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Igniting a Bible Study Reformation: Part 1

An Interview with R.C. Sproul and Stephen Nichols

This week on Renewing Your Mind we focus on the importance of Scripture as Ligonier announces the new, thoroughly revised and carefully crafted Reformation Study Bible. Today, Dr. R.C. Sproul and Dr. Stephen Nichols discuss one of the most important resources Ligonier has ever produced.

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Further Study On This Topic

  1. devotional

    The Book of Scripture

  2. article

    The Original Geneva Bible

  3. article

    What Semper Reformanda Is and Isn't

The Book of Scripture

Natural revelation is useful to give us some basic information about God and His will, but there is a limit to what it can accomplish. Even though it testifies to the power, existence, and authority of our Creator (Rom. 1:18–32), it cannot explain how sinful human beings can be preserved through the divine judgment that is coming upon the world for its sin. But the Lord loved His people so much that He graciously chose to reveal the way of salvation, although not through the medium of creation. He has given us what theologians have often called a “special revelation” of Himself.

Properly speaking, special revelation refers to any revelation God has given outside of the ordinary workings of the created universe. The dreams the Almighty sent, the audible prophecies He delivered through the prophets, and an historical event like the exodus can all qualify as special revelation. When we talk about special revelation today, however, we are referring specifically to the Scriptures, the sixty-six inspired writings of the Old and New Testaments. The Westminster Confession of Faith (1.1) explains that all other means of special revelation having ceased, God has committed into writing a record of the events of redemptive history and an explanation of their significance to preserve the church and protect us against Satan. In other words, He has given us the Bible as the final authority and surest guide for all matters of faith and practice.

John Calvin notes in his commentary on today’s passage that due to our idolatrous proclivities, “religion would have been corrupted in a thousand ways, had not its rule been diligently written down for posterity.” So we should be grateful to have an infallible, written guide to correct us when we err (see 2 Tim. 3:16–17).

Deuteronomy 31:24–26 is one of the earliest passages of Scripture to describe how God’s Word was put into written form or inscripturated. All Moses and the Israelites had was the Law and it bore witness against them, convicting them of sin and pointing out their need for salvation (v. 26). Under the new covenant, the Law can serve the same purpose, but we are fortunate to have the whole of the book of Scripture. With the written Law we also have the clearly written gospel, which gives us a confident hope for pardon and grace instead of the Law’s sentence (John 1:17).

The Original Geneva Bible

Roger Nicole

Christianity is the religion of the Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ, and of the written Word, the Bible. Wherever Christianity has gone, it has developed translations of Scripture as a necessity. The promise of Pentecost, where people of various origin heard of “the wonders of God in their own tongues” (Acts 2:11), has been fulfilled and continues to be increasingly fulfilled in the process of Bible translation. The whole Bible, or portions thereof, is now available in print in more than 2,000 languages.

In the British Isles, turbulent times accompanied the work of translating Scripture, but the first written translation of the whole Bible was made under the influence of John Wycliffe (c. 1330–1384). Even though it had to be copied by hand, and in spite of a prohibition against English translations, there are still some two hundred manuscripts of it extant.

The first published text was William Tyndale’s translation of the New Testament (1526), based on the Greek and Hebrew texts, in Worms, Germany. He had completed the translation of the Pentateuch, Jonah, and Joshua-2 Chronicles before being martyred in 1536.

Miles Coverdale, encouraged by Archbishop Cramner and Secretary Thomas Cromwell, undertook to translate the whole Bible from the Vulgate (Latin) with the help of certain other translators in Latin or German and of Tyndale’s own version. This was published in 1535 in Germany. In 1537 it was republished in Southwark, the first complete English Bible to be printed in England.

When Mary Tudor ascended the British throne (1553), she did her utmost to restore the Roman Catholic faith. Little did she realize that her anti-Protestant stance would indirectly foster the production of the most important 16th-century Bible, the “Geneva Bible,” precipitated by the exile of a number of the influential Protestant leaders to Geneva. Notable among these were John Knox and William Whittingham. After establishing an English church in 1555, the refugees agreed that the most significant work they could do was to prepare and publish a new English translation of the whole Bible made in such a way that it would have a maximum accessibility to the common people of Britain. Whittingham was an excellent scholar in Greek, and Anthony Gilby and Christopher Goodman in Hebrew. Furthermore, there were at that time in Geneva a number of gifted scholars and printers.

The English refugees made ample use of these resources, and Whittingham and his associates labored day and night to perform the task of preparing an English translation of the whole Bible. Earlier editions of the Bible had marginal notes, but the Geneva Bible accommodated them in a much greater proportion. Written in a Puritanic spirit, there was language that angered the royal family and some of the bishops of the Anglican Church who sought to impede the distribution and use of this Bible.

