Reformation History

“The faithful philosophers and clergy who inspired the Protestant Reformation were greatly influenced by the Bible.” 

The first half of this study looks at what the Bible was in the Middle Ages and how its evolution was both cause and effect of new thinking which led to the Protestant Reformation. The life of Erasmus, an early Reformation thinker, who greatly influenced Luther and Calvin (more often thought of as the leaders of major changes in the medieval church), is also studied.

The second half looks at four Old Testament scriptures, Genesis, Psalms, Isaiah, and Daniel, which specifically interested the philosophers and scholars of the Reformation. This enlightening study shows, once again, the timeless power of the scripture we still access with the hope of the revelation of the word of God through the life of Jesus.

Meet Our Professors

Bruce Gordon

Titus Street Professor of Ecclesiastical History

Bruce Gordon, a native of Canada, taught at the University of St Andrews, Scotland before coming to Yale Divinity School in 2008. He has written extensively on late-medieval and Reformation religious history, including a biography of John Calvin (2009) and a study of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion (2016).He is currently completing a co-authored book on the Latin Bibles of the Reformation. He holds degrees from Dalhousie University (BA and MA) and the University of St Andrews (PhD) as well as an honorary doctorate from the University of Zurich (Switzerland).

Joel S. Baden

Professor of Hebrew Bible

Joel S. Baden is a specialist in the Pentateuch, Biblical Hebrew, and disability theory in biblical studies. He is the author of the numerous articles, essays, and books on individual pentateuchal texts, critical methodology, and Biblical Hebrew; future projects include commentaries on Deuteronomy and Exodus. He holds degrees in Judaic Studies (BA, Yale), Semitic Languages (MA, University of Chicago), and Hebrew Bible (PhD, Harvard).


Yale Bible Study

Reading the Bible

I. The Medieval Bible

The idea that the Bible disappeared during the Middle Ages is an old and enduring Protestant myth. Scripture was the heart of medieval Christian life, but in ways quite different from the way we think of the Bible today. For the great medieval churchmen and women, such as Thomas Aquinas or Hildegard of Bingen, there was no higher calling than reading and interpreting scripture. For scholars, monks and mystics, commentary on the biblical texts was a contemplative act; and the many years spent studying theology at the leading universities of Paris, Oxford, and Cambridge were devoted to interpreting biblical texts. Preaching, whether in the great cathedrals or among the Dominicans in rural parishes, flourished in the late Middle Ages in both Latin and the vernacular languages, and what the people heard were accounts of the biblical stories. Without doubt, the books of Christian scripture formed the worldview of both literate and illiterate men and women of all levels of medieval society.

However, if we are to enter the worlds of the Bible in the medieval period; we need to leave behind our modern idea of the Bible as a book. That conception was in many ways a creation of the Protestant Reformation. Although the culture of the Middle Ages was suffused with scripture, very few Christians encountered the biblical text as a single volume with the two testaments. Indeed, the Bible as a book originated in the medieval world and ultimately became central to the Protestant Reformation with the aid of the printing press. Nevertheless, this development in the Middle Ages was slow and largely limited to the educated elite. For most medieval Christians, as for the men and women of the early church, the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, was not a book, but a body of texts.

In the early medieval culture in the West, the Old Testament was known in several forms, most prominently in the Greek of the Septuagint, which appeared in the third century BCE. Most medieval commentators were fully persuaded that the Septuagint was the miraculous work of seventy or seventy-two scholars in Alexandria who produced one harmonious translation. But after the fall of Rome few churchmen in the West could read the Septuagint. Translations of the Greek versions of the Old Testament into Latin in the West were known as the Vetus Latina, which formed the version of scripture known to Augustine in North Africa. The Vetus Latina did not consist of one text, but was a large and diverse collection of translations that varied across locations. Augustine, who did not read Greek, was not bothered by the variant forms of scripture, for he argued that a collection of texts was a sign of health within the church. There was no authoritative version of the Bible in the Latin West until the fifth century, and it took a long time to acquire its authority.

The key figure was Jerome (347-420), who sought to create a standard Latin Bible through translation from the Hebrew and Greek. Jerome, who learned his Hebrew from Jewish teachers, and who had a fine classical education, adopted an approach he called Hebraica veritas. His method of translating sacred texts was not merely an academic exercise but the fulfillment of a way of life devoted to the Word of God. Unlike Augustine, Jerome believed that the church should have a standard vernacular version of the Bible. In his age, the language of the people was Latin. He argued that the Bible should be prepared only from the original sacred languages, but that the Latin translation should not slavishly follow either the Hebrew or Greek because no two languages are the same. Consequently, Jerome adopted what became known as the sense-for-sense method of translation. This meant that the translator should not simply produce a literal version of the original; because, for example, the original Hebrew could not be fully expressed in Latin words. Recognizing the differences, the translator should consider the whole meaning of the original text (its literary character and historical setting) and seek the best possible Latin style to express the original meaning. The result should be a faithful translation that was also pleasurable to read. The crowning achievement of Jerome’s translation labors was a Latin Bible that became known in the West as the Vulgate.

The Vulgate, however, was not an entirely new translation, as Jerome drew heavily from existing Latin versions such as those of the Vetus latina. Jerome’s achievement, nevertheless, was no less extraordinary; and he provided the Church in the West with a Latin Bible, although his work did not enjoy immediate success or widespread acceptance. Its place as the Bible of the Western Church was not established until long after his death.

Although in time the Vulgate emerged as the Bible of the Medieval church, its history was complicated because of the ways in which texts were copied and transmitted. Before the invention of printing in the fifteenth century the Vulgate was produced and disseminated by the hands of scribes who copied the text with varying degrees of accuracy. The inevitable result was that the medieval church possessed numerous different and often conflicting versions of the Latin Bible. Although there were numerous attempts to create an authoritative version of the Vulgate by correcting the errors that had crept into the Bible through scribal mistakes, from Italy to Spain and north to the German lands and England, the Vulgate existed in a multiplicity of forms with significant textual variations. One of the most determined efforts to harmonize the Vulgate text came under the emperor Charlemagne in the ninth century, but until the end of the Middle Ages numerous different manuscript traditions meant that we cannot speak of one form of the Latin Bible. When in the 1450s Johann Gutenberg produced the first work from his printing press it was an edition of the Vulgate; and he used the version which had emerged from Paris. The invention of printing changed the landscape by making it possible to create more consistent forms of the Bible that could be disseminated across distant lands. The printing press, however, was by no means perfect, and printers, like monastic scribes, were fully capable of introducing errors or variations when they typeset their text.

One of the most influential versions of the Vulgate was known as the Paris Bibles, which emerged in the thirteenth century. It was this tradition of the Vulgate that was printed by Gutenberg in the 1450s and later used in the sixteenth century as the basis for the official Catholic Bible following the Council of Trent. The Paris Bibles were closely associated with the University of Paris, which was the center of theological authority in the medieval West; and they were widely distributed across northern Europe. The bibles were produced in large numbers and in formats that could be easily used by students and preachers, who could carry them in their pockets.

Although Martin Luther and the Reformation are often credited with the translation of the Bible into the languages of the people, vernacular Bibles were well known in the Middle Ages. Bibles in English, French, German and Spanish were extremely popular, although church authorities were frequently uneasy with the idea of laypeople having direct access to scripture. Certainly, the churches of Western Europe took different attitudes towards vernacular Bibles because for many bishops, particularly in England, there was a close association between translations and the spread of heresy.

By the end of the Middle Ages, literacy rates were growing, particularly in urban areas amongst merchants and the middle classes, creating a considerable demand for religious works in the vernacular. In addition, preachers and writers encouraged laypeople to become more active in their devotions by meditating on biblical texts, thus greatly increasing familiarity with scripture even among the vast majority who could not read. Although we find an increasing role for the Bible in the piety of the late Middle Ages, what constituted the biblical text remained somewhat unclear. As mentioned, few people had direct access to Bibles as books. Many of the texts that circulated among the literate were in fact harmonies or compendia of biblical stories, not the actual scriptures. For example, only certain parts of the Hebrew Bible were circulated widely, such as the historical books and Psalms. We know that the Pentateuch and Prophets were less frequently produced in translation for laypeople to read or hear.

Vernacular bibles and biblical literature became increasingly popular during the late Middle Ages and were regarded by clergy as helpful in instructing the common people; but these works did not hold the same theological authority as the Vulgate, which remained the unquestioned basis for doctrinal interpretation and theological commentary. Problems began when certain groups, such as the Lollards in England or the Hussite’s in Bohemia, asserted that the vernacular translations were of equal or greater value than the Latin. The close association between these groups, which were regarded as heretical by the church hierarchies, and the translation of the Bible into the languages of the people formed the background to the Reformation. Luther and his contemporaries, with their demands that the people should have direct access to the Bible, were repeating calls that had been made by earlier reformers of the medieval church. Such demands by the Protestants stirred old fears of the links between popular access to scripture and the spread of heresy.

