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Igniting a Bible Study Reformation: Part 3

An interview with Robert Godfrey and Steven Lawson

Dr. W. Robert Godfrey and Dr. Steven J. Lawson join Lee Webb in the studio as we continue to celebrate God’s Word and discuss the release of the thoroughly revised new edition of the Reformation Study Bible. Today, we’ll explore why a study Bible is important for Christians who are seeking to grow in their faith, and how a study Bible connects us with the community of faith.

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Further Study On This Topic

  1. devotional

    Scripture Alone

  2. article

    A Reformation Before the Reformation

  3. article

    The Word of God in the Hands of Man

Scripture Alone

Even though the doctrine of justification and the attendant issues of the sufficiency of grace and the work of Christ are the issues around which the Reformation initially was centered, the underlying debate that was reflected both consciously and unconsciously in the controversy had to do with the source of authority. Is Scripture the final authority for faith and practice that can alone bind the conscience of the Christian, or is there another source of authority equal to or above Scripture that serves this function?

Martin Luther’s defense of sola fide was based on the premise that the Bible is the sole infallible source of divine revelation, and it was his refusal to grant such authority to popes and church councils that really got him into trouble. Rome, on the other hand, appealed to Scripture and the living tradition of the church, unwritten teachings passed on orally from the apostles down through the bishops and interpreted by the Roman Catholic magisterium (the teaching officers of the church). The doctrine of justification of the Roman Catholic Church then and now is grounded in works of penance, the treasury of merit, and other elements established in tradition, not the Word of God.

According to Rome’s official pronouncements, these unwritten traditions are equal in authority to the Bible. Paragraph 44 of the current Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “Both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence.” In practice, however, it is the church that has final, infallible authority. Its interpretations of the faith are binding even when they are unfounded in the Bible.

Jesus makes it clear that to violate the Word of God for the sake of the traditions of men is always wrong (Mark 7:9), and so Protestantism asserts sola Scriptura: Scripture alone is the final authority for the church. Church traditions such as are found in creeds and the writings of important church leaders do not lack authority altogether and can guide our understanding of Scripture. Luther and Calvin, in fact, both cited Augustine regularly in their teachings. But Scripture always wins out when it conflicts with tradition.  

A Reformation Before the Reformation

George Grant

The fourteenth century was a time of Dickensian paradox. Though it was a calamitous time of war, plague, corruption, and social disintegration, it also enjoyed a surprising number of reforms — which would in time bring renewal and restoration to the whole fabric of western civilization.

All through the century, the peace of Christendom was shattered as the Hundred Years War raged between the kingdoms of France and England. At the same time, the catholicity of the church was sundered by the Great Schism — the apostasy of both the Avignon usurpation and the “babylonian captivity” scandalized the faithful across Europe and into Byzantium. The futility of the Crusades persisted against the backdrop of an increasingly menacing Islamic threat. The emergence of trade unions, explosive urbanization, rising nationalism, and resurgent anti-Semitism all combined to destabilize the essential social structures of feudalism and chivalry. According to Barbara Tuchman in her seminal work on the era, A Distant Mirror, “It was an altogether dark day in the affairs of men and nations.”

Nevertheless, already seeds were being sown for a whole new day of freedom, prosperity, and hope. The fourteenth century saw the emergence of a host of remarkable pioneers who were breathing new life into the moribund status quo. There were noble rulers like John of Gaunt and Robert the Bruce who offered their subjects unprecedented freedom. Writers like Giovanni Boccaccio and Geoffrey Chaucer were reinvigorating literature with innovative and indigenous prose styling. Theologians like John Wycliffe and Jan Hus recalled believers to their biblical moorings. Educators like Gerhard Groote and John Zwolle began training up a new generation of leaders. Artists like Giotto di Bondone and Ambrogio Lorenzetti began to break out of the stiff confines of parochialism and herald the promise of a future renaissance.

One of the most influential men in this age of luminary reformers, however, was perhaps the most unfamiliar to us today. Jan Milic (1313–1374) was a brilliant Czech writer, thinker, activist, preacher, educator, and philanthropist. The enduring foundations of his ministry among the Moravian people ultimately made the work of Jan Hus, Jerome of Prague, and Jan Comenius possible.

He was born at Kremsier into a prominent land-holding family with close filial ties to the Hapsburg electors. This privilege enabled Milic to enjoy a fine education in Vienna, Trier, and Heidelberg. His studies in canon law enabled him to secure a living in the church. He was ordained in 1334 and began serving as the university registrar and as corrector at the imperial chancery of Charles IV.

Though his duties were apparently scant and undemanding, Milic proved to be uncommonly diligent in discharging them. He served as both priest and canon in his parish at the center of Prague. His acquaintance with itinerant Augustinian friars sparked his interest in a serious devotional study of the Scriptures, which was ultimately reflected in his passionate preaching. Eventually, he would renounce all his dignities, dedicating himself to fearlessly denouncing the vices of the clergy and the laity.

By at least 1355, Milic had launched a series of reforms that would ultimately leave a legacy among the Czech Moravians. He planted a small wayside church adjacent to several of the city colleges so that students would have better and more frequent Bible preaching. The Bethlehem Chapel became a hive of orthodoxy and integrity in the midst of an age best known for its heterodoxy and corruption.

A few years later, Milic would found yet another work, the Jerusalem Center. Established to extend care to the poor, the sick, and the dispossessed, the center was a remarkable outreach to the refugees from war and plague who flooded into the city from the surrounding provinces.

Each of these ministries extended the influence of Milic far beyond the bounds of Moravia and Bohemia. After the death of Conrad of Waldhausen in 1369, Milic was allowed to preach at Prague’s vast cathedral in the vernacular German. An extant manuscript collection of his sermons from this period entitled Gratia Dei, reveals his forthright proclamation of the doctrines of grace and provide an insight into his popularity.

