No, Pope Innocent III Did Not Prohibit the Bible in 1199

The Bible can’t be properly understood without authoritative guides — and those guides can’t be self-appointed.

Hans Holbein the Younger, “An Allegory of the Old and New Testaments,” 1530
Hans Holbein the Younger, “An Allegory of the Old and New Testaments,” 1530 (photo: Public Domain)

First of all, I’d like to note that Holy Scripture itself — beyond what Pope Innocent III did and did not state — does indeed teach the principle of a necessity for authoritative guides with regard to reading and understanding Holy Scripture:

Exodus 18:20 “And you shall teach them the statutes and the decisions, and make them know the way in which they must walk and what they must do.”

Moses was not simply to deliver and read the Law (or Torah, the first five books of the Bible) to the Hebrews, but also to “teach them” about it. Since he was the Lawgiver and author of the Torah, it stands to reason that his interpretation and teaching would be of a highly authoritative nature.

Leviticus 10:11 “And you are to teach the people of Israel all the statutes which the LORD has spoken to them by Moses.”

Moses’ brother Aaron was also to teach the true meaning of the Torah:

Deuteronomy 33:10 “They shall teach Jacob thy ordinances, and Israel thy law…” 

Authoritative interpretation of the Torah was also the responsibility of the Levite priests. 

Ezra 7:10 “For Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the LORD, and to do it, and to teach his statutes and ordinances in Israel.”

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 7-8, 12 “They told Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses which the LORD had given to Israel. And Ezra the priest brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding, on the first day of the seventh month. And he read from it. … Also … the Levites, helped the people to understand the law, while the people remained in their places. And they read from the book, from the law of God, clearly; and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. … And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.”

Nehemiah 8:7 describes 13 Levites who assisted Ezra, and “who helped the people to understand the law.” Much earlier, in King Jehoshaphat’s reign, we find Levites exercising the same function (2 Chronicles 17:8-9). We see no notion of “perspicuity” (evident clearness of Scripture) here.

The people did indeed understand the law (8:12), but not without much assistance — not merely upon hearing. Likewise, the Bible is not altogether clear in and of itself, but requires the aid of teachers who are more familiar with biblical styles and Hebrew idiom, background, context, exegesis and cross-reference, hermeneutical principles, original languages, etc.

Luke 24:27 “And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he [Jesus] interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.”

Acts 8:30-31 “So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ And he said, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.(cf. 2 Peter 3:15-17)”

Therefore, not only the Bible in both Testaments, but also the early Church for some 500 years, held that not everyone should simply be given a Bible to read, with no authoritative guidance to steer them from erroneous interpretations. 

With that relevant and necessary biblical, apostolic and patristic background understood, I return to the subject of my title.

Pope Innocent III never stated that the Bible was to be “forbidden.” Rather, he authoritatively taught that a “simple and ignorant person” ought not “presume to reach the sublimity of Sacred Scripture, or to preach it to others.” This is a different concept altogether from saying that “no one who is not theologically educated can read the Bible.” 

I have in my own library the hardcover 43rd edition of Denzinger’s Enchiridion symbolorum (the standard reference for the dogmas of the Catholic Church), which was edited and translated in part by my good friend, Dr. Robert Fastiggi (who in fact translated the very passage I shall produce below). The letter in question from Pope Innocent III doesn’t appear to be included in the 1954 version of Denzinger. 

The letter does appear in the 2012 edition. It’s entitled, “Letter Cum ex iniuncto to the Inhabitants of Metz, July 12, 1199.” The earlier part makes it clear that the Pope is not prohibiting Bible reading. It alludes to the people of Metz having obtained French translations of most of the New Testament (the Latin Vulgate then being the “standard” edition of the Bible). The Holy Father continues:

“Even though the desire to understand the divine Scriptures and the eagerness to exhort in accordance with them should not be criticized but rather commended, nevertheless, in this case, it is clear that these people are justifiably rebuked, because they conduct their own secret gatherings and they arrogate to themselves the office of preaching; they ridicule the simplicity of priests … [cites Matthew 10:27], [God is] indicating clearly by this that evangelical preaching is to be offered, not in secret gatherings, as is done by the heretics, but publicly in the Church, according to Catholic custom...”

Dr. Fastiggi renders a portion of the next two paragraphs: “Clearly no simple or unlearned person should presume to touch the sublimity of Sacred Scripture or preach it to others.” Denzinger has one more paragraph after that. Here is the final sentence:

“Therefore, since the order of teachers is, as it were, primary in the Church, no one should indiscriminately arrogate to himself the office of preaching.”

There is not a single word in the entire document about prohibiting the Bible altogether. What is rebuked is the presumption of a teaching office that is unwarranted.