Reading the Bible with the Reformers: We Ought to Read Scripture, Timothy George Says, the Way Luther and Calvin Did
George, Timothy, First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life
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 …
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Publication information: Article title: Reading the Bible with the Reformers: We Ought to Read Scripture, Timothy George Says, the Way Luther and Calvin Did. Contributors: George, Timothy - Author. Magazine title: First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life. Issue: 211 Publication date: March 2011. Page number: 27+. © 2009 Institute on Religion and Public Life. COPYRIGHT 2011 Gale Group.
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