February 13, 2012
Many things in life can shape and mould us into the people we are today. We live and breathe the culture of the day, are entertained by it and enjoy what it has to offer. We strive to keep up with it, to be a part of, to conform to it or resist it’s change. But amid it’s many influences, are we not also impacted by our history, our heritage and experiences? Don’t we so often look back to recall our past to the things we have achieved and reflect on where we have come from?
In Timothy George’s new book Reading Scripture with the Reformers, we are encouraged to look back to the life and times of those living in the historical period known as the Reformation and how they hugely impacted their generation. A period that under God, was to transform the lands of Europe from spiritual death to new life.
In eight informative, intriguing and inspiring chapters we are given a broad and engaging account of the lives of the reformers who, many for the first time, embraced the Word of God and sought to live it out. In a generation fraught with much opposition and adversary we are taken on a journey through the renowned characters of Calvin, Luther and Zwingli and how under God, their work not only rocked the academic world of the day, but transformed the lives of many ‘simple folk’ and ‘idiots’ living in the 15th century.
In this review I hope to use it not so much as a critic of the book, but to introduce some of the main themes that it covers.
The Word of God
One significant achievement recounted in the book in the reformer’s time, was that through the pioneering technology of the printing press, the Bible would for the first time become readily available to the masses. The book comically describes a meeting between puritan believers as they received their own copy of the Bible, as witnessed by a Catholic missionary called Weston. He recounts:
‘Each of them had his own Bible, and seduously turned the pages and looked up the texts cited by the preachers, discussing passages among themselves to see whether they had quoted them to the point, and accurately, and in harmony with their tenets. Also they would start arguing among themselves about the meaning of passages from the Scriptures-men, women, boys, girls, rustics, laborers and idiots – and more often than not, it ended in violence and fisticuffs…. Here, over a thousand of them sometimes assembled, their horses and pack animals burdened with a multitude of Bibles.’ (pg. 103)
Obviously not the most conventional way to respond to a sermon, as it turned into a scene more like that from the film Fight Club! Nevertheless, It showed a real passion and desire to understand God’s Word as they could for the first time begin to experience it for themselves.
One of the impacts of this new discovery of the Scriptures meant the religiosity of the day was steadily losing it’s grip. This was becoming apparent across the continent of Europe. The book tells us the story of how in Switzerland a goatherd from Valais called Thomas Platter, arrived in the city of Zurich fluent in Latin, Hebrew and Greek which he had taught himself. He soon found a job as custodian for the cathedral choir and one morning before Zwingli was due to preach, in carrying out one of his duties to light the fire, Platter decided to burn a statue for coal. He later recalled:
‘As the bells rang for the service , I thought: “You have no wood, yet there are so many idols in this church.” So I went to the nearest altar, seized a statue of St. John, and put it in a stove. “Johnny” I said to him, “Bend yourself, because you have to go into the stove even though you may be St. John.” (pg. 47)
This was a prime example of one of the many ways how the common people, as they became more familiar with Scripture, realised that some aspects of the church was not as it should have been. Platter would later become a printer who would print the first edition of John Calvin’s Institute of the Christian Religion.
The Printing Press
It was from men like Platter and the printing press that would become the driving force for so much that happened in the Reformation. Not only for publishing Scripture itself, but the printing revolution meant more of the reformers writings, lectures, sermons and commentaries would now become widely available. By 1540, we are told of how 250 printing presses were functioning across Europe, producing some 27,000 titles. Erasmus, not known for his humility notes how his sermons would be heard by a few in the pulpit whilst his books were read in every country of the world! Luther, on the other hand, when asked if his work could be published replied:
“I’ll never consent to this proposal of yours. I’d rather that all my books would disappear and the Holy Scriptures alone would be read. Otherwise, we’ll rely on such writings and let the Bible go.” (pg. 167)
The Bible was one of Luther’s great passions and during this time he was to translate the New Testament into German. In September 1522 it was ready to be published and the Wittenburg printers had the task of copying it. We are told they worked throughout the night to get the quota of three thousand copies ready for the deadline, which was soon to sell out rapidly. By the end of Luther’s lifetime, it was estimated that one hundred thousand of his German New Testament’s has been printed at Wittenburg alone.
The Nose of Wax
The work of Luther and others was causing a stir in many circles and did not come without opposition. The debates between Catholics and Protestants would soon heat up. So much so, the accusation of turning Scriptures into ‘a nose of wax’ was used by both sides. William Tyndale charged Thomas More and all the “papists” with the term as they “wrest (Scripture) this way and that way, til it agree.” (pg. 107). Roger Hutchison expanded the image with a sports metaphor asserting that the Catholics “make the Scriptures a nose of wax, and a tennis ball” (pg. 108).
This was a relatively low form of expressing their differences and somewhat comical compared to the stake-burnings and martyrdom’s that would follow on a few decades later. That is something the book doesn’t really cover, as it main focus is on how the reformers work had an impact on the Christian world of the day and how subsequently how it has influenced us today. For a more detailed look at those events they can be found in books such as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs by John Foxe, Five English Reformers by J.C.Ryle and The Unquenchable Flame by Michael Reeves to name a few.
On the whole, I found the book a very interesting read and one more accessible than other historical accounts I have read of church history. In a time when the voices of the past can largely be overlooked for the perceived wisdom of the day, it was a very refreshing and reminded me to look back in thankfulness to the godly men and women on whose shoulders we stand. Through their work we have now been blessed to now have the Bible in our own language which is so readily available. It was only through men such as Luther and Tyndale who worked so tirelessly under God to make this possible. Nowadays, we need only to turn on our phone or computer to have the Bible instantly at our finger tips or have it read to us on our mp3 players. The same goes for Christian literature that can now be downloaded next to nothing on some of the e-reading devices.
So if you like reading history then this is definitely a book for you, but I’m sure it would do many of us no harm to look back to the saints of old. Not in idolatry, but in celebration as we remember what God has done through his servants of that generation and how the Word of God did it’s work. May we serve Him as faithfully as they did!
To get a copy of the book, for those with the Kindle e-reading capability you can download the book from here:
Alternatively, for those who like the more conventional way of reading, there is one copy in the Hub book swap bookshelf.
Written by Stephen Kinnaird