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Igniting a Bible Study Reformation: Part 2

An Interview with Chris Larson and Burk Parsons

Today, Lee Webb welcomes our president and CEO, Chris Larson, and our vice president of publishing, Burk Parsons, in the studio to talk about how a study Bible can help Christians grow in their knowledge of God’s Word.

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Further Study On This Topic

  1. devotional

    The Inerrancy of the Bible

  2. article

    The Bible in English

  3. article

    Always Abusing Semper Reformanda

The Inerrancy of the Bible

In recent years a number of semi-conservative theologians have questioned whether we should hold to the doctrine of biblical inerrancy or infallibility. After all, they say, this quest for absolute certainty reflects a "Greek, Aristotelian mindset" that is not really compatible with the nature of "sheer faith." They say that Christianity is a matter of "faith" and we don't need "absolute certainty."

We notice immediately that such statements as these presuppose that faith is incompatible with certainty. That is, they presuppose to some degree the modern existentialistic view of faith, which sees faith as a "leap in the dark."

Still, we can imagine that God might have given us the information about redemption in another way. He might have simply provided us with a lot of human testimonies. The Gospels, for instance, might merely be the personal recollections of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John and no more. In that case, God would be calling us to believe the Gospel in the same way we believe that Ronald Reagan was president of the United States from 1981 to 1989. There is debate over what Mr. Reagan actually thought and did during his term, but there is no debate over whether he was actually president. In the same way, scholars could debate the details recorded in the Gospels while still having a "faith" in the "general trustworthiness" of the accounts.

But the Bible claims to be much more. In fact it claims to be the very word of God. The Bible claims to be breathed out by God (2 Timothy 3:16). If God is God, He does not make mistakes. If the Bible is breathed out by God, there cannot be "minor errors" in details of history. If the Bible contains such errors, it can hardly be the work of a perfect God. And if God is not perfect and totally trustworthy, God is not God.

If the Bible contains errors, it might still be correct in many of its claims. But there is one claim that could not be true: the Bible's claim to be God's breathed-out words. All the church fathers, the medieval theologians, and the Protestant Reformers clearly saw that the Bible claims to be inerrant and infallible. If that claim is false, the Bible is deceiving us, and has deceived people for many thousands of years.

The Bible in English

Stephen Nichols

Many of us are spoiled. We likely live in proximity to a bookstore, or if not, then we are just a mouse click away from an online source of books that would put at our disposal any number of English Bible translations in any type of bindings and in all shapes, sizes, and colors. This embarrassment of riches, however, hasn’t always been the case. For centuries, written copies of the Bible in English, Old English that is, simply didn’t exist. Copies were extremely expensive and not so commonly distributed. The expansive English Bible selection we enjoy today is the end product of a long and winding history, a history marked by sacrifice and blood, intrigue and politics. It is the history of the English Bible.

Arguably, the King James Version stands as the grandest of the English Bible translations. It has been dubbed a monument of literary translation, considered a sublime text. To be sure, for contemporary audiences the sublime prose can be confusing at times, more obscuring than helpful. Considering that it is nearly four hundred years old, however, it clearly has staying power. The King James Version also provides a good anchor for the history of the English Bible. It’s the result of nearly four centuries of work that led up to it, and has, for another four centuries, continued to cast its shadow. We can frame our history of the English Bible around it, looking to the era that led up to it, the era of its birth, and the era since.

The English Bible before the King James Version 

Christianity came to the Anglo Saxons in the sixth century by St. Augustine (not the Augustine of The Confessions). He brought with him a Latin Bible. Thus the Bible, unread and unable to be understood, was not at the center of church life in England in those early centuries. That place would be given to the rituals of the church instead. Bede, the historian of this early English Christianity, however, notes how that began to change when Caedmon, originally a farmer from Whitby, composed songs to tell the Bible’s story. These were the first attempts at having the Bible in the Saxon language. Caedmon’s contemporary, Aldhelm, the abbot at Malmsbury and then bishop, also composed songs with generous quotations from Scripture. By 706, Aldhelm had gone so far as to translate the Psalter into Saxon. Visitors to the Royal Library of Paris could see a copy for themselves. The work of English translations had begun. It would be centuries, though, until the full Bible would be made available. Latin was the official language of the church. The common people, the religious establishment argued, were better off without direct access to the Word of God. It would take the Council of Toulouse in 1229 to forbid any Scripture in “the vulgar tongue,” but that sentiment reigned long before the official decree.

