The Reformers and The Bible

Since posting my last blog celebrating the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, and giving thanks for all genuine reformers in Christ’s Church through the ages, I have been thinking more and more about their zeal for adherence to the authority of scripture — as well as the passion of many to see the Old and New Testaments translated into the languages of the common people. 

Unfortunately, there are many people (not only Roman Catholics) who have only understood the term “Protestant” to mean a protest “against” something such as the church’s sale of indulgences in the sixteenth century, the purchase of papal papers assuring contributors that their sins were forgiven. In his 95 theses, Martin Luther included this indictment that was by no means just a negative indictment condemning this practice for “It is vain to trust in salvation by indulgence letters” (Thesis 52). Luther was bearing witness for one of the greatest of all truths. The word “protest” is derived from a Latin word meaning “to testify for.”  Luther was calling for the Church to return to the authority of scripture, “The true treasure of the church, the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God” (Thesis 62), which as a teaching monk he was boldly affirming with confidence, and without any apology or fear of the consequences he would surely experience because of his affirmations of faith. It is this idea of “returning to” that presupposes the Reformation conviction that the Church had departed from the authority of scripture for its faith and practice. It was during his own translating of the Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Romans that Luther’s mind had been taken captive by the apostolic doctrine of “justification by grace alone, through faith alone” (i.e. a “righteousness”  received only by faith, not a righteousness “gained” by anything we have done, or could ever do), a pardon for sins freely “given” (i.e. granted by God’s amazing grace because of our trust in the atoning death of Jesus Christ on the cross for the forgiveness of all our sins; Romans 3:21-25, 5:1-11, 10:9-13, 15:17-21, see also Ephesians 2:4-10), certainly not remission of sins offered by the church for the purchase of a piece of paper the papal authorities were offering!

It is important to understand that the Bible had not been printed and translated into the languages of the common people in Germany, elsewhere in Europe, or anywhere in the world. Furthermore, the scriptures in Latin were not readily available. Only a few of the richest people could afford to own even portions of the written scriptures, and certainly not a complete Bible. Luther speaks of his own experience as a child growing up in a Christian home, and later as a university student when he discovered for the first time that there were actually existing manuscripts of both the Old and New Testaments. As a child, he had been nurtured by his parents in the Christian faith. He had learned the Lord’s Prayer, which was used in worship and also prayed in his home. He had also been taught the Apostles’ Creed, as well as the Ten Commandments, and was familiar with a few of the Psalms. In fact, as far as he knew, these were the only existing authoritative faith documents, until in the university library he was truly startled and surprised to discover a complete edition of the Bible. The printing press had been invented just about thirty years before Luther’s time and was not yet widely in use. Furthermore, in the Roman Catholic Church Luther knew there was little emphasis on the reading of scripture. However, as an inquisitive university student who wanted to learn more about what the Bible taught, he devoted hours to a study of the Latin Bible. There were other reformers who shared his passion to become more familiar with what the scriptures taught who were seekers for the truth, and in the fullness of time, along with Luther, became known as “PROTESTANTS“, who were regarded as apostles of discord in the church. 

Therefore, the church fathers demanded that Luther “recant” but he refused, standing on the authority of scripture. He was commanded to remain silent for questioning the absolute authority of the church, denying the power of the Roman Church to assure the forgiveness of sins (i.e. salvation) by adhering to what the church demanded and offered in exchange for unquestioning obedience. Those of you reading this blog who are familiar with church history know the rest of the story, how the controversy and conflict escalated, and soon reached the point of no return. There was no turning back, no way the reformers were going to compromise their convictions or yield to the demands of Rome. It was not anyone’s intent to divide Christ’s Church, but that is what happened, and for many different reasons, including corruption and the abuse of ecclesiastical power. 

Many reformers paid a high price; it has been said that “The blood of the martyrs became the seed of the church” (i.e. the church as we see it today, a worldwide Body of Christ divided into many diverse parts, constituting a universal religion that has become the largest and fastest-growing religion, in a world where there is a multiplicity of religions and a pantheon of many “gods” and “goddesses” (little “g”). In so many respects, it is regrettable that the Reformation of the sixteenth century ultimately led to a mentality that has caused many Christians to believe that schism is not only acceptable in Christendom, but actually God-ordained, a mindset that has not only led to 500 years of continuing church divisions and denominational splits, but has also created a critical and judgmental spirit that is not only contrary to the Word of God, but actually dishonors Christ, who prayed so fervently for the unity (i.e. “oneness” of his church — read John 17). Do not confuse that “unity of spirit” for which Jesus prayed with the “union” of all branches of Christ’s Church (read I Corinthians 12:12-26, as well Romans 12:1-13, Ephesians 4:1-6 and 5:25b-27, for a better understanding of the kind of unity that pleases God and glorifies Christ, the only Head of his one Church). 

