The Rise and Nature of Biblical Authority in the Church (part 3)

This is the fourth installment on my series, “Future Church, Future Bible,” projecting the possible future role of the Bible in evangelical churches. Recently we have been looking historically at the early church’s practices concerning Scripture. The early church, before the completion and collection of the New Testament, esteemed the Scriptures from its Jewish roots, using the Greek translation of the Old Testament we call the Septuagint. At the same time, words of Jesus were accorded special, Scriptural-like authority before our Gospels were written. The writings of the apostles were also esteemed and began to be treated as Scripture. Beginning in its early centuries, serious Christian writers were both using Scriptural citations in their polemic and apologetic writings to define and bolster their positions. Great scholars like Origen began to do systematic exposition of Bible books, using predefined methodology to interpret the meaning of Scripture for their readers.

Skip to the sixteenth century. The church is in the final stages of emerging from the “dark ages,” a development influenced by many things. Not the least of these factors is the invention and continuing perfection of the printing press. In the 1450s, the first major publishing project began using movable type. The publisher, Johannes Gutenberg of Mainz, chose his first book carefully and his choice is instructive. He printed the Bible in a grand fashion, impressively large and luxuriously bound. What is important for our study is that he chose the Bible as his first project and that the version he used was the Latin Vulgate text, which included the books of the apocrypha.

The cost of Gutenberg’s Bibles and the limited production meant they found homes in large churches and libraries, not in homes (for the most part). Even with papal approval, the Latin text made it inaccessible to all but the learned. Yet the printing technological revolution had begun, and there was money to be made in producing smaller and less expensive books. This spurred something of a revival of biblical scholarship, partly because printers needed reliable texts to publish that would be accepted by the church and the public.

At the same time, the authority of the church in Rome was being questioned on many fronts. This can be attributed to factors such as rising nationalism, abuse or neglect of spiritual authority, crusade fatigue, rediscovery of classical pagan philosophers by the humanists, and the extravagance of building projects in Rome and elsewhere despite grinding poverty in much of Europe. This set the stage for a German-speaking Augustinian monk, Martin Luther.

It is not overstatement to say that Martin Luther changed the entire trajectory of biblical scholarship, and that his influence continues until today. Luther did this in two primary ways. First, he began to study the texts of Bible books in something like an objective, modern way. He wanted to know what the author said and meant when the author originally wrote. Luther did not feel bound by traditional interpretations that were sometimes intended to benefit the church establishment.

Second, Luther believed that Scripture needed to be widely available to all Christians. Perhaps his greatest contribution to the church was his German translation, later called the Luther Bible. For the first time in 1,500 years, Christians might be able to own a copy of the Bible in their home and read it in their language. In both of these things, we like to think that Luther shifted the locus of authority from the Roman Catholic church and its magisterium to Scriptures, but that is not really what happened. As we shall see, the Scripture is now seen with a new level of authority, but the shift was from the authorized church interpreters to individual Christians as interpreters. If a semi-learned layman could read Scriptures for himself, then he could interpret it for himself, too.

This is the beginning of the evangelical tradition of today: Scriptures widely available in common translations and at low cost for a literate church membership. In America, one of the motivations for public schools was to produce a literate people who were able to read the Bible for themselves. Protestants have little patience for official, church-decreed interpretations of Scripture. We can read it for ourselves!

Next: Biblical Authority in the Evangelical Church Today

Mark S. Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University

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