The Word Aflame

Scripture in the people’s language drove the Reformation

October 2nd, 2017 / By: Jerry Pierce / comments

The Word Aflame

“All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

There is broad agreement among scholars that the common thread in the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s was the Bible, offered in the language of common people, operating on spiritually fertile hearts and minds. 

Separation from a doctrinally degraded and corrupt Roman church became inevitable. Led by a rediscovered scriptural authority and Christ as head of the church, Reformation burned across Europe.

But that sweeping movement, including the subsequent Radical Reformation that influenced modern-day Baptists, had a few faithful witnesses in the Middle Ages who preceded it.

In the 600s, a young man named Caedmon, an illiterate farm hand in the monastery at Whitby, England, began drawing large crowds to hear him sing Bible stories and doctrine he learned from the monks in a way that was both memorable and spiritually fruitful. Caedmon and others who imitated his work kept the Bible’s witness alive despite no Scripture in the language of the people.

By 709, according to a timeline of Bible translation compiled by Wycliffe Bible Translators, the first Anglo-Saxon translation of the Psalms was completed, with Bede’s Anglo-Saxon translation of John’s Gospel following soon after.

But not until John Wycliffe translated the Scripture from the Latin Vulgate was the whole Bible available in English, a task actually completed in 1384 a few months after Wycliffe’s death. According to Paul Wegner, professor of church history at Gateway Seminary and author of The Journey from Texts to Translations: The Origin and Development of the Bible, Wycliffe was, among other concerns, burdened that the Czech wife of England’s Richard II had recently gotten the Scripture in her language, but not the king. 

By 1516, when Erasmus of Rotterdam produced a Greek translation of the New Testament, the printing press had been around for nearly 80 years. A year later, Martin Luther, instructed by the newly available Greek translation, nailed his 95 theses to the church door at Wittenberg, followed by Luther’s translation of the New Testament into the German vernacular in 1522 and the whole Scripture a decade later.

“My wish to God,” Luther is credited with saying, “is that this book were in every language, and in every home.”

Luther’s work, helped along by mass printing and greater literacy among the people, stirred a spiritual awakening.

Cochlaeus, one of Luther’s greatest detractors, complained that “tailors and shoemakers, even women and simpletons,” were conversing with doctors of divinity about biblical and spiritual matters.

In England in the same period, William Tyndale, a priest who spoke seven languages, was so struck by the clarity of Erasmus’ Greek New Testament that helping the masses grasp that justification was by faith in Christ alone became his focus.

Tyndale gave the English a Bible based on the original languages, but he was executed for his zeal, in 1536. “Lord, open the king of England’s eyes!” Tyndale reportedly uttered in his dying breath.

Bart Barber, pastor at First Baptist Church of Farmersville, who earned a Ph.D. in church history, said the Bible in the hands of common people has always been formidable “against religious despotism.”

“Erasmus’s vision that ‘the plowman would sing a text of Scripture at his plow and the weaver would hum them to the tune of his shuttle,’ places into the hands of common people a source of authority unmediated by the hierarchy of priests,” Barber said. “The idea was dangerous enough to carry some of its advocates to the stake. In the end, although the persecutors correctly estimated the danger a common Bible posed to their hegemony, they vastly underestimated their power to hold back the tide of biblical authority.”