In the spring of 1367 Milic was ordered to Rome where the Inquisition imprisoned him because his reforming zeal had begun to provoke the ire of the established authorities. During his imprisonment, he wrote Libellus de Antichristo, in which he suggested that the papal system had altogether apostatized. Though he was eventually released he would remain under suspicion for the rest of his life — and long afterward.

His little Moravian movement had begun to produce new champions of the faith so that its impact would continue even if the authorities succeeded in silencing him. As a result, a century and a half before Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses on the Wittenberg church door, reformation was stirring within the church. Indeed, this reformation before the reformation would, in the good providence of God, have an enduring effect on the onward march of the Gospel in the world.

The Word of God in the Hands of Man

R.C. Sproul

It was many years ago when my grandmother related to me games that she played as a little girl in the 1880s. One game she mentioned was one that she and her Methodist girlfriends played with their Roman Catholic friends. In a playful jest of the words of the Mass, my grandmother would say, “Tommy and Johnny went down to the river to play dominoes.” Here the word dominoes was a play on the use of the term Domine that occurred so frequently in the Catholic rite of the Mass. The children, of course, were revealing their lack of knowledge of the words of the Mass because they were spoken in Latin. 

In a similar vein, those who are interested in the arts of prestidigitation know that all magicians, as they ply their trade, use certain sayings to make their magic come to pass. They will recite certain incantations, such as “abracadabra,” “presto chango,” and perhaps most famous of all, “hocus pocus.” Even today we use “hocus pocus” to describe a type of magical art. It is an incantation used for the magician to perform his magic. But from where does the phrase “hocus pocus” come? 

The origin of it is once again borrowed from people’s misunderstanding of the language used in the Roman Catholic Mass. In the words of institution uttered in Latin in the ancient formula, the statement was recited as follows: “hoc est corpus meum.” This phrase is the Latin translation of Jesus’ words at the Last Supper: “This is my body.” But in the Mass to the unskilled ear, the supposed miracle of the transformation of the elements of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ were heard under the rubric of language that sounded like “hocus pocus.” These kinds of derivations are a direct result of people’s being involved in some kind of drama where the words that are spoken remain unknown to them. 

In the Middle Ages, the church was committed to performing the Mass in the ancient tongue of Latin. That tongue was understood by educated people, and particularly by the clergy, but it was not intelligible to the laity. As early as the ninth century, questions were raised about the propriety of keeping the words of God obscured from the layperson by being restricted to Latin. The Bible itself was literally chained to the lecterns of the churches, so that it could not fall into the hands of people who were unskilled in the languages. It was not given to the common person to interpret the Bible for himself or to have it read in the common language of the people. It took centuries for the church to get over this struggle, and it provoked issues of heresy and of persecution. Prior to the sixteenth-century Reformation, among English-speaking people, the work of Tyndale and Wycliffe was brought under the censure of the church because these men dared to translate the Bible into a language other than Latin.

In 1521, the Imperial Diet of Worms ended dramatically when Luther, in the presence of the Holy Roman Emperor, refused to recant of his writing and stated to the assembly gathered: “Unless I’m convinced by sacred Scripture or by evident reason, I will not recant. For my conscience is held captive by the Word of God. Here I stand, I can do no other. God help me.” With those dramatic words, the Diet exploded in shouts of protest, while Luther’s friends faked a kidnapping, whisked him away from Worms and secreted him to the Wartburg Castle in Eisenach. There for a full year, Luther, disguised as a monk, worked on his project of translating the New Testament into the German language from the original Greek text. Some regard this work of setting forth the Bible in the vernacular as one of the most important contributions that Luther made to the life of the church. 

But it was not received with equanimity everywhere. The great renaissance scholar, Erasmus of Rotterdam, whose motto was ad fontes (“to the sources”), who was known for his mastery of ancient languages, protested against Luther’s presumption to interpret the Bible into the vernacular. Erasmus did have enough respect for Luther to see that Luther was a world-class philologist in his own right. But he chastened Luther for daring to go against the church in translating the Bible into German. He counseled Luther by saying that if the Bible were to be translated into the common tongue and given to the people for their own reading, it would “unloose a floodgate of iniquity.” 

Erasmus was convinced that giving the Bible into the hands of the people in their own language would give them a license to turn the Bible into a wax nose to be twisted and shaped and distorted into any inclination or private opinion that the individual could stretch from the Scriptures. Luther affirmed this, that if unskilled people are given the right to read the Scriptures for themselves in their own language, much mischief will occur from it, and people will use the Bible to try to justify the wildest of all possible heresies. On the other hand, Luther was convinced of the perspicuity of Scripture, namely, that its central message of salvation is so clear that even a child can understand it. Luther believed that the salvific words communicated in Scripture are so vitally important that it is worth setting the opportunity for salvation before the people even though some dire consequences might flow from such reading. He responded to Erasmus by saying, “If a floodgate of iniquity be opened, so be it.”

In the wake of the translation of the Bible into the common language  came the basic principle of private interpretation. That principle of private interpretation was soundly condemned by the Roman Catholic Church in the fourth session of the Council of Trent in the middle of the sixteenth century. But the die was cast, and since that time, the Bible has been translated into thousands of languages, and attempts are afoot to get the Bible translated into every language that can be found anywhere on the face of the earth. The prophetic concerns of Erasmus in many ways have come true with the vast proliferation of denominations, each calling themselves biblical. Yet at the same time, the gospel of salvation in Christ has been made known abroad throughout the world because the Bible has been given in the vernacular and made available to all people. To be sure, private interpretation does not give a license for private distortion. Anyone who presumes to interpret the Bible for himself must assume with that right the awesome responsibility of interpreting it correctly.

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