Reading the Bible with the Reformers
We ought to read Scripture the way Luther and Calvin did
For the reformers the Bible was a treasure trove of divine wisdom to be heard, read, marked, learned, and inwardly digested, as the Book of Common Prayer’s collect for the second Sunday in Advent puts it, to the end that “we may embrace, and ever hold fast, the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou has given us in our Savior Jesus Christ.” In his commentary on Hebrews 4:12, “The Word of God is living and active, and sharper than any two-edged sword,” John Calvin declared, “Whenever the Lord accosts us by His Word, He is dealing seriously with us to affect all our inner senses. There is, therefore, no part of our soul which should not be influenced.” The study of the Bible was meant to be transformative at the most basic level of the human person, leading to communion with God. The spiritual power of the Bible emerges for Christians from the fact that the “Word of God” is not just a matter of words. Jesus Christ is the substantial Word, the eternal Logos who was made flesh— verbum incarnatum—for us and for our salvation. Thus the “Word of God” involved the spoken word; the preaching of the gospel is a sacramental event, a means of grace. As Heinrich Bullinger put it boldly in the Second Helvetic Confession (1566): “The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.”
Whether read, preached, or heard, it was the Bible that stood at the center of the age of the Reformation, a time of transition, vitality, and change. In 1522, looking back on the recent and dramatic events of the previous years, Martin Luther saw God’s Word as the agent of change. “I opposed indulgences and all papists,” he observed, “but never by force. I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And then while I slept or drank Wittenberg beer with my Philip and my Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that never a prince or emperor did such damage to it. I did nothing. The Word did it all.”
Of course, the Word “does it all” by working through the hearts of people—and through their deeds as well. Luther had recently completed a translation of the New Testament from Greek into German. Soon William Tyndale would follow suit in English, and others in French, Dutch, Swedish, Spanish, Italian, Czech, Hungarian, even Arabic, so that the written Word of God resounded from the lecture rooms, debate halls, and pulpits of all parts of Europe, initiating a period of extraordinarily creative and influential biblical interpretation that did a great deal to shape the imagination of the West. Luther did more than drink Wittenberg beer. He and countless other Reformation leaders wrote commentaries.
We do well to return to this tradition of Reformation biblical exegesis. C. S. Lewis noted: “We need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present.” For the present can become imperial, seducing us into imagining that the assumptions that reign today have always defined what it means to be reasonable, sensible, and mainstream. Against the tendency toward presentism, Lewis observed that “a man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village: The scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.”
We can suffer from a biblical presentism. It is all too common to think of biblical interpretation as answering the question “What is the Bible saying to us now?” This approach, which one finds both in liberal mainline churches and in conservative evangelical ones, owes a great deal to the liberal Protestant theology of Friedrich Schleiermacher. The father of modern hermeneutics, Schleiermacher defined religion as the feeling of absolute dependence and understood Scripture as a detailed expression of the faith that satisfies our need to feel a sense of absolute dependence. With this subjective account of the meaning of Scripture, Schleiermacher displaced the central teachings and dogmas of the Church, putting in its place a phenomenology of Christian self-consciousness. In view of this approach, it is not surprising that Schleiermacher’s entire treatment of the doctrine of the Trinity is contained in a thirteen-page appendix to his nearly 800-page textbook of systematic theology, On the Christian Faith. The important questions, for Schleiermacher, concerned the present influence of biblical preaching and its ability to create in modern men and women a “God-consciousness” that would induce feelings of absolute dependence.
By and large, the modern Protestant tradition has appealed to historical-critical exegesis as a source for objective biblical teaching that can work against the presentism implicit in Schleiermacher’s approach. Unfortunately, for all the important intellectual contributions they have made, historical-critical methods of interpretation were developed as part of a distinctively modern project. The goal, which has been often and vigorously stated since its inception in the late-eighteenth century, was to release the Bible from the shackles placed on it by the intervening two millennia of biblical interpretation. For example, in his famous 1885 Bampton Lectures, Frederic W. Farrar described the long history of Christian interpretation of the Bible as something to be overcome: “How often has the Bible thus been wronged! It has been imprisoned in the cells of alien dogma; it has been bound hand and foot in the grave clothes of human tradition; it has been entombed as a sepulcher by systems of theology, and the stone of human power has been rolled up to close its door.” It was the aim of Farrar and his colleagues to liberate the Bible from its churchly bondage.
