Revolutionary Reading? The Bible of the Reformers

Relearning Where to Stand

In the year 1600, there were only a handful of known heliocentrists. Galileo, of course, would do a great deal to change this, making heliocentrism a cause célèbre in the years between his first defense of the theory in 1610 and his famous trial in 1633. Long before Galileo became the center of public controversy, however, heliocentrism was placed on firm mathematical foundations by Polish astronomer and church canon, Nicolaus Copernicus. When Copernicus’s De revolutionibus orbium celestium was published just before his death in 1543, the treatise on revolutions did not create a revolution of its own. Instead, it languished. That year would mark the beginning of what seems, in hindsight, to have been a seventy-year caesura in the story of scientific progress. The five-hundred-year anniversary of the posting of Luther’s 95 Theses is a convenient time to consider the lasting significance of the Reformation, but it should not obscure the fact that much of what has made the Reformation so consequential took form long before 1517. If we are to appreciate how the Reformation shaped the role of the Bible in modern culture, then we should look as well to the decades leading up to the Reformation. In that time, Europe witnessed the rise of new attitudes toward cultural authority and new ways of understanding the claims of tradition. Before Galileo, there was Copernicus. And before Luther, there was the great Italian critic Lorenzo Valla (c. 1406-1457).

Valla is remembered as a humanist rather than a reformer. The two groups, however, shared much in common. Both aimed at the reform of the Church and the renewal of Christian culture through the studied reappropriation of its textual foundations. Importantly, humanists and reformers were allied in their opposition to scholastic theology and monasticism. That the two groups shared deep and important affinities is clear from the support Luther enjoyed from northern humanists early on, before the spread of the evangelical reform eclipsed the older rivalry between humanists and scholastics and created new lines of division. And as Luther’s own movement gained momentum, he found encouragement—and ammunition—in the work of Valla. Unlike Luther, though, Valla was no schismatic. Despite the fact that he became known for sharp critiques of papal authority, Valla led no movement within or away from the Church. What Valla did accomplish, however, was a feat of technical, philological brilliance. He took aim at an old legal document, the Donation of Constantine (Constitutum Constantini), which for some six hundred years had served to bolster the claims of the papacy to property and political authority across western Europe. In the Donation, Constantine purportedly recognizes the superiority of the Roman see to the other four ancient patriarchates of Antioch, Alexandria, Jerusalem, and Constantinople (which prompted Valla to point out the anachronism: “how in the world could one speak of Constantinople as one of the patriarchal sees, when it was not yet a patriarchate, nor a see, nor a Christian city, nor named Constantinople, nor founded, nor planned?”). In the document, the grateful emperor also cedes to Pope Sylvester and his successors control of Rome, Italy, Spain, Gaul, and all of western Europe, before indicating his own intention to withdraw to the eastern capital of Byzantium and leave the West in the Pope’s hands. “Constantine” reasons thus: “where the supremacy of priests and the head of the Christian religion has been established by the heavenly Emperor, it is not right that there an earthly emperor should have jurisdiction.” The grandiosity of this gesture is matched by the acid minuteness of Valla’s analysis. With evident delight, Valla expatiates on countless solecisms, anachronisms, and infelicities in the document. With its “contradictions, impossibilities, stupidities, barbarisms, and absurdities,” as Valla called them, there was simply no way for a learned and truth-loving person to accept the genuineness of the Donation. Indeed, after Valla, no one wanting to appear as such ever did.

