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If there is one thing that could be said to be true across many divides is a timeless desire for renewal to something foundational within a people, group or ideology. Renewal to basic foundations and principles often times creates revival among the participants and results in the spread of the message. This is true for Christianity. Often times the thread of renewal that runs throughout Christian revival (not just evangelistic revival) is a return to sacred Scripture.
This renewed focus on Scripture is the subject of Timothy George’s new book Reading Scripture with the Reformers. In conjunction with IVP Timothy George has edited the Reformation Commentary on Scripture series which seeks provide the reader with a vast wealth of rich commentary on Scripture from the Reformation era. Reading Scripture with the Reformers provides the historical context in which these commentary selections are taken from as the Reformers exposited Scripture anew for their time and the future life of the Church.
Spurring of Renewal
Like with any revival, there are always ingredients to a renewed focus on Scripture and the Reformation is no exception. While the invention of the printing press and the return to the original languages of Scripture and the classics provided a fertile ground for Scriptural renewal, George highlights three areas of recurring tension that, in coming to head, became the tipping point for the Reformation. First, there was the relationship between Scripture and tradition. This is one of the most well know issues when discussing the Reformers’ contentions with the ruling Catholic Church of the time. Second, there was the desire on the part of many Reformation church leaders to make the Scriptures available in the language of the common person. It was the desire of these men that even the most unlearned of people could read the Bible on their own. Finally, there was the issue of how the Bible was used in the life and worship of the Church. “For the Bible was meant to be not only read, studied, translated, memorized, and meditated on. It was also to be embodied in preaching, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, singing, praying, and service in the world” (p. 14).
Foundations of Renewal
If there were ever a discipline Evangelicals need to be renewed, it is the intentional habit of reading the works of those who have gone before us. We need to, as George strongly suggests, reject the idea of “the imperialism of the present”— the notion that what we learn and know in the present is superior to what was learned and known in the past; that we have nothing to learn from the past and that historical and theological ignorance is bliss. This mindset stems from a narrow view of sola scriptura. Indeed, it is one thing to say Scripture is our only final authority, but quite another thing to say it is the only authority the Church has in regards to Scripture.
With this in mind, George lays out five principles that guide our reading and understanding of Scripture which were also guides for the Reformers: (1) the Bible is the inspired and authoritative Word of God, (2) the Bible is rightly read in light of the rule of faith, (3) faithful interpretation of Scripture requires a trinitarian hermeneutic, (4) the Bible is front and center in the worship of the Church and (5) the study of the Bible is a means of grace (p. 31-36). What the reader will see throughout the book is how these five guidelines for reading and interpreting Scripture worked themselves out in the Reformation understanding of Scripture. And furthermore, when we step back and observe the big picture of the Church and biblical interpretation, we will see that:
The reformers read, translated and interpreted the Bible as part of an extended centuries-old conversation between the holy pages 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 hermeneutic. (p. 40)
A History of Renewal
What follows throughout the book is an in-depth tour of the movers and movements that shaped the Reformation, as the reformers sought to bring Scripture once again to the center of the Church’s attention amidst a multitude of competing voices that had become a clanging symbol of distraction and a distortion to its truth.
As one wades through all the names and dates mentioned in the book (and there are a lot) it becomes clear that there was a true spiritual renewal of the primacy of the voice of Scripture in the life, worship and interpretation of the Church.
Though each chapter is dedicated to seeing the development of scriptural renewal in the Reformation, there are several common threads that emerge. First, there is the two-sided coin analogy when it comes to the people of the Reformation. One the one hand there were many laypeople (some who were largely uneducated) who had a notable impact on the Reformation. They realized the dire need to educate Christians on Scripture and sought to help make the Bible and various support materials available in their language. And men were not the only ones behind this lay-led arm of the Reformation. Women like Argula von Grumbach were vocal supporters of Luther and other reformers (p. 48-49).
Second, on the other hand, the Reformation might not have happened if it were not for the highly trained and educated men of the time. Theological education was needed to challenge the tangled Catholic theology the Reformation sought to refute. Linguistic education was needed to exegete the Scriptures in the original languages and to translate them into the vernacular languages of the various uneducated Christians.
Third, there was the always present struggle between the role of Scripture and tradition. This was one of the defining features that birthed the Reformation. The reformers were not looking to toss tradition but rather give Scripture its proper voice over tradition. In chapter four, “Whose Bible? Which Tradition?”, George provides a helpful summary of the Reformation understanding of these competing authorities as expressed at the Diet of Speyer in 1529 (p. 118-24).
Fourth, perhaps the most fascinating chapter of the whole book is the seventh, “Along the Rhine,” which locates the people, places and events of the Reformation along the Rhine River. It was amazing to see how geographical location played a role in certain events and how a river can be used to tell the history of one of the greatest movements in Christianity.
Finally, any discussion of the Reformation would not be complete without mentioning Martin Luther. Though there are two chapters dedicated to Luther, his influence is mentioned and felt throughout the entire book. It might not be a stretch to say that a history of the Reformation and a history of Luther are one and the same in many respects. Luther’s Reformation influence is so deep that George begins chapter six, “Lutheran Ways,” by asking the question, “Would the reformation have happened without Luther?” (p. 171). While George does not come out and say “No;” I feel that “No” is the tacit answer—and probably rightly so.
Reading Scripture with the Reformers is a tour de force through the Reformation’s renewal of scriptural primacy within the Church. The reader is brought to the two-sided reality that today’s Church owes much to the Reformers, for we stand on their shoulders. And, that we need to continue to listen to the voice of the Reformation as it echoes down the halls of church history. The dangers within the Church that it sought to correct are always lurking at her doors today. It is the sinfulness of man that will always desire the tradition of men over the faith once delivered to the saints as revealed in Scripture. This return to Scripture was not an end in itself, as if to create a church characterized by bibliolatry. Rather, as George concludes, the desired result of the Reformation and the Church today, is “to point men and women both to the written Word in Scripture and to the living Word Jesus Christ” (p. 258).
About the Author
Timothy George (PhD, Harvard University) is the founding dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University. An executive editor of Christianity Today, Dr. George has written more than twenty books and regularly contributes to scholarly journals.
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