They largely succeeded, but the effect has not been to reorient the churches around a revitalized biblical center. The historical-critical approach breaks the Bible down into discrete units to be further dissected in terms of competing hypotheses about authorship, literary form, original context, source of origin, and so forth. This makes for good academic debate, but without a narrative or doctrinal unity the Bible cannot compete with the imperial present. As a result, the history of the Church’s interpretation of the Bible has been swept away, but little has taken its place. As the historical scholars write their monographs, we’re left enclosed within our presentism, reading the Bible only from the perspective of own age and not with the Christian ages.
An imperialism of the present also thrives within a populist evangelicalism shaped by the likes of the celebrated evangelist Billy Sunday, who once boasted, “I don’t know any more about theology than a jackrabbit does about ping pong, but I’m on the way to glory.” A higher level of discourse is carried on in the Evangelical Theological Society, but even this august group of scholars only recently has amended its annually subscribed statement of faith to include, in addition to the affirmation of biblical inerrancy, a required belief in the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. If, in Paul Tillich’s terms, Protestant principle has swallowed up Catholic substance in much of contemporary evangelicalism, this is because evangelicals have paid too little attention to the sum total of the Christian heritage handed down from previous ages.
This inattention sadly includes neglect of the history of biblical interpretation, the practice of reading Scripture in the company of the whole people of God. It is ironic that the Reformation principle of sola scriptura, much misunderstood, has led to the neglect among Protestants of older biblical commentaries, even those of the reformers themselves. J. N. Darby, the founder of the Plymouth Brethren, tried to eliminate all vestiges of the Catholic tradition, including ministerial orders and the use of biblical commentaries, which he considered unhelpful intermediaries between the Scriptures and the individual soul. Although often thought of as an archconservative, his approach actually ministered to the triumph of the imperial present. F. F. Bruce, the great evangelical New Testament scholar, recalled what a wag once said about Darby: “He only wanted men ‘to submit their understanding to God,’ that is, to the Bible, that is, to his interpretation!”
Times are changing. Within the past generation the dominance of the historical-critical paradigm has been challenged from two different yet converging sources. On the one hand, there is a growing appreciation for the history of exegesis and the theological interpretation of the Bible understood as the book of the Church. On the other hand, postmodern interpretations of the human self, language, and textuality, while often couched in nonreligious terms, call into question many assumptions of critical exegesis and suggest sympathy with the themes and sensibilities of the premodern Christian tradition. Together these developments have created a new openness for a fresh engagement with the exegetical writings of the church fathers, Scholastics, and reformers.
In 1980, David C. Steinmetz published in Theology Today an essay with an edgy title, “The Superiority of Pre-Critical Exegesis.” He tackled what C. S. Lewis once called the “chronological snobbery” of scholarly methods that dismiss Reformation-era studies of the Bible, along with the interpretive tradition that preceded them, as antiquated, regressive, and all but useless. For an example of this approach, Steinmetz quotes Benjamin Jowett, Regius Professor of Greek in the University of Oxford, who in 1859 insisted: “The true use of interpretation is to get rid of interpretation, and leave us alone in company with the author.” Jowett’s desire to sweep away all of Christian history, though dressed in high-Anglican garb, sounds strikingly similar to Alexander Campbell’s advice to his disciples. The Restorationist leader encouraged his followers to “open the New Testament as if mortal man had never seen it before.”
Returning to Augustine and the early Church, Steinmetz shows how the famous theory of the fourfold sense of Scripture, an approach widely used in the Middle Ages, was a way of taking seriously the words and sayings of Scripture, including implicit meanings that extend beyond the original intentions of the human authors. According to Steinmetz, this kind of exegesis did not mean the abandonment of the literal sense of the text. Indeed, beginning with Thomas Aquinas and Nicholas of Lyra in the Middle Ages and continuing into the Reformation the literal sense became more prominent, even if more complex, as it absorbed more and more of the content of the spiritual meanings. The Bible opened up a field of possible meanings that allowed for considerable exegetical creativity but that also imposed limits on the interpreter.
