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  • Bruce Gordon

Reading the Bible with Authority

Bruce Gordon on the problem of who says?

Perhaps the most well-known aspect of the Reformation was how it made the Bible available in the languages of lay people, an achievement iconically represented by Luther’s full translation that appeared in 1534. In 1950, the Yale historian Roland Bainton effused in his famous biography of Luther, Here I Stand:

The German Bible is Luther’s noblest achievement, unfortunately untranslatable because every nation has its own direct version. For Germans, Luther’s rendering was incomparable. He leaped beyond the tradition of a thousand years. There had been translations before him of the scriptures into German … but none had the majesty of diction, the sweep of vocabulary, the native earthiness, and the religious profundity of Luther.

Indeed, there were numerous translations of the Bible into the languages of Europe in the late Middle Ages, but few had enjoyed the advantages brought by the printing press, which allowed the works of Reformation scholars to spread with dizzying speed. Yet that very relationship of the Bible to the origins of the Reformation, as well as the way in which the sacred text was interpreted by subsequent generations, requires us to think more carefully about the nature of Protestantism and its relationship to the holy book.

As a relatively obscure professor of Bible at the new university of Wittenberg, Martin Luther experienced a theological transformation during the 1510s during his extended period of study and lecturing on the Bible, principally on the Pauline epistles and the Psalms. Famously, he came to the conviction that the scriptures alone, not the teachings or traditions of the church, are authoritative. As he tells the story in his autobiography, written shortly before his death in 1546, Luther came to repudiate the scholastic theology of medieval doctors and insisted to his Catholic opponents that he would recant any error if he could be proved wrong on the basis of the scripture. The story is dramatic and proved a highly effective piece of propaganda for the reformers in their veneration of the German doctor. The development of the relationship between the reformers and the Bible, however, was more problematic, more nuanced, than the straightforward heroics recounted in the flood of pamphlet literature. Protestant biblical culture did not arise solely from Luther’s sudden conversion, profound as it was. Rather, the emergence of the Reformation Bible and its interpretation is the story of a lofty ideal that owed much to its medieval inheritance and required of the reformers repeated defense and refinement of argument. If the Bible alone is authoritative, then how can we have any sense of the correct interpretation from among the myriad of private readings? Sola scriptura was the watchword of Luther and Protestantism, but where did such a doctrine leave human authority, and what might it look like in an institutional church? Such questions, or objections, coursed through the early decades of the Reformation, forcing Protestantism onto its back heels.

The Protestant reformers largely accepted Thomas Aquinas’s definition of the Bible as written by God and therefore inerrant. Error, they agreed, arose from the hands of human authors, as could be explained by an account of the relationship between two levels of authorship. Language still signified, but in a rather different way. The humanists of the Renaissance had studied the human mind and made connections between words that could signify a range of possible meanings. To cut a long story short, in the work of Philipp Melanchthon (1497-1560), Luther’s colleague and friend, the “literal” sense of a scriptural text referred to its meaning within specific discursive contexts, such as a particular book of the Bible or the Bible as a whole. Only when the literal meaning produces a result that is absurd, such as when Jesus said he was a vine or a door, should one have recourse to the figurative.

Rather than reject the symbolic language of medieval interpreters of the Bible, Protestants continued the fourteenth- and fifteenth-century tendency to collapse the distinction between the spiritual and the literal. Increasingly, the literal meaning of the text embraced the mystical, and thus the distinction inherent in the medieval fourfold division (literal, moral, allegorical and anagogical) was no longer required. The framework of biblical truth was its narrative structure: history could be read spiritually.

So what was achieved by this approach? To begin with, it enabled the Protestant reformers to take the textual methods learned from Erasmus and other humanists and apply them to the content of religious doctrine. As God’s specific attributes could be known, the reformers could go beyond Erasmus’s teaching on virtuous living to admonitions to believe and obey the Gospel as the full revelation of the divine. Protestants held that they had developed a method of speaking that followed the language of the Bible but identified the common ideas found in interpreters (which they named “loci communes”) while recognizing the distinctive voices of God in different parts of the Bible – the accommodation of God in the literary and historical genres of the Bible. Protestants could look at the literary and doctrinal content of the Bible at the same time. The whole meaning of a biblical book or of the Bible itself was known as the “scopus,” which was Christ. John Calvin spoke of his Institutes of the Christian Religion as the “sum of religion”; that work was to help readers discover what they should seek in scripture. The Institutes described the scopus of scripture in terms relevant to faith, the famous fourfold pattern – knowledge of God the Creator, knowledge of God the Redeemer, the ways in which Christ’s benefits are received, the way in which God holds the faithful in fellowship.

