The Word of God Made Possible: What the Reformation Teaches Us About Reading the Bible

kiwihug-L4gw27XZN1I-unsplashFrom the time of Moses until now, God’s people have always been a people of the Book. At times, such Word-centeredness has been lost, as in the Late Medieval period or the Modernist era, but in its healthiest moments the church has prioritized God’s Word and has been blessed as a result.

Today, as we celebrate the Word made flesh at Christmas, and as we make plans for reading the Word in the New Year, it is good to remember why and how we read should Scripture. And so, taking a few notes from our Protestant forebears, we can see how their commitment to God’s Word brought revival to the hearts of those who read Scripture and reformation to the churches who committed themselves to applying God’s Word to every aspect of life.

In what follows, I offer nine quotations from five Protestant Reformers: Martin Luther, Phillip Melanchton, John Calvin, Thomas Cranmer, and Heinrich Bullinger. These quotations come from Mark Thompson’s illuminating chapter on the Reformers view of Scripture in Reformation Theology (RT). May the wise counsel of Luther, Calvin, and others be an encouragement to you, as you pick up the Word of God and read.

Martin Luther (1483–1546) on the Christ-Centeredness Unity of the Bible

While the Protestant Reformation included more men and women than Martin Luther, God used this faithful firebrand to light a spark in the church. And in the years that followed his 95 Theses, he made many appeals to the authority of Scripture, as well as its Christ-centered unity. Speaking of the way that the Old Testament pointed to Christ, he likens the Prophets to wrapping Christ in swaddling clothes,

Now the gospels and epistles of the apostles were written for this very purpose. They want themselves to be our guides, to direct us to the writings of the prophets and of Moses in the Old Testament so that we might there read and see for ourselves how Christ is wrapped in swaddling cloths and laid in the manger, that is, how he is comprehended in the writings of the prophets. It is there that people like us should read and study, drill ourselves, and see what Christ is, for what purpose he has been given, how he was promised, and how all Scripture tends toward him. For he himself says in John 5, “If you believed Moses, you would also believe me, for he wrote of me.” Again, “search and look up the Scriptures, for It is they that bear witness to me. (LW 35:122)

What great counsel: In the the Old Testament, “people like us should read and study, drill ourselves, and see what Christ is, for what purpose he has been given, how he was promised, and how all Scripture tends toward him.” Indeed, this blog exists to do that very thing—to see and savor Christ from all Scripture. And for all of us, we can, by the Spirit’s help, look for Christ in all the Bible.

Phillip Melanchton (1497–1560) on the Blessedness of the Book

While Karl Barth attempted to rehabilitate Protestant Theology by rejecting his teacher’s liberal theology, his theological project (neo-orthodoxy) ultimately divided God’s Word from the words of Scripture. He said that the words of Scripture bore witness to the Word of God, Jesus Christ, but were not in fact the Word of God.

In great contrast, Phillip Melanchton, who preceded Barth by four centuries, identified the Word of God with the Book of God. And for my part and the part of the Reformers, Melanchton’s description of God’s Word is far superior. Describing the blessing of having God’s Book, he states,

Thus we should understand that it is a great blessing of God that He has given to His church a certain Book, and He preserves it for us and gathers His church around it. Finally, the church is the people who embrace this Book, hear, learn, and retain as their own its teachings in their worship life and in the governing of their morals. Therefore where this Book is rejected, the church of God is not present, as is the case among the Mohammedans; or where its teachings have been suppressed or false interpretations set forth, as has happened among heretics. Therefore we must read and meditate upon this Book so that its teachings may be retained, as we are often commanded regarding the study of it, e.g., 1 Tim. 4:13, “Devote yourself to reading”; Col. 3:16, “Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly.” The Holy Spirit testifies that it is His will that the doctrine and the divine testimonies be put in writing, e.g., Ps. 102:18, “This shall be written for the generations to come, and the people who shall be created shall praise the Lord.” (Loci Communes; cited in RT, 163)

Amen. We should be a people of the Book, because only by the Book can we know God, his gospel, his Christ, and our faith.

John Calvin (1509–64) on the Necessity and Accommodation of Scripture

After Geneva rescinded their three-year banishment on John Calvin, he returned to his pulpit and began preaching where he had left off—such was his commitment to expositing the Scriptures verse-by-verse. In his lifetime of ministry, he preached almost everyday, and to this day his commentaries and his two-volume systematic theology (The Institutes of the Christian Religion) continue to help generations of Christians understand God’s Word.

In his Institutes, he explains the way all people has a sense of the divine, which he describes in another sense as a seed of religion (1.4.1). Such a general knowledge of God (see Rom. 1:18–23), however, was always insufficient for knowing God in a personal or saving way. Hence, he spoke of the necessity of Scripture. He writes,

Just as old or bleary-eyed men and those with weak vision, if you thrust before them a most beautiful volume, even if they recognize it to be some sort of writing, yet can scarcely construe two words, but with the aid of spectacles will begin to read distinctly; so Scripture, gathering up the otherwise confused knowledge of God in our minds, having dispersed our dullness, clearly shows us the true God. This, therefore, is a special gift, where God, to instruct the church, not merely uses mute teachers but also opens his own most hallowed lips. (Institutes, 1.6.1)

Later, in the same section on Scripture’s role, he declares that God who is infinite in knowledge accommodates his speech to our understanding. And in a passage that has become famous for its gentle imagery, he writes,

For who even of slight intelligence does not understand that, as nurses commonly do with infants, God is wont in a measure to “lisp” in speaking to us? Thus such forms of speaking do not so much express clearly what God is like as accommodate the knowledge of him to our slight capacity. To do this he must descend far beneath his loftiness. (Institutes, 1.13.1)

Wonderfully, God makes himself to known to us in a way that can be understood, but only as we give ourselves to his Word.

