The Reformation and The Bible
Many people, if they have ever heard of the Middle Ages (say, 600-1500 AD), tend to think they have absolutely nothing to do with modern times. After all, they didn’t have television, computers, YouTube or Starbucks, right? Well, the truth is, of course, not so simple. In crucial ways, we are perhaps more like the men and women of the Middle Ages than our forebears from the times of the Reformation.
Let me explain. When the Reformers placed the Bible at the centre of the church’s life and worship, they were making a move that was dramatic both culturally and theologically. In terms of culture, Europe was moving from a situation where pictures and images had been all important to one where the written word would be king. In terms of theology, they were moving from a situation where the centre point of worship was the sacraments, particularly the mass, to one where it was the preaching of the Word. Salvation was no longer understood as being mediated through priest and mass; it came from hearing the promise of the gospel and grasping it by faith.
This had immediate impact in various areas. First, it became necessary that the reading of the Bible and the preaching of the Word were the priority in worship. Second, what was said in the service, whether it was Bible reading, sermon, or liturgy, needed to be said in a way that was comprehensible to the congregation. In other words, the vernacular became the language of the church, both in Bible translation and in worship. And, of course, it also generated social aspirations to literacy and the ideal of people having their own Bibles that they could read and from which they could benefit.
What underlay all this change was a firm, theological conviction that God is a God who speaks. In creation, God spoke and where there was nothing, suddenly there was something. When Moses saw the burning bush, it was not the flames or the bush that was significant: it was the Voice that spoke, that called, and that commanded. When the prophets called Israel to repentance, they certainly engaged in theatrics and symbolic displays; but always they accompanied such with speaking the Word of God. God speaks, calls, commands, promises – and through His speech, Protestants believe He establishes, confirms, nourishes, and brings to fulfillment His relationship with humanity. Thus, the centrality of preaching and of the Bible are not simply cultural forms for expressing Christianity. This centrality is a function of who God is, how He has revealed himself, and how He deals with His people.
Cut to the present: we live in a world where images, whether in glossy magazines, on the television, or on the internet, are all-important. Politicians need to look polished and, preferably, good-looking. The most important elements in the success of any company or political party are, without doubt, the image consultants and the marketing people. And our entertainments of choice are visual, image-based, not word-based. In short, we live in a culture where that which we see is once again back on centre stage. As with medieval Catholicism, words remain – we can hardly live without them – but he who controls the image controls the culture.
This is bad news for the evangelical faith because it means that the essence of that faith – its wordiness, rooted in a notion of God as One who, above all, speaks – is about as counter-cultural and as unmarketable as it comes. So, there are continual pressures within the church to water down this commitment to words – and thus to the idea of a God who speaks – by shifting the focus elsewhere: elaborate and ornate worship styles, social activism, and alternatives to preaching.
Yet the point is this: Reformation theology and Reformation wordiness go hand-in-hand. Drop the latter and God becomes something else, no longer the One whose primary identity is as the One who speaks; and salvation is no longer understood as grasping the Word by faith. So what are we to do? Well, start by reading 1 Corinthians 1. Paul’s point there is that the Church is never built by those people or techniques which are deemed strong or wise by worldly criteria. The content of the gospel, the cross of Christ (and for cross, I think we should understand the whole of the Bible’s story, culminating in the cross) is both foolishness and an outrage. Yet God delights to build His Church through this message and through the most unlikely characters (weak in the world’s eyes) so that all glory goes to Him. His power in the church and in the world, as in the cross, lies in weakness. The power of words may be culturally diminished, but the content of the gospel has never had any cultural power; and the form of the gospel – its “wordiness” – reflects not the particular preferences of any culture or society, but the very nature of God as He reveals Himself. And therein lies the power: we live in a world akin to the Middle Ages; yet the Middle Ages were the birthplace of the Reformation. The God who spoke with power then may yet speak with power today.