This brings us to the core of the classic Protestant position on the Bible. That subjective experience of faith confirmed the message of scripture was a position shared by all the major reformers, despite their significant differences on other issues. The Bible’s message is apparent to those who believe, for God’s word is without contradiction. The key word was perspicuity. The circularity of this argument was not one that bothered the reformers. Rhetoric demonstrated that there was an objective form of the argument of the Bible that could be discerned through the proper study of doctrine. The grand meaning of the narrative is salvation and the work of interpreting the Bible became the extracting of articles of faith from the text. Within this understanding, and Calvin is a good example, there was considerable interest in the human author and the historical contexts of the book. This was the “School of the Holy Spirit” about which Calvin wrote in 1539. It was a conversation initiated by God that took place simultaneously among the patriarchs, prophets, apostles, the faithful departed of the Church, and those still alive. It was a linking of past and present through the Spirit that emboldened the Protestant interpreters.

Nevertheless, as the Protestants came to express their position on the clarity of scripture with greater force, arguing that the Word of God interprets itself, they faced an immediate problem of authority. With the rise of Anabaptism and the Peasants’ War it seemed that the priesthood of all believers, the belief that all are called to an immediate encounter with Christ through scripture, might prove wholly unworkable. The consequence, seen in Wittenberg and Zurich, was the shift towards a professional clergy in whose hands the interpretation of scripture would be entrusted. The Protestant ideal of the educated clergy was created in part to defend the movement against one of its most treasured ideals.

The textual moves made by sixteenth-century reformers are incomprehensible without an understanding of the ways in which late-medieval scholastic and humanist thought understood how truth could reside in language. This attitude was further inflected by the considerable influence of Jewish textual and linguistic learning. Protestants looked back to Erasmus’s 1516 Greek New Testament as providing a new foundation for theology, replacing the insufficient tools of the late Middle Ages. They were not, however, blind to the dangers engendered by rhetorical interpretation of the Bible and liberties granted to readers.

Protestants inherited and accepted the symbolic nature of the world, of history, and of the divine text. They sought to wed the traditional language of Augustine on signification with how they read Jerome on the importance of authorial context and the literal or historical meaning. To achieve a standard for interpretation removed from the ecclesiastical institutions they had rejected, their principal move was to emphasize authorial intention. The literal meaning of the Bible came to signal God’s intention, which was the true import of the Word. The symbolic or figurative interpretation of scripture had to be in line with the literal, which was the most authentic. The symbolic in scripture is not random, but fixed by divine authorship and discernible by scholarship carried out under the guidance of the Spirit. Calvin disliked the term allegorical because he associated it with speculative reading, and nothing was more injurious to divine authorship than human speculation. Biblical language, Protestants argued, could and does sustain both historical and spiritual truths, and the discerning eye identifies both. This is achieved by retaining a proper understanding of divine and human authorship. God is the formal/final author while the human is the efficient, and both must be treated with integrity.

To stay with Calvin, in his preface to the prophet Micah he argues that the reader cannot hope to understand what the biblical book is about without knowledge of the historical and cultural circumstances of the Israelites and of Micah’s particular personality and qualities as a writer. At the same time, the message of the prophet comes from God and reveals truths as relevant in sixteenth-century Geneva as in ancient Israel. The historical carries the spiritual, but they serve different purposes and must be distinguished, and herein resides a significant development fraught with consequences beyond Calvin’s reckoning. In the biblical analysis of the Protestants, particularly the Reformed, lies the prospect of separating history from the divine and the creation of space for human endeavor. That idea cannot be pushed very far in the sixteenth century, but it does take shape once the erosion of confidence that the text actually provides knowledge of its authors, either human or divine, begins. History becomes an account of what has survived, not a witness to truth. The hermeneutical approach was to establish authorial intention, to “get inside the mind of the author,” as that can be the only standard for correct interpretation. As mentioned, that intention is there to be found, and God has not withheld anything necessary to know, but access depended on how one understood the nature of sacred texts. The emphasis on authorial intention, divine and human, became for Protestants the basis of sola scriptura and their defense against pluralistic or individualist reading. It ultimately failed to prevent divergent readings, but we should be in no doubt that the reformers of the sixteenth century had a clear idea of scriptural authority and interpretation, and of the relationship between authoritative reading and speculation. The problem was they were unable to enforce it.

