollary to sola Scriptura, which he defined a few lines before as:
"Scripture Alone." The Formal Principle (source of authority) of the Reformation.The Word of God- - only- -not the church or tradition, is the ultimate authority.
So if we put the two together, private judgment is "to be persuaded by Scriptural teaching alone, which is the formal source of authority in Protestantism (not the church or tradition)." It couldn't be any clearer than it is, and no more in line with my overall argument than it already is.

Philip Schaff, well-known Protestant Church historian, whose multi-volume History of the Christian Church is so highly-regarded that it is available in several online "editions," likewise ties private judgment into fundamental elements of Protestantism, in his comment on the Diet of Speier in 1529. He obviously sees it as a Protestant distinctive over against Catholicism:

From this protest and appeal the Lutherans were called Protestants; with good reason, if we look at their attitude to Rome, which remains the same to this day. It is the duty of the church at all times to protest against sin, error, corruption, tyranny, and every kind of iniquity. But the designation, which has since become a general term for evangelical Christians, is negative, and admits of an indiscriminate application to all who dissent from popery, no matter on what grounds and to what extent. It must be supplemented by the more important positive designation Evangelical. The gospel of Christ, as laid down in the New Testament, and proclaimed again in its primitive purity and power by the Reformation, is the basis of historical Protestantism, and gives it vitality and permanency. The protest of Speier was based objectively upon the Word of God, subjectively upon the right of private judgment and conscience, and historically upon the liberal decision of the Diet of 1526.

(History of the Christian Church, VII, § 115. The Second Diet of Speier, and the Protest of 1529)

In the same volume Schaff describes Luther's protests:
In Leipzig he protested as a Catholic against the infallibility of pope and council; in Worms he protested against the papal tyranny over the Bible and private judgment;

(History of the Christian Church, VII, § 107. The Marburg Conference, A.D. 1529)

In his volume IV he even sets Orthodoxy and the "traditions" of Orthodoxy and Catholicism over against the right of private judgment:
. . . the traditions of the Greek Church are as strong a barrier against the exercise of private judgment and exegetical progress as those of Rome.

(History of the Christian Church, IV, § 68. The Consensus and Dissensus between the Greek and Latin Churches)

And in a very clear statement of the principle, Schaff opines:
The Reformation was a protest against a human authority, asserted the right of private conscience and judgment, and aroused a spirit of criticism and free inquiry in all departments of knowledge. It allows, therefore, a much wider scope for the exercise of reason in religion than the Roman Church, which requires an unconditional submission to her infallible authority. It marks real progress, but this progress is perfectly consistent with a belief in revelation on subjects which lie beyond the boundary of time and sense . . .

The Reformers used their reason and judgment very freely in their contest with church authority. Luther refused to recant in the crisis at Worms, unless convinced by testimonies of the Scriptures and "cogent arguments" . . .

(History of the Christian Church, VII, § 9 The Reformation and Rationalism)

It is no earth-shaking or particularly notable thing to simply accept people's opinions about their own systems of theology. If Luther or Calvin say that they beleve thus-and-so about such-and-such, I believe it.  On the other hand, analyzing their views and the historical fruits of same and internal inconsistencies or clashes with the Bible and previous history, etc. are different from questioning what the men themselves believed or how they conceived and described their own tenets, premises, and beliefs.

Protestants "listen" to and "submit" to "the [Protestant] Church." But they don't attribute infallibility to the Church. Here we have one of the the essential differences between Catholics and Protestants. The Catholic's submission to the Church is absolute where his opinion clashes with that of the Church, whereas the Protestant has the right to dissent in some cases (precisely as Luther did at Worms). His private judgment is ultimately supreme (because sola Scriptura is now the formal principle).

In an e-mail of 7-8-00, I wrote:

When I say "private judgment" I am talking about Christian authority and ecclesiology; not philosophical epistemology. I refer (per my many dialogues on this subject) to the Protestant formal system of sola Scriptura which places the individual in the position as the supreme and final arbiter of his own theology and destiny. This is a formal system of Christian authority, over against the Catholic three-legged stool of "Church, Tradition, and Scripture" -- all harmonious and not contradictory or competing.

So the Protestant -- by the exercise of this self-granted prerogative -- can stand there and judge all three legs of the stool (as Luther at Worms did), making his own conscience supreme (the corollary of private judgment). This we reject as unbiblical and against the entire previous history of the Church. And all Protestants do this -- by definition. Your variant may be more subtle, nuanced, and fine-tuned, and much less ahistorical, but all the versions boil down to a rejection of the apostolic authority of the Catholic Church.

