Ad Fontes and Sola Scriptura: Reading the Bible in the Reformation

In the previous post in this series on the history of biblical interpretation, we saw how the Middle Ages were a period of stability in hermeneutics, with the Church more or less happy to interpret the Scriptures as they had traditionally been interpreted and within the broader context of the Church’s faith and worship. The Reformation, which had been bubbling under the surface for centuries, but came to a head with the publication of Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses in 1517, broke this Medieval synthesis of Scripture and Church. Today I’d like to explore the rationale for and consequences of this move, and then look at the common principles of classical Protestant hermeneutics.

The Reformers all had very different beliefs and agendas, but the one idea that unified them was the importance — the primacy — of the Bible for Christian life and teaching. Here’s a brief survey of some of the major voices and documents of the Reformation about the authority of Scripture:

  • “Scripture … alone should remain the judge and teacher in all books” (Martin Luther, Collected Works, 3.306)
  • “…the Scriptures are the only records in which God has been pleased to consign his truth to perpetual remembrance …” (John Calvin, Institutes I.vii.1)
  • “All who say that the gospel is nothing without the approval of the church err and cast reproach upon God” (Huldrych Zwingli, “Sixty-seven Theses”)
  • “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.” (Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, Article VI)
  • “The Supreme Judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined … can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.” (Westminster Confession)

This was a radical change in the way Christians understood the nature and role of the Bible. As we’ve seen throughout this series so far, it had always until now been considered to be the Church’s Book; Luther, by contrast, wrote: “Scripture is not the word of the church; the church is the church of the Word.” Of course, the Medieval Church would have agreed that they were the Church of the Word, but for them (rightly), the primary signification of “Word of God” was Christ, not the Bible. Luther actually agreed with them about this, but maintained a special role for the Bible as the place where that Word is expressed and encountered, and often spoke of “the Word of God” and “Scripture” and “Bible” interchangeably (see Collected Works 19.45; 34.227, Complete Sermons 1.2.30). The point is that the relationship between Church and Scripture has been flipped: Rather than being subsumed within the Church, the Bible now has authority over it. This, of course, had major consequences for hermeneutics, since it removed on principle the ‘Rule of Faith’ — which had been the primary interpretive principle for as long as there had been a New Testament — from the interpretive act. This did not mean the Reformers were anti-historical or had no use for the Church Fathers; in fact, they were pleased to quote from the Church Fathers, at times liberally and more thoroughly than their Medieval counterparts (and Calvin himself was a noted scholar of Patristics), but crucially this was only to support their own interpretations rather than to determine what the interpretation should be. So the Reformation battle cry of Sola Scriptura (‘Scripture alone’) was not a rejection of the idea of tradition or Christian history, but a reshuffling of priority and authority — a desire to ensure proper criteria were used to justify belief and practice.

As radical as this departure from traditional understandings of the Bible was, it did not come out of nowhere. The Reformation arose out of the Renaissance, which saw a renewed interest in the knowledge of ancient Greece and Rome. A battle-cry of the movement was ad fontes — ‘to the sources!’ — a desire to go back to and learn from the foundations of Western civilization. The turn to the Bible, not just among Protestants but also by leading Catholic thinkers, such as Erasmus, was part of this sensibility, which also played out in politics, art, architecture, and literature. Ad fontes represented a desire to understand where European society had come from and how it had gotten where it was. In the case of the Reformation this worked in two ways: creating an interest in returning to the Bible in its original languages and also as a source for proper Church belief, governance, and practice. Could contemporary practices such as the selling of indulgences, the proliferation of decadent building projects, the complicated Church hierarchy that mirrored the aristocracy, or the complexity of the cult of saints be justified? Was the ‘tradition’ reliable? To the Reformers, the answer was to be found in the sources: first and foremost the Bible, and secondarily the writings of the early Church Fathers as evidence for how the Bible was read and understood in the past.

Because Protestants understood the Bible to be the only true authority for Christian theology and practice, the question of the biblical canon suddenly took on a far more important role. As we saw, the firming up of the canon was a slow process that was not a huge priority for the Church. As long as the Rule of Faith was the primary authority, this made sense: What did it matter of the Church of Alexandria considered the Shepherd of Hermas to be Holy Scripture as long as they upheld the Rule of Faith? But with the elevation of the Bible as the sole authority, what was in and what was out of the Bible was now of utmost importance. And so, Luther spent a lot of time pondering the canon. He insisted that ultimate authority lie in the texts in their original languages, and he removed the Deuterocanonical books (aka the Apocrypha) from the Old Testament on the grounds that they did not have Hebrew original texts and so could not be true representations of ancient Hebrew faith. And, while he ultimately left the canon of the New Testament intact, Luther had big theological questions about Hebrews and James and was rather ambivalent about their place in the canon. The value of Sola Scriptura similarly made the integrity of the text of the Bible critically important. To the end of having the best text possible, Calvin studied Hebrew and Greek extensively, compared different texts of the Scriptures and even made recommendations for possible textual emendations where he thought corruptions may have entered the textual tradition. In this way, the Reformers recovered a patristic tradition of textual analysis and criticism that had been largely lost during the Middle Ages. The Bible’s authority did not make the existing text beyond question; rather, this authority made it all the more vital to question the received texts and ensure they were as accurate as possible.

