The Reformation: A Bible Movement (Part 1)
Does God speak to us, and if he does, can we understand him?
This two-part question, much more than the question of the existence of God, is particularly relevant today. Most polls of religious views show that somewhere between seventy and ninety percent of Americans believe in God (74% in this Harris poll, 86% in this Gallup one, 89% of this Pew one), an indication that, beyond the celebrity atheists, the question of the existence of God is largely settled for the current population.
The question that continues to nag, however, is whether we can really know God. Is he intelligible to the likes of us, or is he forever shrouded behind the veil, a thing to be gestured at clumsily but hardly known, rarely encountered, and surely not loved. (Or, to paraphrase Woody Allen, I wouldn’t want to know a God who would allow a person like me to know him.)
This is not a new question, either. This is an issue that, I would contend, lay at the center of the Reformation program.
I grew up in a broader evangelical context, before this recent resurgence of new Calvinists took hold in the church. For me, Reformed theology was understood pretty much only by that troublesome doctrine of predestination. I still meet people who think Reformed theology begins and ends with the idea of election.
Of course, the Reformation and its theological descendants can be understood from a variety of perspectives: as a revolution, a revival, ressourcement, and so on. One illuminating way to think about the Reformation is as a movement founded upon a doctrine of the holy scriptures that was as rigorous as it was simple, and that is the doctrine that God’s Word is our only authoritative way to know him
In fact, the doctrine of sola scriptura is crucial to the understanding of the following four sola. Without the testimony of the scriptures alone as inerrant and inspired word of God, which provides a clear message of redemption to the people of God, it is impossible for a Christian to conceive of a belief in salvation by faith alone, by grace alone, through Christ alone, thereby bringing glory to God alone.
The Reformers were committed to the truth that the scriptures alone, yes attended by the Spirit, but the scriptures must set the agenda of all that is to follow as the sole authority on these theological matters. That foundational belief dictated for them their ministries, their messages, and for many of them their martyrdom.
J.I. Packer described the Puritans, those passionate purveyors of the English Reformation, in the following way:
Puritanism was, above all, a Bible Movement. To the Puritan, the Bible was in Truth the most precious possession this world affords…no greater insult could be offered the Creator then to neglect his written word, and conversely there could be no true act of homage to Him than to prize it and pore over it, an then, live out and give out its teaching.”
What is true of Puritanism is true for the Reformation as a whole. For the Reformers, the scripture is the real and living word of the Creator God, his speech and message to his people, and as such it should not be avoided or circumvented. Such belief drove Luther’s reforms as well as his translation work in Wartburg Castle immediately following his condemnation at the Diet of Worms.
If, after all, God is Alpha and Omega, royal father, mighty warrior, savior, redeemer, and friend, then his people know these things because he has revealed himself through his word, and it alone is the means by which they can mine the depths of his character and will for them.
For these reasons, scripture is unlike any other text composed by human authors. John Calvin compares the ultimate authority of the scriptures to the authority of human teaching and finds the latter wanting.
Here is the supreme power with which pastors of the church, by whatever name they are called, should be invested—namely, to dare all boldly for the word of God, compelling all the virtue, glory, wisdom and rank of the world to yield and obey its majesty.
Although, as I have observed, there is this difference between the apostles and their successors, they were sure and authentic amanuenses of the Holy Spirit; and therefore, their writings are to be regarded as the oracles of God, whereas others have no other office than to teach what is delivered and sealed in the Holy Scriptures. We conclude, therefore, that it does not now belong to faithful ministers to coin some new doctrine to which all, without exception, are made subject. (Calvin, Institutes IV, 8, 9)
For Calvin, human teaching has authority only insofar as it rightly conveys the teaching of scripture, and if any human teaching is right, authoritative, and beneficial, it is only because it is conveying the truths in scripture. All authority comes from God, and he has been pleased to reveal himself through his word (Matt 28:18; John 17:2; Eph 1:20-21; Col 2:9-10).
So the Reformers answer the question of God’s speech to us with a resounding “yes!” In the next post in this series we'll consider the answer to the question, "Can we understand what God has to say?"