Monday, August 13, 2018

WEEKLY COMMENTARY: Did the Reformation Bring Us Closer to the Bible?

One of the most dramatic chapters in the history of Christianity was the Reformation of the 16th century.  This was a religious movement marked ultimately by rejection or modification of some Roman Catholic doctrine and practice, and the establishment of Protestant churches.

One history of the Reformation suggests that making the Bible directly accessible to "the people" may be compared in its social and cultural effects to a vast irrigation project which provides water to dry land.  "Men's religious natures were provided with life-giving water," it was said.  People could now read their Bibles for themselves and find directly such truths as the sovereignty of God, salvation by faith, and the proper conduct of the Christian life.

Since the Bible was seen as centrally important in all forms of Protestantism, it was not by chance that the Reformation was accompanied by great activity in the translation of the Bible into the various languages of Europe, so that it might be directly accessible to common folk.  Previously, the Bible had been faithfully translated into Latin, but only the well-educated and church people could read Latin.  The interest in language translation was further enabled by the development of modern printing.  Gutenberg built his first printing press in 1450.

Martin Luther was a leader in articulating what would become Protestant thought during the time of the Reformation.  By 1510, Luther had been ordained a priest, but he was deeply troubled by feeling personally alienated from God.  He sought relief through the rigors of becoming a monk and joining a monastery.

For  Luther, the question was:  "How is an unrighteous person (a fallen sinner) made righteous in the sight of God ---- especially, if he or she wants to be admitted to Heaven upon death?"  Luther tried every means in the Roman Catholic system, seeking to put himself "right" with God.  He did not believe he had been successful.

But, as he did further Bible study he began to see that being put "right" with God was not to be earned just by human effort.  Instead, it is a gift from God which sinful mankind alone cannot earn or deserve.  This free grace, Luther concluded, can be achieved only by mankind's inner trust or faith in God.  But mankind must be truly open to receiving this free grace.

Faith, for Luther, was simply an inward act of saying "yes" to God.  It meant turning with trust and loyalty to God as the center and source of one's life ---- dealing directly with God.  This was a new way to look at religion, rendering useless and trivial much of the elaborate medieval Roman Catholic system, where one's priest was one's only route to justification with God.  In 1519, Luther debated publicly with Roman Catholic leaders.  Luther argued that the Scriptures of the Bible are an authority above the Church.  The following year he was excommunicated.

The natural state of mankind, said Martin Luther, is alienation from God ---- proud self-worship.  By man's own acts he would be powerless to save himself.  Luther placed little confidence in the capacity of reason to turn mankind to God.  Because mankind is "fallen," Luther believed, man's reasoning is itself depraved and sinful, and thus leads man away from God.  Faith, not reason, was for Luther the way mankind approaches God.  By "faith," Luther meant neither the use of intellect, nor so-called mystical experiences, but simply by being open to God's grace and love.

For Luther the good news of this reconciliation between mankind and God is revealed to us through the Bible.  Luther believed in directly teaching from the Bible as the final authority in all matters of religion ---- not just following the lessons of tradition, the Church and the Pope.  Luther said that one had only to read the God-inspired pages of the Bible, with an honest and seeking mind guided by one's inner promptings from the Holy Spirit.

The riches of faith to be had in the Bible, in Luther's view, made philosophical speculation unnecessary.  More importantly, having direct accessibility to the Bible leads straight to the doctrine of the "priesthood of all believers," as Luther put it.  Thus, God's truth through Christ is not the exclusive prerogative of a priest or the Pope.  Rather, each person may and must guide their own life by Scripture and right reason, interpreted according to their best judgment.  Finding this truth, or rather being found by it, the Christian is a "free" man, Luther believed.  But a part of the exercise of free will consists in bearing witness to others.  As Luther saw it, "the priesthood of believers" meant not only that every man or woman was their own priest, but also that they were a priest to every other man or woman.

Following Martin Luther's teaching about the supremacy of the Bible, Scripture reading is always part of our worship services at Central Presbyterian Church.  While our Senior Pastor may illuminate the Scripture reading for that day, in the last analysis, as Luther said, it is up to each of us to find within ourselves the intended message of the Scripture passage.  This is the direct word of God ---- no intermediaries required!
These thoughts are brought to you by CPC's Adult Spiritual Development Team, hoping to encourage you to pursue some personal spiritual growth this summer at CPC.

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