What makes Valla relevant to a discussion of the Bible and the Reformation, however, is not simply historical influence. It is true that Valla’s devastating exposé, though written in 1440, found new life post-1517 after a period of dormancy. It was published in 1519 and read by an admiring Luther in 1520. It is also true that Luther himself brought forth a German edition of Valla’s treatise in 1537, hailing it as an important documentation of papal mischief by “that learned and accurate man, Lorenzo Valla.” Nor is Valla’s importance to be identified merely with the sense that he was a Reformer avant la lettre, someone before Luther who challenged the authority of Rome by reading a traditional text against the grain of tradition. These are important points, and they certainly reinforce the common judgment that humanism in some sense prepared the ground for the work of the Reformers. The point here, however, is that Valla both embodied and anticipated an ideal that would become one of the Reformation’s most important legacies for modern culture, an ideal that arose specifically from new ways of construing the cultural authority of the Bible. When Valla contested the genuineness of the Donation, he did not simply demolish a tradition. Rather, he showed others what it means to believe in a tradition, yet to do so on one’s own terms, in ways that correspond fully and without remainder to the parameters of the thinking, knowing self. To read Valla’s treatise is to thrill to its sense of adventure, specifically the thrill of transgression that attends the relinquishing of an idea that was once sacrosanct. It is also to sense something of the thrill that comes from finding within an old idea a new one that is worth believing.

The scope of the Pope’s temporal powers was an urgent and important question for rulers in the medieval and early modern periods. When Valla exposed the Donation as a forgery, it damaged the credibility of the papacy as an institution. With this blatant forgery on their hands, the Popes, by Valla’s logic, had either been in a state of “supine ignorance” or, if aware of its spuriousness, then guilty of “gross avarice” and a cruel “pride of empire.” Valla’s treatise, it is true, was not penned by a neutral party; instead, Valla wrote the treatise on behalf of his royal patron, Alfonso of Aragon, who was actively contesting the Pope’s claim to Naples at the time. Yet the treatise is not merely a specimen of partisan documentary criticism. It offers a vision of carefully balanced spiritual and temporal powers, of a world in which politics and religion are separate enterprises governed by different principles: true evangelical piety on the one hand and rational self-interest on the other. In this world, an emperor like Constantine would not be foolish enough to give away his empire, and a pontiff, a priest, like Sylvester would not be so wicked as to accept it. The logic is sharp, and the principles are clear. Valla’s philological spadework actually saves the reputation of both men by showing that the Donation could not possibly have originated in the fourth century. Both the forgery and the calamitous confusion of religious and political authority, then, came later. Valla’s treatise thus opens the possibility of reform that does not reject the Christian political tradition but instead returns to an earlier and better form of the tradition in which king and priest observe a just, sensible, and, as Valla boldly argues, biblical separation of powers.

It was one thing for someone like Valla to criticize the Church on the basis of a forged legal document but quite another for later figures to do so on the basis of scripture itself. When the Reformers did exactly this, they precipitated a crisis that was centuries in the making. The crisis as commonly understood was rooted in a conflict between text and tradition, between what the text of the Bible says and the ways that the Bible had been interpreted by the authorities and actualized in the life of the Church. Rather than see the Reformation abstractly as a conflict between logically (or ontologically) distinct entities, however, it is perhaps better to see it as a series of events in which the role of the Bible within the broader tradition became the subject of intense controversy. To do so is understand that the work of the Reformers followed on two important developments. The first was the recognition that the old theological synthesis of Bible, patristics, canon law, and scholastic thought was already unstable. According to a common view of medieval theology, biblical interpretation worked with dull efficiency, as scholastics threw a traditional net of logical, dogmatic coordinates over the books of the Bible in order to harvest its meanings. Yet, as Ian Christopher Levy has shown in a brilliant study of English theologian John Wycliffe (ca. 1320-1384) and Bohemian priest Jan Hus (1369-1415), there was nothing dull or efficient about it. What moderns consider to be the signal feature of medieval intellectual discourse, authority, was in fact too diffuse to provide decisive guidance when that guidance was most badly needed. Wycliffe and Hus did not innovate by opposing the biblical text to traditional authority. They made daring arguments about papal authority and the Eucharist, to be sure, but they did so in a thoroughly traditional way. Despite the fact that their formal recourse to biblical arguments fell squarely within the parameters of traditional practice, they were condemned by the Church. Wycliffe was condemned posthumously; his remains were exhumed and burned. Hus was burned while very much alive. They became casualties of a hierarchy that had no real coherent theory of authority to adjudicate disputes. Although one may speak in theory of a single body of truth in the medieval period—one revealed in the scriptures and clarified by tradition—the cases of Wycliffe and Hus show that managing the multi-faceted character of authority in the late medieval Church was an exceedingly difficult task.