It’s important to note that the Reformers didn’t subvert historical understandings of authority for the fun of it; rather, it was to support their theological goal of removing the chasm they believed had grown between the people and God. While this is not how Roman Catholics would frame the situation, the Reformers believed the medieval Church had inserted itself in between the people and God: The Church was a mediator of grace, through its sacraments, prayers, rituals, and saints, and therefore taken over the rightful place of Jesus, ‘the one mediator between God and people’ (1 Timothy 2.5). With this democratic goal in mind, the Reformers insisted that the Bible could be read and properly understood by anyone, without the mediation of the Church. In Calvin’s words, “If the writing of Scripture was inspired by God’s Spirit, and conviction of Scripture’s truth is conveyed by that same Spirit, then those who claim that the authority of Scripture depends on the pronouncements of the church are mocking the Holy Spirit” (Institutes I.vii.1-2).

This perspective led the Reformers to insist on the essential simplicity and clarity of the Bible’s message and interpretation. Whereas from the very beginning of Christianity it had been assumed that Scripture operated on different levels of meaning, with access to different meanings being dependent on spiritual maturity, the Reformers rejected this idea. As the early English Reformer William Tyndale put it, “Scripture has but one sense, which is the literal sense” (The Obedience of a Christian Man). Scripture was to be self-interpreting; if something appeared confusing, it could be explained by looking at other passages on the same theme. In this environment, the allegorical readings common through the Medieval period did not fare well. Luther called allegory a “scourge” and said it turned the Scriptures into wax which can be turned into any shape desired. Calvin called allegory “Satanic,” and in his Commentary on Zechariah, wrote: “The curiosity of the interpreters has done much harm, who by examining every single syllable have advanced many puerile things.” No matter how theologically accurate an interpretation may be (i.e., now matter how well it conformed to the Rule of Faith), it was to be rejected if it was not the most natural way of reading the text: “It is the first business of an interpreter to let his author say what he does say, instead of attributing to him what we think he ought to say” (Commentary on Romans). All types of tools could be used to do this well, including textual criticism, grammatical, linguistic, and cultural analysis, and once a solid reading of the text was achieved, it could be extended and applied to present-day situations, but the final authority was always to rest in the text itself.

What, then, are we to say about all this by way of assessment? On the one hand, it represented a significant departure from anything that had preceded it. Texts which had always been understood to exist within the Church and its traditions were now separated from it and placed over it. This means that, for the first time, the primary locus of interpretation was, theoretically, to take place in the upper right hand quadrant of our Integral map. However, Sola Scriptura never worked out as well in practice as it did in theory. While the Reformers agreed that the meaning of Scripture was clear, they disagreed significantly about what that ‘clear’ meaning was. Thus, in practice, Reformation hermeneutics often had as much to do with the upper left hand quadrant of personal experience as it did with the upper right quadrant of ‘objective’ study. (There’s a reason why there are tens of thousands of Protestant denominations and sects!) Moreover, Protestantism quickly saw a new rise of more-or-less authoritative traditions, so that followers of Luther interpreted the Bible in a Lutheran way, followers of Calvin in a Calvinist way, and so on. And at times, these were formalized into official doctrinal statements with authority within a particular church body. So, the pull of the lower quadrants did not disappear, despite Protestant ideals about the sole authority of the Bible and its clarity of meaning.

In light of this fundamental problem with the idea that Scripture has a clear meaning accessible to anyone, my seminary hermeneutics professor once said that the only reason he saw in maintaining a commitment to Sola Scriptura was as a reminder of the difference between text and interpretation. Even if the meaning of the text is never truly accessible to us, he found value in the ideal that that meaning exists and is be sought above all else. I think there is a lot of wisdom in this insight. For me, even if I cannot accept a lot of the Protestant commitments about the Bible, the Reformation still stands out as a badly needed return to the sources for Western Christianity. As a Christian, I want to follow and understand Jesus; and the New Testament is without question the authoritative place where I can find his words and the beliefs of his earliest followers about him. Tradition always benefits from being refreshed from the sources, and for Christians this ressourcement requires a constant and dogged commitment to the Scriptures.

We can also thank the Reformation for its recovery of the patristic curiosity about the Bible and all of the different tools and critical methodologies that can be applied to better understand it. But As these ancient tools met Enlightenment rationalism in the eighteenth through twentieth centuries, they took on a life of their own, and Modern Biblical Criticism was born. It is to this hermeneutical trend that we will turn in the next post in the series.

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