Steinmetz’s insights into the integrity and fruitfulness of precritical exegesis have been developed further in recent years. One of the best recent introductions to the theological interpretation of Scripture, J. Todd Billings’ The Word of God for the People of God, affirms the value of premodern biblical exegesis, defending it against popular objections. Billings emphasizes the churchly context of reading Scripture—the Bible is the Church’s book and is meant to be a means of grace, an instrument of communion with God—and he points out that Christian interpreters throughout the centuries have been churchly readers. One finds a similar sympathy for precritical exegesis in a recently published volume of essays on sixteenth-century exegesis and interpretation: Biblical Interpretation in the Era of the Reformation, edited by Richard A. Muller and John L. Thompson.
Amid all the enthusiasm for sources of biblical wisdom from the early Church, the Middle Ages, and the Reformation era, it must be admitted that the knowledge base for the study of the Bible is quantitatively much greater today. For example, the field of archaeology (and such related disciplines as epigraphy, numismatics, and comparative philology) was just emerging in the age of the Renaissance. Textual criticism of the Bible was also in its infant stages. No one had heard of the Dead Sea Scrolls or the Rosetta Stone. The study of New Testament Greek remained uninformed by the discovery of additional manuscripts and Hellenistic papyri. It would be foolish to neglect these and many other advances that have been made in the study of the Bible over the past two centuries, and no responsible practitioner of theological exegesis advocates anything like that.
The appeal to the “superiority” of premodern biblical exegesis is best understood as a protest against the reductionism inherent in the long-standing monopoly of the historical-critical method, not as a rejection of rigorous historical study of the Bible. Surely this protest is fitting. In order to benefit from great voices of the Christian tradition, we need to recover the full tradition of Christian interpretation of the Bible. This tradition, which was reaffirmed and reinforced by the reformers, is characterized by five principles that should guide our reading and understanding of Scripture. They are principles that often stand in contrast to the assumptions underpinning modern critical approaches.
The Bible is the inspired and authoritative Word of God. Recent debates about biblical inspiration and inerrancy have obscured for some what has been the received wisdom for all orthodox Christians: Holy Scripture is a divinely bestowed, Spirit-generated gift of the triune God and should thus be received with gratitude, humility, and a sense of reverence. Christians do not worship the Bible but the God they do worship—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—has revealed himself and his plans for them and for the world through the words and message of the Bible. As the great Methodist leader John Wesley put it: “The Scriptures, therefore, of the Old and New Testament are a most solid and precious system of divine truth. Every part is worthy of God and altogether are one entire body, wherein is no defect, no excess. It is the fountain of heavenly wisdom, which they who are able to taste, prefer to all writings of men, however wise or learned or holy.” Thus the Bible cannot be read just “like any other book” (Jowett’s phrase). Its contents must be received in faith, the kind of faith that is formed by love and leads to holiness.
The Bible is rightly read in light of the rule of faith. There is a pattern of Christian truth found in the Bible. It has been recognized by the Church since the days of the apostles and designated as the regula fidei, the rule of faith. This rule is what Wesley refers to when he observes that the Scriptures make up a “precious system of divine truth.” This rule or “system” is the apostolic summary of the Bible’s own storyline: how the God of Israel created all that is, the drama of His redemptive mission in the life, death, and resurrection (and coming again) of Jesus Christ, and the account of His sending the Spirit to gather unto himself a people called by His name. Its earliest forms are found already in the hymns and creeds of the New Testament and in the first baptismal confession of faith, “Jesus is Lord!” As the early Church confronted new threats from within and from without, the rule of faith found fuller expression in what we now call the Apostles’ Creed and in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381. The reformers of the sixteenth century were guided by this rule of faith in their interpretations of the Bible. They thought of their catechisms, commentaries, and longer theological works (such as Melanchthon’s Common Places and Calvin’s Institutes) as but summaries of the basic Christian message found in the Bible and expressed in the rule of faith.