On June 10, 1557, the New Testament appeared as follows:

“The New Testament of our Lord Jesus Christ. Conferred diligently with the Greke, and best approved translations. With the arguments, aswel before the chapters, as for every Boke & Epistle, also diversities of readings, and most proffitable annotations of all harde places: wherunto is added a copious Table. At Geneva Printed By Conrad Badius. M.D.LVII.”

Mary Tudor died on November 17, 1558. Her successor, Queen Elizabeth, was favorable to the reformation initiated by her father, Henry VIII. Many of those who were exiles under Mary hastened to return to the British Isles. Whittingham, however, and some of his associates remained in Geneva until 1560 to finish the publication of their edition of the Bible.

Inasmuch as the translation of the book of Psalms was completed, the Geneva group decided to publish it separately and to dedicate this work to Elizabeth. They prefixed a flowery letter to her, declaring that her accession to the throne was a special blessing from God. They established a parallel between her and King David in that both were enthroned after years of life-threatening persecutions. The queen was admonished to cling to the Lord and to His Word even as David did. An epistle to the reader was placed at the end.

After the publication of the Psalms in 1559, Whittingham and his associates labored diligently to bring to completion this momentous work. When one holds in his hands the large volume, one cannot fail to be impressed by the gigantic task involved in translating, annotating, printing, proofreading, and binding this book. The marginal annotations, written in exceedingly small type, are very unevenly distributed—relatively scanty in the Pentateuch and the historical books of the Old Testament, and very full in Job, Psalms, and the Prophets, as well as some Epistles and Revelation.

The New Testament was also published separately in 1560. The desire to make God’s Word available to English-speaking people is apparent. Those who could not afford to buy the whole Bible might at least purchase the New Testament.

Between 1560 and 1644, there were more than 140 editions of the Geneva Bible. In 1599 alone ten editions appeared. The first Geneva Bible to be printed in Britain was published in London by Christopher Berkes in 1575. The first printing in Scotland appeared in 1575.

The Genevan exiles labored with great earnestness for five years in order to give to their country a Bible that would reflect the best scholarship and yet be accessible even to those with moderate financial means. Challenged by others in Geneva who were publishing Bibles or New Testaments in Latin (1556, 1567), Italian (1555), French (22 editions in the 1550s), Spanish (1556, 1557), and Greek (1551) and by the success of the German Bibles (Luther 1534, Zwingli 1527–29), they worked untiringly to produce the Geneva Bible in 1560. Thereafter, for more than 80 years, it dominated the field, surpassing greatly the official Bishops’ Bible and giving great incentive to King James I. The Genevan marginal notes did not sit well with him, and so he provided the funds and assembled the scholars for preparation of the magnificent edition in 1611 of a New Authorized Version, known as the King James Version. Even so it took many years for the latter to catch up with the production of the Geneva Bible, and it must be noted that at many places the 1611 translation was influenced by the work of the exiles. The Geneva Bible was the Bible of Shakespeare; it was the Bible of the Puritans; it was the Bible carried on their ships by the Jamestown settlers (1607) and the Plymouth Pilgrims (1620). Harvard University treasures the copy that Governor Bradford brought with him on the Mayflower. Nothing else that the exiles could have done would possibly approximate the boon to Britain and the influence in the world which the Genevan Bible turned out to be.

And now a new Geneva Bible is to appear, ironically enough with the text of the New King James Bible, but once again with notes intended to emphasize the Reformed character of Holy Scripture. What its influence may be no one yet knows, but those who produced it are confident that “their labor will not be in vain in the Lord” (1 Cor. 15:58).

What Semper Reformanda Is and Isn't

Carl R. Trueman

There are many familiar phrases with which everyone would agree. "It would be a good thing to eliminate world poverty" is one that comes to mind. What is interesting, of course, is that while there may be agreement on the sentiment expressed, there is often radical disagreement on how it is to be achieved. In this example, some might argue for greater deregulation of international trade, others for increased aid, others for targeted educational solutions.

There are also some phrases that occur in the context of the church that are similar in terms of universal agreement. One that is a hardy perennial within broadly Reformed evangelical circles is this: The Reformed church always needs reforming. Who could disagree with that sentiment? It seems on the surface to capture something of the scriptural earnestness of the Reformation. To reject it would seem to smack of a complacent, if not positively pharisaical, assertion of the perfection of the status quo. It would also appear to undermine that most basic of Reformation ideas—the church is always to be measuring itself by Scripture and thus always seeking to change in ways that make its testimony more faithful to God's revelation.

Unfortunately, however, the phrase is somewhat contentless. Within the last decade, it became the rallying cry of groups influenced by the so-called emergent church movement. To them, it meant that the church needed to engage in a fundamental, and generally continual, reformulation of her doctrine and, indeed, of her understanding of what doctrine is and how it is to function. Thus, doctrines such as justification, inerrancy, and even the idea of Scripture alone needed to be rethought in the context of a postmodern mind-set.

