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What Was the Battle Behind the Battles of the Reformation?

By Tim Raymond

What were the primary battles fought by the Protestant Reformers?  What were the hills upon which they were prepared to die?  If we’re conservative evangelicals, we would probably immediately and rightly think of justification by faith alone.  As Luther essentially said, “Justification is the article by which the church stands and falls.”  After some further contemplation we might think of issues such as the sale of indulgences or the authority of the Pope or the priesthood of believers.  If we’ve taken a course in historical theology, doctrinal controversies such as the nature of grace, the bondage of the will, or the definition of a true church might come to mind.  All of these are good answers and were legitimate battlegrounds in the Reformation.  In this post, however, I’d like to consider what I believe is the foundational concern underlying all other concerns in the Protestant Reformation.  While it may not be an issue that immediately comes to your mind when you think of the major battles the Reformers fought, I believe it should be.  It is the issue of the common man’s access to the Bible.  Or to put it another way, the Reformers recognized that if ordinary Christians had unhindered access to the Bible, the reformation of the church would essentially take care of itself.

This perhaps surprising assertion is recognized by not a few historians of the Reformation.  For example, historical theologian Alister McGrath writes:

“Two ideas can be seen as underlying both his [Luther’s] critique of the Church and his proposals for reform.  1.  The church had lost sight of the basic New Testament idea that salvation is given by God as a gift, not earned as a reward; 2. That the key to the reform and renewal of the Church was to put the Bible in the hands of lay people.” (In the Beginning [New York: Anchor, 2001, 55])

If you doubt this contention, just read over Luther’s “Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation” (1520), especially his critique of the Pope as the only interpreter of Scripture and his suggestions for the reformation of schools.  Speaking of this latter concern, Luther writes:

“Above all, in schools of all kinds the chief and most common lesson should be the Scriptures, and for young boys the Gospel; and would to God each town had also a girls’ school, in which girls might be taught the Gospel for an hour daily, either in German or Latin!” (III, 25)

In a world that thought somewhat despairingly of women, such a suggestion is monumental.  Add to that the fact that Luther envisioned the Bible taught in vernacular German and this was nothing short of scandalous.

Roman Catholics long recognized that access to the Bible by the laity would mean the collapse of the oppressive Church hierarchy and the closely related sacramental system.  That is why they fought so strenuously to keep the Bible encased in Latin and why they persecuted and even martyred Bible translators.  Foreseeing how access to the Bible by the laity would spell doom for the Catholic Church, as early as 1407 Archbishop Arundel made the following pronouncement:

“We therefore legislate and ordain that nobody shall from this day forth translate any text of Holy Scripture on his own authority into the English, or any other, language, whether in the form of a book, pamphlet or tract; and that any such book, pamphlet or tract, whether composed recently or in the time of John Wycliffe, or in the future, shall not be read in part or in whole, in public or private.”

The conviction that unhindered access to the Bible by the ordinary Christian would result in the reformation of the church is why a number of the Reformers became not only theologians and preachers, but also Bible translators.  Luther completed his translation of the Bible into German in 1534.  William Tyndale was able to translate the New Testament and much of the Old into English from the original Hebrew and Greek, and to distribute countless copies to the common man, before he was executed by the Church in 1536.  The first complete English Bible appeared in 1535, translated by Miles Coverdale.  Other Reformers, including Huldrych Zwingli (1484-1531), were strong supporters of distributing God’s Word in the vernacular.

All these facts illustrate how the foundational issue of the Reformation was who should have access to God’s word.  The Reformers believed that if ordinary Christians had unhindered access to the Bible, the reformation of the church would essentially take care of itself.  If the ordinary man in the pew could read the Bible for himself, he’d see that justification is by faith alone, that saving grace is a free gift, that the Pope is not the head of the church, that purgatory is a myth, and so forth.  For the Reformers, widespread Bible reading and biblical literacy were the surest ways to bring cleansing and revival to Christ’s Church. (Perhaps I’ll muse on this in a future blog post, but this idea seems to be uniquely consistent with a Baptist ecclesiology, especially our views of congregationalism, every-member-ministry, and the priesthood of all believers.  Could it be said that Baptists are the most consistent and thorough-going reformers?  But I’ll wait to pursue that one.)

Now for those of us who consider ourselves heirs of the Reformation, how then should we live?  If keeping the Bible in the hands, heads, and hearts of ordinary Christians is the secret to church health, how might we actualize the Reformers’ vision?  In the remainder of this post, I intend to set forth a number of brief suggestions for encouraging biblical literacy among ordinary Christians.  I write as a pastor, especially to other pastors in what follows:

Read the Bible

As much as evangelicals love talking about the Bible, I fear we read it far less than we should.  Even as a pastor, I know how easy it can be to be more interested in uninspired books than the Book.  This is spiritually dangerous, inconsistent with our convictions, and is similar to the medieval priests who spent more time reading Aristotle than Paul.  Commit to reading a decent-sized portion of God’s Word daily.  Especially, if you’re a pastor, consider reading the Bible cover-to-cover yearly.  If you’re a father, read a paragraph or a chapter to your family before putting the kids down to bed.  If you’re involved in organizing corporate worship services, make sure they include healthy doses of the public reading of Scripture. (For more on the public reading of Scripture, see this thought-provoking series of articles.)  Obviously it doesn’t make much sense to say we love the Bible if we don’t love reading it.