Faithful interpretation of Scripture requires a trinitarian hermeneutics. The rule of faith demands that Scripture be read as a coherent dramatic narrative, the unity of which depends on its principal actor: the God who has forever known himself and who, in the history of redemption, has revealed himself to us, as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Athanasius and the other fathers who struggled against the Arians for the Nicene doctrine of the Trinity were embroiled in serious exegetical arguments. How could the Old Testament affirmation, “God is one,” be reconciled with the New Testament confession, “Jesus is Lord”? What was the relationship of the eternal and unchanging God to the Logos who became flesh, Jesus Christ? Among many other things, the struggle for the doctrine of the Trinity was a debate over the meaning of the Bible.
At the time of the Reformation, the doctrine of the Trinity once again emerged as a major point of dispute, especially between the mainline reformers and certain evangelical rationalists among the radicals. The doctrine of the Trinity could not be surrendered because it had to do with the nature and character of the God whom Christians worship. This God, the triune God of holiness and love, was not a generic deity who could be appeased by human striving but rather the God of the Bible who had made himself known by grace alone through the sending of His Son, Jesus Christ, “for us and for our salvation.” To enter into the mind of Scripture with a trinitarian hermeneutic is to come to know this God and not another. As Todd Billings puts it, “The Bible is the instrument of the triune God to shape believers into the image of Christ, in word and deed, by the power of the Spirit, transforming a sinful and alienated people into children of a loving Father.”
The Bible is front and center in the worship of the Church. The reformers of the sixteenth century inherited a Christian tradition in which the Bible had been at the heart of the Church’s liturgy and life. For centuries manuscripts of the Bible had been painstakingly copied by Benedictine monks whose motto was ora et labora, pray and work. The monk’s engagement with Scripture did not end when the day’s work of copying was done in the scriptorium. He continued to pray, sing, and recite the Scriptures in the daily liturgy of the hours. This did not mean that the Bible was never read by an individual apart from corporate worship—think of Augustine and his encounter with Romans 13:11–14 in the garden in Milan. Yet Augustine had been prepared for that encounter with Paul’s text by first hearing the Bible prayed and proclaimed by Bishop Ambrose in regular services of worship in the cathedral.
In the sixteenth century, translations of the Bible were accompanied by the translations of the liturgy. Luther’s German Mass and Order of Service was published in 1526; Calvin’s Form of Prayers came out in 1542. As part of their protest against clerical domination of the Church, the reformers aimed at full participation in worship. Their reintroduction of the vernacular was jarring to some since it required that divine worship be offered to Almighty God in the language used by businessmen in the marketplace and by husbands and wives in the privacy of their bedchambers. The intent of the reformers was not so much to secularize worship as to sanctify common life. For them, the Bible was not merely an object for academic scrutiny in the study or the library; it was meant to be enacted as the people of God gathered for prayer and praise and proclamation.
The study of the Bible is a means of grace. The post-Enlightenment split between the study of the Bible as an academic discipline and the reading of the Bible as spiritual nurture was as foreign to the reformers as it was to theologians and Christian scholars in prior centuries. They all repudiated the idea that the Bible could be studied and understood with dispassionate objectivity, as a cold artifact from antiquity. The Cambridge scholar Thomas Bilney discovered the meaning of salvation while reading Erasmus’ new Latin translation of 1 Timothy 1:15: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” He did not remember the moment as one of scholarly insight; instead, he reported that “immediately I felt a marvelous comfort and quietness insomuch that my bruised bones leaped for joy.”
The reformers practiced what Matthew Levering has called “participatory biblical exegesis” in which the intimate “vertical” presence of the Trinity’s creative and redemptive action suffuses the “linear” or “horizontal” succession of moments. According to Levering, “To enter into the realities taught in the biblical text requires not only linear-historical tools (archeology, philology, and so forth), but also, and indeed primarily, participatory tools—doctrines and practices—by which the exegete enters fully into the biblical world.” Bilney’s experience led to his becoming an evangelist and eventually one of the first martyrs of the English Reformation.
