Sola Scriptura: the Struggle for the Bible

By Reed Benson

Those interested in understanding how the Bible came to us must embark on a short journey back in time. We must return to the tumultuous period that left its mark upon us in ways we do not realize. When we look at the institutions, customs, and modes of thought that shape our lives today, it will be discovered that the modern era took on its present form in the period that stretches from 1500 to 1650. This one hundred fifty year span is the period that is most critical to understanding the things that are most important to us as a society. It was at this time that our western conceptions of nationhood and citizenship were formed. It is at this time that our European languages were ripened and cast into their permanent form. And most important to our present purpose, it was during this period that our Bibles came to us. How and why did it happen?

That question may be more important than what one may realize, for upon it hinges which Bible translation you will want to take into your bosom as your Bible for personal study, meditation, and common usage. To get a flavor for the temperament of that period we will pick up the story of Western civilization in mid-stream, for otherwise it is a tale too long for one sitting.

The Church in the Late Middle Ages

Many will recall that the Middle Ages was the time of lords and ladies, chivalrous knights and long-robed monks with the funny haircuts (called a tonsure). In truth, despite apparent oddities to us, people then were not much different than now. They wanted the same things were think about—peace, a full cupboard, a better future for their children, and the confidence of comfort in the world after death.

In the 1300 and 1400s society was dominated by two institutions—the Roman Catholic Church with the pope as its chief officer, and the European aristocracy capped by a collection of dukes, earls, and a handful of nervous kings ever glancing over their shoulders at potential rivals. In these two institutions, the Church and the State, a dynamic tension always existed. Each was continually trying to expand its own influence in society to enhance future preservation while trimming the power of the other. Not infrequently, the Roman Church often got the better of their rivals in the various intrigues of that era.

It is important to realize the Roman Church had changed considerably over its long history. Before the year 1000, the Roman Church had played a positive and vital role in keeping civilization afloat after the fall of Rome through several centuries of political uproar. Priests were then the only people who were truly literate. Monasteries were the only places where written manuscripts were found. Latin became the standard written and spoken tongue for all who aspired to education. The Roman Church of those early days had energetically sought to spread the Christian faith far and wide to the fringes of the European continent. For the most part, it had maintained a solid moral tenor.

But after the Crusades of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the Roman Church began to fossilize into a rigid institution that would brook no dissent, no matter how carefully and respectfully such dissenting views might be presented. As the only religious game in town, they presumed that they alone held the key to the afterlife. Arrogance and corruption began to creep into the ranks of the clergy until it became the norm. The Roman Church grew wealthy, greedy, and lax. High Church offices began to be available to the individual who would donate the largest sum of money into the Church coffers. Called simony, this practice became so common that people were not surprised, when on several occasions, wealthy aristocrats were allowed to buy for their younger sons a bishop’s office while their sons were not yet in their teens! Ritual had become the dominant feature of the Roman Church—bones of saints and other quaint relics became objects of veneration. Gigantic profits were reaped from the superstitious in society whom the Roman Church insisted had to perform acts of veneration to gain forgiveness. The adulation of Mary had evolved into a system of appeal that was nothing more than open idolatry. The priesthood had grown immoral and excessively lazy of mind. The secular clergy (those that had positions where they interacted with the public were called secular in contrast to priests who were part of a religious order that regulated their lives in a monastery were called regular clergy) were grossly ignorant—in many cases they could hardly stumble through the Latin prayer services any better than their flock. The regular clergy were gaining a deserved reputation for violating their vows of chastity with impunity.

The Popes of this period were ruling the Church with the manner and arrogance of oriental despots. The attempted arrogance climaxed with Boniface VIII, who was thoroughly humiliated after he overplayed his political muscle by attempting to excommunicate the king of France. Boniface was harried out of office and the next pope, Clement V, was forced to relocate his Papal administration in 1309 to Avignon, France, where the French king could keep him under his thumb. There the papacy remained for some seventy years until 1378, when the Italians wanted the Pope to return to Rome. Unable to do so, the Italians created their own. Now there were two popes! They hurled anathemas back and forth for several decades until a church council was called and sacked them both in favor of a new man. But the first two refused to recognize the authority of the Church council—so now there were three! After one hundred years of Papal malfeasance, it was growing obvious that the Roman Church had very fundamental problems that were not being addressed.