We often think of the medieval church as being one thing, or of having one form. However, the truth was quite the opposite. The worship found in medieval churches across Europe was by no means uniform or static. The liturgical forms celebrated in any one location differed considerably from other parts of Europe. In England, there was the Sarum Rite, while in France and much of northern Europe the Gallican Rite (from the fifth century) was standard. Rome had its own rite, as did Milan and Spain. The rite consisted of two forms of worship, the mass and daily prayer (the office). For both parts, scripture was integral as it was read aloud in Latin according to the season of the church year. Ideally, the whole Bible was read through the liturgical year, and for most laypeople exposure to scriptural passages came through liturgical books such as lectionaries as well from prayer books. For the more affluent, devotional works such as the beautifully illustrated Books of Hours became extremely popular by the thirteenth century. They were dedicated to the Virgin Mary and contained a series of psalms, canticles, and prayers for private or family devotions.

Such devotional texts, prayer books, and biblical texts were produced in increasing numbers during the late Middles Ages for the small but growing number of people who could read. For the vast majority of Christians, however, the biblical stories continued to be encountered through a variety of other sensory means. We have spoken about the crucial place of worship, but to this we must add sermons. Preachers recounted the parables and stories of the Bible in the languages of the people in order that many of the faithful knew them by heart. Other ways of encountering scripture included singing and the paintings of Bible scenes that were to be found on the walls of parish churches however humble.

Without doubt the Reformation message spread by Martin Luther, Huldrych Zwingli and others asserted the distinctive authority of the Bible as the Word of God; however, we cannot overlook the rich world of medieval Christianity, where scripture was central. Everywhere the layperson looked, whether to statues on cathedral doors or paintings on parish walls, the stories of the Bible shaped their imagination. In worship and preaching ordinary men and women heard the stories of the Bible, while in the universities scholars produced vast tomes of scriptural interpretation. One of the greatest cultural achievements of the Middle Ages was the Gutenberg Bible produced in the 1450s. It remains the symbol of a vibrant world of medieval engagement with the Word of God.

Further Reading:

Frans van Liere, An Introduction to the Medieval Bible (Cambridge, 2014)

Questions for Discussion:

  1. How has the status and understanding of Jerome’s Vulgate changed over time?
  2. Why is the way the Bible is encountered important for how it is understood?
  3. How is the Bible filtered through non-textual lenses today?


Yale Bible Study

Reading the Bible

II. Erasmus

Desiderius Erasmus (1466?–1536) was born in Rotterdam the illegitimate son of a priest. An orphaned child, he was forced into taking religious orders in an Augustinian monastery, and in 1492 was ordained a priest. He began studying theology in Paris but ultimately abandoned the venture, having little interest in the scholastic thought of the day. Erasmus was never to have an academic career, nor was he to remain a priest, but he never left the Catholic Church. From his early days he made his living by tutoring and later from the income received from his publications. As with John Calvin later (Calvin’s father sent him to the University of Orleans to study law.), Erasmus was not university trained in theology, but a self-taught scholar who was devoted to his studies, particularly of the church fathers. Except for a short period of time when he was at the Universities of Cambridge in England and Louvain in the Low Countries, he avoided educational institutions altogether, jealous of his independence.

Nevertheless, Erasmus rose to be one of the greatest biblical scholars of his day, and his Greek edition of the New Testament, which appeared in Basel in 1516, was a landmark. Having first sought the study of the ancient classics, Erasmus turned to the Bible when he was just over thirty years old, encouraged by the great figure of the English church, John Colet. It was Colet who led Erasmus to the concept of the philosophy of Christ, by which one lived a life in imitation of the Son of God. Colet encouraged Erasmus to undertake the study of the Bible, which meant the Latin Vulgate of the medieval church. Erasmus believed that in order to take on such a task he would need to learn the ancient languages. He never learned Hebrew, but he did begin an intensive study of classical Greek, which he regarded as preparation for reading the Gospels and Epistles. In 1504 he published what was to become one of his most famous works, the Handbook of the Christian Soldier, in which he outlined his spirituality of the imitation of Christ, a living according to the teaching of the New Testament.

Erasmus brought to the study of the New Testament key principles that he sought to employ for the rest of his life. First, that the Bible should be read topologically, this is the figurative reading of the text in the service of moral guidance. This position was very much in line with his Handbook of the Christian Soldier, in which he encouraged men and women to the truly Christian life. The second guiding principle, which was also hugely influential, was Erasmus’ argument that philology, the study of language, was essential to understanding the Bible. By this he meant going back to the original sources, to study the works of the church fathers and to examine the manuscripts of the biblical texts to determine the best possible readings. Erasmus shared the concern of many scholars and churchmen of his day that the Vulgate was so full of errors that it was no longer Jerome’s translation. At the same time as Erasmus was producing his New Testament, which appeared in 1516, he was also editing the works of the great church fathers, Jerome, Augustine, and Chrysostom. Because he did not have Hebrew he focused his studies on the New Testament.

A major turning point in Erasmus’ biblical studies came in 1504 when he discovered a manuscript of Lorenzo Valla’s annotations on the Gospels. He published the work a year later with his own preface in which he laid out his working method, which was to examine various manuscripts of the New Testament. Further, Erasmus endeavored to use his knowledge of Greek to study the meaning of individual words in light of 3 classical usage and historical contexts. Erasmus was fiercely criticized by the university professors for daring to make decisions about the Bible on the basis of philology and history and not theology. It was considered by many leading academic theologians an offense against the church to criticize or dare to correct the Vulgate. There was also suspicion of using Greek, because the Latin and Greek churches were divided and the latter were held in the West to be heretical.

At the center of the storm was the place of the Latin Vulgate, which was the bible of the medieval church. Erasmus was at pains to point out that theology and philology were in harmony, and that the study of languages posed no threat to the “queen of the sciences.” As for the Vulgate, he was clear that the text had never been formally established as the authorized Bible of the church, and that Jerome was not the author of the work as it now existed. Erasmus pointed to the differences between the Latin in Jerome’s biblical commentaries and of the Vulgate to demonstrate that the Bible was no longer the father’s work; it had been so thoroughly corrupted by transcription errors over the centuries. Further, there was no evidence that the Vulgate was an inspired work, as was the Septuagint. Jerome, Erasmus argued, had always been clear that translation was a human work requiring diligent study of languages. This was the model that Erasmus claimed for himself, and he frequently sought to portray himself as the new Jerome. Only the scholar who had mastered the biblical languages was fit, Erasmus claimed, to do the necessary work on the text of scripture. His theological opponents, he was clear, did not possess those skills.

Erasmus originally intended to publish the Vulgate with his extensive annotations that he had been preparing for some time. His publisher, Froben, had heard of the 4 imminent appearance of the Complutensian Polyglot in Spain, a vast multi-volume work with all numerous languages in parallel columns, and wanted to produce his own edition of the Greek New Testament. Erasmus agreed and included his own Latin translation of the Greek in place of the traditional Vulgate text. The work was completed in March 1516, in great haste, which accounts for the numerous errors in the text. The result was the Novum Instrumentum, a Latin-Greek edition of the New Testament with extensive annotations prepared by Erasmus. The Greek and Latin were presented in parallel columns, followed by the notes, with the whole book running to more than a thousand pages. The New Testament was dedicated to Pope Leo X and contained one of Erasmus’ most important works on the Bible, his Paraclesis, which was an appeal for the diligent study of scripture through the use of the ancient languages. Erasmus’ primary intention was to present the New Testament in a fresh Latin version together with his extensive commentary. It was a translation based on the Greek, rather than the Vulgate, and was based on seven Greek manuscripts that Erasmus had carefully examined. It provoked a storm of controversy among church theologians who fiercely rejected Erasmus’ new translation that was not officially sanctioned.

The great humanist, however, was not finished. Three years later in 1519 he prepared a second edition, this time known as the Novum Testamentum, for which the notes were almost doubled in size. Misprints were corrected and the Greek was revised in hundreds of places. One of the most controversial aspects of Erasmus’ New Testament was that in his 1516 and 1519 editions he did not include the so-called Johannine comma (1 John 5: 7b-8), which is found in the Vulgate. The passage reads, “for there are three that bear record [in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are 5 one. And there are three that bear witness in earth] the Spirit, and the water, and the blood; and these three agree in one.” It was the classic evidence for the place of the Trinity in scripture. Erasmus had excluded it on the grounds that he had found no evidence in the Greek manuscripts, only in later Latin ones. He agreed with Jerome that it had probably been added later in the debate with the Arians over the nature of the Trinity. In his 1522 edition Erasmus restored the comma, and scholars have wondered why. The most persuasive reason is that Erasmus did not want his Latin translation to be disregarded on account of something he regarded as a detail. Although he included the comma from 1522 onward, he clearly did not believe in its verity.