A return to Reformation exegesis has become increasingly appealing in large part because the mentality that animated the great figures of modern historical criticism no longer holds sway. The Enlightenment project, with its dogmatic rationalism and its scientistic epistemology, can be roughly dated from the fall of the Bastille in 1789 to the fall of the Twin Towers in 2001. Its after-effects still linger, but it has been eroded from within by postmodernism. The postmodern moment privileges the visual, the ephemeral, the pleasurable, the immediate, the evanescent, the disconnected. Metanarratives with absolute or universal implications have been replaced by local stories, and principles by preferences.
Postmodern hermeneutics, left to itself, devolves into relativism, fragmentation, and subjective perspectivism, a trajectory that challenges the historic Christian understanding of language as a reliable medium of truth. Yet postmodernism unmasks the pretentions of an exaggerated individualism and the overweening confidence in reason that has shaped the historical-critical method of studying the Bible. It has also emphasized the relational character of knowledge and the role of the community (for Christians, the Church) in interpretation, as well as the situatedness (language, gender, culture, and historical particularity) of every interpreter. A reader cannot presume to possess authoritative and fail-safe methods to deliver impersonal truths. In this sense, postmodernism calls for us to recognize our limitations, our finitude.
As it turns out, many of the habits of reading suggested by postmodernism are already deeply embedded in the Christian tradition, not least in the hermeneutical legacy of the Protestant Reformation. In a bold and important study, Recovering Theological Hermeneutics, Jens Zimmermann has argued that the postmodern critique of the Enlightenment was anticipated by major themes in the biblical and theological work of the reformers. Three themes stand out.
The first concerns the interrelated and existentially involving reality of truth. The famous opening lines of Calvin’s Institutes declares that “nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.” These two kinds of knowledge are simultaneous and correlative. It is not as though one could gain a thorough knowledge of the self by earning a Ph.D., say, in psychology, and then transfer to a divinity school to pursue the knowledge of God. No, at every step of the way, and in every area of life, we are confronted by a seeming contradiction: genuine knowledge of ourselves drives us to look at God, and at the same time any real grasp of ourselves presupposes that we have already contemplated Him.
In this respect Calvin anticipates later postmodern theorists. As a pre-Cartesian thinker he did not presume that the act of knowledge involves a singular thinking subject that surveys an external world of extended stuff. Calvin knew that the human mind, left to itself, would become a “factory of idols” producing self-made gods of darkness and delusion, which is why a true interpretation of the Bible required the inward witness of the Holy Spirit. There is no independent epistemological platform on which we may stand and objectively survey our theological options. In every act of understanding, as in every moment of life, we all have “business with God” ( negotium cum Deo). As Zimmermann notes, for Calvin, “the whole purpose of reading Scripture is the restoration of our humanity to the fullness of the image of God in us as individuals and in society as a whole.” To know is to participate.
Zimmermann develops the second theme—the role of humility as a way to conviction rather than skepticism—with the observation that the young Heidegger was drawn to the young Luther’s strong critique of Aristotelian scholasticism. In his 1518 Heidelberg Disputation, Luther argued that the message of the Cross destroyed, dismantled, and reduced to nothing all abstract, speculative, and objectified knowledge of God. Heidegger thought that later Reformation traditions had failed to build on Luther’s radical insight, and he saw himself as “a kind of philosophical Luther of Western metaphysics.” Heidegger proposed a “deconstruction” of Aristotle as well as of the subsequent foundationalist construals of Descartes and Hegel on which so much modernist thinking was based. Thus, according to Zimmermann, the postmodernist critique of autonomous reason, including the notion of deconstruction itself, was foreshadowed in an important strand of early Reformation theology, one that puts an emphasis on epistemic humility as a corrective to the temptation to idolatry. Yet, unlike so much of postmodern thought, which counsels a skeptical despair of ever knowing metaphysical truths, the Reformation theology of the Cross prepares the heart to receive the gift of faith. God’s revelation in Christ delivers the human mind from its idol-making patterns of false objectivity and metaphysical presumption.
