Our Spiritual Roots: Scottish Reformation Sola Scriptura
Formation, Deformation, Reformation
Our Reformed Evangelical roots or lineage can be traced back far beyond the sixteenth century Reformation. A perusal of John Calvin’s famous and seminal theological work ‘The Institutes of the Christian Religion’ with its copious quotations from the early church fathers and even medieval ones like Bernard of Clairvaux amply testifies to this.
The very word ‘Reformed’ underpins the accuracy of such a claim. The term clearly implies that there is a standard to re-form in light of. Therefore it may prove helpful to think of three great periods of church history leading up to and including the Reformation.
Firstly there was the period of formation. The New Testament church was formed “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone” (Eph.2:20). And we read of its origins and initial expansion through the preaching and teaching of the gospel and the whole counsel of God in the Acts of the Apostles and the New Testament epistles.
This period of formation possibly lasted into the fifth or even sixth century as the church grew numerically and established itself throughout the known world.
This period of formation however was sadly followed by a long, ever darkening, period of de-formation under the usurped authority of the papacy and the near universal establishment and domination of Roman Catholicism here in the West. And the thing that truly precipitated and promoted this deformation in the church was her departure from the doctrine and teaching of sacred Scripture.
Consequently, in came all manner of false teaching and the subordination and subjection of God’s word to the inventions, opinions and traditions of men who claimed to speak on God’s behalf. God however raised up faithful and courageous men in the sixteenth century like Martin Luther, William Tyndale, John Calvin, John Knox and countless others who took a firm stand for the inspired, infallible and inerrant word of God.
This led to the re-formation of the church and hence the term Reformation. The reformers truly understood that the church stands upon the Scripture and not the other way around as the Church of Rome claimed. Calvin rightly insisted that ‘there is no other way of raising up the Church of God than by the light of the word ... There is no Church, he noted, except it be obedient to the word of God, and be guided by it.’
The reformers in Scotland unquestionably shared these sentiments and as a result, and by the grace and power of God the church and nation were duly transformed on the basis of Scripture alone. God’s word became the litmus test of orthodoxy and faithfulness. Scripture not man’s teaching, inclinations, feelings, emotions or experience became the ultimate authority for the individual Christian and the church collectively.
Of course it is right that we recognise that the Reformation was anticipated and preceded by earlier reforming initiatives. Among the most notable of such was that undertaken by the Waldensians in the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, which was mostly confined to Central and Eastern parts of Europe.
The Waldensians, named after the founder of the movement, Peter Waldo, recognised how far the Medieval Church had deviated from the plain teaching of the Bible and sought a return to the simple faith and practice of the New Testament church. They were brutally persecuted and martyred as a result.
Fourteenth century England similarly experienced an attempt at root and branch reform through the faithful and fearless efforts of John Wycliffe, who posthumously and worthily earned the epithet of ‘Morning star of the Reformation’.
Wycliffe rightly and passionately pointed out to his contemporaries that the Holy Bible as the God-breathed word was the supreme authority and judge in all matters pertaining to Christian faith and practice. If the Scriptures can make one wise unto salvation through faith in Jesus Christ and thoroughly equip us for every good work what more could we possibly require?
Wycliffe’s followers, known as Lollards in England and Scotland kept the torch of reform aflame well into the early sixteenth century. Of particular interest with regard to Scotland, we learn from John Knox’s instructive ‘History of the Reformation in Scotland’ that John Resby of Perth was cruelly executed for holding Lollard convictions as far back as 1407.
Knox also notably begins his ‘History’ by recording the execution of Paul Craw (or Craver) who was burned at the stake at St Andrews on 23 July 1433 for his commitment to the simple teaching of the word of God. Similarly Archbishop Blackadder brought accusations of Lollardy against a number of prominent landowners before King James IV in 1494. By the early 1505 the faithful labours of Murdoch Nisbet, whose New Testament translation into the vernacular Scots language of his day of John Purvey’s revision of Wycliffe’s translation of the Latin Vulgate Bible, made Scripture more readily available to the saints through the circulation of his manuscripts.
Antecedents to Reformation: precursors and stimulants
In addition to these early reform initiatives, it is necessary to highlight two particular developments that greatly aided the advancement and establishment of the Reformation and thus of Biblical Christianity in Scotland and other parts of Europe.
Firstly, it is impossible to overestimate the importance of Johannes Gutenberg’s epochal invention of the printing press with its moveable type in the mid-fifteenth century. His famous Bible while a luxury item in his day nevertheless took a fraction of the time to produce than the hand copied versions that preceded it and could be accurately manufactured in large numbers.