When John Colet received his edition of Erasmus’ 1516 New Testament he claimed that “the name of Erasmus shall never perish.” The Greek text that Erasmus produced, which became known as the ‘Textus Receptus,” was to remain the standard form until the nineteenth century. In some fundamentalist circles it continues to be regarded as the authoritative text. Today we have more than 5,000 Greek manuscripts available for study, which rather dwarfs the handful used by Erasmus. Nevertheless, Erasmus’ work in using manuscripts and the study of language and history transformed the world of the Bible in the Renaissance. He laid the foundation for the Reformation work of Luther, Zwingli and Calvin, all of whom fully acknowledged their debt to the great humanist. Erasmus established knowledge of the original languages and philology as essential to the interpretation of scripture. He was fiercely opposed by those in the Catholic Church who defended the traditional Vulgate and sought to preserve the authority of the ecclesiastical hierarchy in determining how the Bible should be 6 interpreted. Erasmus’ work began a revolution, although he himself would never leave the Catholic Church.

Further Reading:

Erika Rummel, Erasmus (Bloomsburgy, 2004), esp. 73-89. The short book is a helpful introduction to Erasmus.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. How is philology, the study of the Bible’s original languages, important for understanding it?
  2. What is the import of the existence of multiple versions of the biblical text? Were the problems that Erasmus dealt with different from the various English translations of today?
  3. How does the episode of the Johannine Comma change the way we think about the text of the Bible?



Yale Bible Study

Reading the Bible

III. The Vernacular Bible

Martin Luther and William Tyndale

Martin Luther and William Tyndale, together with Huldrych Zwingli, are the best-known Reformation advocates for the translation of the Bible into the language of the people. Luther’s influence was enormous because he established the essential principles by which vernacular Bibles should be prepared. Although the full German Bible of Martin Luther did not appear until 1534, he had begun translating scripture in 1517 with his rendering of the Psalms into his native language. After his dramatic stand in front of Charles V at the Diet of Worms in 1521, Luther was held captive in the fortress of the Wartburg, where he set about translating Erasmus’ New Testament into German. The result, which became known as the September Testament, was prepared in a remarkable eleven weeks, and was hugely popular. Luther was not the first to translate the Bible into German, but without doubt his knowledge of Greek and Hebrew and lively sense of powerful phrasing and beautiful poetry led to the creation of an extraordinary text that continues to be read today.

During his studies at the University of Erfurt Luther had gained a strong knowledge of Latin, Hebrew, and Greek, the foundation of a humanist education. But what made him truly distinctive was his gift for translating these languages into the world of the common people. Luther’s German reflected, as he had wanted, the conversations he heard in the streets and households. The biblical languages, he argued, were to be brought into the language of a mother speaking to her child, of merchants’ negotiation in the market. He followed Jerome’s model of a sense-for-sense translation that avoided the ugliness of a literal reading of scripture. The Word of God should live. Luther’s grasp of Hebrew and Greek was not as strong as that of his friend and colleague Philip Melanchthon, who aided in the translation of the Bible; but he was unsurpassed in his ability to craft the German of his day. Luther wrote that “in my translation of the Bible I strove to use pure and intelligible German. Our quest for an expression could sometimes last four weeks without us being happy with our work. (…) In addition, I have not worked on my own: I recruited assistants from everywhere. I tried to speak in German, not Greek nor Latin. But to speak German one should not turn to texts in Latin. The house-wife, children playing, people in the street are those to learn from: listening to them teaches one how to speak and to translate – then they will understand you and know how to speak your language” (Luther, An Open Letter on Translating).

Even in the turbulent world of the early Reformation Luther continued to labor on his translations of the Bible: the year after his New Testament appeared, the reformer produced the Pentateuch in German, and the following year came the Psalms, based on the Hebrew and the Greek of the Septuagint.

As mentioned, the great work came in 1534 with a complete translation of the Old and New Testaments. Luther did not work alone, but with colleagues such as Caspar Cruciger, Justus Jonas, Mattaüs Aurogallus, and Philip Melanchthon, all close friends committed to a German version of the Bible for the use of the church. The Bible was a publishing success and many editions followed, one of which was illustrated by Albrecht Dürer, another by Lucas Cranach the Elder. By 1543 over 5000,000 copies of the Bible were available across Germany and they were printed in over ninety cites.

Luther’s approach to translation was to keep as close as possible to the original Hebrew and Greek, but he was also familiar with the different forms of literature in the text, such as poetry and historical narrative. A great lover of music, Luther sought to capture the tone and cadence of the original languages in his German. He was also the author of numerous hymns that came from his close work on the Bible. Music was a crucial part of Lutheran worship.

Nevertheless, the task was daunting, and Luther was faced with difficult theological decisions in shaping the German language. At the heart of his theological convictions lay the doctrine of justification by faith alone, which Luther brought into his reading of the Bible. Further, in translating the psalms, for example, Luther’s belief that they anticipated the coming of Christ is everywhere evident. Nevertheless, he took great care in reading through the various translations of the Bible, such as the Vulgate of Jerome, the Septuagint, and other German versions in attempting to find the most accurate forms for his Bible.

William Tyndale

Luther’s work on the Bible great influenced the young Englishman William Tyndale, whose greatest achievements were his translation of the New Testament and parts of the Old. Four years after Luther, in 1526, Tyndale produced the first English New Testament from the Greek, a work that would have tremendous influence on all subsequent English versions up to and including the King James in 1611. The numbers vary somewhat, but it has been estimated that over three quarters of the wording of the King James Bible has its roots in Tyndale’s work in the 1520s and early 1530s.

Although we do not know for certain, it is thought that Tyndale was born in Gloucester around 1495, making him a little more than ten years younger than Luther. He had two brothers, John and Edward, who were sympathetic to Luther’s reformation message and possibly played a role in William’s spiritual formation. At the age of twenty, Tyndale had completed his studies at Oxford, which gave him a firm grounding in the liberal arts of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. John Foxe, the sixteenth-century historian and author of the famous martyrology, informs us that Tyndale “increased as well in the knowledge of tongues,” learning Greek, Latin, French, and possibly German.

For the last ten years of his life, from 1526 until 1536, Tyndale devoted himself to work on the Old Testament, which he read in Hebrew, and to revising his 1526 New Testament. The task was far from easy. Having been forced to flee England on account of his heretical views and sympathies for Luther, Tyndale lived on the Continent as a fugitive and exile, frequently hunted by those who wished him dead. The city with which he was most closely associated was Antwerp, where he sought to work unnoticed by the authorities, keeping himself to a small group of friends and supporters who sustained him with money. Tyndale was closely associated with a group of English merchants, who carried his work back to England, where he acquired a considerable following as well as the wrath of Henry VIII.

Tyndale was an accomplished Hebraist and, like Luther, a master of the vernacular language. He had worked with Jewish scholars in Wittenberg and Worms to improve his grasp of Hebrew, and he published his translation of the first five books of the Old Testament in 1530. Not long afterwards, editions of Tyndale’s work began to appear in England, contrary to the decrees of the English government.

It is fair to say, however, that it was Tyndale’s New Testament of 1526 (and subsequently revised) that was his master achievement. The work defined the English of his day and his phrases remain familiar to us today: “Blessed are they which honger and thurst for rightewesnes: for they shalbe filled” were unmistakably clear to the reader in Tyndale’s day, and remain so in modern English. The common folk, eager to read or hear God’s word in their own language, purchased thousands of the immensely popular translation between 1526 and 1528. Little did Tyndale realize the impact he would have on later New Testament translations. Most of these later translations (such as the work of Coverdale, Matthews, and the Geneva and King James translators) would incorporate much of Tyndale’s work into their own New Testament editions.

It has long been known that that Tyndale gave us many words and phrases in English that he drew from the Hebrew and Greek. We might think of Shakespeare, but it was Tyndale who gave us “eat, drink, and be merry” (Luke 12:19), “fight the good fight” (1 Timothy 6:12), “seek, and ye shall find” (Matthew 7:7), “the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13), and “no man can serve two masters” (Matthew 6:24). It is also in Tyndale that we find Jehovah, Passover, and scapegoat. These linguistic gems have endured the test of time and continue in use today. Because his translations rest at the heart of later Bible translations, he has been titled “the Father of the English Bible.”