The second development was a decline in the authority of the Latin Vulgate that was linked to the rise of scholarly interest in the Hebrew Bible and Greek New Testament. The Vulgate was not simply a translation of the Bible; to western Christians, it was the Bible. This changed, however, when humanists began to study the Bible in its original languages. Though knowledge of Hebrew was uncommon among Christians in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Hebrew study grew in importance in that time. The Council of Vienne in 1311 authorized the establishment of chairs in Hebrew, Arabic, Syriac, and Greek at European universities, for the purpose of improving biblical exegesis and defending and spreading the faith. Chairs were not actually created or filled until much later, but the decision of the council had great symbolic value for later scholars. Nicholas of Lyra (1270-1349) drew on knowledge of Hebrew and Jewish exegesis (especially Rashi) in drafting exegetical notes (postillae) that were later integrated into the “standard” late medieval study Bible, the indispensable Glossa ordinaria (which actually remained in use long after the fourteenth century). The decades spanning the turn of the sixteenth century saw a flowering of Hebrew study and a new willingness to turn to Jewish sources, to rabbinic thought and Jewish mysticism, in order to enhance the understanding of scripture. They were also marked by a monument in European publishing: Johann Reuchlin’s 1506 Hebrew grammar was the first book printed in Germany containing Hebrew script. Some “Christian Hebraists” like Konrad Pellican and Sebastian Münster joined the Reformation, while others like Reuchlin did not. Either way, though, appetite for a “Hebrew truth” that lay behind the familiar Latin Old Testament was keen. On the New Testament side, Valla once again deserves mention. Over the course of several years in the 1440s and 1450s, Valla compiled notes on the rendering of Greek passages in the Vulgate, pointing out translation errors, textual difficulties, and infelicities. This served as the inspiration for new efforts to study the New Testament directly from Greek manuscripts. Erasmus published Valla’s notes in 1505 and went on to produce several of his own critical editions of the Greek New Testament between 1516 and 1535. Erasmus drew the ire and opprobrium of scholastic theologians who saw his humanist program, rightly, as a bid to dislodge the Vulgate from its central position and topple the entire Latin theological edifice that had been built upon it.

The growth of biblical philology in the decades leading up to the Reformation shows that humanists had already begun to attend to the linguistic character of the Bible. They increasingly brought the Bible into focus as a distinctive element within the larger Christian tradition, one that had its own integrity as a textual object, and one that called, therefore, for a set of specialized skills to handle it accurately. A new “philological principle,” which stipulated that a text is rightly understood only in its original language, disrupted the coherence and homogeneity of a theological tradition built upon centuries of Latin legal, philosophical, and exegetical works. As the Reformation progressed, recourse to Hebrew, Aramaic, and Jewish antiquities, along with a growing body of classical erudition, opened new avenues for biblical interpretation. This allowed interpreters to approach the Bible in a familiar way, as an essential element in a larger configuration of traditional authorities, but it also permitted interpreters to disengage the Bible from this familiar structure and create space for new ways of conceiving and relating to the tradition. Some of these efforts were large, ambitious, and systematic, consisting in attempts to redefine the whole task of biblical interpretation from beginning to end and bring it in line with principles of the Reformation. The highly influential Key to Sacred Scripture (Clavis scripturae sacrae), written by Matthias Flavius Illyricus and published within a generation of Luther in 1567, is perhaps the best early example. But even relatively modest adjustments of the familiar Vulgate text could be effective in this regard. In the Latin version of the Magnificat, for example, Mary rejoices in the fact that God “has regarded the humility of his handmaiden” (respexit humilitatem ancillae suae; Luke 1:48). Wanting to avoid the suggestion that God’s regard for Mary corresponded in some way to her virtue or that Mary would have dared to call herself humble, Luther explained that the scriptural expression refers not to Mary’s humble person but rather to her humble position. God has looked on the “lowliness” (Niedrigkeit), not the virtuous humility (Demut), of his maidservant. In this way, Luther diffused the threat posed to his doctrine of justification by Mary’s exalted position in Christian tradition. Despite what the Vulgate suggests, the Virgin Mary is saved by grace as all people must be.

