Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Greatest Cultural Gift of the Reformation: The Perspicuity of Scripture

This year we are celebrating the 500th anniversary of start of the Great Reformation. The official date is traditionally October 31, 1517 when Martin Luther posted the 95 Theses on the Wittenburg Castle Church door. This anniversary has me considering what the greatest cultural gift of the Reformation is. In my opinion, that gift would be the recovery of the perspicuity (or clarity) of Scripture.

Prior to the Reformation, it was illegal (and unthinkable) to read the Bible in any language other than Latin even though none of the commoners read Latin. Only the highly educated and priests could read and understand Latin. As a result, no one had access to the revelation of God. The Reformation changed all of that with a fundamental belief that God's word was clear and ought to be read and understood by everyone from plowman to pastor.

This Protestant thinking is best reflected by William Tyndale who is most famous for translating the New Testament and parts of the Old Testament into English. He was later executed for that "crime." The Tyndale translation was the greatest influence on the King James Bible. The story goes that a priest suggested to Tyndale that "It would be better to be w/o God’s law than the pope’s” to which Tyndale responded “If God spares my life, I will cause the plow-boy to know more about Scripture than you do!”

And he did.

Here are a few reasons why I believe the doctrine of Scripture's Perspicuity is the greatest cultural gift of the Reformation. 

1. The Perspicuity of Scripture and the Freedom of Conscience

The Perspicuity of Scripture means I must interpret Scripture. It does not ignore other authorities, but does affirm that Scripture must be read by an individual and interpreted by an individual. This was blasphemous in pre-Reformation Europe. Once the clarity of Scripture was adopted and understood by Protestants, than the liberty of conscience becomes a natural right. The American cause is only possible due to this. One's interpretation must be defended, it cannot and ought not be enforced. Such a world did not exist prior to the recovery of the perspicuity of Scripture.

The best example of this comes from Martin Luther while at the Diet of Worms in 1521:
Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason, my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience would be neither right nor safe. God help me. Here I stand, I can do no other.
The King and Pope may be powerful, but they are not lord over the conscience.

2. The Perspicuity of Scripture and the Universality of Education

In order for Protestants to promote the universal reading of Scripture, the Reformation needed a literate population. It is no accident, then, that throughout the protestant world, Christians promoted education among both the rich and the poor, men and women.

Though the history of universal education is bigger than the Reformation, I do not believe we would have it today without the Great Reformation. Roman Catholicism largely limited education to those who could afford it. Remember that Martin Luther trained to be a lawyer only because his father had worked hard to save to send him to school and was extremely angry when he dropped out of school to join a monastery. Luther spent the rest of his life questioning if he dishonored God by dishonoring his parents.

Nevertheless, the fundamental belief that Scripture is clear and must be read by every believer means that every believer ought to be literate and a literate populace will goes beyond the Bible and explore the world.

An example of this comes from the First Book of Discipline from John Knox under the headline "The Necessity of Schools":
Seeing that God hath determined that his Kirk here in earth shall be taught not by Angels, but by men; and seeing that men are borne ignorant of God, and of all godliness, and seeing also he ceases to illuminate men miraculously, suddenly charging them as he did the Apostles, and others in the primitive kirk: Of necessity it is that your Honors be most careful for the virtuous education, and godly up-bringing of the youth of this realm: if either ye now thirst unfeignedly the advancement of Christ’s glory, or yet desire the continuance of his benefits to the generation following. For as the youth must succeed to us, so we ought to be careful that they have knowledge and erudition to profit and comfort that which ought to be most dear to us, to wit, the kirk and spouse of our Lord Jesus. Of necessity therefore we judge it, that every several kirk have one Schoolmaster appointed, such a one at least as is able to teach Grammar, and the Latin tongue, if the town be of any reputation. If it be upland [rural] where the people convene to the doctrine but once in the week, then must either the reader or the minister there appointed, take care over the children and youth of the parish, to instruct them in the first rudiments, and especially in the Catechism as we have it now translated in the book of the common order called the order of Geneva. And further we think it expedient, that in every notable town, and specially in the town of the Superintendent, there be erected a College, in which the arts at least Logic and Rhetoric, together with the tongues, be read by sufficient masters, for whom honest stipends must be appointed. As also provision for those that be poor, and not able by themselves, nor by their friends to be sustained at letters, and in special these that come from Landward. The fruit and commodity hereof shall suddenly appear. For first, the youth-head and tender children shall be nourished, and brought up in virtue in presence of their friends, by whose good attendance many inconveniences may be avoided, in which the youth commonly fall, either by overmuch liberty, which they have in strange and unknown places, while they cannot rule themselves: or else for lack of good attendance, and such necessity as their tender age requires. Secondly, the exercise of children in every kirk, shall be great instruction to the aged. Last, the great Schools, called the universities, shall be replenished with these that shall be apt to learning. For this must be carefully provided, that no father of what estate or condition that ever he be, use his children at his own fantasy, especially in their youth, but all must be compelled to bring up their children in learning and virtue.

