Renowned historian Patrick Collinson dubbed William Whitaker, the Master of St. John’s College at Cambridge (1587-1595), the “watchdog of orthodoxy” for his tenacious defense of Reformed thought. Although Puritan scholar Peter Lake has likewise dubbed Whitaker a “moderate” Puritan for his support of episcopacy, Whitaker was a stalwart of Puritan theology during a time when Cambridge was under siege from Arminianism in the faculty and student body alike. Perhaps Whitaker’s most enduring legacy, however, is his doctrine of Holy Scripture. His Disputatio de Sacra Scriptura (1588) is a defense of the orthodox doctrine of Scripture against the Roman Catholic view presented by the Italian Jesuit priest Robert Bellarmine. Incredibly, Wayne Spear boldly claims that Whitaker’s treatise exercised more influence upon the composition of the first chapter of the Westminster Confession of Faith than any single work now known. It is a classic example of Scriptural orthodoxy and one of the first of its kind. Whitaker’s religion was the religion of the Word. From his treatises to his sermons at St. John’s, the “moderate” Puritan’s theology was grounded in the preeminence of Scripture in the Church, and his “obsession with popery” was ultimately derived in his disdain for the Roman Catholic view of Scriptural authority…or the lack thereof.
What Latin Church?
For Bellarmine, the keys to the kingdom in Matthew 16 symbolized the authority over Scripture that Christ gave Peter as the future Bishop of Rome. However, for Whitaker, these keys identified the authority Christ gave his disciples to preach the Gospel. At its core, this theological chasm between Protestants and Catholics was really an issue of authority. The papists gave undue human authority over the Scriptures, and Whitaker saw this as unbiblical and dangerous. Placing the authority of the Scriptures in tyrants’ hands left souls defenseless before the Evil One: “The Scriptures are the only arms which can prevail, or ought to be used against him. Those, therefore, who take the holy scriptures away from the people, leave them exposed naked to Satan, and hurl them into most certain destruction.” By taking the Scriptures out of the vernacular tongue and delivering it strictly in Latin, Roman officials committed multiple sins. First, they kept the Scriptures out of individual hands, blinding eyes and creating an unnatural dependence upon fallen leadership. Echoing the theology of Martin Luther, Whitaker believed that the Bible was for all, not simply for an elite few: “I know not with what truth they call theirs the Latin Church. For it does not now speak Latin, nor does anyone among them understand Latin without learning that language from a master. Formerly it was, and was called, the Latin church. Now it is not Latin, and therefore cannot truly be so called, except upon the plea that, though not Latin, it absurdly uses a Latin service.”
In addition to the confusion of language, the papists also forfeited their responsibility to teach the Scriptures adequately. In his lectures on the church, Whitaker explained that he saw the office of the English bishop as an extension of the bishop in the early church: “The Roman bishops (‘episcopi’) of today are not the same as the ancient and original bishops who occupied the place in the past; therefore they are not true bishops (‘episcopi’). The bishops of old diligently taught their flock (‘ecclesiam suam’) and none were made bishops save those who faithfully fulfilled that function. Of old bishops regarded this to be their most important function, to teach and instruct the people entrusted to their care.” To “diligently teach the flock” was inextricable from a church’s role, a role that Whitaker believed the Church of England still performed.
The truthfulness, inerrancy, and authority of Scripture were for Whitaker the primary issues. His leanings toward episcopal ecclesiology were derived in his loyalty to a church that espoused the true Scriptures, not the papist’s Latin versions. As a student of Latin himself, even Whitaker recognized that the authoritative versions were the original manuscripts themselves: “Our churches, on the contrary, determine that this Latin edition is very generally and miserably corrupt, is false and not authentic; and that the Hebrew of the Old Testament, and the Greek of the new, is the sincere and authentic scripture of God; and that, consequently, all questions are to be determined by these originals, and versions only so far approved as they agree with these originals.” Again, the issue was authority. What authority, Whitaker asked, did the Roman Catholic Church have to declare an un-authoritative version authoritative? “Then by what right could they make a non-authentic edition become authentic?” The power, judgment, and validity of the Church, after all, were derived from Scripture.
Christ as King and Scripture as Judge
In Whitaker’s eyes, the role of the Queen and the role of the Pope were very different. Whereas Elizabeth’s royalty did not allow her to interfere with the authority of Scripture itself, the so-called “vicar” of Christ in Rome held an authority equal to that of the Scriptures, an office designated to Christ himself, the incarnate Word. This level of authority attributed to the Pope provided much of the basis for his label by Puritans as the Antichrist. In discussing millennial views, Joel Beeke and Mark Jones identify this as the first dominant theme in Puritan eschatology: “Chief among their expectations were three dominant themes. The first was that the pope was the Antichrist, and thus Revelation predicated the eventual collapse of the Roman Catholic Church.” According to Whitaker, Christ was true King and Scripture was the true judge. “The kingdom of Christ is the church; in it he reigns and is sole monarch.” Despite the ecclesial issues within the Church of England, the Queen ruled in such a way that Christ remained sovereign and Scripture remained central to life itself. She simply enforced civil laws bound tightly to Scriptural ones. “For the Scripture is in the church what the law is in a state, which Aristotle in his Politics calls a canon or rule. As all citizens are bound to live and behave agreeably to the public laws, so Christians should square their faith and conduct by the rule and law of Scripture.” This is why the Pope’s claim as “interpreter” of Scripture Whitaker saw as extremely dangerous. The divine law was at the same time the judgment and the judge, the interpreter and the rule. To lead souls away from the self-attestation of the Bible was to lead them into idolatry. No human garnered enough authority as to definitely interpret the Scriptures. That office was reserved only for a divine office.
