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HISTORY’S BESTSELLER – PART TWO

HISTORY’S BESTSELLER – PART TWO

Ted Schroder, January 30, 2005

The first complete version of the Bible in English was written by John Wycliffe and his followers and appeared in 1384. It was translated from the Latin Bible. In 1408 the production and use of the Scriptures in the vernacular was forbidden without the permission of the ecclesiastical authorities. It was an attempt, by the clergy, to control the interpretation of the Bible. Wycliffe claimed that every man should have the right and an opportunity to read the Bible for himself, and build up his beliefs on what he had read. “I believe, that in the end truth will conquer.” Thirty years after his death his bones were dug up and thrown into the river, because of his work.

In 1526 William Tyndale printed the first English New Testament directly from the Greek. He had to do it in Germany because the English church hierarchy had prohibited the translation. Tyndale managed to smuggle Bibles into England and they spread throughout the country. When news of their arrival leaked out the church authorities gathered up as many as they could find and burned them in a bonfire in the courtyard of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. As Chancellor of England, Sir Thomas More waged a bitter war of words with Tyndale, whom he called, “that beast and hell-hound of the Devil’s kennel.” It was at his instigation that, along with other Protestant reformers, Tyndale was apprehended, in Antwerp, strangled and burned at the stake. Just before he died he cried out, “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes.” The next year, Edward Fox, Bishop of Hereford, addressed his brother bishops, “Make not yourselves the laughing-stock of the world; light is sprung up, and is scattering all the clouds. The lay people know the Scriptures better than many of us.”

It was not until 1539 that the Great Bible was made available in every parish church. When Bishop Bonner set up the first six Bibles in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, crowds of people flocked to hear them read aloud. They had to be chained to lecterns so that they could not be stolen. A.G. Dickens in The English Reformation, wrote, “Our own age can only by an effort of the imagination grasp the full impact of the vernacular Bible upon a generation more ardent and narrow in its Christianity than our own, yet from which the private study of the Scriptures had been so rigorously withheld. It is hard indeed to recapture that blissful sense of release and new awakening.” (p.95)

The Bible in our own language is a legacy to be treasured because it was bought at the cost of many dedicated lives. What motivated Wycliffe, Tyndale and other Bible translators to give their lives to the task of providing us with this book? They believed that the Bible contained the truth of God which the medieval church had obscured and distorted. They wanted to put the Bible in the hands of every person, who could read in their own language, the truth of the Gospel.

At the heart of the Gospel, and therefore, at the heart of the New Testament, is the claim that it reveals the truth. Jesus said to Pontius Pilate: “for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” (John 18:37) In response to this claim, Pilate asked, “What is truth?” It is THE question of our age.

Most people do not believe that we know such a thing as ultimate truth, or absolute truth, but only truth that is relative, constructed by each one of us, from our own perspective, to benefit us. Each person has to choose what he or she believes to be the truth. Each person has to choose whether or not to believe the claim of Jesus to speak the truth. Choosing to follow Jesus, to be a Christian, is the choice to accept his word of truth to be authoritative for one’s life. It is to choose to accept his word as the guiding light for our faith and conduct.

That word is to be found in the words of Scripture. The only Jesus we know is the Jesus of the New Testament. Jesus said to those who believed him: “If you hold to my teaching [which is to be found in the Scripture], you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31,32)

What is the basis for believing that the Scriptures of the New, as well as the Old, Testament, contain the word of Christ and are specially, uniquely, and fully inspired by God? What theologians call plenary inspiration?

Jesus told his disciples: “when the Spirit comes, he will guide you into all truth.” He said to these same disciples that the Spirit will, “teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.”

Jesus was preparing for the continuation of his ministry through the disciples. He was providing for the writing of the New Testament. He alone, at the time he spoke these words, knew that out of this group of disciples, and Paul, would be created the New Testament. He had gathered around him an apostolic community in order to preserve his words, and to communicate them to the world. So when Jesus spoke to the disciples in the Upper Room about the Spirit leading them into all truth, he was talking to them about their role as bearers and witnesses to the truth he had entrusted to them.