Despite that decree, translation efforts persisted. By the mid-1300s, John Wycliffe, the Oxford scholar and priest, would spearhead the attempt at a translation of the entire Bible. Wycliffe railed against the “priestcraft” and abuse that he saw in the church in his book On Divine Dominion, saying a thing or two about the abuses of power on the political side of the Holy Roman Empire in his other book, On Civil Dominion. Neither of these works, though, would secure his place in history. That would come from his other work, which was largely the work of his students but gets attributed to him nevertheless, the Wycliffe Bible. For these efforts, Wycliffe would be exiled and then eventually be found a heretic. But, alas, the verdict came down long after he had died. Undeterred, the church exhumed his body and burned his bones. Wycliffe’s translation was both a manuscript, which had to be painstakingly hand-copied, and a translation. Wycliffe and his team of students and colleagues were working from the Vulgate. Three subsequent developments would forever change the English Bible.

The Era of the King James Bible

These developments consisted of the printing press in the 1450s, the publication of the Greek text of the New Testament in 1516, and the Protestant Reformation started the next year by Martin Luther. These three developments set the stage for William Tyndale. Convinced that the Gospel lay obscured because common people did not have access to the Bible, Tyndale plied his efforts at producing a Bible. Luther had done the same for the Germans. Now it was time for the English. People who like statistics report that nearly ninety percent of the King James Version is Tyndale. Considering the place the kjv retains among English Bibles, it’s not too much of a stretch to say that the thumbprint of Tyndale is on every page of every English Bible. For his part in it all, Tyndale was considered an outlaw of the church. Chased across Europe, Tyndale was eventually martyred in 1536. He had completed the translation of the New Testament, first published in 1525, and laid the groundwork for most of the translation of the Old Testament, published in 1537. When King Henry published his Great Bible in 1539, it was largely Tyndale’s work, a providential irony indeed. This decade of the 1530s also saw the publication of the Coverdale Bible in 1535 and the Matthews Bible in 1537, both of which heavily relied on Tyndale’s work.

The next landmark in the history of the English Bible came in 1560 with the publication of the Geneva Bible. Under Bloody Mary, a number of English Protestants fled to the safe havens of Geneva to study under Calvin. While there they produced not only a new translation, but also the first Bible with extensive study notes. William Whittington, a relative of John Calvin’s, is credited with leading this team of scholars. By 1568, and the regime change from Mary to Elizabeth I, the Geneva Bible was slightly modified and produced as the Bishop’s Bible, the official version of the church of England. But it wouldn’t be the official version for long.

In 1604, King James I convened a conference at Hampton Court, commissioning, among other things, a new translation of the Bible. Seven years later, a team of approximately fifty scholars sent off their work to the printer, resulting in the 1611 King James Version. The Bible was published as a folio Bible, with rather large leafs, and contained the Apocrypha for a total of eighty books. It tended to be bound in two volumes. Pocket-size it certainly wasn’t. Eventually, digest-sized (called “octavo”) editions would roll off the press. At first, the kjv couldn’t overtake its rival the Geneva Bible. The Geneva Bible remained the favorite of the Puritans. They took the Geneva Bible with them when they set sail for the New World. As for the rest of England, soon the kjv won out and would for centuries reign as the supreme English Bible.

Of course, there were some glitches from time to time in the printing of the kjv. There was the “He Bible,” mistakenly having “he” instead of “she” at Ruth 3:15. And there is the Bible collector’s prized possession, the so-called “Wicked Bible.” This 1631 printing has omitted the “not” in Exodus 20:14, resulting in “Thou shalt commit adultery.” In addition to these obvious printing errors, real errors in translation were continually refined throughout the printing of the King James Version. Centuries later, it continues to hold strong.

