Then Moses commanded them: “At the end of every seven years, in the year for canceling debts, during the Festival of Tabernacles, when all Israel comes to appear before the Lord your God at the place he will choose, you shall read this law before them in their hearing. Assemble the people—men, women and children, and the foreigners residing in your towns—so they can listen and learn to fear the Lord your God and follow carefully all the words of this law.
- Deuteronomy 31:10-12
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
- 2 Timothy 3:16-17
“It is Truth which we must look for in Holy Writ, not
cunning of words. All Scripture ought to
be read in the spirit in which it was written.
We must rather seek for what is profitable in Scripture, than for what
ministereth to subtlety in discourse. Therefore
we ought to read books which are devotional and simple, as well as those which
are deep and difficult. And let not the
weight of the writer be a stumbling-block to thee, whether he be of little or
much learning, but let the love of the pure Truth draw thee to read. Ask not, who hath said this or that, but look
to what he says.
“Men pass away, but the truth of the Lord endureth for ever. …”
- Thomas á Kempis, The Imitation of Christ
“Strangely enough, once a novice actually became a
monk, he was no longer allowed to keep his Bible. At that point, he must limit himself to only
reading scholarly books, and those while in his cell. It seems that only in Luther’s private time
in the library of the monastery did he have access to the Bible after his novitiate. We get the clear impression that Luther felt
he must read the thing itself, must pull from it the answers to his questions
and problems, and we get the idea that for him the scholarly books and
commentaries were not helping. If
anything, they were making his problems worse and were more obscuring than enlightening.”
“[At the Leipzig Debate of 1519] But in the heat of battle, he took some new and shocking theological positions from which he could never again retreat. He came out decisively for the idea that the Bible must supersede the church, which came to be known as the idea of Sola Scriptura. He also derided the doctrine ofpurgatory, asking where in the Bible it could be found. Those were dangerous and provocative stands that no one had any idea he would take – not least himself – when two years earlier the subject of indulgences first prompted him to write his Ninety-five Theses.”
- Eric Metaxas, Martin Luther
On this, the birthday of the church, Pentecost, you’d think I might write about the Holy Spirit coming upon the Apostles and maybe copy Peter’s sermon as the Scripture in Acts 2. That might wait for next year. But Pentecost is not simply a point in history nearly 2,000 years ago that we celebrate each year. It is a promise to us today.
What we need to know is that the Holy Spirit enters us when we accept Jesus as our Savior and fills us. We have the capacity for understanding the Scriptures, just like the Apostle Peter at Pentecost or the Apostle Paul as he exhorts young Timothy in 2 Timothy 3. We need to read the Scriptures in order to understand them. The Holy Spirit usually reveals the understanding in small doses. God knows our limits and works within them.
For us to understand the Voice, we must understand Scripture. We must read Scripture. To distinguish if we are hearing God’s Voice, what is said will not violate Scripture. Thus, we must know it. The Scripture above regarding the Festival of Tabernacles (or Festival of Booths or Succoth) says that the Scriptures regarding the subject must be read to the people.
The advent of the printing press changed the world, especially in regard to reading Scripture. Combine the Gutenberg printing press with Luther’s passion to translate the Bible into German, and then anyone who could read, could study the Scriptures. But that gets ahead of the story, a bit.
The á Kempis quote starts off beautifully. It then stumbles a bit before becoming totally derailed. His second paragraph recovers in the first sentence, but the damage is done. In the 1400s, á Kempis was part of the church system that took Luther’s Bible from him once he fully became a monk, after his novitiate. In the century that preceded the Reformation, it was thought that the Scriptures were too heady for the common folk, thus scholars should ‘explain’ the Scriptures. But then they went a step further in stating that future scholars were inferior, and they needed only to study the great works of their masters and forget proving the scholarly works or writing new scholarly works with Biblical research of their own. A commentary on the á Kempis book admitted that he had nothing original, either Biblical references or restating previous scholars. The book still exists in that á Kempis stated everything eloquently and the book is packed full of quotable quotes, covering a wide range of topics. But in a world where only a few had access to the Bible, purgatory could exist, because the novice monk might have missed it in his reading and then his Bible was taken away once he became a fully ordained monk. As á Kempis tries to justify, for the simple person, the Scriptures are too important to be misinterpreted.
Yet, Martin Luther spent a great deal of time between his novice years, around 1507 until the Leipzig debates of 1519, doing his own Bible reading and understanding. Yet, what of Sola Scriptura? As Metaxas writes, even Luther was shocked by his own words. He had not developed the concept. The words just erupted from his lips. If he was shocked, why did he say the words? Let’s consider the Apostle Peter. Did Peter spend the waiting period between the ascension and Pentecost writing his sermon? No, not hardly. Jesus had challenged Peter to feed His sheep, but without the Holy Spirit, Peter was lost. Yet, it was instantaneous from receiving the Holy Spirit to preaching. In my thinking, Martin Luther was backed into a corner at the Leipzig debate, literally and figuratively, and the Holy Spirit simply took over. Luther then had to scramble in his Biblical study to fully flesh out the idea of Sola Scriptura.
The history books will claim that Sola Scriptura, the concept that our beliefs must be solely based on Scripture – and especially not based on edicts from the church government, was a concept developed by Martin Luther, but was it not the Holy Spirit using Luther as a vessel to restate what the Apostle Paul had said so many centuries before?
Luther had written his 95 Theses to condemn indulgences – the topic of the Leipzig debates. For those who are unfamiliar, the indulgences allowed you to buy your way into heaven, pay to get loved ones out of purgatory, and other such things. It excluded those who could not afford the price and made the folks in Rome very, very rich. Luther, in his study of the Scriptures, that he had been told not to do, could not find any justification for any such indulgences. Indulgences emerged from penance, but in Luther’s study, he realized the correct translation should have been repentance instead.
His 95 Theses gained attention, but the reason for the debate being in Leipzig was twofold. Members of the German royalty were present, with the power to support a refusal to make payments to Rome, and if Luther had gone to Rome for the debate, there would have been no debate. He would have been arrested and killed as a heretic before he could spread his message.
After Luther’s death in 1546, the Catholic church tried to squelch the Reformation and take over the German church by force, but Luther had opened one “box” (likening to Pandora’s Box) from which Rome could not recover. The people had the Scripture in their hands, and they would not accept going back to a secretive society where the priests said what Rome wanted them to say and no one could read the Scriptures.
Today, they have Bible study in Catholic churches. This post is not a condemnation of that denomination. This post tells a bit of history. The church, whether an individual church or the catholic Church (meaning the communion of all believers regardless of denomination), doesn’t get everything right. When things go horribly wrong, as they had in Luther’s time, God steps in.
If the Holy Spirit was not active in counseling the church, times like the early 1500s would have destroyed the church. Jesus defeated Satan on the cross. Regardless of what Satan does, God’s church will live on.
The church is again limping along.
Come, Holy Spirit, come.
Soli Deo Gloria. Only to God be the Glory.