Another hermeneutical issue was raised surrounding the issue of judging Scripture. According to Bellarmine, Roman Catholic tradition understood Deuteronomy 17 to mean that a “living judge” of Scripture must exist in the church, specifically found in the Bishop of Rome. Whitaker found the notion of an infallible human authority presiding over divine revelation to be arrogant and presumptuous. “For we also say that the church is the interpreter of Scripture, and that this gift of interpretation resides only in the church: but we deny that it pertains to particular persons, or is tied to any particular see or succession of men.” This is how the moderate puritan could sympathize with an ecclesiology in the Church of England that so much resembled that of Rome. While the Archbishop of Canterbury and his bishops wielded considerable power over the laity, they in no way claimed unique authority over the Scriptures for interpretation. “For no tribunal concerning religion hath been constituted by this law. God hath reserved this to himself, and hath allowed it to no man, knowing as he does how easily men corrupt religion with their perverse opinions.” The Roman Catholic Church placed its people in blind dependence upon a falsely infallible human authority. To Whitaker, it was a subtle heresy comparable to Arianism, absconding with the office of Christ Himself. As a Cambridge scholar, Whitaker knew the joy of personal devotion and scholarship. As a Puritan, he held to the deeply personal nature of Christianity. From his perspective, Catholics were being robbed of the beauty that comes from discovering the Scriptures themselves. This passionate angst with Rome stayed with Whitaker his entire life. As a student, Whitaker had even devoted his D.D. thesis to proving that the papacy was the Antichrist! Throughout Disputatio de Sacra Scriptura, the author points heavily to the ease with which Scripture can be read and the proper authority that grounded biblical understanding.
The Perspicuity of the Scriptures
Whitaker’s opponents Bellarmine and Canus claimed that the church was needed for a couple of reasons in regard to Scripture. First, Bellarmine charged that Protestants were not realistic about the difficulties presented in understanding the Scriptures. Comprehending the depths of God’s Word is no easy task. For this reason, clergy were essential in teaching. Lay people could not independently come to a full knowledge of the Scriptures apart from ordained teachers. Secondly, Bellarmine indicated that the church is needed to commend the Scriptures to be believed. In the Jesuit’s mind, it is the authority of the church itself that points to and confirms the authority of the Scriptures. With both of these points, Whitaker took exception, beginning his rebuttal to the first claim with a clear statement of Scripture’s perspicuity: “I affirm that the Scripture can be understood, perceived, known and proved from Scripture. Secondly, I say that if it cannot be perceived and proved in this way, still less can it be proved by the church.” Scripture was within the reach of any reasonable man. Whitaker’s emphasis upon laity is evident in the way that he dissects Roman Catholic usage of the word “church”: “Now, under the name of the church the papists understand not only that church which was in the times of the apostles, but the succeeding, and therefore the present church; yet not the whole people, but the pastors only.” The overly hierarchal mindset of Roman Catholicism, according to Whitaker, influenced them away from the importance of the people themselves. When they spoke of the church, they meant clergy. Conversely, when Whitaker spoke of the church, he meant the elect. In Disputatio de Sacra Scriptura, the author explicitly defines the church as the “whole multitude of the faithful.” The unity he saw in the Christian body is the impetus that drove Whitaker away from radical Presbyterianism. He abhorred it. The Master of St. John’s even accused presbyterian Thomas Cartwright of borrowing his arguments from the papists. After all, separatism was a further disintegration of the biblically unified, “catholic” Church.
While Scripture did not need a special, exclusive reading from the church in order to be understood by the common Christian, neither did it need a special recommendation in order to be believed. Scripture was not to be embraced simply because of the church’s endorsement. It was to be believed because of its own inherent authority as the Word of God! At issue here was the self-attestation of the Scriptures, the battle-cry of the Reformation. For Bellarmine, the authority of the Roman Catholic Church superseded that of Scripture. For Whitaker, the authority of the Church existed only because of Scripture’s authority. Whitaker even points to Bellarmine’s odd, self-refuting practice of appealing to Scripture to validate the authority of the Roman Church. For the Master at St. John’s this only proved sola Scriptura all the more. “The sum of our opinion is, that the scripture is ‘autopistos’, that is, hath all its authority and credit from itself; is to be acknowledged, is to be received, not only because the church hath so determined and commanded, but because it comes from God.” Whitaker never refused the testimony of the church. As we will discuss later, he believed in the church’s role to approve, acknowledge, receive, and commend the Scriptures to all members. However, he was adamant that his ability to believe the Scripture did not rest solely on the commendation of the church. “The voice of the church is the voice of men, but the rule of faith is the voice of God.” Within the Church of England, Whitaker’s conscience was settled. It was his belief that the Scriptures could be properly preached and managed, even under a Queen unsympathetic to the Reformed cause. As Lake observes, Whitaker’s “attention was fixed firmly on the Protestant conflict with Rome and for whom the Royal Supremacy provided the only effective defense against that threat.” For Whitaker, it was a synergistic threat that smelled of hubris. Whitaker’s belief was well within the Reformed position that saving faith was engendered by none other than the Holy Spirit Himself.
