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Reading Scripture with the Reformers

An Interview with Timothy George

by Matthew Barrett

This interview appeared in Credo magazine, available online here.

How did you personally first become interested in the Reformation and the reformers? Why are they so important in your own teaching and pastoral ministry?
I grew up in Chattanooga, Tennessee and was baptized by Dr. Lee Roberson, a wonderful independent Baptist pastor. I imbibed the best of that tradition along with a kind of raw, rural, no-holds-barred Southern Baptist fundamentalism. I am grateful for those dear saints who introduced me to Jesus Christ, taught me to love God’s Word and to take seriously the evangelistic mission of the church. However, there were some significant gaps in my spiritual upbringing including any appreciation for the Word of God across the ages. We sort of had the idea that we had received our faith from grandma, or Uncle Robert, and that they had received theirs directly from Jesus. We were not much aware of anything in between.

I first began to take the Reformation seriously through my study of history. I majored in history as an undergraduate at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga where I had some superb teachers, including Dr. William J. Wright, a student of Harold Grimm. Bill Wright and other teachers at UTC made history, and especially the era of the Reformation, come alive for me. Then at Harvard I was privileged to study with other great scholars of the Reformation including David Steinmetz, Heiko Oberman, and George Huntston Williams. They all inspired me to dig deeply into Reformation theology.

Why should Christians read the reformers today?
In a way, this is like asking why scientists should engage the work of Copernicus, Newton, or Einstein, or why philosophers should know something about Plato, Aristotle, Descartes and Kant. The simple answer is: it would be the height of irresponsibility not to do so. The Reformation is one of the epochal moments in the history of God’s people and believers today ignore it at their peril. Many of the struggles in the sixteenth century are with us still and we do well to attend to the reformers’ recovery of the Gospel in their day for it will help us to be faithful in our own.

What does the expression "Ad Fontes!" mean and why did this expression bring the Reformers into conflict with the Roman Catholic Church?
Ad Fontes is a Latin expression which means “Back to the sources!” It was not invented by the Protestant reformers but rather something they inherited from the recovery of letters and ancient learning that characterized the Renaissance. Erasmus and others applied it to the Scriptures and writings of the early church fathers and it thus came to assume a programmatic course in the reform of the church. There is both continuity and discontinuity between the Protestant reformers and the medieval Catholic Church. It cannot be said too strongly that none of the mainline reformers desired to start a brand new church from scratch. They deplored innovation as the first cousin of heresy. But they did believe that the church needed a thorough housecleaning, not only in respect to the many abuses that cried out for reform but also theologically. Luther said of the reformers who had preceded him: “They attacked the life; I the doctrine!”

Why did the reformers want to translate Scripture into the vernacular? Why was this so revolutionary?
The reformers believed that everyone should be able to hold the Scriptures in their hands and read it with their own eyes. The Bible should no longer remain the private preserve of scholars and clerics who had access to the learned language of Latin. The call for a vernacular Bible was not invented by the reformers. The Waldensians and Lollards and others had begun the process of rendering the Bible in the language of the people. But two developments made this emphasis explosive in the sixteenth century: the advent of printing, and the rise of literacy.

What were the main differences in how the medievals read the Scriptures and how the reformers read the Scriptures? 
Beginning with Thomas Aquinas and Nicholas of Lyra in the Middle Ages, there was a renewed emphasis on the literal sense of Scripture as a corrective to the excessive allegorizing and spiritualizing of the text. Reformation hermeneutics continued and accelerated this development. However, many of the spiritual readings found in the medieval paradigm were enfolded into the literal sense understood by the reformers in an enriched, expanded sense. The reformers know that both allegory and typology were biblical concepts, (Gal. 4:24; 1 Cor. 10:11 ), but they wanted to use them in a chastened and more contextually responsible way.

When we think of the Reformation the first person that comes to our mind is Martin Luther. How did Luther view the authority of God's Word and did he go to any great length to see the Scriptures translated into German? 
To ask whether there would have been a Reformation without Martin Luther is like asking whether there would have been an early church without the Apostle Paul. Luther was not only the catalyst for the Reformation in his own personal quest to find a gracious God, but he was also the pioneer and pacesetter for the reform that followed. Luther’s own spiritual breakthrough occurred as he poured over the text of Scripture, especially Paul’s letter to the Romans. He knew the transformative, life-giving capacity of biblical faith. His own translation of the Bible into German was perhaps his single greatest contribution to the Reformation. His German New Testament, completed in 1523, was the world’s first best seller. It was completed while Luther was confined to the Wartburg where he worked directly from the critical edition of Erasmus’s Greek New Testament. Working on the Old Testament was more difficult for Luther and he gathered about him a team of scholars he called his “Sanhedrin.” In 1534 the complete Luther Bible was published. Its impact on German language and culture as well as on the Protestant Reformation is incalculable.

