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A Disputation on Holy Scripture, Against the Papists by William Whitaker

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A Disputation on Holy Scripture, Against the Papists, Especially Bellarmine and Stapleton (Originally written in 1588; 1610 [Latin], 1849 English edition translated by Fitzgerald)
William Whitaker
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The apostate (now) Roman Catholic apologist, Scott Hahn, in his book Rome Sweet Home: Our Journey to Catholicism, speaks of the extensive reading of pro- and anti-Romanist literature he had done as he was led down the road to Rome from modern Calvinism. Among other reasons he lists for his declension, one major factor was what he saw to be the lack of cogent reply from modern "Protestants," including Dr. John Gerstner, to the arguments of the Roman Catholic Church.

Notwithstanding that there are serious reasons to doubt Hahn's credibility and integrity (for example, he paints out Luther and Calvin to teach only a formal, "courtroom language" view of justification: "Luther and Calvin explained this [justification] exclusively in terms of courtroom language. But I was beginning to see that, far more than simply being a judge, God was our Father. Far more than simply being criminals, we were runaways. Far more than the New Covenant being made in a courtroom, it was fashioned by God in a family room." -- p. 30; for refutation of this ridiculous, slanderous caricature, see Luther's Small Catechism, question on "Our Father who art in heaven;" Calvin's Institutes, Book III, 20.36ff; Robert Dabney's Systematic Theology, p. 627; Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 12; etc., etc.), had he read this work by William Whitaker (and it is our prayer that he may still perhaps do so), he would have found more than a lifetime of Romanist readings and reasonings could overcome.

Whitaker's design (prosecuted throughout his lifetime) was to deal systematically with the major points of controversy between the Protestants and the Roman Catholics; his Disputation on Holy Scripture was the first in this series, and the only one translated from Latin into English (of which we are aware). In his dedicatory epistle to William Cecil and his preface to his Cambridge audience, he describes his opponents, especially the Jesuits, and then his confidence in Christ and His truth to overcome them: "Amongst these locusts [Rev. 9:3], -- that is, as very learned men justly deem, amongst the innumerable troops of monks -- none, as we before said, have ever appeared, more keen, or better prepared and equipped for doing mischief, than are the Jesuits at this present day; who in a short space have surpassed all other societies of that kind in numbers, in credit, and in audacity.

Other monks, following the rule and practice of former times, lived in general a life of leisure and inactivity, and spent their time, not in reading and the study of the sciences, but in repeating by the [hour]glass certain offices for the canonical hours, which contributed nothing to the advancement of either learning or religion. But the Jesuits have pursued a far different course. They have left the shade of ancient sloth and inactivity, in which the other monks had grown grey, and have come forth to engage in toils, to treat of arts and sciences, to undertake and carry through an earnest struggle for the safety of the common interest.

It hath come to be understood, that the cause of Rome, which, shaken by the perilous blows dealt on every side by men of ability and learning, had begun in many parts to totter and give way, could never be defended or maintained, except by learned and diligent and active champions.... Among these Jesuits, Robert Bellarmine, a native of Italy, hath now for several years obtained a great and celebrated name.... Now, therefore, Bellarmine is cried up by his party as an invincible champion, as one with whom none of our men would dare to engage, whom nobody can answer, and whom if any one should hope to conquer, they would regard him as an utter madman.

When you, honoured sir, demanded my opinion of this writer, I answered, as indeed I thought, that I deemed him to be a man unquestionably learned, possessed of a happy genius, a penetrating judgment, and multifarious reading; -- one, moreover, who was wont to deal more plainly and honestly than is the custom of other papists, to press his arguments more home, and to stick more closely to the question.... [N]ow that Bellarmine hath been published, we shall know better and more certainly what it is they [the Papists] hold upon every subject, the arguments on which they specially rely, and what is (so to speak) the very marrow of popery, which is thought to be as much in the Jesuits as in the pope himself.... Our arms shall be the sacred scriptures, that sword and shield of the word, that tower of David, upon which a thousand bucklers hang, and all the armour of the mighty, the sling and the pebbles of the brook wherewith David stretched upon the ground that gigantic and haughty Philistine.

