Take Up and Read

Week of Monday, April 16, 2001

If an interior decorator came to my home they would find very little of monetary or aesthetic value, except, perhaps, for what hangs above our piano. Some time ago my brother-in-law, a New Testament scholar, gave us two pages from old Bibles and we had them framed. One page is Acts 24 from a 1549 Matthew's Bible, originally translated by William Tyndale; the other is Jeremiah 3 from a German Bible published by Anton Koberger in 1483.

Neither of these are worth very much, but I like them because they remind me that my Protestant tradition is very much a Bible-reading tradition in particular, and even more broadly it is a book tradition.

For sixteen centuries the Bible was, for all practical purposes, available in a language that only scholars could read (Hebrew, Greek or Latin). Its understanding and interpretation were mediated by the church. Then in 1522 Luther translated the entire New Testament from the original Greek into German in a mere three months while imprisoned in Wartburg, and in so doing is credited with reforming not only the church but the very German language too. “I endeavored,” said Luther, “to make Moses so German that no one would suspect he was a Jew.” But there's a historical footnote. There were, in fact, 14 editions of the complete Bible translated into German before Luther's famous translation, and my Koberger page comes from one of them, published in 1483—the very year Luther was born, and just 27 years after the epochal 42-line Gutenberg Bible of 1456 which is widely considered the first book printed in Europe.

The Reformers emphasized two truths about the Bible, both radical in their day. First, the Bible is clear. By this they meant two things. Written in the common vernacular of ordinary readers, anyone could now read the Scriptures with great profit. But even more important, by clarity they meant that the Holy Spirit speaks directly and immediately through the Scriptures to the individual reader. As a result, even though not everything in Scripture is equally clear, through careful reading, prayer, hard work and the like, even the local plough boy could have a sufficient understanding of everything in Scripture necessary for salvation. As a practical corollary, this also means that the Scriptures stand over and above the church, and not vice versa. In fact, it is the Scriptures which judge the church.

Second, the Reformers insisted that the Scriptures were primary. They were the divine, absolute norm of God's self revelation. All human traditions, however valuable, are human, secondary and relative. Thus Luther wrote, “what else do I contend for but to bring everyone to an understanding of the difference between the divine Scripture and human teaching or custom, so that a Christian may not take the one for the other and exchange gold for straw, silver for stubble, wood for precious stones.” Never one to miss a good PR opportunity, on December 10, 1520 Luther burned the books of canon law at the Elster Gate of Wittenberg to punctuate his point.

Taken together, these two hallmarks of the Protestant Reformation revolutionized the role of the Bible in the church. But they are not without problems, chief among which is the tendency to radical individualism. The Orthodox scholar George Florovsky called this Protestant view of Scripture the “sin of the Reformation” because it can easily lead to arbitrary, subjective and individualistic interpretations of the Gospel. Ask yourself, how many Bible studies have you sat through in which the leader asked the group, “and what do you think this passage means?” It is a short step from a personal encounter with God through Scripture, to a privatistic Scripture twisting that eschews the importance of the Church and lands one in a cult or sect.

Our English word Bible is merely a transliteration of the Greek biblion, meaning “book.” The Protestant Reformation was a Bible movement, but it was also a book movement. It was started not by priests or pastors so much as by a “cadre of intellectuals”, says Wilhelm Pauck. Their very dress symbolized this. In 1523 the Swiss Reformer Zwingli donned the gown of a secular scholar; a few years later Luther did the same. “The scholar's gown,” writes Pauck, “was the garment of the Protestant minister.” Orthodox scholars like Khomiakov and Bulgakov have not missed this point, either, charging that Protestantism is a “professorial” religion in which the scholar has taken the place of the priest.

The Reformation spawned a tradition that was very much into books. In some ways Gutenburg's printing press was the engine that drove the Reformation. The Puritan John Foxe once remarked that “God conducted the Reformation by printing, writing and reading.” Between 1517 and 1520 Luther's pamphlets sold over 300,000 copies, enlightening a newly literate reading public.

In his book The Illuminating Icon, Anthony Ugolnik contrasts the Orthodox east with western Christendom by comparing their respective conversions. The Slavs converted to Christianity in 988 because of the aesthetic appeal of the liturgy. Saint Augustine's conversion in 386, on the other hand, took place with the reading of a text. In his Confessions Augustine recounts how he heard the voice of a little child that commanded him to “take up and read” the Bible, which lay open at Romans 13:13. According to Ugolnik, Augustine's conversion provides a “primary epistemological model” for Western Christians. That is, for Western Christians books, texts and words are the fundamental means by which God communicates to us. Ever since Augustine's conversion, you might say, we Protestants have been reading our way into the kingdom.

The reformed legacy of books and texts is a good one. But it too can be abused if it turns the living Gospel into a rationalistic enterprise or academic mind game. I was amused but also saddened one day to see an advertisement by the seminary I attended that boasted, “study with the ones who write the books.” Not with the ones who know how to pray, to love, to encourage, to visit the sick, to prepare you for ministry, but with the scholars who spend time in the library writing books on computers. A quintessentially Protestant thought, in the extreme.

So two cheers for the Reformers on books and the Bible. Despite their possible abuses, I am grateful as a Protestant for their bookish traditions, represented as they are by my two Bible texts printed in their own day and age.

The Journey with Jesus: Notes to Myself Copyright ©2001 by Dan Clendenin. All Rights Reserved.