There were few controls on printing in the sixteenth century, and it was not long before pirated editions of Tyndale’s work began to appear. Much to his exasperation, many of these editions changed his wording and introduced numerous errors. Tyndale was more determined than ever to ensure he produced the best possible English translation, and he undertook a major revision of his 1526 New Testament. His commitment to the task is recorded in a famous statement that appeared in his 1526 edition, in which he promised the reader that “in tyme to come . . . [we] will endever oureselves, as it were to sethe [set] it better, and to make it more pate for the weake stomakes: desyrynge [desiring] them that are learned, and able, to remember their duetie, and to helpe thereunto: and to bestowe unto the edyfyinge of Christis body (which is the congregacion of them that beleve) those gyftes whych they have receaved of god for the same purpose. The grace that commeth of Christ be with them that love hym. praye for us.”

As scholars have noted, Tyndale made over four thousand changes from the 1526 New Testament, with about 50 percent of these revisions designed to make his English correspond more closely to the original Greek. In 1534 he had produced an even better version of the Bible, a small, thick book of four hundred pages that was intended for easy handling by the reader. A copy is to be found in the Yale Beinecke Library. Tyndale’s 1534 New Testament is six inches tall, four inches wide, and about one and a half inches thick. Most striking is the glorious rendering of the language, which is both simple and clear, paving the way for the English Bibles that were to follow over the next century. Tyndale’s readership was made up of ordinary men and women who read the New Testament for themselves or to one another “round the table, in the parlor, [or] under the hedges.”

Tyndale’s labors on the Old Testament were cut short by his death, but following the Pentateuch he completed translations of Jonah and Joshua to 2 Chronicles, none of which he lived to see in print. The work was taken up by his friend John Rogers, who included Tyndale’s work in the 1537 “Matthew Bible.”

In German and English Martin Luther and William Tyndale shaped the Bible translations of their cultures and beyond that the very languages in which they wrote. They embraced Erasmus’ call for the return to the original languages as well as the humanist’s belief that scripture should be available to all. Erasmus never produced vernacular translations, but Luther, Tyndale and others took up the task with zeal. Luther would die in his bed in 1546 at the age of sixty-three, but Tyndale paid the ultimate price. In 1536 near Brussels, after a period of imprisonment, he was strangled and his body burnt.

Further Reading:

Timothy J. Wengert, Reading the Bible with Martin Luther: An Introductory Guide (Baker, 2013). Very accessible work written by a fine scholar of Luther.

David Daniell, William Tyndale. A Biography (Yale, 2001). Esp. Chapter 5.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Why was the translation into the vernacular so important for the development of Christianity?
  2. What are the advantages and disadvantages of translating literally from the biblical text, or of translating more colloquially?
  3. Why was translation into the vernacular seen as such a threat by authorities?


Yale Bible Study

Reading the Bible

IV. The Reformation Bible

By the mid 1530s efforts were underway, led by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, to petition King Henry VIII for an English translation of the Bible from Greek and Hebrew. The first printing of a complete English Bible came shortly thereafter in 1535 and was the work of Miles Coverdale, who used the New Testament and partial Old Testament translations of William Tyndale. For the remaining parts of the Old Testament he made use of Luther’s Bible. The result was a mess, largely owing to Coverdale’s lack of knowledge of Greek or Hebrew, which left him dependent on these vernacular translations. Nevertheless, Coverdale’s Bible was intended for use in the study of the Word of God by providing chapter summaries, cross-references, and some annotations. Coverdale followed Luther and put the Apocrypha between the Old and New Testaments. Two years later in 1537 the so-called Matthew Bible appeared. It was named for one “Thomas Matthew” who was in fact an alias for the Protestant John Rogers, who assembled the Bible from the work of Tyndale and Coverdale. The use of Tyndale, a condemned heretic, was highly dangerous in Henry’s England. In addition, the Bible was clearly Protestant in character. For those reasons 1500 copies were printed abroad in Antwerp, which was insufficient to satisfy the growing demand in England for a vernacular Bible for the parish churches.

Although in the following years numerous figures undertook translations of parts of scripture, the next major moment in the development of the English story was the Great Bible that appeared between 1539 and 1541. Once again, the work was by Miles Coverdale, who revised the Matthew Bible that was based on Tyndale. That meant that the Pentateuch, Joshua to 2 Chronicles, and Jonah were all from the Hebrew, while the New Testament (being the work of William Tyndale) was from the Greek. Coverdale’s major contribution was the fine work he did on the poetic books, such as the Psalter, which he put into beautiful English. Thomas Cranmer provided a preface for the Great Bible, arguing for the necessity of the people having scripture in their language. In the last years of Henry’s reign, however, conservative forces moved against the Bible in English and printings were halted until his son Edward VI ascended the throne. In 1547 it was decreed that every parish should have a Bible in English and New Testaments were printed in all sizes in an attempt to address the need. Most people would still have only encountered the Bible in parish churches and few would have owned one.

With Edward’s premature death and the succession of his Catholic sister Mary the printing of the Bible in English came to an end in the kingdom. Among Protestant exiles, however, considerable work was done in preparing translations, above all in John Calvin’s Geneva. The first came in 1557 and was the work of William Whittingham. This was the origin of the most important English-language translation of the next century, the Geneva Bible. The translation was largely based on Tyndale and the Great Bible. The first full edition of the Geneva Bible appeared in 1560 and was the work of a committee of men.

Over the next eighty years, the Geneva Bible, which was the Bible of the Elizabethan Age and of Shakespeare, went through 140 editions. It was inexpensive, carefully put together, and relatively easy to read. It was full of woodcuts, maps, extensive annotations, and interpretive guides. It was the first Bible in English to have versification. It was also the first English Bible after Tyndale to be fully based on the Hebrew and Greek. The translation of the Old Testament, drawing on the latest scholarship of the day, stayed close to the original Hebrew, even when that made for slightly awkward English.

While the Old Testament remained largely unchanged, the Geneva New Testament went through two serious revisions. The first came in 1576 and followed the Latin translation of the Greek produced by Calvin’s colleague Theodore Beza. The second came in 1599 when a new set of annotations on the Book of Revelation were incorporated into the text. The Geneva Bible was particularly popular in Scotland, where it was not replaced by the King James until around 1630.

Elizabeth I repeated the injunction that every parish should have a large (folio) copy of the Bible in English. At first, this demand was met by the Great Bible produced under her father. Soon, however, the scholarly limitations of that Bible became clear, particularly in comparison with the Geneva and its foundation on the original languages. The result was a new English translation that became known as the Bishops’ Bible, because most of the translators were bishops. The Bishops’ Bible became the official translation of the church in England, but for the people the Geneva was greatly preferred. This created a problem. Two major versions of the Bible in England was an unsatisfactory situation and calls emerged for a new translation.

In the face of calls from both Puritans and High Churchmen in England for a new Bible the young King James VI/I called a conference at Hampton Court. One of the most controversial aspects of the Geneva Bible was its annotations, which were decidedly Calvinist in theological orientation. Many in the Church of England, including the king, were unhappy with these annotations and wanted a Bible that was free of them. James declared that a new translation should be prepared.

Careful plans were laid out for the work. Six committees were formed to work on different parts of the Bible. These committees were located at Oxford, Cambridge, and Westminster in London. When translations were ready they were to be sent to other committees to be vetted. Forty-seven translators were selected. Although the members worked from original languages, the Bishops’ Bible, as the Bible of the Church, formed the foundation for the revisions. Many of those revisions came from the Geneva, which was deemed more accurate in terms of language.

The result appeared in 1611. The King James Bible had over 8,000 notes in the margins, but almost none doctrinal in nature as the Geneva had been. It followed the versification of the Geneva and the text was divided into paragraphs. Great attention was given to the precision of the text. Miles Smith provided a long preface that offered a defense of the methods used, but his text is rarely printed in modern editions of the Bible. The Bible was widely printed in a variety of forms, with the first American printing coming in 1777.

Although the King James acquired a remarkable status in the English world in later years, when it first appeared in 1611 it had almost no impact. The Geneva Bible, which was familiar to all the people retained the loyalty of Englishmen and women. Geneva’s extensive notes, which provided detailed explanations of Christian doctrine, were favored over the King James, which only provided notes to understand particular words or phrases. It was not until the suppression of the Geneva Bible in the 1640s that the King James came to dominate. Over the next century, however, many different versions of the Bible appeared; and there was wide variation in wording and spelling, causing considerable scandal. The fate of the King James was similar to that of the Vulgate in the Middle Ages, where centuries of scribal transmission had introduced a large number of errors and variations. Thomas Blayney produced what became known as the 1769 Oxford edition of the King James, which has remained the form that is printed to this day.

Further Reading:

David Norton, The King James Bible: A Short History from Tyndale to Today. (Cambridge & New York, 2011).

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Why has the King James version retained such a high status down to the present?
  2. How important is the official sanction in the creation and dissemination of a Bible translation?
  3. Why was it so important that the King James not include any doctrinal commentary?