His invention was soon replicated throughout Europe which was understandably and undeniably crucial to the effective spread of Holy Scripture. Moreover, the printed word was paramount in the significant growth of lay literacy that was to be a conspicuous feature of the sixteenth century. For the first time it became both practically and economically possible to produce large numbers of tracts, pamphlets, books and Bibles in different languages and have them distributed throughout the length and breadth of Europe.
The first printing press was set up in Scotland in Edinburgh around the year 1507. However Scripture and Reformed literature had to be printed abroad and smuggled into the country prior to the official parliamentary endorsement of the Reformed Faith in August 1560.
There was a notable exception to this rule when for a brief period in 1543, under the guidance and authority of the earl of Arran, the Scottish Parliament passed an Act granting liberty to all to read the Scriptures in their our native language. Such was the hunger for the word of God that this legislation precipitated the importation of a large quantity of English Bibles.
Commenting on this wonderful providence Knox wrote,
‘This was no small victory of Christ Jesus, fighting against the conjured enemies of his verity; no small comfort to such as before were held in such bondage that they durst not have read the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, nor the articles of faith, in the English tongue, but they should have been accused of heresy.
Then might have been seen the Bible lying upon every gentleman’s table. The New Testament was borne about in many men’s hands.’
Within a couple of decades the mass produced Geneva Bible which incorporated William Tyndale’s accurate translation of the original languages into English with copious footnotes by Calvin, Knox and others helped to forge a truly biblical and Reformed consciousness among Scottish Presbyterians and English Puritans.
The second development that acted as a catalyst towards Reformation was the Renaissance emphasis on philology or literary criticism. Of significantly great importance was Erasmus’s translation of the Greek New Testament in 1516. This exposed a number of textual errors in the Jerome or Latin Vulgate Bible, which had been the authorised or definitive text since the fourth century AD.
Alistair McGrath in his biography on John Calvin provides two explosive examples. Firstly, he points out that the reformers could now show on the basis of textual analysis of Scripture that the cult of the Virgin Mary had partly arisen from Jerome’s mistranslation of the original Greek. Jerome had translated the words of the angel Gabriel recorded at Luke 1:28 describing Mary as gratia plena, one who is full of grace. On the basis of that particular mistranslation, medieval theologians had wrongly taught that Mary was a reservoir of grace that could replenish hungry souls on demand, thereby providing a false platform on which the cult of the Virgin Mary was erected.
Those acquainted with Erasmus’s Greek New Testament, however, could now show that the original Greek text simply stated that Mary was a ‘favoured one’ or one who had found favour in the eyes of God. Thus a very prominent and enduring element in medieval theology was starkly contradicted and refuted by the plain teaching of God’s word.
Likewise the Latin Vulgate translated the opening words of the Lord Jesus’ ministry recorded in Matthew 4:17 as ‘do penance’ for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. The Medieval sacrament of penance was defended and given credence on the basis of these very words. However, the reformers could again point out that the original Greek should be translated, as ‘repent’ not do penance. Where the Vulgate appeared to refer to the rite of penance, the reformers were able to point out that the Bible actually taught something quite different.
Repentance rather means to change one’s mind, it means to turn around – to turn away from sin, Satan, self and the world and turn to God and his word for life, light and salvation. The reformers could now effectively show from the Bible that salvation and reconciliation with God are by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone and this glorious truth categorically excludes the need for works of penance.
As God’s word makes clear, salvation is not of works, lest any man should boast (Eph. 2:9). It was surely no coincidence whatsoever that the first of Martin Luther’s incendiary 95 Theses, which he nailed to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church on 31 October 1517 in protest against the sale of indulgences and other corrupt practices made direct reference to Matthew 4:17.
There can be little or no doubt that the power and efficacy of our Reformed Evangelical forebears lay in their Spirit-led conviction that the Holy Bible is the inspired and infallible word of God. It alone is authoritative on all matters relating to faith and doctrine. Only by grasping this precious truth, and following in the footsteps of these godly men, can the Church of today confront and vanquish the powers of darkness. We must, once again, take up “the sword of truth, which is the word of God” (Eph 6:17).
Sola Scriptura – Scripture alone – was the clarion call of the Reformation. Through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, this belief was powerfully proclaimed and readily accepted throughout the length and breadth of Protestant Europe in the mid-sixteenth century. As a result, and by the grace of God, eyes were opened. Men were turned from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God. They received forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who are sanctified by faith in Christ (Acts 26:18). Martin Luther, reflecting on his momentous ministry, wrote ‘All I have done is to put forth, preach and write the Word of God, and apart from this I have done nothing’.
