The Unfortunate and Unintended Legacy of the Reformation

A decisive shift in the locus of spiritual authority

For a theoretical background to this page, please review Spiritual Authority: A Discussion of Terms and Spiritual Authority: A Preliminary Definition .

The Reformation intended to strengthen spiritual authority by giving the Bible to the common people in their common language. Unfortunately, the free distribution of the Scriptures directly resulted in the undermining of its ministers.

The Bible in the Common Tongue

The earliest reformer was Oxford philosopher John Wycliffe (1330-1380), often called "Morningstar of the Reformation." Wycliffe denounced as unscriptural many beliefs and practices of the established church. His radical beliefs resulted in being officially declared a heretic twice. The first during his life resulted in his expulsion from Oxford; the second after his death resulted in his bones being unearthed by the Catholic church to be burned.

Wycliffe made it his ambition to translate the entire Bible into the English language, and then to distribute it to everyone possible. The official Bible was the Latin Vulgate, which had remained mostly unchanged since Jerome was commissioned to do the work around 400 AD. Wycliffe accomplished this phenomenal task of textual criticism and translation, completing the first complete English translation of the Bible.

Wycliffe's English Bible project, his preaching in English (rather than Latin) and his sending out disciples to preach in English throughout the countryside were all founded on the idea that priestly mediation was unnecessary. Every man, woman and child could have a direct relationship with God based on understanding His written Word. Since all doctrine is derived from the Bible, a clear understanding of it would enable the reader to derive such doctrines for himself. More importantly, an unobstructed reading of the text allows readers to detect errors in doctrines. Obedience to such doctrines were not necessary since they could not find support in Scripture. Finally, Wycliffe taught that church authorities committing mortal sin forfeited their spiritual authority. Obedience was no longer compulsory.

The writings of Wycliffe circulated broadly, finding a resonance with the famous bohemian, John Huss (1372-1415). Huss, like other reformers, preached in his native tongue instead of Latin, the official language of the church in that day. He vigorously condemned church abuses by citing Scripture. Adding to the chaos of the times was a dispute over who was the real pope, with at one point THREE people contending for the office. Huss (along with Wycliffe) upheld that the Bible was the ultimate religious authority and that the head of the church was not any particular ecclesiastical official but Christ Himself.

Elevation of the Scriptures by Prominent Reformers

This pattern of downplaying ecclesiastical offices and upholding the authority of the Bible continued with more famous reformers like Martin Luther (1483-1546), John Calvin (1509-1594) and Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531). Luther broke from the church in his famous speech before Emporer Charles V at the Diet of Worms:

Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason--I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other--my conscience is captive to the Word of God.

John Calvin'sweighty Institutes of the Christian Religion, repeatedly revised throughout his life, was intended to convey a rudimentary understanding of the Scriptures to those zealous for knowledge of the sacred book. Finally, Ulrich Zwingli (who had memorized the Greek New Testament verbatim) preached sermons charging that the established church had diverged from the simple teaching of Scripture. Zwingli broke away from the tradition of interpretations based on the writings of the church fathers and instead expounded from the original Greek and Hebrew texts. Also, his oral translations of the Bible given during his sermons broke away from church tradition relying on the Latin Vulgate.

Accentuation of the Scriptures was found in the radical reformation doctrines of the Anabaptists (i.e. "re-baptizers") and the intriguing ministry of William Tyndale (1492-1536) whose translation work became the basis for the King James Bible.

Unfortunate and Unintended Legacy

To briefly summarize, the key consequences of the Reformation are:

  1. the devaluation of the priesthood,
  2. the assertion of ultimate authority of the Bible, and
  3. confidence in the direct understanding and evaluation of spiritual truth to anyone.

The synergy of these three factors results in:

the emergence of autonomous spiritual discernment.

Here, we now have the emergence of individuals who believe that, on the basis of their being able to read the Bible for themselves, they can--and should--evaluate beliefs and practices for biblical purity. The locus of spiritual authority has shifted from ecclesiastical dogma and church officials to the common man armed with his readable translation of the Bible.

However, as we shall see, in the course of the modern world the system of church abuses will turn on its head. Where church members were to guarantee biblical integrity, they have now become arbitrary judges of acceptability to biblical messages. What began as a system of correction has evolved into a system of chaos in which disagreements, squabbles and petty politics rule. This will be expounded further in a later section.

Finally, when spiritual authority is based on an elevated veiw of the Scriptures, utter destruction occurs when Scripture itself is attacked. We will see later how the assaults of Biblical criticism damaged a Protestantism that had based itself solely upon a divinely inspired Bible.

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Continue to: Spiritual Authority: Optimistic Rationalism of the Enlightenment.

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This page created on July 12, 1996.
Most recent revision was August 27, 1996.
Copyright © 1996 Gerardo Marti
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