Yale Bible Study

Reading the Bible

V. Genesis

In many respects the Book of Genesis formed the theological heart of the Protestant Reformation. With its subjects of creation, the fall, and covenants between God and humanity, the reformers returned to Genesis as the foundation for many of their core teachings. Abraham was regarded as the father of the faith, as Paul was to say in the Letter to the Romans. Not surprisingly, we find numerous commentaries on Genesis written in the Reformation period as well as extensive collections of sermons.

During the last ten years of his life Martin Luther worked on his commentary on Genesis, a biblical book with which he had been engaged from his earliest days as a professor in Wittenberg. Luther regarded his Genesis commentary as one of his greatest achievements, although in his preface to the work he acknowledged that others would and should come along later who would do a better job than he had done. Luther’s approach to reading Genesis, as it was for all of the books of the Old Testament, was centered on the person of Jesus Christ, whom he found everywhere in the Hebrew scriptures. As a consequence, Luther had no problem speaking of the presence of the Gospel in Genesis, as well as of the doctrine of the Trinity. The whole of the first book of Moses he considered to be preparation for the coming of Christ.

Central to Luther’s reading of Genesis was his understanding of law and gospel, which was more than a crude distinction between the two testaments. Both law and gospel refer to the distinctive forms of God’s sovereignty and revelation. Law contains anything that constrains or puts a harness on human conduct, such as laws, legislation, and institutions. Law is the means by which God curbs humanity in order that God’s promise might be received. But there is another, darker aspect to law, for it has the effect of burdening the conscience of the person by revealing how far short of God’s demands the he or she falls. It is when we acknowledge that we are unable to meet the demands of the law that God speaks the word of Gospel, which is in Christ. God provides all that is demanded by the law by relieving the burdened conscience of the believer. For Luther, this was a story not limited to the New Testament but was clear from the promises found in Genesis, and he wrote in his 1523 preface to the Old Testament:

Know, then, that the Old Testament is a book of laws, which teaches what men are to do and not to do, and gives, besides, examples and stories of how these laws are kept or broken; just as the New Testament is a Gospel book, or book of grace, and teaches where one is to get the power to fulfill the law. But in the New Testament there are given, along with the teaching about grace, many other teachings that are laws and commandments for the ruling of the flesh, since in this life the spirit is not perfected and grace alone cannot rule. Just so in the Old Testament there are, beside the laws, certain promises and offers of grace, by which the holy fathers and prophets, under the law, were kept, like us, under the faith of Christ.

Nevertheless, just as the peculiar and chief teaching of the New Testament is the proclamation of grace and peace in Christ, through the forgiveness of sins; so the peculiar and chief teaching of the Old Testament is the teaching of laws, the showing of sin, and the furtherance of good. Know that this is what you have to expect in the Old Testament.

As Luther read Genesis in terms of law and gospel, he also saw the first book of the Pentateuch as being about the church and its fulfillment. The people of the Old Testament looked to the coming of the messiah just as Christians looked to the second coming, the new creation. In a manner shared by all the writers of the Reformation, Luther perceived and drew direct parallels between the worlds of the ancient Jews and the contemporary world in which he lived. In both the past and present, the people lived under gospel and law, seeking to fulfill the demands of God and finding themselves woefully unable to succeed. They struggled against the demonic powers of the earth that engaged them in daily struggle. For Luther, Satan and his demons were a daily reality against whom each person was engaged in a pitched battle. Amid this quotidian struggle, the faithful heard the word of grace of God’s promises that they might live in hope.

This approach of drawing a line from the lives of the characters of Genesis to the contemporary world where he preached was Luther’s understanding of the historical meaning of the biblical text. Although he was a well-trained scholar, for pastoral purposes Luther was not interested in the philological or textual history of the biblical books, but he did see continuity between the men and women of scripture with those people in front of whom he was preaching. Through hearing the stories of Genesis read and the Word expounded he hoped his congregations would recognize themselves in the ancient accounts, that they would realize that as God fulfilled God’s promises to the Jews so could they be assured that they would never be abandoned.

This bond of past and present, the reformers argued, was only possible where the Bible was absolutely clear. The Protestants spoke of the literal understanding of the biblical text, which meant something quite different from what we often mean today. Biblical literalism as we speak of it comes largely from the nineteenth century. In the sixteenth century, the literal was understood to refer to the intended meaning of the words, not just what they say grammatically. For Luther, as for Calvin and others, every word of the Bible was inspired and is the Word of God, but scripture had to be read in faith. Without faith, the Bible is just a collection of words that can never be experienced inwardly or fulfilled. Neither Luther nor Calvin was bothered by internal inconsistencies or linguistic problems in the text, for what we have was written by fallible human hands. At the heart of their reading of the Bible was the doctrine of justification by faith alone, the belief that God’s gracious act in Christ frees the faithful from the bondage of sin. Thus, for Luther the purpose of biblical interpretation was not to find the textual history (although he recognized the importance of that work), but to open the Bible to the people by revealing Christ. Thus, for the reformers, there was a doctrinal core to the Bible, which was justification in Christ through faith alone, and it was the role of the interpreter of both the Old and New Testaments to reveal that message in the words of the Hebrew and Greek. The reason Luther had no time for the books of Esther or the Epistle of James was because he felt they did not speak that central truth.

For the reformers, doctrine, history, and grammar all flowed into one another, and in reading the commentaries of Luther and Calvin we do not simply find theological explanations of Genesis. What opens before us is a rich world in which the reformers took enormous interest in lives, personalities, and historical contexts of the ancient men and women. Let us look for example at a passage on Jacob, and we find a concern with the person of the biblical character, his family, and concerns. All of this Luther implicitly draws into the world of his German hearers.

For when [Jacob’s] household was in a most disturbed condition and full of great disasters and the worries by which we have heard that the saintly patriarch was afflicted, not so much on account of the enmity of his brother and injuries from his father-in-law, which he overcame with great courage, unconquerable faith, and wonderful patience, as on account of his domestic afflictions, Dinah’s defilement, and the deaths of his nurse Deborah and his wife Rachel, and finally on account of the unspeakable incest of his son, who polluted the paternal couch—in these great difficulties, his one hope and comfort in old age and in troubles remained in the firstborn son of his deceased wife, Joseph, who with his piety and saintly life in one way or another healed and encouraged the sick heart of his father. Suddenly and unexpectedly he is also removed, so that the unhappy father after the loss of his dearest wife is also deprived of the son who was especially beloved. (Luther Works, vol. 6, p. 312)

In reading the Genesis text, Luther worked to bring the reader’s life into contact with the biblical Jacob, revealing the tumults and worries of human existence. It is the world into which God’s alien grace comes and transforms life. That message, for Luther, is the narrative of human life and the central message to be gleaned from scripture.

If we turn to John Calvin and his treatment of Genesis we find further thought on the nature of the biblical text. One question that interested him and is relevant to conversations today concerns the relationship between the Bible and science. In treating creation, Calvin was clear that what we read in Genesis is not a strictly scientific account of what happened but rather a treatment of a narrative shaped by faith. As Calvin famously said, “He, who would learn astronomy, and other recondite arts, let him go elsewhere,” From his commentary on Genesis, Calvin wrote:

I have said that Moses does not here subtlety descant, as a philosopher, on the secrets of nature, as may be seen in these words…. Here lies the difference; Moses wrote, in a popular style, things which, without instruction, all ordinary persons endued with common sense are able to understand; but astronomers investigate with great labor whatever the sagacity of the human mind can comprehend…. Nor did Moses truly wish to withdraw us from [astronomy] in omitting such things as are peculiar to the art; but because he was ordained a teacher as well of the unlearned and rude as of the learned, he could not otherwise fulfill his office than by descending to this grosser method of instruction…. Moses, therefore, rather adapts his discourse to common usage. (Genesis Commentary, 1:16)

For Calvin the Bible is not a transcript of the divine mind, but the Word of God accommodated to limited human capacity. God speaks to God’s audience in the most appropriate forms. This is Calvin’s use of the Latin term “accommodatio”, by which he means that God addresses fallen humanity in forms in which men and women can best understand. Famously, Calvin uses the image of a mother speaking to a child to describe how God speaks to us.

One of the central teachings in the Reformed tradition to emerge from Genesis is the concept of the covenant, which lay at the foundation of Reformed and Puritan conceptions of the Church. John Calvin in his Institutes of the Christian Religion wrote that:

The Lord held to this orderly plan in administering the covenant of his mercy: as the day of full revelation approached with the passing of time, the more he increased each day the brightness of its manifestation. Accordingly, at the beginning when the first promise of salvation was given to Adam it glowed like a feeble spark. Then, as it was added to, the light grew in fullness, breaking forth increasingly and shedding its radiance more widely. At last—when all the clouds were dispersed—Christ, the Sun of Righteousness, fully illumined the whole earth.

