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A Literary Reformation

Imagine a pandemic of massive proportions. People worldwide are slowly dying of a terrible disease that will soon wipe out the global population. Yet there is a cure for this disease. And if the people of the world could learn of this cure, no matter where on earth they are dying they may be healed.

But there is a serious problem. The instructions for this cure are written in an ancient language contained in a single book that few can read, and the scholars who can understand the ancient writing are keeping it to themselves. They refuse to let the cure be put into translation, intentionally keeping it out of the hands of the common, disease-ridden people.

Why would these few scholars adopt such a dreadful policy?

Some because they fear that the people, having no medical training will be unable to follow the instructions of the cure and will create a false remedy. But others because, frankly, they want to control the world. For diseased people who know that these few men are their only hope will turn to them and serve them and enrich them. So, all over the world these keepers of the words of life set up stations where those who are desperate may come and bow and pay their dues and receive what they believe is their panacea.

Yet the situation is even more tragic than this. Long years of reinterpreting the book that holds the hope for the people have perverted the instructions, so that even those who dispense the cure have got it wrong. Ironically, not only do they offer no cure, but they themselves also continue to die with the rest of the world, in darkness and despair. And all because of the inability of the people to hear and understand the only words that will bring them life.

Such was the devastating spiritual condition in Europe prior to the Protestant Reformation.

A papal decree had declared that a person would be condemned as a heretic and punished by death—burning at the stake, most likely—who translated the Bible from its form of ancient Latin into the language of the people. For if the people could read the Bible for themselves the church would lose their authority over them.

Essentially, the church was running an ecclesiastical monopoly. The church authorities set themselves up as the dispensers of life. The people would come to mass where the words of the Bible were spoken, but in a language very few could understand. The priests turned their backs to the people and worked a kind of magic with the bread and the wine, then turned where the kneeling people would receive this sacrament on their tongue with the incantation, Hoc est corpus meum. This was their salvation. This was their path to heaven. And it gave the church a profound hold over all the people.

For this reason, we must understand that the Protestant Reformation was first and foremost a literary movement. The Reformation became an unstoppable force because the knowledge of God’s Word was returned to the people. By God’s grace, the text rediscovered the people.

In the Reformation, the true, biblical expression of the gospel of Christ washed over a parched world with a return to salvation by sola gratia (grace alone), sola fide (faith alone), solus Christus (Christ alone), and soli Deo gloria (for the glory of God alone). But without sola scriptura (Scripture alone), these other truths would have remained hidden from view in a world remaining in darkness. The most celebrated heroes of the Reformation, therefore, are those persecuted men who risked their lives and died tortuous deaths as martyrs to secretly translate, copy, and distribute the Word of God to those who yearned for life.

For this reason, I greatly anticipate the premier of Joshua Bauder’s forthcoming work, Tyndale: A Reformation Oratorio, to be performed on October 21 by Deo Cantamus of Minnesota. This moving piece helps to memorialize for us the extreme sacrifice of those who were used by God to light the flame of truth that continues to burn and spread throughout the world to this day.

The oratorio opens with the accusation by which the Church condemned Tyndale to his death: “Thou hast made the authority of Scripture to exceed the authority of the pope.”

To this unjust, yet accurate condemnation Tyndale replies with the English words he had personally translated from Ephesians 3:8–9, the very translation for which he was about to be burned: “Vnto me the lest of all sayntes is this grace geven that I shuld preache the unsearchable riches of Christ and to make all men see what is the felyshippe of the mistery which from the begynnynge of the worlde hath been hid.”

But even as Tyndale was put to death in 1536, by the grace of God the “mistery” which had become the Holy Scriptures themselves would not remain hidden for much longer. Not only did others continue to risk their lives disseminating the English translation of God’s Word among the people, but the following year the “Matthews” Bible appeared with the inscription, “Set forth by the king’s most gracious license.” This English translation contained Tyndale’s New Testament and much of his work on the Old Testament. And by 1539, the “Great Bible,” commissioned by Thomas Cromwell under Henry VIII, was made available to the common people of England. Again, the translation was largely Tyndale’s. His work also found its way into the Geneva Bible of 1560, the translation brought to the New World on the Mayflower, and into the King James Version of 1611.

Tyndale is famously reported to have once declared, “If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause the boy who drives the plow to know more Scripture than the pope.” Reflecting on the influence of Tyndale’s work, one could argue that these words were not an idle boast but a prophecy that came to be fulfilled. In fact, consider that today we have the translation of the Bible in multiple languages readily available to us in ways that the Reformers could never have imagined. Many families in the West have several copies of the Bible in their homes, and translations of the Bible are accessible with a few taps on a smart phone or tablet.

Yet the ubiquitous nature of the Bible in our day should bring to our attention the tragic irony of our own time, namely that though the Bible is so accessible it is far less valued than it was in Tyndale’s era. How great is our ability to hold and read and know the words of Scripture, yet how little today is the Bible actually read and studied and believed and followed in our Western culture at large! By God’s grace, may the celebration of the faithful work and sacrifice of the Reformers who gave to us the Bible renew our commitment to knowing and loving and proclaiming the precious Word of Life.

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