The month of October is a commemorative month for us as protestant Christians, and especially for those of us who affirm what is commonly called “reformed” Biblical theology. While many Americans at this time of year are thinking about ghosts and ghouls, dressing in costume and eating candy, carving pumpkins and playing scary tricks, others of us are remembering and celebrating one of the most important events in the history of the church – the Protestant Reformation. When we think of the protestant reformation we often think of theological or doctrinal reform (which is true), but the truth is that these are the effects of reformation and not the causes. I would argue that the two primary causes of the Protestant Reformation are:
- The recovery of the truth of God’s Word in the Scriptures, and…
- The restoration of the truth of God’s Word to all of God’s people.
Since it is the Scriptures that form our doctrine and our theology, it is the Word of God itself that is the very heartbeat of reformation, for without the Scriptures there would be no theology to reform, and no doctrine to correct. In light of Reformation Day soon approaching, I would like to share with you a bit of my passion for the reformation, how the Scriptures (and particularly the translation of the Scriptures into the language of the common people) played the central role in that reformation, and how the Word of God should continue to be found at the center of our Christianity today. But before I get into the history of the reformation, I’d like to take a moment and establish a foundation of how essential the Word of God is to us with two points: 1) God’s Word is life, and 2) God’s Word is his gift to all his people so that he may be known. Then I will address the history of how God’s Word had been nearly silenced and replaced by the word of men, and how the two aforementioned fundamental beliefs came to be the primary motivation of brave men who risked their prestige, reputation, careers, and even their very lives to recover the truth of God’s Word and restore God’s Word to all of God’s people.
2 Foundational Truths:
- God’s Word is Life: Without the Word of God, there is no life. John 1:1-4 teaches us that all that has come into existence, all that currently exists, and all that ever will exist, exists because of God’s Word. Genesis 1 informs us that in the beginning God spoke, and it became exactly as God decreed, and thus we see that the Word of God gives life. Genesis 2:7 describes the account of God’s specific and unique creation of mankind, forming him from the dust of the ground, and then breathing the breath of life into his nostrils, and thus we see that the breath of God gives life. While there is apparent contradiction at first, the reality is that scripture is describing the same thing from two different perspectives or angles, much like examining a precious gem in the light from different viewpoints to see all the variations of light refraction. The word of God and the breath of God are actually one in the same. In 2nd Timothy 3:16 we are informed that all scripture is “inspired of God.” The word “inspired” is translated from the Greek word θεόπνευστος (theopnustas), which literally means “breathed of God.” God’s Word and God’s breath are equated one with another, and the very same breath of God that gave life to Adam is the same breath of God that produced the Holy Scriptures that we hold in our hands, read with our voices, and hear with our ears! Hebrews 1:3 informs us that Christ (who is the very Word of God incarnate) “upholds (or sustains) all things by the word of his power.” God’s Word is the very life-creating, life-giving, and life-sustaining breath of God. All that has come into existence, all that currently exists, and all that ever will exist, exists because of God’s Word, and all that has ever ceased to exist does so because of a removal or cessation of the sustaining power of God’s Word.
- God’s Word is His Gift to All His People so that He May Be Known: Time would not permit to elaborate on all the ways that God’s Word is his gift to all his people so that he may be known, for the scriptures are inexhaustible on this subject. A simple reading of just the 119th Psalm will reveal so many wonderful ways in which the psalmist believed God’s Word to be his gift to the world. According to the psalmist, God’s word was truth, God’s word was wisdom, God’s word was sustenance, light, provision, strength, life, encouragement, correction, hope, and so much more! Jesus himself quoted from the scriptures (specifically Deuteronomy 8:3) as recorded in Mathew 4:4 when he said “man shall not live on bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Jesus is teaching that the source of life is not physical food, but the very Word of God. Jesus is later recorded in John 6:48-51 saying “I am the bread of life.” Christ himself (who is the very Word of God incarnate according to John 1:14), is our source of life and sustenance!
God created by his Word, gave life through his Word, sustains life through his Word, imparts truth and wisdom by his Word, and gives us the ability to receive his word so that he can be known. All of God’s Word is for all of God’s people! But God’s Word has not always been welcome throughout history. In fact, there have been consistently and constantly throughout history attempts to silence and even destroy God’s Word and its influence upon people. Even since the very beginning Paul says that men “suppress the truth in unrighteousness. (Romans 1)” While time forbids me from comprehensively addressing all of the historical persecution against God’s Word and God’s people throughout history, I would like to share with you some events from a particular point in history during the middle-ages where the Word of God was nearly silenced by a powerful religious superpower.