By attending to the crisis of authority in late medieval theology and the rise of humanism in the century leading up to the Reformation, we see that the Reformers’ most famous slogan, sola scriptura, did not signal the apotheosis of the Bible in European culture, its intended triumph over tradition. (Note, for example, the hostility of Luther, Calvin, and their followers to the Anabaptists, the “radical” wing of the Reformation.) We see, rather, that the Reformation marked a specific moment in the history of tradition itself. In this moment, a rather bookish elite succeeded in disengaging one part of the tradition, the written text of the Bible, from other parts of the tradition that had made biblical authority real and intelligible: scholastic theology, popular piety, papal decrees, liturgical practice, and the temporal power of the Church. By lifting the Bible out of its familiar contexts, the Reformers enacted a bid to reshape the claims of tradition on modern life. The Bible was in many ways the touchstone for this effort, a valuable resource for deciding what principles, pieties, and polities were suited to the new cultural moment. Yet the goal was not to elevate the Bible as such but rather to take responsibility in a new way for its cultural and theological significance.

It is not by accident, then, that at the same time that Luther appeared as a champion of the Bible, he also appeared as a paragon of integrity and self-possession. When, at the Leipzig Disputation of 1519, Johann Eck forced Luther to admit that Luther held views that were advocated by Jan Hus and condemned by the Council of Constance, Luther pointed out that the judgment of a “simple layman armed with scripture is to be believed above a pope or council without it.” When pressed further on the matter of interpretive authority, Luther spoke of truth rather than scripture:

I am a Christian theologian; and I am bound, not only to assert, but to defend the truth with my blood and death. I want to believe freely and be a slave to the authority of no one, whether council, university, or pope. I will confidently confess what appears to me to be true, whether it has been asserted by a Catholic or a heretic, whether it has been approved or reproved by a council.

This quotation, taken from Roland Bainton’s classic biography of Luther, Here I Stand, reinforces the modern image of Luther as a kind of philosophical hero willing to speak truth to power. For all of his similarities to Erasmus, Luther was willing to buck the Church while Erasmus was not. Luther was not afraid to face Eck at Leipzig and to contravene the rulings of a church council. He was not cowed by the display of imperial power at the Diet of Worms. There he took his famous stand before the emperor, not to protect the Bible but rather to defend his freedom to accept as authoritative only what his reason and conscience would allow. It was his declaration of integrity on that day, “Here I stand; I can do no other,” that crystallized the new principled, self-conscious stance toward tradition that we identify with the Reformation. Erasmus may have sought reform, but, in the end, he was no Reformer.

John Calvin was a less dramatic figure than Luther. He reported no “tower experience,” and he never had the opportunity to stand before an emperor. Yet, in making the Bible the centerpiece of his social and theological program, he exemplified a new relation to tradition in much the same way that Luther did. He embraced the evangelical reform as a young man, when it spread to France in the 1520s, and he became thereafter a theologian and a Reformer for whom the Bible was solely authoritative. This did not mean (merely) that Calvin regarded fidelity to the words of scripture as an ultimate criterion for attempts to produce formal or systematic theologies. For Calvin, the singularity of the Bible also had an important, popular social reflex. If the scriptures are divinely given, then all people—poor and wealthy, uneducated and learned, common and noble—must have direct access to them. Calvin rejected any and all arrangements in which a learned or priestly few serve as gatekeepers for the proper understanding of the Bible. The only reasons for restricting access to the Bible and suppressing vernacular translations were bad ones. Calvin’s opponents, whom he calls “Rabbis” in the preface to Olivétan’s Bible, argued that handing over the Bible to the common people would make them “haughty” and difficult to govern. What the “Rabbis” really meant, responds Calvin, is that they believe people to be “haughty” who do not “hang from their lips” and “adore as if from an accomplished oracle whatever they have thought up in their reveries.” The “Rabbis” claim that it would be dangerous and useless to disturb the masses with new and better translations of scripture. In this Calvin senses only a desire to be superior: “I do not see what they are driving at except that they alone wish to be wise.” Calvin devoted his life to the production of commentaries, sermons, and his justly famous Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536-1559), all of which were aimed at making the wisdom of the Bible accessible to common people.