I agreeably cited Baptist theologian Bernard Ramm as early as 1991 or 1992 in the first draft of my book, A Biblical Defense of Catholicism, opposing radical "absolute, unrestrained private judgment" (what Ramm describes as a "Bible-only mentality" and "bibliolatry"). The citation appears on my website (in my paper, Dialogue on Whether the Fathers Taught "Perspicuity" of Scripture and Denied the Necessity of Tradition and an Authoritative Church:
A Bible-only mentality virtually equates spiritual reality with the text of Scripture itself, whereas the Scripture is a pointer to or a witness to that reality . . . There is a difference between being biblical and biblicistic (i.e., employing the Bible-only mentality). There is a difference between honoring 'sola scriptura' and bibliolatry (the excess veneration of Scripture). . . . On more than one occasion it has been pointed out that the Bible-only view of Scripture is very much like the Muslim view of Scripture . . . Muslims believe that the earthly Qu'ran is a perfect copy of an actual Qu'ran in Paradise . . . The Christian view of Scripture is that there is a human and historical dimension to Scripture . . .

Scripture is not the totality of all God has said and done in this world. Scripture is that part of revelation and history specially chosen for the life of the people of God through centuries. 'Sola scriptura' means that the canon of Scripture is the final authority in the church; it does not claim to be the record of all God has said and done . . .

Patient research in the matter of tradition has brought to the surface the good side of the concept. Paul himself uses the language of tradition in a good sense (1 Cor. 11:23, 15:3). Both Roman Catholic and Protestant scholars have been coming closer and closer in a newer and better notion of tradition on both sides. For example, they agree that much of the revelation given in the period of time contained in the Book of Genesis must have been carried on as tradition . . . In the Christian period the bridge between Christ and the written documents of the New Testament was certainly tradition.

The 'sola scriptura' of the Reformers did not mean a total rejection of tradition. It meant that only Scripture had the final word on a subject . . . If we reject church tradition we have no idea what the New Testament is attempting to communicate. There is no question that the great majority of American evangelicals are not happy to have such a large weight given to tradition. Even so . . . might we not be heirs of tradition in such a manner that we are not aware of it? However we vote on this issue, it remains true that scholars no longer can talk about Scripture and totally ignore tradition . . .

If a Christian could not have his own Scripture until the time of printing and its translation into modern languages, then the kind of Christianity the Bible-only mentality accepts could not have existed until the sixteenth century . . . If copies of the Holy Scripture were rare because of the expensive cost of reproduction by hand-copying then there must have been other valid sources through which the laymen could know the contents of the Christian faith. Such may be: the preaching of the bishop in the early church . . . ; the sacraments and the liturgy which used biblical themes, biblical personalities, and quotations from Scripture so that solid biblical truth could be learned indirectly . . . ; church architecture, decorations within a church, and other forms of Christian art which reflected biblical themes and materials.

This is not an exhaustive list but it does show how the millions of Christians . . . could have had a substantial understanding of the Christian faith prior to the invention of printing. And if one has such a perspective on the whole history of the church he need not be caught in the logical box to which the Bible-only mentality leads . . . so narrow that it becomes self-defeating.

(Bernard Ramm, in Rogers, Jack B., ed., Biblical Authority, Waco, TX: Word Books, 1977, "Is 'Scripture Alone' the Essence of Christianity?', 116-17, 119, 121-122)