The so-called “High Priestly Prayer” of Jesus, as recorded by John in the fourth gospel, clearly reveals that the “oneness” that was the burden of the true “Lord’s Prayer”, rather than the prayer that has been given that name and is used in the majority of Christian worship services today, but could more accurately be called the “Disciple’s Prayer” for it is the prayer Jesus taught his followers to pray, was a unity based on the truth of God’s word both spoken and revealed (i.e. declared and disclosed by Jesus in his life and public ministry (John 17:6-8a) a unity based on the truth of who Jesus is, why he visited earth as the word “made flesh” (17:8b; see also John 14:7-11, and John 1:14), a “oneness” with him that he compared to the oneness existing between himself and his Father in heaven (17:11). 

His prayer was not only for the twelve men he had called to be his first disciples, but for all those who would be brought to faith in him through their word (i.e. their testimony, their message, their ministry of the word, and that includes us (John 17:20-21). The unity for which our Lord was praying was intended for all those who would become believers on the ages to come, a unity that would be rooted in their oneness within him as the One in whom all the “fullness of God was pleased to dwell(Colossians 1:19). Furthermore, it would be a unity based on a “complete understanding” (Col. 2: 2) of the mystery of his incarnation, the eternal Christ, in human form, to be revealed (i.e. disclosed) in the New Testament, as the One “…in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3), the One in whom “…all the fullness of God was pleased to well in bodily form” 2:9), and the One “…who is the head over every power and authority” (2:10), including all those in positions of authority and leadership in Christ’s Church church in all places on the face of the earth.

This is the truth the reformers discovered when they read and studied the gospels and the epistles, where these truths are made abundantly clear in the writings of the apostles, as well as in the teachings of Jesus himself about his own identity (consider all his great “I AM” claims), that Jesus is the One who “…has been exalted by God to the highest place, and given the name that is above every name” (i.e. the name of “Jesus Christ”, or “Christ Jesus”, which is not a double name but rather a title recognizing who he really is. We should never say “was” when speaking of the historical Jesus, but always say IS), for he forever is “…the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16), the One before whom “…every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father”  (Philippians 2:10-11) — the One “…who, being in very nature God, who did not consider equality with God (i.e. being the same in substance, equal in power and glory) something to be grasped, but made himself of no reputation, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness” (i.e. at a particular time in history, the only incarnation of God in human form, the eternal Christ appearing on earth as the God-man, being both fully God and fully man), and being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:5-8). 

This is the Gospel (i.e. the “Good News”) all the true reformers in Christ’s Church through the ages understood and struggled to reclaim and proclaim, but the truths which so many in Christ’s Church both then and now have not actually understood or truly believed. This is a fact which explains and underscores to a large degree the need for continuing protest and reform in the worldwide Body of Christ. We are hearing a call for such reform in Christ’s Church today, but often for reasons other than theological reform and spiritual renewal. We are now witnessing many “protests” because of the alarming revelations of such evils as sexual abuse among the clergy, as well as the abuse of power to also cover up so many incidents of domestic violence, where countless congregations have been led by pastors who have often refused to believe the stories of women in their congregations who have claimed to be victims of abuse, and whose pastors and lay leaders have in far too many instances actually supported their abusers. Once again, this has included the use and abuse of scripture to support archaic forms of patriarchy, male domination, the subjugation of women, and a denial of gender equality (i.e. “…neither male nor female”, for we are “…all one in Christ”), and also called to be one in the Body of Christ; (Galatians 3:28 — see also I Corinthians 12:14-27). 

