The Explosive Effect of the Bible

If there is a single thread running through the whole story of the Reformation, it is the explosive and renovating and often disintegrating effect of the Bible.[1]

It’s this idea that Timothy George unpacks in Reading Scripture with the Reformers.[2] So often, when it comes to our retelling of the events of the Reformation, we focus on the preaching ministry of pastors like Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and others. And rightly so! After all, the recovery of God’s Word went hand-in-hand with a recovery of the preaching of God’s Word. In large part, this is how God’s Word was opened up for people.

However, we must not forget that once people received the Word, they themselves now were equipped to speak and defend and live out that Word. In Reading Scripture with the Reformers, George provides several vignettes of the transformational effect of the Word, even among some unexpected individuals:

A Poor Goatherd and the Power of God’s Word

Thomas Platter was born in 1499 and grew up in abject poverty. He initially worked as a goatherd, but later joined a group of wandering students and taught himself to read and write, eventually learning Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. In the 1520s, he moved to Zurich where he met Myconius, a leading educator in the city who made Platter a custodian for the cathedral choir. There, Platter would become convinced of the truth of the gospel and the worthlessness of all other alternatives. One cold winter morning, Platter’s job was to make the daily fire to warm up the building for Zwingli to preach, and so he grabbed the nearest kindling he could find… a statue of St. John:

As the bells rang for the service, I thought: “You have no wood, yet there are so many idols in this church.” So I went to the nearest altar, seized the statue of St. John, and put it in the stove. “Johnny,” I said to him, “Bend yourself, because you have to go into the stove even though you may be St. John.” During the sermon, Myconius said, “You surely had wood today,” and I thought: “St. John has done his best.” (47)

Thomas Platter would return to his home village and there be accosted by a local priest who condemned the heretical teaching of Zurich. To his surprise, the local yokel responded:

“Why are they heretics?” demanded Platter. “Because they do not consider the Pope the head of the Christian Church.” “Why” continued Platter, “is the Pope the head of the Christian Church?” “Because St. Peter was the pope at Rome.” Whereupon, as Platter recalled, “I drew my Testament out of my little sack” and proved to the priest that “St. Peter had never once been in Rome.” (47)

This former goatherd would eventually go on to become a printer and schoolmaster in Basel, printing and distributing the Scriptures to the people, and teaching them to read it for themselves. As a printer, his great claim to fame came in 1536 when he set to type the first edition of Calvin’s Institutes.

Argula and Her Arguments

Argula von Grumbach was born around 1492 in the region of Bavaria. As a young girl, she received a special gift from her father: a copy of the Bible in German. This Bible would go on to shape her life, as she would become an important supporter of the Reformation. She is best remembered for her defense of an 18-year old student at the University of Ingolstadt who was forced to renounce his evangelical faith under threat of torture. In 1523, she challenged the professors at the university and her public letter created a sensation, going through fourteen editions in less than two months. What is striking about her appeal is that she grounds her arguments again and again in Scripture:

“I can find no word in the Bible about this Roman Church.”

“I hear nothing about any of you refuting a single article [the authorities had drawn up seventeen “heretical” articles by the student] from Scripture.” (49)

“What do Luther or Melanchthon teach you but the Word of God? You condemn them without having refuted them. Did Christ teach you so, or his apostles, prophets, or evangelists? Show me where this is written!” (50)

Though her arguments did not carry the day at Ingolstadt and she was condemned as a “silly bag” and a “female devil”, “her case reveals that even in the male-dominated world of the Reformation, a biblically literate and well-read woman could gain a hearing and have an effect by appealing to the Scriptures.” (50)

The story of the Reformation is the story of the power of God’s Word, not only among heroes of the faith but in the lives of common people like Thomas and Argula. This is the vision which we must carry on today. The goal of preaching is not merely to have pastors who preach excellent sermons. It is for God’s Word to reverberate in the hearts of believers so that they are equipped to proclaim and live out the truth of the Word in all the different contexts of everyday life.

As Thomas Cranmer reminded his people, far from being limited in usefulness to those who are in “ministry,” God’s Word is to be unleashed for all people:

Here may all manner of persons, men, women, young, old, learned, unlearned, rich, poor, priests, laymen, lords, ladies, officers, tenants, and mean men, virgins, wives, widows, lawyers, merchants, artificers, husbandmen, and all manner of persons, of what state or condition soever they be, may in this book learn all things what they ought to believe, what they ought to do, and what they should not do, as well concerning Almighty God, as also concerning themselves and all other. (136)

 

[1] G.R. Elton, Reformation Europe, 1517-1559 (New York: Harper & Row, 1963), p. 52.

[2] Timothy George, Reading Scripture with the Reformers (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2011). All the following quotes are taken from this book.

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