The Era since the KJV

Today, English speakers have many choices for a Bible due to the proliferation of translations and paraphrases in the twentieth and now twenty-first centuries. Language changes from generation to generation. Idioms and even grammar rules and grammatical structures change. In addition, the field of biblical scholarship continually expands its understanding of particular Hebrew and Greek words and grammatical constructs, not to mention the discovery of more manuscripts of the biblical books in the last century. All combined, these factors have resulted in the production of many English translations and paraphrases, an almost dizzying array.

One of the milestones of this activity is the English Revised Version of 1881, most commonly referred to as simply the Revised Version, a product of a large team of scholars from a variety of denominations. This version was slightly modified in 1901 as the American Standard Version. After further revisions, the rv was supplanted in 1952 and again in 1971 as the Revised Standard Version. The rsv has undergone yet another transformation under the hands of another team of scholars and has been published in 2001 as the English Standard Version. These versions hold to an “essentially literal” approach to translating the text, retaining both a readable and an eloquent English text. Another milestone is the New International Version, first appearing in 1973. This version’s philosophy stresses readability and advocates a “dynamic equivalence” approach that is more of a thought-for-thought rather than an essentially literal translation. 

The history of the English Bible is a long and circuitous one that has resulted in a treasure of riches for us living downstream. Thanks to the sacrifices of people like John Wycliffe and William Tyndale, as well as the energies of countless scholars whose names have been lost to us, we not only have the Word of God in English, we have the Word of God in English many times over.

Always Abusing Semper Reformanda

R. Scott Clark

The Reformation churches have some wonderful slogans that are chock full of important truths. Sometimes, however, these slogans can be misconstrued, misreported, and misunderstood. With the possible exception of sola Scriptura (by Scripture alone), none of these slogans has been mangled more often toward greater mischief than ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda (the church reformed, always reforming). According to historian Michael Bush, much of what we think we know about this slogan is probably wrong. The phrase is not from the sixteenth century. I have searched hundreds of documents in a variety of languages from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and the phrase ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda does not occur in them. Neither does the phrase semper reformanda (always reforming). Certainly, the Reformed writers spoke of a "Reformed church" and of the necessity of reformation. But men such as Calvin, who published a treatise on the need for reformation in 1543, did not use the phrase. The Dutch Reformed minister Jodocus van Lodenstein (1620-77) first used something like it in 1674 when he juxtaposed "reformed" with "reforming," but he did not say, "always."

The Dutch Reformed theologian Jacobus Koelman (1632-95) expressed similar ideas and attributed them to his teacher Johannes Hoornbeek (1617-66), who himself was a student of the great Gijsbertus Voetius (1589-1676). None of them added the phrase secundum verbum Dei (according to the Word of God). The source of that phrase is almost certainly the twentieth-century Princeton Seminary professor Edward Dowey (1918-2003).

Van Lodenstein and the others were part of a school of thought in the Netherlands that was closely connected to the English Reformed theology, piety, and practice represented by such writers such as William Perkins (1558-1602) and William Ames (1576-1633). They identified themselves as part of a "Further Reformation" (Nadere Reformatie). Like Perkins, Ames, the divines of the Westminster Assembly (1643- 48) in the British Isles, and the great international Synod of Dort (1618-19), this school of thought was concerned that the church not lapse back into error and darkness. It wanted the church to continue to pursue purity of doctrine, piety, and worship.

The full phrase ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda secundum verbum Dei (the church reformed, always reforming according to the Word of God) is a post-World War II creature. It was given new impetus by the modernist Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968), who used variations of the phrase with some frequency. Mainline (liberal) Presbyterian denominations have sometimes used variations of this phrase in official ways.

In effect, the phrase is most commonly taken to mean "the church is reformed but needs to be changed in various ways." It is frequently invoked as a way of expressing dissatisfaction with Reformed theology as received and expressed by the Reformed churches in the Reformed confessions (for example, the Belgic Confession, 1561; the Heidelberg Catechism, 1563; the Westminster Standards, 1648). Thus, in 1967, the United Presbyterian Church in the USA rejected the historic Christian and Reformed understanding that Scripture is the inerrant (does not err), infallible (cannot err) Word of God written. Ironically, under the modern misunderstanding of the phrase the church reformed, always reforming, the denomination moved away from the Reformed view and adopted a view taught by the Anabaptist radical Thomas Müntzer (1489-1525) that the Reformers knew and rejected.