In the original version of my book (I later revised it from 1994 to 1996), I also cited Reformed theologians G.C. Berkouwer and R.C. Sproul as to the definition of sola Scriptura. The latter writes:
The Reformers did not despise the treasury of church tradition . . . But the difference is this: For the Reformers no church council, synod, classical theologian, or early church father is regarded as infallible. All are open to correction and critique . . .
(In James Montgomery Boice, editor, The Foundation of Biblical Authority, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1978, ch. 4: "Sola Scriptura: Crucial to Evangelicalism," 109)
In fact, this last quote was included in my upcoming book, 95 Bible Verses That Protestants Ignore, where I described it as "the standard evangelical Protestant viewpoint on Christian authority." The founders of Protestantism didn't utterly despise tradition simply because of sola Scriptura and they thought the Church was fallible. So do the most informed Protestants today.
I also cited Clark Pinnock (a liberal now but quite evangelical when he wrote these words) in the first draft of my first book (which was no later than 1994):
The "sola scriptura" principle does not exclude a respectful listening to the wisdom of the past. For we stand in a community of faith and cannot leap over two thousand years of Christian history in disregard of the prodigious labors already done . . . Biblicism is an antitraditional preoccupation with the Bible. It limits its interests to the Bible alone and does not seek nor accept the guidance and correction which the history of exegesis affords. There is something audacious about such a leap from the twentieth century back into the first century without even a glance at the ways in which Scripture has hitherto been understood. Indeed, in such a case there is the real danger that the interpreter will bring the Bible under his own control. Every explicit denial of tradition involves a hidden commitment to a personal brand of tradition.
(Clark Pinnock, Biblical Revelation, Chicago: Moody Press, 1971, 118-119)
I cite all these sources (Ramm, Sproul, Berkouwer, Pinnock) -- but not the quotes themselves -- in the footnotes of the published version (Sophia Institute Press, 2003; pp. 3-4, footnotes 1-6). What I do state on page 4 of the published version of my book (completed in 1996) is very clear:
The concept of sola Scriptura, it must be noted, is not in principle opposed to the importance and validity of Church history, Tradition, ecumenical Councils, or the authority of Church Fathers and prominent theologians. The difference lies in the relative position of authority held by Scripture and Church institutions and proclamations. In theory, the Bible judges all of these, since, for the evangelical Protestant, it alone is infallible and the Church and popes and Councils are not.
Even in a work such as the biography of Luther by Hartmann Grisar, S.J. (the Luther biographer Protestants love to "hate" and consider as "anti-Luther" -- which is true to some extent but not as much as is made out), it is acknowledged that Luther accepted an authoritative Church. A quote from this work was also part of the first draft of my first book, and was incorporated into it in 1991 (the year I was received into the Catholic Church). The following material appears in my paper,The Origin and Historical Development of Sola Scriptura, which has been on my website for several years now:
In order to uphold his own reading of the Bible against others who differed from his, Luther incidentally appealed with the utmost vigor . . . to the Church, to Tradition and to the Fathers, whose authority he had nevertheless solemnly renounced. This was true especially in the controversies on the Zwinglian doctrine of the Supper . . .

Yet -- strange as it may seem . . . the last word on matters of faith belongs, according to him, to authority. This is his opinion for practical reasons, because not everyone can be expected, and but few are able, to undertake the task of finding their belief for themselves in the Bible.

(Luther, translated by E.M. Lamond, edited by Luigi Cappadelta, London: 1914-1917, six volumes; IV, 409-411)

On this fundamental question of the possibility of a regula fidei ["rule of faith"] in Luther's case, we may listen to the opinion of another esteemed Protestant historian of late years. Friedrich Paulsen, in his much-prized History of German Education, writes:

So here we have a renowned Lutheran historian, making essentially the same point I make in my arguments about Luther's stance at Worms, private judgment, and what these things quite arguably lead to, and how they are incoherent. I have now cited prominent Protestants Bernard Ramm, R.C. Sproul, Charles Hodge, Philip Schaff, and Lutheran historian Friedrich Paulsen in agreement in this regard, and my definition and initial analysis (before I draw out what I see as implications of the Protestant principle) is identical to theirs. And I have done this from the very beginning of my conversion to Catholicism. I believed the same thing as an evangelical. All that changed was that I accepted the principle of private judgment (just as I accepted sola Scriptura and perspicuity of Scripture, in the full Protestant sense) before 1991 and rejected it after 1991. My definition of it, however, didn't change. I belabor the point only because certain people have repeatedly accused me of not understanding these proper definitions.

I also understand what perspicuity of Scripture means. In the first draft of my book (dated 1991-1994), I cited John Calvin (also Zwingli and John Knox) as to the Protestant self-understanding of perspicuity:

Scripture exhibits fully as clear evidence of its own truth as white and black things do of their color, or sweet and bitter things do of their taste.

(Institutes of the Christian Religion, I, 7, 2)

I cited Grisar's mention of Luther's view that the Bible could be interpreted by a "humble miller's maid, nay, by a child of nine if it has the faith" and his other related remarks:
The sheep must judge whether the pastors teach in Christ's own tone.
Should anyone say that it is necessary to have the interpretation of the Fathers and that Scripture is obscure, you must reply, that that is untrue. There is no book on earth more plainly written than Holy Scripture; in comparison with all other books it is as the sun to any other light . . .

If the words are obscure in one passage, they are clear in another
[The Bondage of the Will] . . .

. . . clearer, easier and more certain than any other writing.

