Short lecture at Reformation Day Event, October 29, 2019, at Living Hope Free Reformed Church in Chatham, ON.
One key issue in the Reformation was the place and importance of the Bible. The Reformers insisted that the Bible is the Word of God. Today, most Protestant and so-called “evangelical” churches follow in the footsteps of the Reformation. We believe that the Bible is the Word of God, and must therefore have a central place in our lives.
I will speak about this aspect of the Reformation. How did the Reformers view the Bible? And how does this affect us today?
The Bible as revelation
God shows himself in nature. The heavens declare the glory of God, says Psalm 19, and the firmament proclaims his works. But the question is: Is this natural revelation enough? In the late Middle Ages, the church believed that through science and philosophy, much could be concluded about God and his worship. The Reformers were less optimistic. Calvin talks about the dullness and blindness of the human mind. He says: God does miraculous things every day, but most people ascribe them to “blind evolutions of the wheel of chance”. Our natural knowledge of God is like walking outside at night during a thunderstorm. You can’t see a thing, except when the occasional flash of lightning shows the silhouettes of trees and houses. But you still get lost easily.
That is why we need God’s special revelation. He not only showed himself in nature, but explained about himself in clearer detail. He provides the glasses so that we see sharply, to guide us to salvation. This special revelation is found in the Bible, which is the reliable historical record of prophecies and apostolic teachings, and especially of the words and works of Jesus Christ.
How do we know this? How do we know that the Bible is the reliable revelation of God? Calvin argues that Scripture itself carries clear signs of its divine character; but ultimately, it is the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit that convinces us that the Bible is God’s Word. As God alone can properly bear witness to his own words, so these words will not obtain full credit in the hearts of men, until they are sealed by the inward testimony of the Spirit. (Calvin, Institutes I.7.4.)
The Bible as norm
This “high” view of the Bible as the Word of God has practical consequences. One has to do with the unique authority of the Bible. Who gets to decide what is true and what is false? In the medieval church, this authority was ultimately given to the highest bishop, the Pope. But the Reformers rejected this. Not the church institute, but only the Word of God may be the norm.
Again, Calvin formulated this clearly. In the Gallican Confession he wrote: The Bible is the rule of all truth, containing all that is necessary for the worship of God and our salvation. Any human wisdom, customs, decrees, councils, and so on may not oppose this Holy Scripture, but on the contrary, all things must be examined, regulated, and reformed according to it. (Gallican Confession, art. 5; see also Belgic Confession, art. 7.)
For the Reformers, the Bible is the absolute norm for our faith. That is not because the church had decided to give the Bible that authority, as the Roman church would argue. The church did not adopt the Bible, but the Bible shaped the church.
This was a very radical view. Today, it still challenges us, Protestant Christians, to live up to this high view of the Bible. How easy it is to adopt norms alongside the Bible. The Reformation challenged the church to critically assess its customs and beliefs, to see if they were truly in agreement with the Word of God. Are we willing to take that same challenge, ready to reform our lives, our customs, and our churches according to Scripture alone?
The Bible interpreted
Before the Reformation, only trained priests read the Bible. They did not think lay people could understand the Bible properly. They were not interested in translating the Bible. They would study the Latin text for themselves, and the people should simply obey the priests.
But the Reformers believed that every believer was competent to read the Bible for himself. The Bible does not need priests as interpreters to be understood. That is why Luther translated the Bible, insisting that it should speak in the familiar voice of a mother speaking to her children. That is why Protestants today actively promote the translation of the Bible into all languages in the world.
But this raises a question. When different people read the Bible, they may not understand it in the same way. There are many Protestant denominations that vehemently disagree about what the Bible teaches. Roman Catholics are quick to point out this glaring weakness in Protestantism; its “Achilles’ heel”, if you will. If everybody can decide on their own interpretation, the church cannot be united.
But the Reformers were no individualists. Unlike the more radical Anabaptists, Luther, Calvin, and the others wanted to build on the wisdom of generations of Christians before them. They disagreed with the Roman church leaders only on points where the church had clearly left the apostolic teaching. They criticized man-made customs and corrupted views, but respected the historical tradition of the church.
And that is why our churches are confessional churches. We have carefully crafted documents that summarize what the Bible teaches. Not as an extra authority next to the Bible. But because we recognize, in humility, that our individual interpretations may be flawed. So we gladly receive the insights of previous generations. It would be foolish to start from scratch. We don’t need to make our own flavor of Christianity.
We can be grateful that the Reformation brought us back to the pure Word of God, and put the Bible into our hands. It is a freedom to enjoy and celebrate—but in humility, and in unity with those who came before us.