When Calvin and the other Reformed writers used the adjective reformed, they did not think that it was a thing that could never actually be accomplished. Late in his life, Calvin remarked to the other pastors in Geneva that things were fairly well constituted, and he exhorted them not to ruin them. He and the others thought and spoke of reformation of the church not as a goal never to be achieved in this life, but as something that either had been or could be achieved because they believed God's Word to be sufficiently clear. That is, what must be known for the life of the church can be known and, with the help of God's Spirit and by God's grace alone, changes could be made (and were being made) to bring the doctrine, piety, and practice of the church into conformity with God's will revealed in Scripture. That's why they wrote church orders and adopted confessions—because they believed that reformation was a great but finite task.

They did not imagine that the theology, piety, and practice of the church Reformed according to Scripture was inherently deficient such that it needs to be augmented by other traditions. Unlike many today who invoke these words, the Reformed did not see reform as a justification for eclecticism, borrowing a bit of this and a bit of that for a theological-ecclesiastical stew. They were not narrow, however. They were catholic (universal) in their theology, piety, and practice. They sought to reform the church according to the Scriptures, but they paid close attention to the way the early fathers read and applied Scripture, and, where those interpretations withstood scrutiny (sola Scriptura), they adopted or restored them.

Another of the more pernicious abuses of the slogan semper reformanda in recent years is its invocation by adherents of the self-described Federal Vision movement. The adjective federal in this context has nothing to do with civil politics; rather, it refers to Reformed covenant theology. The advocates of the Federal Vision adopted this name for their movement to highlight either the need to change Reformed theology or to recover an earlier version, depending upon which of them you ask. They agree, however, that every baptized person is given a temporary, conditional election, regeneration, justification, union with Christ, adoption, and so on. After baptism, it is up to the Christian to do his part to retain what was given by grace. They speak of the "objectivity of the covenant." They typically do not accept the Reformed distinction between the covenants of works and grace, between law and grace, or between law and gospel. They reject the Reformed doctrine that there are two ways of communing in the visible covenant community (the church): inwardly and outwardly. According to the Federal Vision, no one is finally regenerate, elect, or justified until the last day. They either redefine or mock the historic understanding of justification by divine favor alone (sola gratia) through faith alone (sola fide) as "easy believism." Like the modernists who would take us back to the Anabaptists on the doctrine of Scripture, advocates of the Federal Vision seek to take us back to the pre-Reformation church in the doctrine of salvation, and as they do so, they invoke the slogan ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda.

When Calvin and others in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries wrote of the church reformed and of the necessity of reforming the church, they were expressing their consciousness that, because of sin and its effects, the church tends toward corruption. Within just a few decades of recovering the gospel of free acceptance by God through faith alone, the Protestants nearly lost that precious truth in the 1550s. Reformation can be and has been achieved in this life, but it is not easy to retain it. By the time of late-seventeenth-century Geneva, the church had enjoyed the ministry of some of the most courageous ministers and professors in the Reformation: William Farel, John Calvin, Pierre Viret, Theodore Beza, and Francis Turretin, to name but a few. By the early eighteenth century, however, the Reformation was virtually extinct in Geneva, and has not yet been fully recovered.

There is much truth in the slogan the church reformed, always reforming, but it was never intended to become a license for corrupting the Reformed faith. We should understand and use it as a reminder of our proclivity to wander from that theology, piety, and practice taught in Scripture and confessed by the church. Certainly, our confessions are reformable. We Protestants are bound to God's Word as the charter and objective rule of Christian faith and practice. Should someone discover an error in our theology, piety, or practice, we are bound by our own confessions and church orders to hear an argument from God's Word. Should that argument prevail, we must change our understanding or our practice. But we should not, under cover of this late-seventeenth-century slogan, subvert what Scripture teaches for a continuing, never-ending Reformation that leads us away from the heart and soul of what we confess.Ÿ

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