For Protestants, history was both spiritualized and treated as a source of “factual” information, accessible through both texts and languages studied comparatively. The reformers were fully aware that such texts and languages had histories and that scholars could never recover the “original sources.” The past was mostly lost, although partially recoverable. Protestants understood fully that translation was approximation, and they knew the problems of language. The fierce debates between the Savoyard humanist Sebastian Castellio (1515-1563) and John Calvin over the place of language revealed a deep awareness of the problems and the insecurities they engendered. Essentially, Castellio argued that language was contingent and that there was no need for literal translations for no authority resided in words. Anticipating the great seventeenth-century French Catholic scholar Richard Simon, as well as Thomas Hobbes and Baruch Spinoza, Castellio argued that all that survived for the churches of the sixteenth century were translations, relics of older textual forms. Truth was in the Spirit, who acted through human language. That human language should reflect the Spirit and serve it. Hence, Moses could be translated as if he spoken with the golden mouth of an Attic orator; Castellio’s provocative and brilliant work was entitled “Moses Latinus.” His attitude towards the sacred and secular was also of great significance. In his Latin translation of the Bible dedicated to the young English king Edward VI, Castellio argued that the sacred texts could be augmented by profane. Thus, to give the reader greater understanding of historical context he inserted passages from Josephus’s Antiquities into his Bible. The response from his implacable opponent John Calvin was predictably incandescent, but the greater import of Castellio’s exchanges with Geneva was a debate over what constituted sacred and secular in terms of language and text. Castellio made a move of enduring importance to later thinkers: his understanding of language, text, and history, combined with epistemological skepticism, gave birth to an understanding of toleration that would find voice in a later age.

Protestant biblical culture through the middle and late sixteenth century sought to address several issues at the same time, and consensus proved elusive. Writ large, the problem was evident. At the same time as the new Protestant orders sought to create and impose authoritative vernacular translations on their people, the sodality of those who regarded themselves as qualified interpreters and translators broadly acknowledged a truth that there was no authoritative text in any language: all that could be hoped for was the most ancient witness.

Despite what Protestant prefaces to the Bible might say about perspicuity, or the clarity of the scriptural text, it is evident that Protestant, as well as Catholic, translators of the Bible struggled mightily to understand what they were reading. Knowledge of Hebrew was confined to a small guild and remained patchy. There was a mixture of confusion and excitement about the ancient languages. Few were entirely sure of the relationship between Hebrew and Aramaic as biblical languages, while there was no agreement on the original language of the New Testament. At one point, some enthusiastic Lutherans thought it might be the ancient Coptic language of Egypt, an argument that would have provided a historical route to antiquity that avoided Rome and the papacy by proceeding through Alexandria. The Italian Jewish convert, Immanuel Tremellius, one of the greatest Hebraists of his age, produced with enormous erudition a Syriac New Testament, although it was soon replaced by the Greek. Biblical languages were contested in every respect, as it was unclear to sixteenth-century scholars how they were related to one another and what their relative authority was.

Fictive genealogies presented as history abounded from scholars of great repute, and their linguistic competence must not be overemphasized. We know, for example, that despite the ability to print Arabic in the sixteenth century even those who created elegant polyglot editions could hardly read it. Languages were a source of anxiety and instability, and not without good reason Isaac Newton harshly criticized the textual work on Bibles by men such as Calvin’s successor in Geneva, Theodore Beza. Newton claimed that the Protestant reformers simply repeated mistakes and lacked the skill to make necessary corrections.

The Problem of Hebrew and the Jews

By the end of the sixteenth century, Hebrew was well-established in the principal intellectual centers of Protestant and Catholic Europe, even if only a small number of men could be described as having mastered the language. Christian fascination with the ancient language of the Israelites grew exponentially during the early modern period. However, the story is a little more complicated. The authority of the Hebrew text was by no means a given for most Bible scholars at the start of the Reformation. Erasmus knew no Hebrew, and was not especially troubled by his lack of knowledge, for he could read the Septuagint, the Greek translation of Hebrew sacred books from the third century BCE. For many Christian humanists, including, for example, Huldrych Zwingli, the Septuagint continued to occupy a particular place of honor as a divinely inspired text. The Masoretic text, the authoritative Hebrew version of the Tanakh, in contrast, was regarded with suspicion, an abiding Christian fear that it had been twisted by rabbinic commentators to conceal the place of Christ in the Old Testament. The oldest surviving edition of the Masoretic text is the Aleppo Codex (from the tenth century) now found in the Museum of the Book in Jerusalem. It was not uncommon among some Christian scholars to believe that the vowel pointing, like road signs turned in the wrong direction, had been introduced to confuse Christians. The contentious place occupied by Hebrew in the Reformation consisted in an awkward dependence on rabbis and others for instruction in the language, a need for rabbinic literature alongside a fear of its contents, and an intense hostility towards the Jews to demonstrate that one was not overly influenced by them.