Whereas Luther began his career as a monk, Calvin began as a humanist and law student. This background sheds further light on Calvin’s engagement with the Bible. Calvin’s insistence on the centrality of biblical teaching to all aspects of life did not entail a belief that the meaning of the Bible could be fixed once and for all, its interpretation settled by a single human interpreter or community of interpreters. He was convinced of the sinfulness of humankind, the total insufficiency of human efforts to merit divine favor, and the need to rely solely on God’s grace for salvation. These were, for him, indispensable keys to discerning the gist or overall shape of scripture. Yet, as he wrote to Simon Grynaeus in his preface to the Romans commentary, there is no hope in this life that Christians “should constantly agree in [their] understanding of scripture passages.” For “God has in no instance honored his servants with such blessing as to endow them with full and perfect knowledge of every subject.” The Bible, in other words, is an authority, but it is also a text that must be interpreted. It resists complete understanding. The Bible, in a manner of speaking, forces people to develop skills required for sound exegesis and the responsible management of uncertainty—the kind of skill a lawyer or humanist would possess. Important though it is, this skill is not enough. Calvin also makes it clear to Grynaeus that properly interpreting the Bible involves a virtuous or ethical disposition by which one despises envy, ambition, and novelty for novelty’s sake and, at the same time, seeks only to perform one’s Christian duties to God and truth. Integrity is paramount.

In this way, Calvin arrives at a Luther-like affirmation of personal integrity for which the Bible is a kind of fulcrum or support. When Cardinal Sadoleto tried to bring the city of Geneva back into the Roman fold in 1539, the city leaders turned to Calvin for help. In a long, biting letter to Sadoleto, Calvin defended the legitimacy and necessity of reform, countering that the movement is not, as Sadoleto accuses, a schismatic bid to overthrow tradition, shake off the Roman yoke, and indulge in licentious behavior. Calvin argues that it is rather a reform undertaken for the sake of tradition, an attempt to bring society in line with the teachings of scripture and the early Church (which Calvin calls “holy antiquity”). As a matter of historical fact, Calvin argues, it is the Catholics who have deviated from tradition in doctrine, morals, church governance, and worship. It was the Bible, above all, that made this apparent to Calvin. Thus, it was the Bible that allowed him, in the face of opposition, to adopt a new stance toward the Christian tradition, taken as a whole, and to do so in a way that corresponded to his sense of himself as a historically situated, moral, rational, and spiritual being. The goal, as for Luther, was ultimately to live and believe as a fully integrated person—in theological terms, to stand before God unashamed. Since Sadoleto had accused the Genevans before God, Calvin (who was once an aspiring lawyer) readily agreed to meet Sadoleto in heavenly court, at the divine tribunal: “For such is our consciousness of the truth of our doctrine, that it has no dread of the heavenly Judge, from whom, we doubt not, that it proceeded.”