The Authority of the Holy Spirit
One of the most basic arguments that Whitaker makes in his Disputatio de Sacra Scriptura is the essential work of the Holy Spirit in reading the Scriptures. Divine enlightenment is necessary to understand what God has revealed. He not only authored the Bible, but He alone opens eyes to receive its wisdom. The precious internal testimony of the Holy Spirit is imperative in salvation, without which the commendation of the church would prove impotent. “Therefore, the testimony of the Holy Spirit, and not the public judgment of the church, is the true and proper cause of that authentic authority which the scripture hath with us.” As the voice of God, the Holy Spirit not only validates and confirms the Scriptures as our divine authority, but He also performs a primary role in interpretation of the Bible. “Now we determine that the supreme right, authority, and judgment of interpreting the Scriptures, is lodged with the Holy Spirit and the Scripture itself: for these two are not mutually repugnant. We say that the Holy Spirit is the supreme interpreter of Scripture, because we must be illuminated by the Holy Spirit to be certainly persuaded of the true sense of scripture.” Faith came by the Holy Spirit. Whitaker’s discussion of the analogy of faith is one that immigrated into the Westminster Confession of Faith, particularly 1.9. Providing a general sense of the meaning of Scripture, the analogy of faith aided the Christian in interpreting unclear or ambiguous passages that remain obscure to the unregenerate. Joel Beeke and Mark Jones find this idea to be key in Puritan thought: “The analogy of faith (analogia fidei) resulted from the fact that the Bible is the Word of God and therefore possesses an intrinsic consistency and unity. That is to say, the Scriptures do not contradict themselves. For that reason, the analogy of faith was a crucial aspect of the Puritan hermeneutical and exegetical method.” This was effected by the Spirit in the believer.
The Primacy of Scripture as the Defining Mark of The Church
Whitaker’s Disputation is much more than a polemic against Roman Catholic theology; it’s also a systematic presentation of the Reformed doctrine of Scripture. In many ways, it is a prescription for a biblically centered Church. Whitaker was incapable of speaking about the Bible without discussing its ecclesial context. His view of Scripture was inextricable from his ecclesiology. In setting forth the preeminence of the Word, the Master at St. John’s gives four offices of the church: (1) a witness and guardian of the sacred writings (much like a notary), (2) to distinguish and discern the true, sincere, and genuine scriptures from the spurious, false, and suppositious (with the aid of the Spirit), (3) to publish, set forth, preach, and promulgate the Scriptures (as a herald), and (4) to expound and interpret the Scriptures, introducing no fiction of its own. The Word was central to the existence of the Church. Consequently, any officer of the church must be intimate with the Scriptures. For Whitaker, therefore, the term ‘episcopus’ was essentially synonymous with ‘presbyterus’ in denoting an ordinary minister of the word. Scripture was plain, according to Whitaker, that “Christ ordained ‘Pastors and Doctors’ to rule his church.”
Peter Lake is confident that “For Whitaker the presence of these ordinary ministers was quite sufficient to guarantee any church’s status as a true church.” The Church of England had exactly these. In his comprehensive work on modern puritans, Lake posits that sound apostolic doctrine was the thread that tied moderate puritans to a seemingly papist English Church. Whitaker’s ecclesiology was bound to his view of the primacy of Scripture. Of the four marks of the church set out by the Apostle, Whitaker subsumed three under the locus of the Word (with the exception of the sacraments). “It was the possession of true apostolic doctrine that distinguished the true church from all other human groups or societies. The second mark, the mutual care and charity amongst the faithful, could be construed as but an effect of possession of the word. Similarly, the saying of public prayers to God was but another facet of the ministry of the word.” Whitaker the theologian and controversialist could never concede that Roman bishops were pastors. However, he was obviously more than willing to identify bishops in the Church of England as such. In Whitaker’s mind, The “publishing”, “preaching”, and “promulgating” that occurred in the Church of England legitimized its claim as a true church.
According to Joel Beeke, “The Puritans loved, lived, and breathed Holy Scripture.” He continues, “They also relished the power of the Spirit that accompanied the Word.” In these two things William Whitaker illustrates the centrality of the Scriptures in Puritan theology, perhaps more than any other Puritan. His “moderate” Puritan status is warranted for his uneven balance between hatred of Roman Catholicism and involvement in a Church that so badly resembled it. However, the bond of that allegiance was forged in Holy Scripture, a love that generations of Christians would do well to imitate.