We might say that when used this way, the phrase "the reformed church always needs reforming" was less a basic methodological principle and more of an aesthetic. What I mean is this: we live in a world where the idea of truth as fixed and stable is unpopular and even regarded as dangerous and oppressive by many. Instead, people prefer a world where truth is always in flux, where it is negotiable, where, one might say, it ultimately makes no absolute demands on anyone.

Thus, this phrase appeals because it seems to make the truth a matter of continual negotiation and change. The church claims that Jesus is God? Well, that may have been true at Chalcedon in 451, but we need a different model for understanding Him today. The church denies the legitimacy of same-sex marriage? Again, that idea may have operated in a time when homophobia was dominant—indeed, it may have helped to maintain precisely such homophobia—but we need to reform our understanding of marriage and sex in light of contemporary needs and demands. Flux, change, and uncertainty rule, and glossing these with the phrase "the reformed church always needs reforming" gives this very postmodern aesthetic a speciously orthodox sound.

In fact, the phrase is a good one, but only when it is understood as reflecting the basic scriptural principle of the Reformed church.

There are two foundations necessary for grasping the appropriate meaning of the phrase. First, Scripture is the final authoritative source for the church's life and doctrine. Everything the church says or does is to be consistent with God's Word and is to be regulated by God's Word. One implication of this is that whatever the church says and does because of inferences drawn from Scripture must be scrutinized very carefully in light of Scripture. There is always potential for refinement, for example.

For example, in the third century, most theologians held to some form of what is technically known as subordinationism—that Christ was not quite God, and only God the Father was fully God. It was only over a period of time, as this idea was subjected to scriptural scrutiny, that this view's weaknesses and flaws became clear and the church had to sharpen her formulation of the doctrine of God in order to exclude this inadequate theology. The church was being reformed—was reforming her teaching—in the light of Scripture.

The Reformation was in many ways the greatest example of this. The medieval church had preserved much that was true: the doctrines of the Trinity and the incarnation are perhaps the most obvious. But her teaching on grace, on justification, and on the sacraments (among other things) had wandered far from the teaching of Paul and the Apostles. The Reformers did not abandon all that the church had taught in previous centuries and start to rebuild her from the ground up. Instead, they subjected the church's teaching to the scrutiny of Scripture and abandoned those parts that failed to measure up to Scripture's teaching, sharpened those parts that lacked scriptural precision, and maintained those parts that were faithful to the Bible.

The second foundation for grasping the appropriate meaning of the phrase "always reforming" is the knowledge that human beings are fallible—indeed, not just fallible but sinful. Thus, we make mistakes, even when attempting to interpret and apply God's Word. More than that, as sinners we have a vested interest in interpreting and applying Scripture incorrectly when it suits our own selfish purposes.

We see this all the time. Some try to soften the Bible's teaching on sin in order to make themselves seem less bad. Some alter the Bible's teaching on the penal nature of the death of Christ in order to avoid the terrifying fact that God is wrathful against sin.

Perhaps we might bring this closer to home: Reformed churches have at times used Scripture to justify such things as racism (for example, in the United States and South Africa). The point is that we are all, as sinners, vulnerable to using God's Word in sinful ways, and thus we are always in need of "being reformed" in the light of Scripture. Thus, the church needs to be constantly vigilant and to demonstrate in practice that Berean spirit of searching the Scriptures to see if the things the church teaches are indeed so (Acts 17:10-11). That is what "always reforming" means—always returning to Scripture to examine the church's testimony in the light of what Scripture teaches.

When we compare the two ways in which the phrase is used, the difference is clear. In the former use—that of the emergent church and the postmoderns—the assumption is that truth is flexible, a function of context and circumstances, as malleable and adaptable as the social framework within which it is found. If this is so, it is indeed hard to determine what would constitute an error, for the truth is so elusive as to be nonexistent according to any traditional understanding of truth. Perhaps error is simply whatever does not work in a particular circumstance. The key to reforming is to find what does work. That would certainly explain the mystical and pragmatic direction that the emerging church ended up traveling.

In the latter use, the assumption is that, to borrow a phrase, "the truth is out there" in Scripture and is indeed accessible. Yes, human beings can make errors of interpretation because of intellectual and moral incompetence, but they are errors precisely because Scripture embodies truth and has a fixed, true meaning against which error can be judged. God has spoken, His Word is truth, and it is the church's responsibility to regulate her speech in light of God's speech. That is what continual reformation is. The true meaning of the phrase is that we are constantly called back to Scripture as the final authoritative basis upon which to build our theology and our practice.Ÿ

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