Finally, in 1417, the Roman Church was internally unified. But they had lost respect immeasurably. Also by then they no longer had a monopoly on education and learning. The loose movement called the Renaissance was sparking interest in all sorts of educational endeavors. Furthermore, there was a new class of people arising that were not dependant upon feudal aristocrats or Church favor for their livelihood. What we now call the middle class was emerging. This was made up of skilled tradesman and merchants of various assortments. Having clustered in towns and providing essential services available nowhere else, they had obtained political independence. These free-cities (free from feudal taxes) were scattered all over central Europe, and they expected more from the Church than ignorance, corruption, and vice. This paralleled the steady emergence of national spirit. People were looking less and less to Popes in far away Italy for leadership. Numerous reform movements mushroomed in the fifteenth century, some with a viable spiritual energy that wanted to return the Roman Church to the superior practice and doctrine it had espoused hundreds of years earlier.

The Crushing of Dissent

But the leadership of the Church was utterly unresponsive. About a hundred years previous, John Wycliffe (1320-1384), who was a member of the Roman clergy, believed a need existed for a translation of the Bible in English. While the Roman Church hierarchy did not approve, he was not muzzled. Wycliffe took his new translation and with it armed traveling layman with the rudiments of the Christian faith to preach to the people of England who were starved for biblical truth. By this mechanism he hoped to raise momentum to reform some of the abuses of the Roman Church. The men he sent forth were called Lollards, and enjoyed several decades of religious liberty. But soon, the Roman hierarchy stiffened their opinion. Wycliffe’s bones (for he was now deceased) were dug up and ceremonially burned as a heretic while Lollard preachers were hunted and harried nearly out of existence. Fearing that free reign of the Bible in the hands of those who may not be loyal to the Roman Church would undermine Roman authority, Wycliffe’s manuscripts were confiscated and sequestered away from the public. Since the printing press had not been invented yet, these manuscripts were relatively few in number, quite costly, and thus easy to track down.

Others who dared to dissent were treated similarly throughout the fifteenth century. A movement known as the Waldenses, who practiced a form of the Christian faith similar to modern evangelicalism, were likewise molested and tormented by the Roman Church until they retreated into such remote Alpine villages that they were essentially neutered of all significant influence.

Jan Huss was despitefully tricked by the hierarchy of the Roman Church. He was a Bohemian priest and scholar who was encouraging changes in the practice and theology of the Roman Church. He was given a promise of safe conduct to and from the city of Constance where a Church Council was underway. He went, believing he would be given an opportunity to formally present his views to that esteemed collection of Roman bishops. Upon his arrival, however, he was clapped into the dungeon. With no chance to defend himself, he was later dragged forth and burnt as a heretic. The excuse the Roman Church gave for such duplicity was simply that as a heretic he had no rights and betrayal of a heretic was a pious act.

Savonarola, a fiery Florentine priest, launched a crusade to clean up the moral abuses of his city. While he did not attack the theology of the Roman Church, his movement of moral reform threatened both civil and ecclesiastical reprobates in high positions, including Pope Alexander VI, who was singled out by name. The Papacy viewed him as a danger to the existing religious order, so they removed all support for whom they viewed as an upstart priest. Predictably, the morally repugnant aristocracy of Florence managed to have him burned as a heretic.

Such callous unresponsiveness to sincere members of the Roman Church who dared to breathe any hint of dissent was rapidly eroding the reputation of the Papacy and entire structure of Church leadership. Europe was changing, and would no longer tolerate the abuses of the last several centuries much longer. Something had to give way.

Bibles for the People

This was the environment in which Martin Luther made his famous appeal. The most egregious of abuses he was protesting was the sale of indulgences, which was a certificate one could purchase from the Church that would shorten or eliminate a dead family member’s duration in the dreadful confines of purgatory and hasten them on to heaven. The advertising jingle of the day was, "When the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs!" After he posted his 95 theses in 1517, he knew he was running some risks. But they were greater than he anticipated. Pope Leo X responded in typical fashion. Luther was commanded to be silent. His writings were forbidden. But all across Germany, the Pope was ignored while the relatively new printing presses published in vast quantities Luther’s tracts and booklets. The new reading public could no longer be easily duped. Finally, the Pope excommunicated Luther and forbade all Roman Catholics to desist giving him food, shelter, or aid. However, if anything, this only made Luther more popular than ever across Germany. Exasperated, the Pope asked the Holy Roman Emperor, the young Charles V, known to be a devout Roman Catholic, to deal with Luther. In 1521, Luther was summoned to appear before Charles. He left his hometown of Wittenberg fully expecting never to return—he knew Huss’ fate. But Charles listened to his appeal, and honored the safe conduct promise Luther had been given. In doing so, Charles had one-upped the Pope by proving he was not the Pope’s lackey. But more important, Luther lived to fulfill the greatest accomplishment of his life.