For Calvin, following earlier Reformed writers such as Huldrych Zwingli, the covenant was the essential form of the relationship between God and God’s elect. That relationship extended from the moment of creation when God chose who would be saved, but the formal relationship is found in Genesis 17 with Abraham. The whole of human history is based on the covenantal relationship established between God and Abraham, which Calvin, along with other members of the Reformed tradition, emphasized was fulfilled in the incarnation and saving work of Jesus Christ.

In their Christological reading of Genesis, the Protestant reformers found the key doctrines of their faith. From the opening story of creation, which they saw as evidence for the Trinity, to the sacrifice of Isaac, which they understood as referring to Christ’s passion and the covenant with Abraham, they believed the whole of Christian teaching to be foreshadowed in the ancient book.

Further Reading:

John A. Maxfield, Luther’s Lectures on Genesis and the Formation of Evangelical Identity (Kirksville, MO, 2008). Especially chapters 1 and 2.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Why was Genesis understood as so central to the teachings of the Reformers? Does it remain central in the same ways today?
  2. What does “literal” interpretation mean?
  3. Is Luther’s method of reading the Old Testament as being about Christ necessary or sufficient?


Yale Bible Study

Reading the Bible

VI. Psalms

The Psalms have long been regarded in the Christian tradition as the heart of individual and corporate devotion. The fourth-century church father Saint Ambrose wrote:

David thus taught us that we must sing an interior song of praise, like Saint Paul, who tells us: I shall pray in spirit, and also with understanding; I shall sing in spirit, and also with understanding. We must fashion our lives and shape our actions in the light of the things that are above. We must not allow pleasure to awaken bodily passions, which weigh our soul down instead of freeing it. The holy prophet told us that his songs of praise were to celebrate the freeing of his soul, when he said: I shall sing to you, God, on the Lyre, holy one of Israel; my lips will rejoice when I have sung to you, and my soul also, which you have set free.

Throughout the Middle Ages the psalms circulated as a separate work and were highly valued in the prayer life of individuals and monastic communities. We have noted in our section on the Medieval Bible that among the most popular late-medieval devotional texts were the Books of Hours, which were beautifully illuminated collections of prayers and Psalms.

Martin Luther, as a young professor of Bible at the University of Wittenberg, began lecturing on the Psalms in 1512, before he had even learned Hebrew, which he later did from the work of the great teacher Johannes Reuchlin. We noted earlier how few Christian scholars in this period possessed any knowledge of the ancient language, and how they were dependent on Jewish teachers for instruction. Luther labored continuously on his Bible translations, revising them constantly in the hope of finding an ever better text. Although we attribute the German Bible translations that came to Luther alone, he did not work in isolation, but was dependent on the assistance and skill of his friends and colleagues. In 1524 Luther produced his German Psalter, which was enormously influential in the Protestant Reformation. It was widely printed and disseminated, and Luther’s language of the Psalms shaped knowledge of scripture in his native tongue. But, as we remarked, Luther was constantly revising his work, always seeking a better translation, and a year later in 1525 another Psalter was printed with an afterward by Luther in which he refined his thought. In his afterward he wrote that the commands of God are fulfilled by faith and that the cross of persecution belongs to the believer’s existence. As his knowledge of Hebrew developed his translations became more precise, and three years later he issued another version of his Psalter with a new preface. This time he wrote that the Psalms are the best set of examples and lives of the saints that give full expression of their attitude to God. He compared the Psalms to the legends of human saints by saying that the biblical texts do not record the deeds or actions of the faithful, but their prayers and songs. The Psalms provide glimpses in to the hearts and laments of God’s community. In 1531 he wrote:

Moreover, it is not the poor every-day words of the saints that the Psalter expresses, but their very best words, spoken by them, in deepest earnestness, to God Himself, in matters of utmost moment. Thus it lays open to us not only what they say about their works, but their very heart and the inmost treasure of their souls; so that we can spy the bottom and spring of their words and works—that is to say, their heart—in what manner of thoughts they had, how their heart did bear itself, in every sort of business, peril, and extremity.

Luther continues a theme found in Ambrose which would prove central to John Calvin’s deep engagement with the Psalms. Every human emotion, every state of despair and joy is given expression in words of these beautiful texts. “And (as I said) the best of all is,” Luther wrote,

that these words of theirs are spoken before God and unto God, which puts double earnestness and life into the words. For words that are spoken only before men in such matters do not come so mightily from the heart, are not such burning, living, piercing words. Hence also it comes to pass that the Psalter is the Book of all the Saints; and every one, whatsoever his case may be, find therein Psalms and words which suit his case so perfectly, that they might seem to have been set down solely for his sake, in such sort that anything better he can neither make for himself, nor discover, nor desire. One good effect of which, moreover, is that if a man take pleasure in the words here set forth and find them suit his case, he is assured he is in the communion of the saints, and that all the saints fared just as he fares, for they and he sing all one song together, particularly if he can utter them before God even as they did, which must be done in faith.

Luther penned his final preface to the German Psalter just a year before his death in 1546. Once more, he admonished the readers to regard the Psalms as a manual for prayer and piety. In the Psalms one finds the words to express every possible human desire and emotion. The life of the devoted Christian should focus on the Lord’s Prayer and meditation on the Psalms.

During the Reformation commentaries on the Psalms were written by the leading churchmen and women, including Martin Bucer and Katerina Schutz-Zell. In 1557 John Calvin, very much at the height of his authority in Geneva, published his exhaustive work on the Psalms, which runs to several volumes. His commentary is remarkable for a number of reasons, not least of which is that it was to this interpretive work on the Bible that he appended an account of his life. John Calvin was not overly inclined to write about himself directly, although we know he often made references to his life and experiences through descriptions of biblical characters. In 1557, however, Calvin wrote an extensive recollection of his life as a young Frenchman who was forced into exile.

Calvin’s account in his preface to his Psalms Commentary is not an autobiography in our modern sense; it is more of a spiritual autobiography, an account of his conversion to the Gospel. Calvin shapes the story around a comparison with David.

For although I follow David at a great distance, and come far short of equaling him; or rather, although in aspiring slowly and with great difficulty to attain to the many virtues in which he excelled, I still feel myself tarnished with the contrary vices; yet if I have any things in common with him, I have no hesitation in comparing myself with him. In reading the instances of his faith, patience, fervor, zeal, and integrity, it has, as it ought, drawn from me unnumbered groans and sighs, that I am so far from approaching them; but it has, notwithstanding, been of very great advantage to me to behold in him as in a mirror, both the commencement of my calling, and the continued course of my function; so that I know the more assuredly, that whatever that most illustrious king and prophet suffered, was exhibited to me by God as an example for imitation.

Calvin saw in his rise from an obscure family to the role of preacher of the Gospel as modeled on David’s calling.

My condition, no doubt, is much inferior to his, and it is unnecessary for me to stay to show this. But as he was taken from the sheepfold, and elevated to the rank of supreme authority; so God having taken me from my originally obscure and humble condition, has reckoned me worthy of being invested with the honorable office of a preacher and minister of the gospel.

Calvin’s high estimation of the Psalms, a view that shaped the Reformed tradition, is poignantly offered in the preface in words that have become well known.

The Psalms. The varied and resplendent riches which are contained it this treasury it is no easy matter to express in words; so much so, that I well know that whatever I shall be able to say will be far from approaching the excellence of the subject. But as it is better to give to my readers some taste, however small, of the wonderful advantages they will derive from the study of this book, than to be entirely silent on the point, I may be permitted briefly to advert to a matter, the greatness of which does not admit of being fully unfolded. I have been accustomed to call this book, I think not inappropriately, “An Anatomy of all the Parts of the Soul;” for there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror. Or rather, the Holy Spirit has here drawn to the life all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated.

Calvin’s image of the Psalms as the “anatomy” of the soul was a well-known image in Christian writing, and we find echoes of Luther’s thoughts about the full range of emotions found their words. Distinctive to Calvin’s vocabulary was the image of the mirror, which Calvin used frequently in his Institutes of the Christian Religion. For Calvin, creation reflects God’s goodness and purpose. The Psalms, in turn, mirror every aspect of our lives. In a related image, Calvin speaks of Christians as wearing the spectacles of faith to read the Word of God and behold God’s presence in the world.

In the Reformed tradition the Psalms acquired a particular role in worship. The Psalms were sung in Calvin’s Geneva, forging a tradition that would shape worship throughout France, the Low Countries, Scotland and in the New World. Although Luther was a great writer of hymns, Calvin looked to the singing of the Psalms as worthy praise of God.