To live without dread of the heavenly Judge was, in many ways, the most fundamental aim of the Reformers. Peace with God was also the aim of Christian faith, but the Church, it seemed to them, had lost sight of this. In their efforts to restore what had been lost, the Reformers did not only reform the Christian tradition, they renegotiated their relation to it. When Paul declared that “all things are lawful but not all things are helpful” (1 Cor. 6:12), he demonstrated the power of instrumental reason to reorient one’s ethics by clearing away old taboos and imbuing life with new clarity and purpose. Five hundred years after the start of the Reformation, it is possible to look back and see the Reformers in much the same light, as men who insisted that the time had come to rethink what they had inherited, to understand it in new terms, and to repossess it in a principled and self-conscious way. What has made the Reformation an especially compelling episode in the story of modernity is the idea that the principled repossession of tradition—a departure from tradition in the name of tradition—participates, somehow, in the holiness of the tradition itself. To diverge from tradition is to leave the familiar path to God, but, according to this idea, it is also to pursue a new, ruptured path to transcendence. Ralph Waldo Emerson may be remembered as a Romantic, but he was also the product of a highly developed Protestant culture. In the essay entitled Nature, he criticized subservience to tradition. Why should we not see things with our own eyes? Why, he asked, should we not “also enjoy an original relation to the universe”? Emerson’s question breathes the spirit of the Reformation. The substitution of “the universe” for the divine is an Emersonian (or Transcendental) distinctive, but his (and our) high regard for the pursuit of “original relation” to what is ultimate is one of the lasting legacies of the Reformation. We continue to identify a principled transgression of cultural norms with the attainment of originality; we retain a fascination with what sociologist Philip Rieff called “the mystique of the break.”

I believe that the significance of the Reformation lies more with a revolution in “the ethics of belief” (as William Clifford named it) than with a revolution in the study of the Bible. The Reformation shaped the fortunes of the Bible because it shaped European history more generally. As I have suggested, the crisis of interpretive authority and the rise of humanism in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries do more to explain the textualization of the Bible in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries than the theologies of Luther, Calvin, and their counterparts. In time, the religious divisions and conflicts touched off by the first generation of Reformers gave rise to intensive study of the Bible, as opposing sides consolidated their theological positions and settled in for a period of retrenchment spanning the seventeenth century and the golden age of confessionalism in Britain and in Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed territories across Europe. Toward the end of this period, figures associated with the radical Enlightenment led a reaction against confessional interpretation of the Bible and the political orders it was meant to serve and reinforce. Critics, skeptics, and philosophes challenged the historical veracity, literary coherence, and even the morality of biblical stories, putting confessional interpreters on the defensive and damaging the cultural prestige of the Bible. The tide turned in the eighteenth century when learned churchmen and progressive academics at German universities merged a traditional philological study of biblical texts with a new, historically informed, culturally sensitive recovery of the Bible as an influential anthology of ancient literature. In this way, academic criticism of the Bible emerged as a serious and respectable enterprise, an endeavor that ran parallel to academic theology and to forms of preaching and Bible study that continued in churchly contexts.

By the nineteenth century, though, the complex of beliefs that the Reformers shared with their late medieval forebears—including the reality of divine judgment, the susceptibility of the soul to sin and demonic power, the embeddedness of history within the larger biblical story—no longer had a hold on elite culture. The Bible upon which the Reformers took their principled stands receded to the margins of political and intellectual life. It retained its position as an essential element within the larger tradition, the cultural inheritance of the West, but it no longer served as what Northrop Frye called the “great code” of Western civilization. Today, one can read the Bible for oneself, with the audacity of Luther and the sternness of Calvin, but one is not likely thereby to start a revolution. For that, one needs to transgress elsewhere. One must probe, as Valla did, the legitimacy of the existing order and expose its incoherence. And if there is to be a new Reformation, one must stand, as the Reformers did, with one part of the tradition over against another. The Bible may no longer be what it once was, but the principled stands of the Reformers retain their luster. Luther was once quoted as saying, “Love God and sin boldly.” What it means to love God and whether there is even a God to love are disputed questions today. Yet “sin boldly” remains, somehow, an intelligible command, a legacy from an era that is still, in some ways, our own.

Michael C. Legaspi is associate professor of Classics and Ancient Mediterranean Studies and Jewish Studies at Pennsylvania State University. He is the author of The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies and has written a new book on the concept of wisdom in classical and biblical tradition, which is scheduled to appear with Oxford University Press in 2018.