When he said, “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear… he will tell you what is to yet to come,… the Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you,” (John 16:12,13,15) the “you” he is referring to is them – the apostolic community of the first century, the writers of the New Testament. The Spirit would remind the apostles of what Jesus said in his earthly ministry so that they could write down the Gospels. But since they could not understand the implications of his ministry and the significance of what was yet to come: his death, resurrection, and ascension, and the coming of the Spirit, there would have to be further revelation so that they could write the rest of the New Testament. The Church recognized this special inspiration by closing the canon of the New Testament, and not accepting any other writings as eligible to be included.

This special inspiration of the apostles elevates them to a higher authority than any other and subsequent Christian writers. This is important to remember when some church leaders claim that they have the authority of the apostles, and are inspired to pronounce the truth. One of the most controversial issues today in the American church is the interpretation of this word of Jesus to the apostles. Some church leaders have taken the promise of Jesus that the Spirit would guide the disciples in the Upper Room “into all truth,” as license for them to claim that they are being led by the Spirit to new and novel interpretations of Scripture that have the effect of changing Christian belief and practice.

Here is what the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Frank Griswold, has written. “God’s truth is ever unfolding and the Holy Spirit is still leading us on. According to Jesus’ words in the Gospel of John it is the function of the Spirit of truth to lead us ever more deeply into the fullness of truth. Jesus is speaking to his disciples, not individually but collectively, as a community. He tells them he has many more things to say which they are unable to bear at the present moment. He tells them the Spirit will draw from what is his and make it known to them. From this we know that the appropriation of ‘the truth as in Jesus’ is a process of continuing prayer and discernment which involves us both personally and collectively as a community of faith.”

Now that sounds very sensible and plausible until it is used as justification for the present apostolic community of the church, by majority vote, in its meeting together in council, or convention, to claim the leading of the Holy Spirit for its decisions to overturn the plain meaning of Scripture in favor of some recent cultural trends. In his defense of such actions the same church leader asked, “Is this possibly an instance where we’ve learned something that takes us beyond the world of the Bible and therefore the texts used don’t really apply?”

What he, and others of like mind, is implying is that Jesus did not guide the apostles into all the truth that was needed, that the Scriptures are inadequate, and insufficient for our use. They would relegate the Scriptures to merely human documents that can be A guide, but not THE divinely inspired Word of God.

Those who would hold to the truth and sufficiency of the Scriptures for our salvation, have been accused of being literal fundamentalists, unsophisticated in their interpretations of the Scriptures, who do not understand and appreciate the metaphorical and symbolic truth of the Christian tradition, and the progress made through modern research and scientific knowledge. Such were similar accusations made against Wycliffe and Tyndale and their like, when the church authorities claimed that only they could rightly interpret the Scriptures for the ignorant layman. Just because one believes in the truth and sufficiency of Holy Scripture does not mean that one is necessarily a fundamentalist. John Stott describes the differences between the fundamentalist, the liberal, and the evangelical.

“The fundamentalist seems to me to resemble a caged bird, which possesses the capacity for flight, but lacks the freedom to use it. For the fundamentalist mind is confined or caged by an over-literal interpretation of Scripture, and by the strict traditions and conventions into which this has led him. He is not at liberty to question these, or to explore alternative, equally faithful ways of applying Scripture to the modern world for he cannot escape from his cage.”

“The liberal seems to me to resemble (no offense meant!) a gas-filled balloon, which takes off and rises into the air, buoyant, free, directed only by its own built-in navigational responses to wind and pressure, but entirely unrestrained from earth. For the liberal mind has no anchorage, it is accountable only to itself.”

“The evangelical seems to me to resemble a kite, which can take off, fly great distances and soar to great heights, while all the time being tethered to the earth. For the evangelical mind is held by revelation. I see evangelicals as finding true freedom under the authority of revealed truth, and combining a radical mindset and lifestyle with a conservative commitment to Scripture.” (Essentials, p.106)

Jesus took pains to make sure that his truth would be transmitted down through the ages in a permanent form. Prophets, apostles and other translators like Wycliffe and Tyndale, labored so that we might have access to the Spirit-inspired word of truth. Today we have the fruit of their labors in our English Bible. Let us value it enough to read it, and study it, so that it will form our lives in the truth of Christ.

Amelia Plantation Chapel

Amelia Island, Florida

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