God’s Word Suppressed:
The Roman Catholic Church held a strong monopoly on the religion of the middle-ages, and wielded tremendous political power over even kings. The scriptures were confined to the Latin language (specifically Jerome’s Vulgate of 405ad), and the ritual worship service (or mass) was also conducted in Latin, which was by then a dead language that the common people no longer spoke and did not know. The Roman Catholic Priests, being the few educated in Latin, were therefore the interpreters of scripture, and nobody could challenge the validity of what was preached because the common people did not read Latin – In fact, most of them couldn’t read at all, for that matter. The common people were forced to rely solely on the apparent trustworthiness of the papacy and the papacy. History has taught us over and over again that power and corruption almost always go hand-in-hand, as numerous examples in many different contexts clearly demonstrate, and the church is no exception to the rule. As the saying goes, “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Recognizing and preying upon the ignorance of the people, the popes and priests used (or rather abused) their religious power to exert political pressure in advancing agendas, and also for lucrative gain, teaching the people that they could only receive forgiveness from a priest. Eventually the Roman Catholic Church began teaching that people could have their sins forgiven by purchasing an “indulgence” from the church. The forgiveness of sins, as it turned out, was a very profitable industry as the Roman Catholic Church became extremely wealthy through the sales of indulgences. The money collected from the sale of indulgences was used to fund the building of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Up until the early 1500’s, for a great majority of the world, God’s Word had been replaced with man’s word.
God’s Word Rediscovered:
However, as powerful and as influential as the Roman Catholic Church was in exerting its dogma, there have always been brave individuals and small groups of people throughout the rise and reign of Romanism who knew the scriptures, and refused to submit to Rome’s authority because they saw the contradictions between the teachings of the Roman Church and the teachings of God’s Word. Again, time limitations prevent us from examining all of these early “pre-reformation protestants,” so instead we will look at just a few lives in history who were motivated by their belief that God’s Word was life, and that God’s Word was his gift to his people so that he could be known:
- John Wycliffe (1320-1384): Wycliffe was an English theologian, lay preacher, scholar, and teacher at Oxford in England. Wycliffe’s indignation was primarily at the material wealth of the Catholic Church at the expense of the poor. The early Christians he read of in the Bible were poor and humble, and he thought the priesthood should follow suit. He was eventually discharged by the Church from his teaching position at Oxford because of his dissent, but this did not dissuade him from combating against the church’s exploitation of the poor. He translated the current Latin text (Jerome’s Vulgate) into the early English language of his day so the people could read for themselves and know what God’s Word really said. In the later years of his life, he argued that the Scriptures be the sole authority of all Christianity, denied the authority of the popes, and denounced the corruption of the priests and monks. He had followers that came to be known as “lollards” who’s preaching had great influence upon the people. However, the Roman Church quickly snuffed out the lollard movement, and pronounced Wycliffe to be excommunicate and anathema. The Church ordered his body to be dug up, burned, and his ashes scattered, ordered his books to be burned, and declared the translation of the Scriptures into English to be a crime of heresy punishable by death.
- Desederius Erasmus (1466-1536): During the time of early Muslim conquests of the largely Greek-speaking Eastern Europe, many scholars fled to Western Europe taking their Greek writings with them, among which were Greek New Testament texts. Erasmus grew up receiving the very best education and eventually studied Greek (among other subjects) in France, and became acquainted with the Greek New Testament texts. Finding conflicts between the Greek texts and the current Latin text (Jerome’s Vulgate), Erasmus eventually produced a brand new Latin translation from the Greek texts available to him. He then published what could be considered one of the earliest parallel Bibles – a dual column New Testament with the Greek text printed along side his new Latin translation. For the first time, those who knew the languages could directly compare the Greek text with both Jerome’s Latin translation and Erasmus’ new Latin translation. This new resource called into question many of the teachings of the Catholic Church which based its dogma largely upon Jerome’s Latin text from 405ad. Erasmus’ Greek/Latin parallel New Testament would eventually find its way into the hands of a German Monk named Martin Luther.