Thomas Cranmer (1489–1556) on How to Read the Bible

As the Reformation spread throughout the continent of Europe, it also took hold of England. And there, Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, left a biblical legacy in his Thirty-Nine Articles, his Book of Common Prayer, and his other statements on Scripture. Here are two statements from his sermons that speak to the practice of reading Scripture.

First, Cranmer comforts and instructs Christians who may fear reading the Bible. And why would they fear reading God’s Word? Remember, the early Protestants did not have Bibles and were raised to believe that only the priests could understand God’s Word. Hence, a sense of foreboding hung over reading the Bible, and Cranmer seeks to allay fear by encouraging Christians to read the Word of God with prayer, humility, and earnestness.

And if you be afraid to fall into error by reading of Holy Scripture, I shall show you how you may read it without danger of error. Read it humbly with a meek and a lowly heart, to think you may glorify God, and not yourself, with the knowledge of it; and read it not without daily praying to God, that he would direct your reading to good effect; and take upon you to expound it no further then you can plainly understand it. . . .  Presumption and arrogance [are] the mother of all error: and humility needs to fear no error. For humility will only search to know the truth; it will search and will confer one place with another: and where it cannot find the sense, it will pray, it will inquire of others[s] that know, and will not presumptuously and rashly define anything which it knows not. Therefore, the humble man may search any truth boldly in the Scripture without any danger of error. . . . (Certain Sermons, RT, 184)

Second, Cranmer encourages ongoing reading, praying, and seeking the Lord. Acknowledging that Scripture is filled with various levels of clarity, he encourages Christians to read the Word often, to pray, to seek the help of others, and to rest in the One who makes his Word known.

If we read once, twice or thrice, and understand not, let us not cease so, but still continue reading, praying, asking of other[s] and so by still knocking, at the last the door shall be opened, as Saint Augustine says. Although many things in the Scripture be spoken in obscure mysteries, yet there is no thing spoken under dark mysteries in one place, but the selfsame thing in other places is spoken more familiarly and plainly to the capacity both of learned and unlearned. And those things in the Scripture that be plain to understand and necessary for salvation, every man’s duty is to learn them, to print them in memory, and effectually to exercise them; and as for the obscure mysteries, to be contented to be ignorant in them until time as it shall please God to open those things unto him. (Certain Sermons, RT, 184)

Heinrich Bullinger (1504–75) on the Self-Attestation and Application of God’s Word

Following the expositional ministry of Ulrich Zwingli, Heinrich Bullinger continued to champion the Word in Zurich, Switzerland. Training a school of pastors, he delivered a series of theological sermons known as the Decades. And in those sermons, he began by considering the Word of God, which he compared to the characteristics of God, declaring that God’s Word is “true, just, without deceit and guile, without error of evil affection, holy, pure, good, immortal, and everlasting” (RT, 169)

This high view God’s Word was accompanied by his conviction that God’s Word bore fruit by testifying to itself. Here are his words.

“The books of the Old and New Testaments are indisputably called by the ancients canonical and authentic, as someone says autopistoi, making faith for themselves, even without arguments, having the supposition of truth and authority.” (RT, 175)

Interestingly, while Calvin is renowned for his declaration that Scripture is “self-attesting” (Institutes, 1.7.5), Mark Thompson reports that Bullinger was the first Protestant to us this language (RT, 172). Clearly, this formula of Scripture’s self-attestation is a significant contribution to our doctrine of Scripture, and one that supports the glad tidings that Scripture produces godliness in God’s people. As Bullinger says in another place,

“If therefore that the word of God do sound in our ears, and therewithal the Spirit of God do shew forth his power in our hearts, and that we in faith do truly receive the word of God, then hath the word of God a mighty force and a wonderful effect in us. For it driveth away the misty darkness of errors, it openeth our eyes, it converteth and enlighteneth our minds, and instructeth us most full and absolutely IN truth and godliness.” (RT, 172)

Indeed, this is why we read the Bible. In God’s Word, we find light and life, salvation and sanctification, hope and help—both in this age and in the age to come. Truly, as the Protestant Reformers bear witness, God’s Word is necessary and sufficient for life and godliness. In the Bible, we find God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And by the grace of his Spirit, as we give ourselves to his Book, we are conformed into the image of his Son, the Word made flesh.

At this time of year, as we anticipate the calendar rolling over, we would do well to renew our commitment to God’s Word and to feed on its bounty in the new year. If you don’t have a reading plan picked out for 2022, there’s still plenty of time. And if you are looking for a plan that focuses on Scripture saturation more than daily checklists, stay tuned to this blog. I will update my Bible reading plan in the days between Christmas and the New Year.

Until then, delight yourself in the Word made flesh and the Bible which wraps our Lord like swaddling clothes.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

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