In Scotland, as elsewhere, the authority, centrality, reliability and sufficiency of the Bible became deeply embedded in the hearts and minds of our Reformation forebears.
Patrick Hamilton and George Wishart were among a host of believers who went to the stake professing this central tenet of the Christian faith. At his trial, Wishart’s unshakeable resolve and commitment to the word of God stood in stark contrast to that of his adversaries and persecutors. Like Stephen, the first martyr in the New Testament church, he boldly and defiantly confronted those who accused him of heresy and sedition. He said to them,
‘I desire to be heard for three causes: the first is because through preaching of the word of God his glory is made manifest: it is reasonable therefore, for the advancing of the glory of God, that ye hear me teaching truly the pure and sincere word of God, without any dissimulation.
The second reason was because that your health springeth of the word of God, for he worketh all things by his word: it were therefore an unrighteous thing that ye should stop your ears from the teaching truly of the word of God.
The third reason is because your doctrine speaketh forth many pestilentious, blasphemous, and abominable words, not coming by the inspiration of God, but of the devil, and no less peril than my life.’
Nothing encapsulated the blind ignorance of the visible church of those times than the words of George Crichton, Bishop of Dunkeld. After ensuring that Thomas Forret, the vicar of Dollar, was burned in Edinburgh in 1539 for daring to preach the Gospel, Crichton expostulated; ‘I thanke God, that I never knew what the Old and New Testament was!’
By contrast, the preface to the Scots Confession of Faith, composed by John Knox and his compatriots at the instigation of the Scottish Parliament in August 1560, bears witness to the primacy of the Bible in the thought and actions of the Scottish Reformation fathers. This impressive document served the Church well until it was replaced by our own more systematic Westminster Confession of Faith in the late 1640s. Its authors made the following humble but categorical appeal:
If any man will note in this our Confession any article or sentence repugning (repugnant) to God’s holy word, that it would please him of his gentleness, and for Christian charity’s sake, to admonish us of the same in writ; and we of our honour and fidelity do promise unto him satisfaction from the mouth of God (that is, from his holy Scriptures), or else reformation of that which he shall prove to be amiss.
The Scots’ Confession, echoing the words of the apostle Paul in 2 Timothy, explicitly declared; ‘We believe and confess the Scriptures of God sufficient to instruct and make the man of God perfect, so do we affirm and avow the authority of the same to be of God, and neither to depend on men nor angels’.
Godly church and nation
In a similar vein, the same compilers of The (First) Book of Discipline firmly based their blueprint for the creation of a godly society, not on the wisdom of man, but on God’s ‘plain Scriptures’.
The first section of that work proclaimed; ‘Seeing that Christ Jesus is he whom God the Father has commanded only (i.e., alone) to be heard, and followed of his sheep, we urge it necessary that his Evangel be truly and openly preached in every Kirk and Assembly of this Realm; and that all doctrine repugning to the same be utterly suppressed as damnable to man’s salvation’.
The reformers continued; ‘By preaching of the Evangel, we understand not only the Scriptures of the New Testament, but also of the Old; to wit, the Law, Prophets, and Histories, in which Christ Jesus is no less contained in figure, than we have him now expressed in verity’.
The Reformers stridently condemned the multifarious accretions that had blighted and corrupted the Church throughout the long period of deformation. They outlawed ‘whatsoever men, by Laws, Councils, or Constitutions have imposed upon the consciences of men, without the expressed commandment of God’s word’.
The quest to re-form and renew the Church in Scotland according to the Biblical model bore fruit to the Lord’s glory. Ordinary men and women, starved of spiritual nourishment for so long, were encouraged and taught to worship God in spirit and in truth.
The Reformers implored the populace to read the Bible and fellowship with God on a daily basis. Christians learned what it truly means to walk in the light of the Gospel.
John Knox besought his fellow believers in 1557; ‘Let no day slip or want some comfort received from the mouth of God. Open your ears, and he will speak even pleasant things to your heart. Close not your eyes, but diligently let them behold what portion of substance is left to you within your Father’s testament. Let your tongues learn to praise the gracious goodness of him, whose mere mercy has called you from darkness to life’.
There is an invaluable lesson here which needs to be imbibed afresh today. We like Reformed forefathers must take our stand firmly upon the inspired, infallible and inerrant word of God. Surely one of the principle causes of the deep-seated spiritual malaise that has cast such a dark shadow over large swathes of the visible church throughout our nation and further afield, is due to its abandonment of its Reformation heritage, and particularly the doctrine of sola Scriptura.
The way forward is the way back – to the Bible, the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Let us preach it and teach it with confidence and conviction. Let us study it regularly and encourage others therein. And may God see fit to bless our labours to His praise and glory.