Now what Saint Augustine says is true, that no one is able to sing things worthy of God unless he has received them from Him. Wherefore, when we have looked thoroughly everywhere and searched high and low, we shall find no better songs nor more appropriate to the purpose than the Psalms of David, which the Holy Spirit made and spoke through him. And when we sing them, we are certain that God puts the words in our mouths, as if He Himself were singing in us to exalt His glory.

The Geneva Psalter, which was the work of various churchmen, including the poet Clément Marot, became an instant bestseller. Calvin and his followers believed that singing the Psalms was the best way to learn them by heart. He even argued that children would be able to teach them to their parents. The singing of the metrical Psalms became central to the worship of Calvinist communities in France, the Netherlands, and Scotland, where it remains to this day in certain churches.

We cannot overstate the importance of the Psalms to the devotional life of the Protestant reformers. They picked up on well-established traditions of the church, but in the tumult and change of the sixteenth century the Psalms of David were held to have a particular resonance.

Further Reading:

G. Sujin Pak, The Judaizing Calvin: Sixteenth-century Debates Over the Messianic Psalms (Oxford, 2010), Especially chapters 2 and 3.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. How has the Reformers’ understanding of the Psalms continued down to the present day?
  2. How does the persona of the interpreter play a role in biblical interpretation?
  3. How does the private and public performance of the Psalms contribute to their meaning?


Yale Bible Study

Reading the Bible

VII. Isaiah

For the Protestant reformers Isaiah was the great prophet, and with good reason. The highly Christ-centered (or Christological) manner in which they read the Hebrew Scriptures made Isaiah, with his prophecies of the advent and sacrificial death of the messiah, a foundation for their belief that the New Testament was the fulfillment of the Old. Many of the key passages so important for the reformers are known to us through George Frederic Handel’s great oratorio, the Messiah. We hear the familiar words from chapter 40:

Comfort, comfort my people,
says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and proclaim to her
that her hard service has been completed,
that her sin has been paid for,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins. [Isa 40:1-2]


In the wilderness prepare
the way for the Lord;
make straight in the desert
a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be raised up,
every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
the rugged places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
and all people will see it together. [Isa 40:3-5]

But the texts are by no means known only from music. For many Christians, the passages from Isaiah are frequently heard in sermons, hymns and in worship. Perhaps best known is the suffering servant from Isaiah 53, whom Reformation interpreters took as unquestionably referring to the life and death of Jesus Christ:

Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

For many of the Protestant reformers, including Huldrych Zwingli and John Calvin, Isaiah was the princeps, the prince, of the prophets. That estimation was based not only his prophecies of Christ, but on the beauty of his poetic voice, his command of the language, and his political authority. He was considered the most learned of the prophets, a towering figure, an Erasmus of the Old Testament. He was also the prophet who rebuked the princes for their ungodliness, becoming a model for Protestant political preaching of the Reformation.

The reformers’ reading of Isaiah was grounded in their understanding of the text as historical, by which they did not mean our modern sense of the historical-factual, but rather how all the events and prophecies of Isaiah point to the coming of Christ. It is salvation history. For the reformers, biblical history is the history of the people of God that reveals God’s redemption of Israel and the nations. Prophecy is not primarily about predicting future events, but in showing how God acts in the human realm. The literal sense of the text, about which we have spoken, sees the events described in Isaiah as past, present, and future, revealing God’s action in human history for the salvation of humanity. The reformers were insistent that this understanding of the Bible, when apprehended through faith, was fully clear even to the uneducated.

Martin Luther, followed by the other Protestant commentators, acknowledged that the book of Isaiah consists of three parts, although the reformers did not wholly agree on the nature of the divisions and offered slightly different interpretations. For Luther, the first part deals with the chosen people with two clear themes: the prophet rebukes the Israelites for their idolatry, and, secondly, he prepares them for the coming of the kingdom of Christ. Luther argues that rebuking and promising formed the pattern of the prophetic admonitions, with Isaiah providing the supreme example. The reformer follows the traditional Christian interpretation to see Isaiah 7 as an account of the Mother of Christ and how she shall conceive in her virginity.

The second part of Isaiah concerns the empire of Assyria and the king Sennacherib. In this part of the book, according to Luther, the prophet tells of how the king will subdue all the lands, including the kingdom of Israel and bring great misfortune to Judah. However, he will be stopped at the gates of Jerusalem. Luther attributes this miracle to the faith of Isaiah himself.

The third part of the book pertains to the Babylonian exile, which Isaiah foretells. Luther refers to the third as the greatest part of the book because the prophet does not allow the people to fall into despair. “For he is concerned altogether with Christ,” Luther writes, “that His future coming and the promised kingdom of grace and salvation shall not be despised, or be lost upon His people and be of no use to them, because of unbelief or great misfortune and impatience; and this would be the case, unless they expected it and believed surely that it would come.”

Luther believed that the role of the prophet was to preserve the faithful in the anticipation of Christ’s coming, the message of good news to be delivered in their preaching. The prophet was not primarily about predicting future events, but to bring before the people an account of God’s deeds of salvation. The people should eagerly await the arrival of their messiah. What distinguishes the true prophet from the false, a theme that greatly concerned the Protestant reformers, was that only those chosen by God spoke through the Holy Spirit.

The Protestant reformers’ interest in the historical events found in Isaiah was primarily focused on his prophecies about Christ. Yet, there remains a tension in their reading of the prophets between what was historical and belonged to Isaiah’s day, and what referred to coming events. In speaking about the messiah, the prophet, they believed, addressed his people in specific contexts about particular events using the language of judgment and promise. Luther argued that it was characteristic of Isaiah to move between speaking about the kingdoms of the world in his age and the coming kingdom of Christ. Regardless of whether Isaiah is talking about worship, politics, or daily affairs, he constantly shifts between past and present, spiritual and physical. According to the reformers, this was an important part of their argument for the roles of temporal and spiritual authority in the state and church.

The historical meaning of the text was truly important for the reformers, and they read Isaiah as promising not only a salvation in the future, but one which applied to those faithful Jews who heard and obeyed God’s commands. Luther and Calvin went to considerable effort to point out that the salvation promised in the future was already a reality for those Jews who believed and followed the law. They, being a remnant, already experienced the truth of Christ’s redemptive work, for Abraham was the father of Christian faith.

What the reformers sought in reading Isaiah, as they did with all the prophets, was to move away from allegorical interpretations to take seriously both the spiritual nature of the text and its historical account. The past was to be recovered not only because it was an account of distant events, but because it speaks of God’s judgment and promises for the present. Luther and Calvin, together with their contemporaries, read such chapters as 42, 53, and 61 of Isaiah in light of the message of Christ, a view that was largely discarded after the Enlightenment, but nevertheless formed the very heart of pre-modern biblical exegesis. In the preface to his commentary on Isaiah, John Calvin writes:

Hence, we may learn in what manner the doctrine of the word should be handled, and that we ought to imitate the Prophets, who conveyed the doctrine of the Law in such a manner as to draw from it advices, reproofs, threatenings, and consolations, which they applied to the present condition of the people. For although we do not daily receive a revelation of what we are to utter as a prediction, yet it is of high importance to us to compare the behavior of the men of our own age with the behavior of that ancient people; and from their histories and examples we ought to make known the judgments of God; such as, that what he formerly punished he will also punish with equal severity in our own day, for he is always like himself. Such wisdom let godly teachers acquire, if they would wish to handle the doctrine of the Prophets with any good result.

John Calvin’s interpretation of Isaiah differs from those of his contemporaries in several significant ways. Unlike Luther and others, Calvin was much less inclined to conflate the Old and New Testaments. He does not always look for the visible presence of Christ in the Old Testament, as we have noted in our discussion of the Psalms. Calvin was more inclined to say that the references were to David, not Christ, a position that earned the Genevan reformer the wrath of numerous opponents who claimed that he was “Judaizing” the text. Nevertheless, he shared with the authors of his age a willingness to adjust the meaning of Old Testament passages in order to harmonize them with the New. He projected back into the ancient texts a theological understanding that many today would say does not reflect the diverse origins of the original. Calvin would never have thought of his actions in such as way. He held to a theology in which there was a seamless union of the two testaments, that the church had one set of scriptures that revealed the Trinitarian nature of God and the redemptive work of Christ.

We spoke earlier of the role of the psalms in the worship of the church. Isaiah was one of the most important books of the Bible in the Reformation for preaching. The reformers were constantly attempting to take the message delivered by the prophet and apply it to their own times. This meant that while the reformers sought the historical context of Isaiah’s prophecies they also were looking to move beyond the specifics of those moments to find their homiletic application. The book of Isaiah was one of the most important and popular in the age of the Reformation because many believed that the turbulent and violent times through which they were living were accurately reflected in the prophet’s words. Like the Psalms, Isaiah spoke to the whole range of human experience, from punishment for disobedience, the suffering and humiliation of exile, to the promise of future deliverance. One of the most important ways in which preachers and writers of the Reformation brought the Bible to life for their people was to show them how their world was reflected in God’s relationship with God’s ancient peoples. That was a great source of comfort.