- Martin Luther (1483-1586): Luther was a Catholic priest who struggled to please God through pietistic devotion, priestly duty, and just about every other religious practice he could devote himself to. Luther gave himself to the study of Scripture and eventually became a professor of theology at the University of Wittenburg. Luther also began comparing what he read in the word of God to what he saw being taught in the church. He saw the corruption and greed from the popes and priests of his day and became outraged. Having a sincere love for God, a genuine love for truth, and a compassionate love for the common people, Luther challenged the teachings of the Roman Church, and eventually resisted against what he saw to be false doctrines and greedy exploitation of the ignorant masses. His resistance inspired many and in reality sparked an entire movement that literally changed the course of history forever. This defiance of tyranny in the name of truth that has come today known as the Protestant Reformation was ignited by the sound of a hammer pounding a nail into the large wooden door of the Catholic Church in Wittenburg, Germany on October 31st in the year 1517 when Luther posted his famous “95-Theses,” a list of 95 indictments of false teaching against the Catholic Church. Luther also believed that the Church’s control over the Scriptures in Latin was largely what enabled it to exploit the ignorance of the masses, so he produced a German translation of the Bible utilizing the Greek and Latin text that was produced by Erasmus only a few years prior. Luther was excommunicated by the Catholic Church and declared an outlaw by the German emperor.
- William Tyndale (1492-1536): While Martin Luther is most often credited with sparking the Protestant Reformation, it can be said that Tyndale was the driving force of the movement in the English-speaking world. Many believe that Tyndale may have been raised by lollard parents or grew up in lollard circles that continued in the teachings of John Wycliffe hundreds of years prior. Tyndale was a scholar who learned to read Greek and Hebrew, and studied the early manuscripts of the Bible. Tyndale was also convinced of the corruption of the Catholic Church, and was outraged at it’s exploitation of the ignorance of the masses. In a conflict with Church authorities, Tyndale is known to have declared to the face of the Catholic authorities: “I defy the Pope, and all his laws; and if God spares my life, ere many years, I will cause the boy that driveth the plow to know more of the Scriptures than thou dost!” He, being inspired by both Erasmus and Luther, believed that the Church’s hold upon the Latin text was a chief cause of it’s ability to exploit the ignorance of the people, and therefore decided to produce an English translation of the Bible directly from the original Greek and Hebrew manuscripts. Tyndale’s translation work makes up a majority of what is known today as the King James Version of the Bible. English translations of the Bible were still considered heretical crimes punishable by death, so Tyndale had to print his Bible outside England. Tyndale Bibles were very small so they could be hidden easily. The printed pages were then placed between the pages of other books, smuggled into England, and then reassembled for distribution on the black market – anyone caught in possession of Tyndale’s works was burned to death. Tyndale himself was eventually betrayed, captured and burned alive by the Roman Catholic Church under the charge of heresy.
God’s Word Restored:
While the Catholic Church tried to suppress the Protestant Reformation, it could not stop the momentum of the movement. The presses were printing the common vernacular translations faster than the bishops could burn them, and the truth of God’s Word spread like wildfire. Once the truth of the scriptures had been recovered from being locked up in the dead language of Latin for almost a thousand years, theologians and scholars and ministers and even average Christians were beginning to learn what the Word of God really taught. The recovery of God’s Word led to a recovery of the Gospel and the great truths that came to be represented by the Solas of the Reformation – that we are justified not by our good works or by purchasing indulgences from the church or by our confession of sins to a priest or reciting Hail Mary prayers, but by God’s grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone!
The Heart of Reformation:
At the heart of the reformation is the recovery of God’s Word from uncommon language and oppressive religious rule, and the restoration of God’s word to God’s people, particularly through the process of translation into the language of the common people. Because of the tremendous sacrifice of brave men like Wycliffe, Erasmus, Luther, Tyndale, and many more, who dared to risk their own lives for the sake of making the Bible available for all people to read, we are so blessed and privileged to have the Word of God in our own language to read for ourselves and know what God has spoken to us. Especially in the month of October, may I encourage all of us to reflect upon the centrality of God’s Word to our Christian faith, and how blessed we are to have it in our own language. Let us not take for granted what we have been given by allowing our Bibles to remain unread. Let us not take for granted the blood that was shed and the flesh that was burned so that we could be so privileged to hold in our hands and read for ourselves our own personal copies of God’s Word! Let us open them, read them, study them, pray through them, cherish them, and strive to live by them!
While the translation of the Bible into the common language of the people is the very heartbeat of the reformation, the most important translation of the Bible is not from the Greek or Hebrew into English or any other language… the most important translation of the Bible is from the printed words on paper into our lives!
Happy Reformation Day, 2012!!!
Sola Scriptura! Sola Gratia! Sola Fide! Sola Christus! Sola Deo Gloria!