Reading Scripture with the Reformers
William Chillingworth proclaimed in 1638, “The Bible, the Bible only I say, is the religion of the Protestants” (12); this is the sense in which Timothy George’s treatment of the Reformers’ handling of Scripture is played out for the reader. This book is the introductory release from InterVarsity’s upcoming commentary series, which will edit and assemble the comments of the Reformers on specific books of the Bible.
This work is a fine example of a mildly interdisciplinary approach to the topic at hand that skillfully paints with broad-brush strokes history, theology, and application. The brief introduction serves as a justification for the reading of the Reformers, which addresses a commonly held—albeit false—thought carried on today in the thinking of many Christians, specifically that the Church Triumphant has little to teach the Church Militant. With this introduction, a brief but solid case is made for the proper bibliological approach to the universal nature of the Bible and the community called out to engage in its reading and application.
As George begins his setting of the historical circumstances, he addresses the theme of Ad Fontes, popularized in humanist circles of the Renaissance. He reveals that the impetus to the Reformation was the necessity to return to the Bible for the sole consultation for purifying the Church. A collision of events propelled the retreat back to the Bible as well as the advancement of the Scriptures as the focal point of the life of the Church. The humanist environs of the Renaissance helped drive the soon-to-be Protestant Biblicists to go back to the original languages of Holy Writ to translate from Greek and Hebrew instead of from the later generational Latin Vulgate. In the midst of this, Gutenberg invented his printing press, which proved to be an invaluable tool for the proliferation of the new vernacular translations. At the same time the early morning stars of the Reformation, John Wycliffe and Jan Huss, not only emphasized Scripture but believed it ought to be in the hands of the lay people directly, not just interpreted—or often twisted for ulterior motives—by the clergy. This mentality was not only taken up later by Martin Luther, but also the Catholic Desiderius Erasmus.
Though we cannot rightfully or historically say that Erasmus was a Reformer, clearly he played his role in the return to the centrality of the Bible, as George documents thoroughly. Not only did Erasmus incite Luther in a variety of theological debates, which served the Reformational cause in many ways, but Erasmus also served the Reformation at large with his own retreat back to the Bible through careful, scholarly translations and accompanying commentary. What we inherit from Erasmus is not only a new drive to know the Bible better, but also a desire to acquire other (pagan) scholarly material to use for the advancement of Christian knowledge. He was a true scholar who set the bar for many scholars to follow. While this is all foundationally true, still there are twenty-six pages that George devotes to a character who was himself not a Reformer in the proper sense. Overall, I believe the attention given to this persona is unduly heavy in light of the theme of the treatise.
We are brought to the crux of the debate between the interpretive modes and abuses of the Scriptures by Catholics vis-à-vis the Protestants. What this chapter helps accomplish is a sense of balance between the two sects in their dealings with Scripture. We in the Protestant camp often throw stones at Catholics for their lack of adherence to Scripture as well as their concurrent elevation of tradition above an acceptable level. While some of this criticism remains true, still we must come to acknowledge that many Catholics held Scripture in the highest esteem during this period.
Along the way we are introduced to some of the Reformers and their deep passion for the Word, but in Chapter 5, the direction takes a decided turn toward treating these individuals according to their specific reading protocols. George examines Martin Luther, Philip Melanchthon, Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, William Tyndale, John Knox, Martin Bucer, as well as some lesser-known characters such as Matthias Zell and his wife Katrina Schutz, and the Anabaptist Balthasar Hubmaier. George reveals both distinctives as well as commonalities between them.
The first and most appropriate person to focus on is Martin Luther, who serves as an indispensible link between the religious Renaissance humanist and mild Catholic reformer Erasmus and the later Protestant Reformers such as Calvin, Knox and Zwingli. In a brief discussion of his scholarly history, the reader is confronted with the understanding that Martin Luther was the appointed man of the hour of Reformation by all accounts with regard to his monastery life, trip to Rome, his “tower experience,” the debates resulting from his Ninety-Five Theses and other writings, his protection by and patronage from Frederick the Wise, as well as his specific teaching assignments. All of these integral details are the makings of a history from which we still enjoy lasting fruit. George recounts this information with vigor and inspiration.
From this point we head toward the broader and burgeoning Reformation as directly influenced by Luther. Of course, the main man indubitably is Philipp Melanchthon, who was Luther’s trusted assistant. Like Luther, Melanchthon was both a scholar and activist, but what we discover is that Melanchthon was self-educated in the field of theology. He was convinced that theological curriculum needed reinvention to reflect the freshly-rediscovered gospel-centered—introducing the term ‘evangelical’—message as well as the rhetorical and dialectical tools of the contemporary humanists in order “to persuade a truth” (176). While Martin Luther was Martin Luther; Philipp Melanchthon was the essential founder of Luther-anism. Though church history and its players have not always been consistently kind and perhaps have been unfair to the reputation of Melanchthon, George makes it a purposeful point to write a rescue mission, even claiming that Melanchthon is making a comeback and rising up in the ranks as a legitimate Reformer in his own right (175).
As we travel “Along the Rhine” in Chapter 7, our pace becomes quick as we encounter historical characters pivotal in the Reformation such as Martin Bucer, Heinrich Bullinger, the English expatriate and refugee William Tyndale, Matthias and Katrina Zell, Kasper Schwenckfeld, John Calvin (while in Strasbourg), Huldrych Zwingli, Johannes Oecolam-padius, Johann Gerhard Oncken, Baltthasar Hubmaier, and Wilhelm Reublin. George also takes advantage of his geographical tour by mentioning several other non-Reformation characters that also resided or practiced along the Rhine. Included among these are Thomas á Kempis, Thomas Aquinas, Albert the Great, Erasmus, and several key printers. I found this chapter extremely helpful in exposing several characters about whom I knew very little.
So in the final analysis, I have to say that this book was rather pedagogical; like a tutor it leads the reader beyond himself to the Reformers’ primary sources. It whets the appetite of the scholar interested in the Reformers in an enticing way. As their sixteenth century contemporaries would say, “ad fontes;” the twenty-first century contemporary reader is being drawn to these Reformational sources.
Also inspiring about this book is the move from “reading Scripture with the Reformers” to reading Scripture like a Reformer. We must accept with humility the possibility that we are sometimes impoverished readers compared to the past readers such as the Reformers, despite what advantages we have over them on a variety of fronts.
Perhaps the most powerful result of this treatment of the Reformers that struck me was their view that any distinction between an academic and devotional reading of Scripture is purely artificial. On one hand, we need to read with scholarly diligence employing all the intellectual tools at our disposal. On the other hand, we need to read the words for what they are, the words of eternal life pointing to the reality of the living Word of Life in Christ. In the end, we should bring these two hands together naturally with interlocking fingers.