What other significant reformers besides Luther should we be aware of and why?
I shall limit my answer to five.
(1) Philip Melanchthon. Luther’s close associate and successor as leader of the German Lutheran movement. Melanchthon was a brilliant scholar and linguist and something of a bridging figure between Luther and the Reformed tradition.
(2) Huldrych Zwingli. Together with his successor, Heinrich Bullinger, Zwingli established a beachhead for the Reformation in German-speaking Switzerland. Zwingli pioneered distinctively Reformed patterns of preaching and education. An Erasmian by training, he incorporated more fully than Luther the insights of Renaissance philosophy.
(3) Martin Bucer. A Dominican from Alsace, Bucer was converted to the Protestant cause when he heard Luther’s presentation at the Heidelberg Disputation in 1518. He soon became reformer of the church in Strasbourg. He was a prolific commentator on Scripture and had a great influence on the Swiss reformers, especially Calvin.
(4) John Calvin. The great historian Karl Holl once described Calvin as “Luther’s best disciple.” Calvin wrote commentaries on nearly every book in the Bible and they remain one of the great exegetical masterpieces of the Reformation.
(5) Menno Simons. Regrettably, we have few commentaries from the Anabaptists largely due to the fact that they were constantly on the run from persecution. Menno was the leader of Dutch-speaking Anabaptists and his writings reveal a deep love for the Bible and a desire to follow Jesus in the way of discipleship.

How did the reformers view the preaching of God's Word and how did this differ from the Roman Catholic Church?
There are three points to be made here. First, in the Middle Ages preaching was frequently done out of doors and in special seasons such as Advent and Lent, notably by the mendicant friars. The reformers brought the sermon back into the church and made it a centerpiece of worship. Second, prior to the Reformation, topical preaching was the order of the day. The reformers largely favored systematic exposition, preaching week by week through chapters and books of the Bible. Zwingli introduced this method of preaching on January 1, 1519, when he entered the pulpit of the Great Minster in Zurich and began a series of expositional sermons from Matthew 1. Calvin and others followed this tradition of lectio continua as well. Third, what the doctrine of transubstantiation was in medieval Catholicism, preaching became for the Protestant Reformation: the real presence of Christ in the midst of his people. Bullinger expressed this point in the Second Helvetic Confession of 1566: “The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.” This was a high doctrine of preaching and required a robust theology of the Holy Spirit.

What kind of impact have the reformers had on how we read, translate, and preach the Bible today?
One of the purposes of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture is to make available a treasury of exegetical wisdom from the writings of the reformers. It is not enough to study the Scriptures with simply the Bible in one hand and the most recent commentary in the other, even if it is written by an evangelical scholar! In my commentary on Galatians (The New American Commentary series) I said this about the importance of Reformation exegesis: “We cannot simply deracinate the reformers from the sixteenth century and bring them without remainder into our own. In any event, that kind of repristination would only be of antiquarian interest and would not serve the reformers’ overriding concern that the living voice of the Gospel—viva vox evangelii—be heard afresh in every generation. However, when the writings of the reformers are compared with the attenuated, transcendence-starved theologies which dominate the current scene, they yet speak with surprising vitality and spiritual depth.” That is still true today. 

For those readers who are inspired by your book and eager to read the reformers themselves, what reformers should they begin with and why?
My book, Reading Scripture with the Reformers, is an introduction to the place of the Bible in the thought of the reformers. The first volume of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture, to be released by InterVarsity Press this Fall, is Galatians/Ephesians, edited by Dr. Gerald Bray. These two Pauline letters bring together two of the most important doctrinal themes of the Reformation: justification by faith alone and union with Christ. Dr. Bray has done a wonderful job of culling and presenting select passages from the reformers on these two great New Testament letters. Early in 2012, we shall release the second volume, this one covering Ezekiel and Daniel and edited by my Beeson colleague, Dr. Carl Beckwith. The Reformation Commentary on Scripture is intended as a sequel to the great series edited by Tom Oden, the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, and I pray that it will have a similar impact on the quality of preaching and teaching in the Lord’s church today.

Timothy George is the founding dean of Beeson Divinity School and general editor of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture, a 28-volume series of sixteenth-century exegetical comment.