Finally, the third theme: a critique of individualism. Jacques Maritain’s famous book Three Reformers presents the story of Luther as the “advent of the self.” Luther was the supreme individualist, Maritain claimed, a rebellious monk pulling down the pillars of Mother Church by placing his own subjectivist interpretation of the Bible above that of 1500 years of ecclesial tradition. In this view, Luther and the reformers who followed him were early advocates of what Wilhelm Dilthey called “the autocracy of the believing person.”
Although this interpretation of the Reformation has long been popular, it is actually a projection of modern themes onto the Christian past. Luther’s approach was not carried out in lonely isolation from the Church. On the contrary, he undertook all his intellectual work within the Body of Christ extended throughout time as well as space. All the reformers read, translated, and interpreted the Bible as part of a centuries-old conversation between the holy page of God’s Word and the company of God’s people. While in many cases they broke with the received interpretations of the fathers and the Scholastics who came before them, theirs was nonetheless a churchly hermeneutics. What R. R. Reno has written of theological exegesis in general applies directly to the reformers: “To be a Christian is to believe that the truth found in the Bible is the very same truth we enter into by way of baptism, the same truth we confess in our creeds, the same truth we receive in the bread and wine of the Eucharist.” Our knowledge of God’s truth is not just participatory and based on a receptive epistemic humility, it is also corporate.
By emphasizing the correlative and communitarian character of knowledge, and by following a Cross-centered hermeneutic, the reformers of the sixteenth century anticipated major themes of postmodern theories of interpretation. Yet, at the same time, Reformation exegesis resisted the disintegrating impulse of deconstruction. Reformers read Scripture as a coherent story, a non-totalizing but still all-encompassing metanarrative in the light of which everything else has to be understood. In the words of Richard Bauckham, the biblical story is about nothing less than the whole of reality, and thus it cannot be “reduced to an unpretentious local language game in the pluralism of postmodernity.” Here the reformers were one with the great sweep of Christian interpreters through the ages, affirming of God that, as Francis Schaeffer put it, “He is there and He is not silent.”
The French word réssourcement is often associated with the renewal of theology within the Roman Catholic Church that led up to the reforms of Vatican Council II. This movement involved a fresh engagement with the biblical and patristic sources of the Christian tradition. It’s a return to the riches of our sacred history that should be familiar to the Christian historian, for it recalls a major watchword of the Renaissance and Reformation: recursus ad fontes,“Back to the sources.”
When it comes to biblical interpretation, we seem indeed to be in a season of réssourcement. Several new commentary series and specialized studies devoted to the history of biblical interpretation have recently appeared. The well-received Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, overseen by Thomas Oden, has made the exegesis of the church fathers available to a wide audience. Robert Louis Wilken is the general editor of another important multivolume series, The Church’s Bible, which provides extensive selections from ancient biblical commentaries. Early Christian thinkers knew, writes Wilken, “something that has largely been forgotten by biblical scholars, and their commentaries are an untapped resource for understanding the Bible as a book about Christ.” Another commentary series, the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, for which R. R. Reno serves as general editor, recognizes the important task of “reading alongside” the church fathers, Scholastics, reformers, and other theologians of ages past. Still another series guided by the conviction that a return to the sources will revitalize our current understanding of Scripture is Reformation Texts with Translation (1350–1650), for whom the general editor is Kenneth Hagen.
I myself am proud to serve as general editor for a new commentary series animated by the same spirit of réssourcement, the Reformation Commentary on Scripture (RCS), published by InterVarsity Press. The volumes will cover the entire Bible, gathering passages of commentary from the writings of sixteenth-century preachers, scholars, and reformers. I hope that our renewed engagement with the riches of Reformation exegesis will inspire us to enter more fully into the spirit and practice of that extraordinarily rich and influential epoch of biblical knowledge and piety. May we make the interpretive virtues of the reformers—virtues shared by the great Christian exegetes down the ages—our own.
This article originally appeared in First Things, March 2011.
Timothy George is dean of Beeson Divinity School and a member of the editorial and advisory council of First Things. This article is adapted from his book, Reading Scripture with the Reformers, forthcoming from InterVarsity Press.