The rich and potent may not be permitted to suffer their children to spend their youth in vain idleness as heretofore they have done: But they must be exhorted, and by the censure of the Kirk compelled to dedicate their sons by good exercises to the profit of the Kirk, and Common-wealth; and that they must doe of their own expenses because they are able. The children of the poor must be supported and sustained of the charge of the Kirk, trial being taken whether the spirit of docility be in them found, or not: If they be found apt to learning and letters, then may they not (we mean, neither the sons of the rich, nor yet of the poor) be permitted to reject learning, but must be charged to continue their study, so that the Common-wealth may have some comfort by them. And for this purpose must discreet, grave, & learned men be appointed to visit Schools for the trial of their exercise, profit and continuance: To wit, the Minister and Elders, & the rest of learned men in every town shall in every quarter make examination how the youth have profited.

And certain times must be appointed to reading and learning of the Catechism, and certain to the Grammar and to the Latin tongues, and a certain to the Arts of Philosophy, and the tongues; and certain to that study in the which they intend chiefly to travail for the profit of the Common-wealth. Which time being expired, we mean in every course, the children should either proceed to farther knowledge, or else they must be set to some handy craft, or to some other profitable exercise; providing always that first they have further knowledge of Christian Religion: To wit, the knowledge of God’s Law and Commandments, the use and office of the same: the chief Articles of the belief, the right form to pray unto God; the number, use, and effect of the Sacraments: the true knowledge of Christ Jesus, of his Office and Natures, and such others, without the knowledge whereof neither any man deserves to be called a Christian, neither ought any to be admitted to the participation of the Lord’s Table: and therefore these principles ought and must be learned in the youth-head.

3. The Perspicuity of Scripture and Tearing Down the Sacred/Secular Divide

In a previous post I provided a number of quotes from Martin Luther regarding the Sacred/Secular Divide. Catholicism promotes this divide, but Protestantism tore it down by showing that all of life is sacred. This is only possible with a firm belief in the Perspicuity of Scripture. Luther's theological argument is rooted in the revelation of Scripture which was, itself, rooted in a fundamental belief that Scripture is clear.

4. The Perspicuity of Scripture, Liberty, and Democracy

The polity of Catholicism was mirrored in the monarchies around Europe. That is no accident. Is it any accident that the change in church polity out of the Reformation resulted in a change of European governments? Protestantism produced the democratic religions of Congregationalism and the Baptists, the Presbytery of Presbyterianism, and other forms of church government (like Methodism, Anabaptism, etc.).

The Acton Institutes shows that Luther's priesthood of believers played an important role.
Luther’s doctrine of “the priesthood of all believers” also heavily influenced the emergence of representative democracy. In addition, the Presbyterian style of church government further set the stage for individual rights and liberties. Responsibility for the governance of the church is not just for the clergy , but laity as well. This model of church government, where elders serve as leaders can be contrasted with the episcopal style of church government, which better reflects a monarchy. King James I of Great Britain rightly predicted, “If bishops go, so will the king.” At its very heart, it expresses a belief that humans in their depravity cannot set themselves above the law of God, no matter their office.

When Martin Luther declared his “conscience was captive to the word of God” it had political repercussions. Luther’s protest showcased a primary debate about ultimate authority, and where this authority stems from. The legacy and impact of the Reformation directly affect our society today, especially in relation to government, human rights, and religious and political freedoms.
At the root of all of this, however, was the Perspicuity of Scripture. If Scripture is not clear, then Luther could not be believed and the Catholic Church could not be questioned. Furthermore, the clarity of Scripture placed God's Word as a higher authority than the Pope and one's interpretation and opinion as an authority.

5. The Perspicuity of Scripture and the Power of Preaching 

Consider the following regarding know from Richard Kyle:
“[Knox’s] approach to Scripture impacted his preaching in still other ways. Not only did he regard the Bible as the authoritative Word of God, but he upheld the [clarity] of Scripture – that it is clear and intelligible to the average person. Phrases such as ‘the plain Word of God,’ the ‘strict Word of God,’ ‘the plain Scripture,’ and the ‘express Word of God’ frequently bombard even the casual reader of Knox’s works. . . .. [I]n one of his encounters with Queen Mary of Scotland, Knox insisted that he Bible was intelligible to all people, and thus the native meaning of the Bible with the aid of the Holy Spirit sufficed. The Holy Ghost had inspired every verse and, as God, he can never be self-contradictory. Therefore, the meaning of vague texts must be in agreement with the interpretation of distinct passages: ‘The Word of God is plain int eh self; and if there appear any obscurity in one place, the Holy Ghost which is never contrarious to himself, explains the same more clearly in other places: so that there can remain no doubt, but unto such as obstinately remain ignorant.” (Richard Kyle, God’s Watchman, 162-163)
The legacy and power of preaching is, no doubt, rooted in a firm belief in the Perspicuity of Scripture.


These are a few of the reasons why I believe that the greatest cultural gift the Reformation has given the west is the perspicuity of Scripture. Without it, we would not recommend the world we now enjoy.
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