It is in itself quite certain, quite easy and quite plain; it is its own explanation . . . and makes all clear to all.

But Grisar also cites the later Luther (made wiser by much sectarian strife), who sang a different tune:
In order to understand aright the epistles of Cicero a man must have been full twenty years in the public service of a great State. No one need fancy he has tasted Holy Scripture who has not ruled Churches for a hundred years with . . . John the Baptist, Christ and the Apostles. (Table-Talk)
(Grisar, Luther, IV, 389, 392-395)
My website paper, The Perspicuity (Clearness) of Scripture, has been on my site since it first went online in March 1997, and was derived from Appendix One of my first book. One can plainly see there that I understand full well what perspicuity means.

When I wrote in another paper that "The principle [of private judgment] . . . has its own inner dynamic and logic, and people consistently follow it," I was generalizing and speaking sociologically, as I often do (having majored in sociology). If I were to elaborate on my meaning when I wrote that, I would say that "the principle of private judgment in fact leads to sectarianism and further division, in terms of the tendency of the large group (Protestantism) over time."

I offered a general sociological description of what in fact happened historically as a (partial) result of the belief in private judgment. As such, it cannot be contradicted because sociological statements (like those of theories of history) are not absolute, by their very nature, and can't be proven or disproven. They are only theories of plausibility or probability as to causation and the effect of ideas on behavior. I am as entitled to take this view as anyone is to take any view on the history or beliefs of Protestantism or Catholicism or anything else (provided they can set forth some decent reasoning on its behalf). Hence, I argued:

. . . what one can demonstrate factually is the actual history of scandalous, tragic Protestant sectarianism. Now, it stands to reason that there must be some cause for this. Things do not happen by accident. That being the case, I say that it is as plausible as any other explanation to suggest that the internal dynamic of private interpretation, private judgment, and sola Scriptura are significant causes of the course of Protestant divisions. I don't think it takes a rocket scientist to see a connection here between formal principles of authority and the ascertaining of truth, and individual and denominational and movement-wide behavior.
In my observations, I was not too distant from the analysis of Protestant Reformed theologian G.C. Berkouwer:
Such a variety of differing and mutually exclusive interpretations arose -- all appealing to the same Scripture -- that serious people began to wonder whether an all-pervasive . . . influence of subjectivism in the understanding of Scripture is not the cause of the plurality of confessions in the church. Do not all people read Scripture from their own current perspectives and presuppositions . . . with all kinds of conscious or subconscious preferences? . . . Is it indeed possible for us to read Scripture with free, unbiased, and listening attention? . . . We should never minimize the seriousness of these questions . . .

"Pre-understanding" cannot be eliminated. The part which subjectivity plays in the process of understanding must be recognized . . . The interpreter . . . does not approach the text of Scripture with a clean slate.

( Studies in Dogmatics: Holy Scripture, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1975, translated from the Dutch edition of 1967 by Jack B. Rogers, 106-107,119)

The mere confession of the sola Scriptura does not safeguard in the least from the dangers of . . . additions. We become aware of this at once when we consider the confessional divisions. For an appeal to Scripture's clarity and sufficiency is continually made, but the situation of separation is not radically changed and startling tendencies toward confessional unification did not appear.

(Berkouwer, ibid., 305)

It is true that in so analyzing I assume the axiom "ideas have consequences" and apply this to history, ecclesiology, and theology. But that is no more than Francis Schaeffer or Charles Colson or any number of Protestant scholars do. It is not a particularly controversial approach. Only the particulars one argues from that starting-point become controversial, because the application to real history is where the strong differences of opinion lie. I argued that people outside of systems can often see the faults of those systems better and more quickly than those inside them (the proverbial "fish in a fish tank") can:
People who reject (materialist) Darwinian evolution can see its faults and flaws more clearly than most proponents of the theory. Those who oppose the pathetic system of American public education, see its glaring (and obvious) failures much better than the National Educational Association, who must say it is a good and successful system, simply because it is their system, and they do not wish to change it (don't upset the apple cart; let the sleeping dog lie).
I do not deny (and never did deny) that Protestants have notions of Church authority. I submitted to authority when I was a Protestant, for heaven's sake, so how could I be so stupid as to now deny that they have any in their system?! Luther gives a strong place to "public judgment" and the Church. So did Calvin. So did Henry VIII and Cromwell. So what? This doesn't prove that they believe in an infallible Church. It is still a different principle.

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Uploaded by Dave Armstrong on 21 December 2003. Revised on 20 January 2004.