The rabbinic sources were especially troubling. Daniel Bomberg (d. 1549) had printed the Biblia Hebraica and Talmud in the 1520s, making available to Christians the commentaries of Rashi and the Tosafot. What to make of these, however, was an entirely different question. Christian dependence on Jews or Jewish converts to learn Hebrew was well recognized, but what could be drawn from commentaries? That was the unresolved question. When one reads the writings of Christian Hebraists the answer seemed clear: the rabbinic writers were benighted on account of their failure to recognize Christ. Their error was not simply one of omission, but marked them out as evil. Jews were a cancer in the Christian body. One of the principal reasons given for learning Hebrew and studying the texts of the rabbinic commentators was to facilitate the conversion of the Jews. In truth, however, Christian Hebraists had little interest in converting Jews, and their statements were essentially a rhetorical fig leaf. Consequently, the rabbinic commentaries were to be read for grammatical instruction, avoiding all theological argument. This was an entirely new way of reading, and in effect introduced a distinction that would later inform Protestantism. What the Rabbinic commentaries revealed, as the medieval commentator Nicholas of Lyra had learned in the fourteenth century, was not only the rudimentary level of Christian understanding of Hebrew, but, more shockingly, that traditional doctrinal and historical positions were endangered by the far superior knowledge found in the Targum, the Talmud, and the Mikraot Gedolot.

Access to the rabbinic commentaries was both essential to the development of the Protestant understanding of sola scriptura and deeply threatening. The dangers were all too apparent. Such knowledge exposed learned Christians to a world of sophisticated learning that they could hardly comprehend either linguistically or theologically. The efforts during the 1530s of one of the greatest Christian Hebraists of the day, Konrad Pellikan, to translate the Talmud into Latin ultimately foundered. He had enlisted the aid of a Jewish convert, but in the end Pellikan had to admit that he was not equal to the task. At the same time, his colleague and erstwhile student Theodor Bibliander promoted the argument that God had spoken Hebrew to Adam and that it was the root of all other languages. The Bible would be comprehensible only once Hebrew was mastered.

The influence of the rabbinic tradition on emergent Protestantism lay in the relationship between text and commentary. For Jews, there was no idea of sola scriptura, of text existing separate from interpretation. The two were seamlessly joined, with the commentary of Rashi literally surrounding the biblical text on the page. This provided Protestants with a model of text and interpretation that enabled them to put on the printed page their principles of authoritative reading, and from the 1520s they produced Bibles with extensive marginalia intended to aid or guide the faithful. This took place in two related ways. In the vernacular, the notes were instructive in enabling men and women to read the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, in terms of Christ. This would find its fullest expression in the Geneva Bible of 1560. In Latin, Jewish influence was seminal in the formation of Bibles primarily intended for study. In such cases, the Bibles adopted the appearance of the Talmud by wrapping the commentary around the biblical text, evoking all manner of bonds with the rabbinic tradition. The creation of these Protestant study Bibles, such as the edition of the Italian Immanuel Tremellius and the Frenchman Francesco Junius that first appeared in 1569 and was so heavily used in seventeenth-century England, contributed to a separation of the Bible from the ecclesiastical world. The Tremellius Bible became a compendium of knowledge, drawing together natural history, geography, history, philosophy, and theology. These Protestant Bibles played an important part in the evolving separation of biblical and religious knowledge from the church.

The idea that the Reformation restored the Bible to the heart of the church has long been a Protestant verity. In a sixteenth-century woodcut, a devil breaks into the house of Martin Luther with a letter that reads, “we have learned from our delegates, cardinals Campeggio and Lang, the damage you have done in that you have revived the Bible which at our behest has been little used for the last four hundred years.” The relationship between the Reformation and scripture is a far more problematic story that awaits its full telling. Sola scriptura had its roots in late-medieval culture, as did most aspects of Protestant thought. As the reformers turned to the Bible in the Reformation, considerable hurdles emerged relating to fundamental questions concerning texts, translation, and interpretation. Their attempts to demonstrate the clarity and unity of holy writ proved fleeting and were severely challenged by later generations, particularly in the seventeenth century. The Reformation unleashed the forces of historical, philological, and textual criticism. It was an age when old languages became new knowledge with the result that the Bible, upon whose authority the Reformation was built, became the book that divided a movement.


Bruce Gordon is the Titus Street Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Yale Divinity School. He is the author of a number of books, including the Swiss Reformation (Manchester, 2002), Calvin (Yale, 2009), and most recently John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion (Princeton, 2016).


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