Presbyterians of the Past

Read Your Bible, Celebrate the Reformation

Sola Scriptura, “Scripture alone,” the Bible, is the cornerstone sola because understanding the meaning of “Christ alone,” “Grace alone,” “faith alone,” and “to God’s glory alone” requires information harvested from sola Scriptura. Some of the key personalities of church history such as Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Knox were influenced first and foremost by Scripture as it showed them the grace of salvation. For Augustine, it was Romans that confronted him with his sinful promiscuity and lust-fulfilling life; for Luther it was Galatians and Romans that especially illumined his understanding of the meaning of faith; for Calvin, the Psalms were essential because they provided him “an anatomy of all the parts of the soul”; and for Knox it is believed that his key passage was the Lord’s High Priestly Prayer in John 17. As these saints of the past read the Word the Spirit illumined their understanding of its message of grace and justification so they could embrace the gospel and grow in sanctification. These men also had friends that influenced them, they read other works that were helpful, they experienced personal trials, temptations, and testings that contributed to their coming to Christ, but behind it all sola Scriptura was essential.

In the decade of the nineteen seventies a popular television situation comedy was All in the Family. Inevitably at some point during each airing of an episode politically conservative Archie would become involved in an argument with his liberal-atheist son in law, Michael. In one program the two ignorantly wrangled over what might be called a theological issue as nebulously-Christian Archie looked to the top of the television for the Bible, but it was not in its place. He asked his infinitely patient but shrill voiced wife Edith what happened to the Bible because it was supposed to be on top of the tube. She informed him that it had been moved to the top of the refrigerator. Various surveys over the years have shown that nearly every household in the United States has at least one Bible but they have also observed that many are not used. Surely, Archie Bunker was not getting much use from the Bible in his home on Hauser Street.

At the time of the Reformation Bibles were not common. The movable type printing press had been available for less than a century and for one to own a New Testament or a whole Bible it not only required a pricey purchase but it could also be personally dangerous. The papacy prohibited Bible translation and parishioners owning Bibles. Fourteenth-century forerunners of the Reformation such as John Wycliffe of England and one of his followers in Bohemia, Jan Hus, were persecuted for providing Bibles in their languages, which in the case of Hus contributed to the heresy case against him and led to his execution by fire at the stake. In the next century, William Tyndale was hunted down wherever he set up his press but he managed to escape several times as he clandestinely provided Scripture in English. He was eventually caught, strangled, and burned at the stake for publishing the Word in the vernacular. Lives were sacrificed for the translation and distribution of Scripture. If Wycliffe, Hus, and Tyndale could return to visit their homelands today they would likely be encouraged by the availability of the Word, especially with digital Bibles accessible on a variety of devices, but they might also be discouraged by the all too common indifference shown to Scripture.

This Reformation Day would be a good time to establish a plan for reading Scripture. The Bible can be read through in a year, there are reading schedules available for such a method, but maybe it would be better to read it through in two to allow for better understanding. The book of Proverbs lends itself to daily reading with its thirty-one chapters working out to one a day for a thirty-one-day month such as December; some individuals read through Proverbs every month in addition to their other daily Bible passages. But such familiarity with Proverbs may lead to people avoiding you because every time something proverbial happens you blurt out a verse or two of Solomonic wisdom addressing the situation. Generally, it is better to read the books consecutively and many of the books in the Bible are not only consecutive in their order but also chronological, but Acts may make more sense when it is preceded by the reading of Luke. Luke and Acts are a set that tell the history of Jesus and the post-ascension Apostles’ ministries.

Avoid what R.C. Sproul described in his book, Knowing Scripture, as “lucky dipping,” which involves closing your eyes, flipping the Bible open randomly, planting your finger on a page, and then opening your eyes to read the verse your digit touched. One advantage of a digital Bible, possibly, is that it would not lend itself to such a questionable practice conveniently. Some would say that lucky dipping provides God’s special message for the day, or a revelation of the Divine will for a particular problem, but most likely many dips would be required to get a message that made any sense and its interpretation would be questionable. Systematic Bible reading provides the opportunity for the Spirit to speak through the passages read daily while prayer for guidance can address the particular concerns you have at the moment—lucky dipping is not a good choice.

Commentaries on the Bible and study guides have their place and can be very helpful, after all, the Ethiopian eunuch needed Philip as his commentator-preacher to explain Christ from Isaiah 53:7, but unless you are well disciplined with a good chunk of time for your study, simply read God’s Word. As you become more familiar with the Bible, its study can begin later after you have accumulated some data from your reading. One of the reasons Catholicism has maintained the Bible in Latin for centuries is because its leadership thinks Scripture is too difficult for the average person to understand. Such thinking is common today not only in Catholicism but among Protestants as well. Yes, the Bible is available in the vernacular now, but Christians often seem intimidated and they believe they need the minister to explain everything. The minister’s exposition of Scripture is a central and necessary part of worship and fellowship, but family and personal Bible reading is an important part of the Christian life. If you feel daunted by the Word remember it is God’s revelation, it is not his concealment. The vast majority of Scripture is plainly understandable; the theological term is the perspicuity of Scripture—Scripture is clear, lucid. If just beginning your Bible reading program and you are a bit reticent, then begin with the Gospels. For brevity start with Mark, for beauty and detail read Luke, but any of the gospels are generally straight forward in their messages. Read to see the forest, not the trees. Do not get bogged down with, “Why did he say that?” or “How much value in dollars does a drachma have?” or “Why are Paul’s sentences so long?” Read the passage through and write your questions in the margins of your Bible—some hard-copy Bibles have enlarged margins and some digital ones have note recording features—then the next time you read the passage months or years down the road your accumulated intellectual data from the intervening time of Bible reading might provide the answer to your earlier quandary. When you can answer your own questions after further reading it shows that you are learning the Word.

The Bible should not be taken for granted, nor should it be left on the television for the appearance of piety or the top of the refrigerator for storage. Over the years many have died to provide the Scripture to successive generations. The Bible is God’s revealed will and it is necessary for knowledge of him and his will. The Bible not only teaches all that is needed for knowing, glorifying, and enjoying God, but it also testifies to itself—“Your Word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105); “Sanctify them in the truth; your Word is truth” (John 17:17); “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of our God stands forever” (Isaiah 40:8); and “It is written, ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God’” (Matthew 4:4). As the Reformation 500th is remembered, its cornerstone was sola Scriptura, so to celebrate a half millennium of Protestantism, read your Bible.

Barry Waugh

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