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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.

Interpretations of the Bible

Luther and Calvin, then, were two of the sixteenth century's most enthusiastic and outstanding teachers and preachers of the Bible. Yet the existence in most parts of the world in the 21st century of separate Lutheran and Reformed/Presbyterian churches recalls the fact of Protestant disagreements on the right interpretation of scripture in the era of the Reformation. The beginning of discord is normally located at Marburg in 1529 when Luther and Zwingli could not reach a common mind on the meaning of ‘This is my body’ in the Lord's supper. Luther insisted on an objective, literal sense, while Zwingli preferred a symbolic one, ‘This bread represents my body.’ The dispute had wide ramifications. It provided ready-made ammunition for Catholic critics who made polemical play of the disunity that inevitably followed the abandonment of the magisterium, the teaching authority, of Rome. It also gave the lie to the evangelical conviction of the clarity or perspicuity of scripture, which Zwingli had set forth in The Clarity and Certainty of the Word of God. More worryingly, this particular falling out raised—or confirmed—suspicions of erroneous beliefs about Christology, the church's doctrine of the person of Christ, at once both human and divine. Surely his glorified humanity was in heaven, at God's right hand, rather than present on myriad communion tables? Did this then mean that his human and divine natures were now divided from each other, if he was present in the eucharist only in his divinity?

In reality, serious and far-reaching though this ‘supper-strife’ proved to be, a deeper fissure had already opened up over the relationship between Old and New Testaments. It is not too unfair to characterize the Anabaptists as New Testament Christians. The analogy of infant circumcision was irrelevant to Christian baptism, which in the New Testament was given only to professing believers. The precedent of Israel's waging of wars and infliction of capital punishment taught nothing to the followers of Jesus, called to renounce the sword. Before the Marburg colloquy in 1529, Swiss Anabaptists had been executed in Zwingli's Zürich for acting on these beliefs. It is arguable that the question how the Old Testament relates to the New is among the biggest issues facing world Christianity today, given that by far the fastest growing sector, of Pentecostals and their kin, stands in an Anabaptist lineage.

To a subtler degree, this issue also left mainstream Reformers in disarray. Luther much more readily found Christ and the Trinity and the gospel in the Old Testament than Calvin did. The latter was accused of being a ‘Judaizer’ for his inadequately Christianized reading of the Hebrew scriptures. He could preach on Job 19: 25 with no apparent awareness of a possible Christological reference in ‘redeemer’. Yet paradoxically Calvin and other founding fathers of the Reformed tradition of Protestantism gave a more prominent place to the Old Testament and especially its God-given law than Lutheran or Anglican Protestants did. Whereas for Luther the chief function of law—which was not the whole truth about the Old Testament or to be found only there in the Bible—was to convict of sin and lead to the grace of the gospel, Calvin and others viewed the Mosaic law more prominently as itself God's gracious guidance for the life of the Christian and the community.

In part this difference had roots in the contrasting personal histories of Luther, the religiously conscience-racked monk, and Calvin, the legally trained humanist whose ‘conversion’ to evangelical faith was, it seems, an altogether smoother taming to teachableness. More significantly it reflected the greater rigour with which Calvin applied perhaps the Reformation's greatest contribution to biblical study—the recovery of the straightforward, literal (not literalistic—poetry was still poetry) sense as determined by appropriate linguistic, grammatical, and historical enquiry. As Calvin wrote in his first commentary, on Paul's Romans (1540), ‘Almost the only duty [of the commentator] is to lay open the mind of the writer whom he has undertaken to explain.’ If he kept this objective in view, his writing would be marked by lucid succinctness (perspicua brevitas). Calvin's Romans is a great deal slimmer than most recent commentaries on the epistle. His measure of success can be gauged from the fact that his volumes on most books of the Bible are today consulted by students and expositors far more than those of any of his contemporaries.

It has recently become commoner for scholars writing on sixteenth-century biblical exegesis to emphasize its continuities, and not only its discontinuities, with medieval patterns. Yet it remains broadly true that allegory and multi-level interpretation fell very largely out of favour in short order. Allegory is by no means absent from Erasmus or Luther, nor wholly lacking in Calvin, yet the massiveness of the transition to a preoccupation with the single literal sense, which was the spiritual sense, that is, intended by the Spirit's inspiration for the spiritual instruction of the faithful, is incontrovertible. And so John Chrysostom was, as an exegete, the Reformers' favourite among the early Fathers, even though as a theologian Augustine was unrivalled.

Historically driven scrutiny of the scriptures inevitably raised critical questions, about authorship, for example. Sixtus of Siena recognized the multi-author origins of the psalms, and Calvin was not greatly bothered by uncertainty about the authorship of one or two minor epistles. Towards the end of our period, the French biblical scholar Richard Simon (d. 1712), in his ‘Critical History of the Old Testament’ (1678), by internal analysis concluded that Moses was not the author of the Pentateuch, although much of Simon's work was more conservative, countering the more radical critical opinion of Spinoza (d. 1677). But the extent to which Reformation impulses in biblical study anticipated later biblical criticism has often been overestimated. What is undeniable is that, in devoting to the translation, elucidation, and proclamation of the teaching of the Bible the boundless energy and impressive expertise at their command, the Reformers and their followers were motivated by the conviction that they were entrusted with the very oracles of God.

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