Preach the Bible

How we preach says an enormous amount about our view and value of Scripture.  Therefore, if we believe the Bible is God’s inerrant Word and if we believe that widespread access to the Bible is essential for church health, we must preach accordingly.  This is why I believe expositional sermons (sermons that explain the meaning of a particular passage of Scripture as opposed to topical sermons) are more helpful than topical sermons (though occasional topical sermons can be very useful).  In the expositional sermon, the Bible itself governs the topic and organization of the sermon rather than the preacher.  It isn’t coincidental that a number of the Reformers were expositional preachers (e.g., The Expository Genius of John Calvin).  Moreover, when you preach, use plain language that ordinary people can understand.  Constantly inserting technical theological terms or Hebrew or Greek words when speaking to ordinary Christians isn’t too terribly different from medieval homilies preached in Latin.

Distribute Bibles in understandable translations

If you are a pastor, whether you recognize it or not, you have enormous influence on your congregation’s selection of a Bible version.  Use this influence strategically.  Obviously, preach from a trustworthy translation that the typical Christian can easily understand.  If your church doesn’t have them already, purchase good pew Bibles and announce the page number before you read Scripture in public.  Devote some of your budget to purchasing Bibles for every new convert or baptism candidate.  Give a Bible to any interested visitor who doesn’t have one.  While we all have our favorite versions, two translations that accomplish what I’m describing here are the ESV and the HCSB.

Help your people develop a helpful and doable Bible reading plan

Many sincere Christians desire to read the Bible but often don’t know where to begin.  Others began reading in Genesis, abandoned the project somewhere in Leviticus, and haven’t tried again for years.  View it as part of your responsibility as a pastor to help your congregation develop a Bible reading plan that works for them.  For some, reading the Bible cover-to-cover yearly is a good goal; for others, reading the book of Romans or John in one month is more realistic (and the strong shouldn’t pass judgment on the weak).  Assist your people in locating the best Bible reading program for them.  If you’re looking for a great place with many Bible reading plans, go here.  Or consider the Scripture Union Essential One-Hundred Bible Reading Plan, which takes the reader through 100 carefully selected Bible passages covering the entire storyline of Scripture.  I intend to distribute copies of this plan to our congregation the first Sunday of 2012.

Familiarize yourself with the history of the translation of the Bible

Part of the reason Americans value their civil freedoms is because we’re continually reminded of the veterans who died to keep us free.  A similar story is true for the Bible.  Men such as Wycliffe, Luther, and Tyndale gave their blood, sweat, and tears so that ordinary Christians could hear God speak to them through His Word.  Familiarizing yourself with this history can, by God’s grace, cause your appreciation for the Bible we now hold in our hands to blaze.  You might begin with John Piper’s moving biographical message on William Tyndale.  Or check out Rod Decker’s helpful booklet, The English Bible, Priceless Treasure.  Then read Alistair McGrath’s fascinating account of the creation of the King James Bible (which includes a fairly substantial summary of the translation history of the Bible in English).

Encourage support for missionary Bible translation

According to recent statistics, of the 6,500 people groups in the world today, approximately 2,500 are classified as “unreached.”  Not only do these 2,500 people groups possess no evangelical church, there is no work currently being done among them to establish a church.  Obviously, to successfully reach such people groups with the Gospel, Bible translation is essential, and is, in my opinion, a sadly neglected missionary opportunity.  Yet as heirs of the Reformation, Bible translation ministry should be of utmost importance for us.  Therefore, if you or someone in your congregation is particularly gifted with languages, consider that as a sign that God may be calling them (or you) to a career as a missionary Bible translator.  Consider supporting a Bible translator among your missionary families or include a Bible translation ministry in your church budget.  Doing so will communicate to your people that Bible translation is an important ministry you believe in.  Certainly we’ve all heard of Wycliffe Bible Translators.  Other, lesser-known, Bible translation ministries you might want to check out include New Tribes Mission and Bibles International.

Toward the end of his life, Luther was musing on how the Reformation, which at times seemed destined for defeat, wound up a success.  His explanation is insightful for our purposes:

“We should preach the Word, but the results must be left solely to God’s good pleasure…I opposed indulgences and all the papists, but never with force. I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything.” (Luther’s Works, 51:77)

May we, as those who self-consciously consider themselves heirs of the Protestant Reformation, fight the good fight in this most essential of battles, to see every Christian not only possessing unhindered access to the Bible, but also regularly reading God’s Word with comprehension.  For therein is the surest way to guarantee the health and purity of the church for which Christ died.

Tim Raymond has been the pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Muncie, Indiana since April 2006. He received his MDiv from the Baptist Bible Seminary of Pennsylvania in 2004 and has pursued further education through the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation. Tim grew up outside Syracuse, NY and previously served at Berean Baptist Church, Nicholson, PA (member and teacher during college and seminary) and Calvary Baptist Church, Sandusky, Ohio (seminary internship location). Tim met his wife Bethany at college, and they were married in May 2001. Tim enjoys reading, camping, wrestling with his three sons, and attempting to sleep.

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