Further Reading:

Brevard S. Childs, The Struggle to Understand Isaiah as Christian Scripture (Grand Rapids, 2004), Especially chapters 13 and 14.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. How did the prophecies of Isaiah serve the various needs of the reformers?
  2. How did reformers variously understand the function of biblical prophecy, and how do or might we understand it today?
  3. Is it reasonable to read Christ or the New Testament back into the prophecies of the Old Testament?


Yale Bible Study

Reading the Bible

VIII. Daniel

The Protestant reformers had different strategies for reading the book of Daniel, as we shall see. Some focused more on the moral qualities of the young man who preserved his faith while in exile, while other writers looked to the book to explain the unfolding of divine history. One of the most influential of the Reformed tradition was the Basel reformer Johannes Oecolampadius, who died in 1531. Following the patristic and medieval traditions, Oecolampadius divided Daniel into two parts, the historical and the prophetic. The interpretation was by no means new, but reflective of most approaches taken by the Protestant reformers, including Martin Luther. The historical assessment of the book sought to understand the events described in the book, but this proved no easy endeavor and there was considerable disagreement among interpreters. Protestants were not wholly in harmony, for example, on questions such as the existence of a second Nebuchadnezzar, who Cyrus was, and the reign of Darius the Mede, to name just a few points of discussion.

Early in his career, Martin Luther had little time for the eschatological books of the Bible, reflected in his negative attitude towards Revelation. However, by the late 1520s, as he looked on the course of the Reformation and the Turkish invasions of Europe, themes concerning the end times increasingly took his attention. Luther turned to the book of Daniel as a way of understanding the events that were unfolding around him. As the Turks lay siege to the city of Vienna in 1529, Luther associated the Ottoman forces with the little horn of Daniel 7. For the Wittenberg reformer, the advance of the Turkish forces, which many believed would overwhelm the German lands, was God’s scourge of the unfaithful, just as God had punished the errant Jews. The role of antichrist had always been central to Luther’s understanding of his revolt against the Catholic Church. From an early stage he spoke of the papacy as antichrist, but increasingly he associated antichrist also with the Turkish invaders. What was the relationship between the two? Drawing from Daniel, Revelation, and Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians, Luther saw the papacy and the Turks as closely related. The popes were the “spirit” of antichrist, while the “Turks” were the flesh. In reading Daniel 8, Luther saw Antiochus Epiphanes as the forerunner of the great antichrist who was to be revealed in the church.

For Luther, the book of Daniel was to be preferred to Revelation for interpretations about the events of his age. Contrary to what we might expect, in his 1529 preface he argued that Daniel with all its prophecies of disaster was in fact a source of comfort to all Christians in the last times. Two chapters in Daniel were especially important for Luther, who saw chapter eleven as the transition from the description of past historical events to prophecy about the future. In particular, he found in chapter eleven both references to the popes as antichrist and the promise of the Gospel. Remarkably, Luther devoted even more attention to chapter 12 than to the rest of the book altogether. At great length he sought to reveal the malign character of the papacy, but, as was his style, ended on the revelation of promise, which was the certain appearance of Jesus Christ to save the people from their misery. Scholars have pointed to inconsistencies in Luther’s interpretation of the symbols found in Daniel. This problem is found in the work of all the reformers, as it was in their medieval and patristic sources. Nevertheless, Luther’s writings on the topic were hugely popular and influential as he sought to place the Reformation in its eschatological framework. Everywhere he found in Daniel conformation that the Church was in its last days that antichrist had been unmasked, the people were being punished for their apostasy, and that Christ’s return was imminent. These beliefs are captured in his 1530 preface to the book:

From this we see what a splendid, great man Daniel was, before both God and the world. First before God, for he, above all other prophets, had this special prophecy to give, that is, his work was not only to prophesy of Christ, like the others, but also to count the times and years, determine them, and fix them with certainty. Moreover, he arranges the kingdoms with their doings, down to the fixed time of Christ, in the right succession, and does it so finely that one cannot make a mistake about the coming of Christ, unless one does it willfully, as do the Jews; and from that point on till the Last Day, he depicts the condition and state of the Roman Empire and the affairs of the world in such a way that no one can make a mistake about the Last Day or have it come upon him unawares, unless he does it willfully, like our Epicureans. (Luther, 1530)

John Calvin lectured and preached on Daniel during the 1550s when his authority in Geneva was growing following the defeat of his opponents. Calvin would lecture on the text extemporaneously, working through the chapters in order without a prepared text. His assistants would write down pretty much exactly what he said, and his work on Daniel was published in 1561. For Calvin, as for Luther and the other reformers, Daniel was a paragon of faith, the person who had maintained his integrity during exile and the temptations of a foreign court. As such, Calvin saw Daniel’s exemplary conduct in exile as a model for those who had been forced to flee their native France on account of persecution. Many of those exiles were living in Geneva and would have been listening to Calvin speak on the biblical book. Indeed, Calvin dedicated his lectures to the people of France who were suffering persecution for their faith. The timing of Calvin’s lectures on Daniel was crucial; for just as they appeared from the press, his native France was plunged into a religious war in which Protestants and the Catholics killed one another in substantial numbers. It was not difficult for Calvin to see in these events the consummation of time.

Again, following other reformers, such as Oecolampadius and Luther, Calvin focused on the moral and prophetic elements in Daniel. In addition to Daniel’s conduct, the book revealed God’s plans for the future of God’s people. However, it has been noted that Calvin took a different approach to interpreting the book of Daniel from earlier reformers. Luther, as we have seen, read Daniel in an eschatological manner, mapping the events of the book onto present times. This had the effect of associating the four monarchies spoken of in Daniel with a universal history that embraced the sixteenth century.

Calvin offered a different take on Daniel, one that occupied a minority position among Reformation interpreters, although he shared much in common with other Protestants. Let us take, for example, the four empires that appear in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in Daniel 2 and then in Daniel’s vision of the four beasts in chapter 7. Traditional readings placed these empires as those of Babylon, Persian, Macedonia, and Rome. Calvin argued, following the tradition, that Rome was the very worst of the kingdoms, but that its rule came to an end after Nero when foreigners took control. Although Rome was to continue in a form, it was no longer the great kingdom seen by Nebuchadnezzar. The prophecy of the kingdoms, according to Calvin, was about a period of time that had come and gone. Its purpose was to encourage the Jewish faithful that a messiah would come.

Calvin’s treatment of the Roman Empire continued with his interpretation of the small horn of the beast, which Luther had associated with the papacy and the Turks. Calvin rejected this line of thought and pointed to the horn as representing the consolidation of Roman power from Julius Caesar. It was the Roman emperors’ abuse of power and usurpation of the republic that was being referenced in Daniel, so Calvin argued. It was the emperors who persecuted Christians. Calvin’s position was to demonstrate that the prophecies had already come to pass: it was to strengthen the faith of the Christians while they were being persecuted by the Romans and, in the book, to confirm to David that the prophecy of the kingdoms was being fulfilled.

Another significant place where Calvin differed from other Protestant interpretations was in the prophecy concerning Christ, found in Daniel 7:13-14, when the Son of Man came to the Ancient of Days. Most Christian interpreters saw this as the fulfillment of Christ’s reign with his second coming. Calvin, consistent with his view that the events of Daniel have already taken place, saw the reference as pointing to Christ’s first coming. It referred to the establishment of the Word of God and true preaching in the early church.

On the whole, Calvin was not interested in historical calculations and the mapping of future events. In looking at the central aspects in Daniel of the four kingdoms, the seventy weeks, and antichrist, Calvin looked to the past for their occurrence, not to the present or future dates. Above all, he saw the book of Daniel as consolation for ancient peoples. All the prophecies have been fulfilled in Christ’s first advent, demonstrating God’s care for God’s people through the ages. Calvin believed that these events should be understood in their various historical contexts.

Although the Protestant reformers of the sixteenth century could look at the book of Daniel in various ways, they arrived at the same final conclusion: It was a pastoral work that demonstrated that God had been with God’s people through all the ages and would remain with them right to the end.

Further Reading:

Barbara Pitkin, “ Prophecy and History in Calvin’s Lectures on Daniel (1561)” PDF provided.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Why is the book of Daniel open to such diverging interpretations as we see in Luther and Calvin?
  2. How should the Bible be read: as explaining the past, or as predicting the future? Both, neither?
  3. What makes Daniel so susceptible to being interpreted as a prediction of the end of time?