The Legacy of the Reformation
There were attempts to translate the Bible into common vernaculars prior to the Reformation. Perhaps the most famous was the translation of John Wycliffe. Wycliffe predated the Reformation by 200 years, and his belief that the Bible was for everyone, not just a select few, would bear fruit in the Protestant Reformation.
Benjamin Hart has written of Wycliffe's views that:
[T]he Bible, thought Wycliffe, was a far more trustworthy authority than papal pronouncements or church tradition:The church condemned Wycliffe and his teachings. While he died of natural causes the Roman Catholic Church had his bones exhumed and burned as condemnation of Wycliffe's beliefs. Despite this Wycliffe's followers, the Lollards, would spread his teaching through much of Europe. An article on the Lollards notes that "Lollards promoted the reading of the Holy Scripture in the vernacular as the means for knowing the true Word of God." However, the Roman Catholic Church would crush the movement.
"All law, all philosophy, all logic and all ethics are in Holy Scripture," he said. The Bible is "one perfect word, proceeding from the mouth of God," and is "the basis for every Catholic opinion." Wycliffe's thinking broke sharply from medieval scholasticism, which considered church tradition as co-equal in authority with Scripture; many saw the Church as the primary authority, a view articulated by Guido Terreni, when he said that "the whole authority of Scripture depends upon the church." Wycliffe said this was wrong, and that in fact the opposite was the case: "In Holy Scripture is all truth."
But attempts to withhold the Scriptures from the average man would fail. Martin Luther would take many of the ideas of Wycliffe and John Hus and spread them throughout Christendom. He would do so not because they were the ideas of Wycliffe or Hus, but because he was convinced that these ideas were the teaching of the Holy Scriptures.
Luther, like Wycliffe, translated the Bible into the language of the people (in Luther's case, German). For those of Luther's day, this was the first time they had access to the Bible and could read it. This translation was the result of Luther's own love for the Scriptures, and his conviction that it was meant for everyone to read.
It was the Scriptures that had brought him to Christ. It was the Scriptures that revealed to him the Gospel. It was the Scriptures that showed him the true meaning of the righteousness of God. Luther loved the Bible and believed that everyone should read it. Dr. Richard P. Bucher notes that:
Martin Luther's last writing was a short message written on a slip of paper the day before he died. This note was found on a table next to his death bed. What was on the note? Words of praise for the Bible and an appeal to read it with a humble spirit (this note is recorded in Luther's Works 54:476). Fitting last words for a man whose adult life was marked by an intense love for the Scriptures of God.
Recovering the Reformation?
Let us not falsely idolize the Reformation. While there is much to commend, and we could do far worse than returning to Reformation doctrine, not everyone in that time agreed with Luther. Worse, as Luther knew, there were many who were simply apathetic to the Scriptures. It was not that they disagreed with Luther, but that they thought his devotion to the Bible extreme.
These people, like many in the modern church, did not see Bible study as something worth a significant investment of personal time. Luther laments (quoted by Dr. Bucher):
The neglect of Scripture, even by spiritual leaders, is one of the greatest evils in the world. Everything else, arts or literature, is pursued and practiced day and night, and there is no end of labor and effort; but Holy Scripture is neglected as though there were no need of it. Those who condescend to read it want to absorb everything at once. There has never been an art or a book on earth that everyone has so quickly mastered as the Holy Scriptures. But its words are not, as some think, mere literature (Lesewort); they are words of life (Lebewort), intended not for speculation and fancy but for life and action. But why complain? No one pays any attention to our lament. May Christ our Lord help us by His Spirit to love and honor His holy Word with all our hearts. Amen (LW 14:46).We are the heirs of the Reformation. Unfortunately, most of us have taken our inheritance from these over which Luther laments. We have access to the Bible in print, on audio (CD or MP3), and through electronic texts. We have multiple English translations.
And yet we are ignorant of what the Bible teaches. We know who won the football game, and who Oprah's guest was today, but we do not know who Hezekiah was. We can find Waldo, but not Haggai. We spend hours online debating the Bible, and maybe a few minutes reading the Bible.
Okay, that's not fair. I don't know you. I hope those things are not true of you. But me? Okay, I don't know who was on Oprah today, but I know how the Colts game ended and what their record is now. And its not bad that I know that. But if there is going to be a new Reformation, we are going to have to be more passionate about the Bible than we are about football. or Oprah. or even the internet.