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The Oxford Illustrated History of the Bible A richly illustrated account of the story of the Bible written by leading scholars.

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The Reformation to 1700

David Wright

In the early modern period which is the subject of this chapter, a handful of developments combined to transform the use of the Bible. Together they promoted the transition from the pre- modern to the modern era of biblical study. These changes interacted with each other, and indeed some of them may not have taken place without the precipitating impact of one or more other advances. Among the most significant were the following:

  • • the invention and steady development of printing;

  • • within the context of Renaissance humanist studies, the recovery of scholarly attention to the text of the Bible in its original languages of Greek and to a lesser extent of Hebrew;

  • • the translation of the Bible in part or whole into the vernacular languages of sixteenth-century Europe;

  • • the movements of the Protestant Reformation which all in different ways were inspired by a rediscovery of central biblical teaching about God's provision for human salvation in Jesus Christ, and all with different emphases recognized God's Word in scripture as the supreme authority in the church in determining issues of Christian belief and practice;

  • • the emergence of more strictly historical methods of analysing the books of the Bible which in the later seventeenth century fostered the beginnings of what became known as biblical criticism.

Such a listing barely discloses the truly massive energies devoted to the Bible by expert and non-expert alike, not least because it was for much of this period a hotly contested book. The early phases of the Reformation effectively wrested it free of the restrictive control of the Roman Catholic Church, to the accompaniment of sharp and unresolved controversy. In some cases unauthorized translation or possession of a New Testament or Bible was punished by martyrdom. At the same time, disagreements among Protestants in interpreting some passages in scripture cut deep enough to preclude their sitting down together at the Lord's supper. Larger differences, especially over the relationship between the Old Testament and the New, soon divided reforming radicals such as the Anabaptists from mainstream or magisterial Reformers—and no less from the Catholic Church also. The radicals in turn indicted the ‘new papacy’ of the Protestants, despite their biblical confession, as no less tradition-bound than the Roman papacy, while leading church Reformers tarred radicals and Catholics alike with the brush of sundering the Spirit, whether in the church or the believer, from the divine Word. Catholics concluded that evangelical defences of infant baptism against Anabaptist attack without clear biblical warrant looked little different from the reliance on unwritten tradition for which evangelicals so often condemned Catholics.

Through it all the religious face of Europe was being transfigured by the Bible—by lectures, disputations, and commentaries still in the Latin of the international academy and the religious professionals, by sermons and catechizing in the language of the populace, by public debates between opposing authorities in front of citizen assemblies called to vote for or against the new biblical gospel, by placards, posters, woodcuts, and cartoons, by vernacular service-books and liturgical lections and numerous other media of the open Bible. This chapter can trace only a highly selective path through a vast kaleidoscopic landscape whose making engaged prodigious endeavours and mighty passions.

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