The Place of Scripture in the Reformation

A page from Luther's German translation of the Bible

The Place of Scripture in the Reformation

In this year 2017, and in this month of October, we commemorate what was the beginning of the Protestant Reformation under Martin Luther. One of the features of his life and work was the central place that the Scriptures played in the spiritual revival that brought about the Reformation. Luther did not think of himself as a reformer. The Reformation was not his work but the work of God through his Word. Luther’s own part had been merely to let the Word loose.

To the Reformers, the principle of bowing to the authority of Scripture was basic to all that they did and taught. Melanchthon called sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) the formal principle of the Reformation, sola fide (faith alone) being its material principle. In articulating the principle of sola Scriptura, as in so much else, Luther was the pioneer. This became the first slogan of the Reformation.

1) Luther was converted through the Scriptures
It was the Scriptures which made Luther the man he was. All that he was and did he owed to the Bible. “I was twenty years old”, he said, “before I had ever seen the Bible.” It was the discovery of the Bible that delivered him from the deep spiritual unrest that had gripped his soul. Having been brought up in medieval Catholicism, Luther looked to everything the Church could offer him for his own salvation. He even became a monk to gain more merit: “I may say that if ever a monk got to heaven by his monkery it was I.” This, however, did not cure the “anguish of a spirit alienated from God”.

Luther’s deliverance came through the study of the Scriptures, after he had been appointed Chair of Bible at the Wittenberg University. Luther had a ‘Damascus road’ experience in searching for the meaning of chapter 1 verse 17 of the Epistle to the Romans. At first he felt condemned by the mention of “the righteousness of God”, but he persevered in study. “Thus I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience. Nevertheless I beat importunately upon Paul at that place, most ardently desiring to know what St Paul wanted. At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, ‘In it the righteousness of God is revealed as it is written, He who through faith is righteous shall live.’ There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous live by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live’. Here I felt I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.” (Michael Reeves, The Unquenchable Flame, 2009, p.41)

“It was with this experience”, says Dr Skevington Wood, “that the Protestant Reformation really started.”

2) Luther sat under the authority of Scripture
Luther regarded Scripture as his only authority. He believed that we submit to the text: it does not submit to us. In the Leipzig debate of 1519 with John Eck, the issue was about indulgences, but Luther went deeper and made papal authority the fundamental issue. He declared: “A simple layman armed with Scripture is to be believed above a pope or a council without it. As for the pope’s decretal on indulgences I say neither the Church nor the pope can establish articles of faith. These must come from Scripture. For the sake of Scripture we should reject pope and councils.” (Roland Bainton, Here I Stand, 1950, p.90)

At the Diet of Worms in 1522, when called upon by Eck to renounce his alleged errors, he spoke these tremendous words: “Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of popes and councils for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.” The earliest printed version of what he said added the words: “Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise.” (Bainton, p.144)

For Luther, to stand under the authority of Scripture was to stand under the protection of the Almighty.

3) Luther gave the Scriptures to the people
The love that Luther had acquired for Scripture and the ignorance he discovered among the common people, gave him the determination to put the Bible into the hands of the populace. He was determined to let others share his delight in the Word of God. He set about translating the Scriptures into German. The Latin Vulgate was the Bible of the Roman Church for over a millennium, and no interpretation of it was to be given contrary to the teaching of the Church. The church services were conducted in Latin. The possession of and study of the Scriptures in the common tongue frequently invoked a charge of heresy.

While he was a fugitive in Wartburg Castle, Luther began the task of translating the New Testament from the original Greek into German. He completed a first draft of his New Testament within eleven weeks between December 1521 and February 1522. With the help of his friend, Philip Melancthon, he improved his translation and prepared to print it. With the new printing technology then available, 3,000 copies were printed in September 1522 at Wittenberg, the largest quantity of books ever produced in the town. The translation sold out quickly and was reprinted in December. Hundreds of thousands of copies were ultimately printed and millions of people were then reading the Bible for themselves.

Luther wrote so much that the attempt to produce a complete edition of his works continues to this day. He also said: “I’d rather that all my books would disappear and the Holy Scriptures alone would be read.” (S J Nichols, Martin Luther, 2002, p.64)

4) Luther used the Scriptures to bring about change
Luther, instead of using force to reform the Church, sought to persuade people with the Scriptures through simple, clear preaching. He believed that the Word of God must first convince people and then the rotten old structures would collapse. He never believed that he should devise any great programme for spreading the Reformation. He simply wanted to unleash the Word of God and let that do all the work. He rewrote the liturgy, introduced congregational singing, provided preachers for other towns and wrote catechisms. He believed that everyone should memorize the catechism. “And it many ways it seemed to work. Within a few years he reckoned that fifteen year olds in Wittenberg knew more about the Word of God ‘than all the universities and doctors before’.” (Reeves, pp.51-52)

Luther summed up the achievement of the Reformation in this way: “I did nothing, the Word did it all.” It was the fulfilment of what was spoken by the Lord: “Is not my word like as a fire? saith the Lord; and like a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces?” (Jer. 23:29) The powerful Word of God, communicated through Luther’s preaching and writings, became the hammer to break in pieces the rock of false Roman Catholic teaching bound up in the hearts of men and women. The devil is the great enemy to the Word of God. He assaults that light to quench it, but also to blind the minds of sinners. O for a breaking forth again of the Word of God!

The Prince of Darkness grim,
We tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure,
For lo, his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.