Human reasonings and testimonies, if one use them too much or out of place, are like the armour of Saul, which was so far from helping David that it rather unfitted him for the conflict.... However, since we have to deal with adversaries who, not content with these arms, use others with more readiness and pleasure, such as the decrees of councils, judgments of the fathers, tradition, and the practice of the church; lest perchance we should appear to shrink from the battle, we have determined to make use of that sort of weapons also.

And, indeed, I hope to make it plain to you, that all our tenets are not only founded upon scriptural authority, which is enough to ensure victory, but command the additional suffrage of the testimonies of the fathers, councils, and, I will add, even of many of the papists, which is a distinguished and splendid ornament of our triumph.... Thus it will be clear, that what Jerome, Epist. 139, applies out of Isaiah to the heretics, that 'they weave the spider's thread,' is pertinently applied to the papists. For, as Jerome says, they weave a web 'which can catch small and light animals, as flies and gnats, but is broken by the stronger ones.'

Just thus many stick fast in the subtleties of the papists, as flies do in the spider's web, from which they are unable to extricate themselves, though nothing can possibly be frailer than those threads. Such are the reasonings of the papist, even the Jesuits themselves; who, although they seem to spin their threads with greater skill and artfulness, yet fabricate nothing but such cobwebs as may easily be broken by any vigorous effort. Be ye, therefore, of good cheer. We have a cause, believe me, good, firm, invincible. We fight against men, and we have Christ on our side; nor can we possibly be vanquished, unless we are the most slothful and dastardly of all cowards. Once wrest from the papists what they adduce beside the scripture, and you will presently see them wavering, turning pale, and unable to keep their ground."

Bellarmine was regarded by the Romanists as a scholarly and theological Goliath, and as Whitaker notes above, he was indeed a greatly gifted and learned man. It is most noteworthy, then, to read of Bellarmine's description of Whitaker: "[a man] whom Cardinal Bellarmine is said to have pronounced 'the most learned heretic he had ever read,' and of whom Bishop Hall says, 'Who ever saw him without reverence, or heard him without wonder?...." "'I have,' says the writer of his life, in Lupton's Protestant Divines, 'I have heard it confessed of English Papists themselves, which have been in Italy with Bellarmine himself, that he [Bellarmine] procured the true portraiture and effigies of this Whitaker to be brought to him, which he kept in his study.

For he privately admired this man for his singular learning and ingenuity; and being asked of some of his friends, Jesuits, why he would have the picture of that heretic in his presence? He would answer, Quod quamvis haereticus erat et adversarius, erat tamen doctus adversarius: that, 'although he was an heretic, and his adversary, yet he was a learned adversary'" ("Preface of the Editor" in the 1857 edition of Nathanael Culverwell's Of the Light of Nature; and from the editor's preface of Whitaker's work).

In this book we find the following six main chapters:

  • "Of the number of the Canonical Books of Scripture"
  • "Of the Authentic Edition and Versions of the Scriptures"
  • "Of the Authority of Scripture"
  • "Of the Perspicuity of Scripture"
  • "Of the Interpretation of Scripture" 
  • "Of the Perfection of Scripture, against Unwritten Traditions"

...as well as Whitaker's "Preface to the Controversies, Delivered to the Audience at Cambridge."

Whitaker's masterwork, refuting some of the best the Jesuits had to offer (in upholding their Romish heresies attacking the Word of God), may even be more valuable in our day than when it was first written -- as many Protestants are unaware of the historic Protestant position on Scripture (witness the lack of response described by Scott Hahn), or worse, are already on the way back to Rome (on this and other vital points).

Furthermore, Larry Birger comments, "...it's wonderful. He is absolutely thrashing the Papists, tying them in knots with not only the Scriptures, but the writings of the Church fathers (Jerome is devastating on the issue of the Apocrypha) and the Papists themselves (e.g., Cajetan, John Driedo, Melchior Canus, Sixtus Senensis)."

This is a first-rate classic on some of the most foundational teaching of the Faith, not to be missed by the serious Christian, the scholar or anyone (including those presently trapped in Mystery Babylon the great, the mother of harlots and abominations of the Earth [i.e. Roman Catholic Church], Rev. 17:5) seeking ultimate truth.

Study for yourself what Hahn missed, as the Christ-empowered Whitaker sinks his stones into Goliath's forehead, and then decapitates him with the sword of truth and the skill of one exceedingly learned in the very areas the Papists rely on the most!

728 pages, indexed; crystal-clear print.

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