Furthermore, all you who are husbands, who claim to be Christians, should certainly read and meditate on these biblical passages: Ephesians 5:25-31, and I Peter 3:7-9. Last month (October) is designated “Domestic Violence Awareness Month” in many parts of Christ’s Church, and who among us can deny that protests and genuine reform are needed because of the way the Bible is being used and abused? Scriptures are so often misinterpreted, contributing to the further abuse of victims of domestic violence. Of course, protests are by no means limited to the church or other religious institutions, as we are witnessing in our common life today, not only in America but around the world. Have we ever seen a time when there were more public protests than we are seeing in so many cities and on so many continents in the twenty-first century? Have you been watching disturbing news reports on television in recent months, showing the demonstrators in Hong Kong, Chile, Spain, Syria, Egypt, as well as in the United States (to name only a few of the many places where  people are “pro-testing” (the prefix “pro” means “for“). So ask yourself if these protests are only “against” something, or “for” something? Are people just protesting against corruption or protesting for honesty, integrity, and justice in government? Are people only protesting against the abuse of power and excessive violence, or protesting for equal rights, for gender equality, and for an end to racial profiling and discrimination — are multitudes of people in this country only protesting against the private ownership of guns, or are they protesting for stricter laws to prohibit the continuing easy availability of guns, even weapons designed and made for warfare. and protesting for an end to senseless killings — and finally, are so many others only protesting against the abuse of the land, our great lakes and oceans, or are they protesting for the expansion and strengthening of the coalition of nations taking giant steps to enact stricter laws, and for imposing punitive fines on those corporations guilty of polluting the environment and threatening wildlife — as well as protesting for educating larger numbers of people regarding the truth and threat of climate change, to help confront and combat the many serious threats to our environment and life on planet earth (including the systemic problem of greed, the prevalent and pervasive ignorance, apathy and indifference that make the struggle to save our planet all the more difficult). 

Therefore, with this broader and deeper understanding of the real purpose of most “protests” and calls for “reform“, let us, in conclusion, take a closer look at “The Reformers and the Bible” in Christ’s Church through the agesFor there is so much to be learned from their example, their boldness, and the price they paid for their positive actions. In addition to Martin Luther in Germany, there was also 

William Tyndale in England, who had a growing conviction that he must also do something to get the Bible into the language of the English people. He too was a scholar who knew Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, the three languages in which the Holy Scriptures had been imprisoned for so many centuries. He was determined to free Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, as well as the Apostle Paul. In the meantime, the Roman Catholic Church had discouraged all attempts to get the Bible translated into the main languages of the people. The only Bible the English speaking people had was John Wycliffe’s translation from the Latin Vulgate around 1380 A.D., which was in the English of Chaucer. Furthermore, there were very few copies of that translation because the printing press had not yet been invented. When Tyndale let it be known that he was going to devote himself to translating the Bible into the written and spoken language of his own people, a Roman Catholic priest warned him that it would be displeasing to the Pope in Rome. He was very bold in exclaiming, “I defy the Pope and all his laws, and if God spares me I will one day make the boy that drives the plough in England to know more of the Scriptures than the Pope does.” 

Tyndale kept his promise but lost his life. On Friday, October 6, 1536, he was burned at the stake, for no other offense than translating the Bible into the language of his own people. He died with this prayer: “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes.” God heard that prayer, for three years later an English Bible was placed in every parish church in England by order of the king. I was privileged to serve a church in England, where there is a monument and statue to the memory of Tyndale in a park in London, along the Thames. John Calvin in France was an even greater scholar and theologian than Luther or Tyndale, and whose preaching, teaching, and writing were based solely on the Bible as the first and final source of authority for Christ’s Church in it’s “faith and practice.” To this day Calvin stands out as one of the greatest biblical expositors and theologians in the history of Christ’s Church. In his extensive writings, especially the “Institutes of the Christian Religion”, he went back to the Scriptures for everything — doctrine, worship, church life, law, and government, as well as church discipline — and whose life and contributions have probably influenced the world more than any other person since Jesus and the Apostle Paul.  

In fact, to all true Reformers, the Bible was the inspired Word of God. Consider these words of Martin Luther, which I submit are a relevant word for those in today’s church who do not have such a lofty view of Scripture: “I WILL NOT WASTE A WORD IN ARGUING WITH ANYONE WHO DOES NOT CONSIDER THE SCRIPTURES THE WORD OF GOD. WE OUGHT NOT TO DISPUTE WITH ONE WHO THUS REJECTS FIRST PRINCIPLES.” 

If the contemporary Church today had this same conviction, and was thus directed and driven by the authority of Scripture in its life and work, rather than the writings of modern critics and skeptics who believe they have the right to accept whatever they personally consider authentic and authoritative in the Bible, and reject what they regard as questionable and therefore unacceptable, perhaps we might experience another great spiritual Awakening, for which so many believers have earnestly and fervently prayed.