As he made his way home in the shadowy German forests, Luther was kidnapped. But not by Charles—rather by Frederick, the Duke of Saxony, a thorny but powerful old fellow who disliked both Charles and the Roman Church. Luther was kept safe from both the Pope and Charles in a remote castle under the pseudonym of "Knight George." For nearly a year he was ensconced away while Germany erupted in a religious uproar never before seen. In a matter of months, the Roman Church was literally sent packing. Monasteries and nunneries were emptied as monks and nuns paired off and married. Roman indulgence sellers were driven off. Religious relics were locked in closets as the silly museum pieces they really were. Theologians at German universities went to work at crafting new and more theologically accurate creedal documents.

But the most important work of all was being quietly brought forth by "Knight George." Luther, with no other distractions, went to work on the labor closest to his heart—a translation of the Bible into German. The times were ripe for such a labor. The printing press that had been perfected some fifty years earlier by Gutenberg were found in nearly every town of notable size. Books and booksellers were on every second street corner. Latin Bibles were out and about, but the people of Europe were busy learning to read German, English, etc., not Latin. And although the Roman Church had allowed some translations into vernacular German, French, and Dutch, these were short runs and closely guarded as to availability. Furthermore, they were all translations from the Latin Vulgate and thus twice removed from the original tongue, inexpertly and hastily made, and loaded with heavy Latinized words (like "give us this day our supersubstanial bread"). Such poor and scanty translations never filtered down to the man on the street who wanted one and could afford one—if it would have been made available.

The true core issue was one of authority—and everyone knew it. As long as the Roman Church held a monopoly over the Bible, then they alone were in a position to offer interpretation, meaning, and relevance. A biblically ignorant society was easily led. No vigorous attacks against any Roman Church practice or doctrine could be long sustained without biblical support, and biblical support was difficult to gain when access to the Bible was restricted to clergy over whom the Papacy maintained powerful leverage. That is why the Protestant Reformation did not break out in Wycliffe’s or Huss’ day.

But by the sixteenth century the combination of prolonged Roman abuses and fiascos, rising national spirit, the printing press, and a steady increase of literate middle class people made it impossible for the Bible to be denied. Of the many themes to emerge from the Protestant Reformation, the greatest was "Sola Scriptura," "the Bible Alone."

The Roman Church had maintained that truth was established out of the mouth of The Roman Church—specifically, the Pope, whom they called the "Vicar of Christ." Papal infallibility, although not formalized at that time, was nonetheless the rule of the day. The Papal Bull (official document from the Pope) Unam sanctum had already declared the Pope to be supreme over all civil authorities. But kings and emperors were reluctant to grovel before the Pope unless they had a personal incentive to do so, which was not often. The raw arrogance of the Papacy had grown too great for society to endure. It was clear that the "Vicar of Christ" had been seriously erring from the genuine truth of Christ’s doctrines for a long time.

Luther’s German New Testament, which was not from the Latin Vulgate, but made directly from the Greek, was received with joy. Thousands of copies were printed and used in the grammar schools springing up behind every bush. Within a decade, Luther’s German Bible became the standard mold for the developing German language. The various dialects of spoken German were unified under the written form in Luther’s Bible. For the next three hundred fifty years, Luther’s Bible was the Bible for German speakers everywhere.

Meanwhile, similar forces were at work elsewhere, especially England. The young king of England, Henry VIII, was riding a crest of national spirit and pride never before seen in that green isle. When the uproar stimulated by Luther reached Henry’s Court, he took it upon himself to curry favor with the Pope by writing a tract denouncing Luther. For his services, the Pope conferred upon Henry the title "Defender of the Faith." But, others in England were viewing the events in Germany in an entirely different light.

One such person was the young scholar William Tyndale. After an unfulfilling stint as a private tutor, he managed to obtain quiet financial support that would allow him to translate the Bible into English. He secretly labored and had his New Testament printed in Germany in 1525 and then smuggled into England, usually in bags of imported grain. He led a harrowing existence for the next ten years as Henry’s agents and Papal spies hounded his every move. Finally, after nearly completing the Old Testament as well, he was betrayed by a friend and was burned as a heretic in 1536.

But it was too late; the horses were already out of the barn! The previous year, a former colleague, Miles Coverdale had published the entire Bible in English. This was possible because King Henry was experiencing a change of mind of his own. His father having gained the throne of England only after a long and bloody conflict, Henry was obsessed with securing his dynasty by having a male heir. His first wife Catherine, being unable give him a son, was deemed a hopeless case. So, Henry appealed to the Pope for a divorce. But the Pope was loathe to oblige Henry for fear of offending Catherine’s nephew, the powerful Charles V. As the Pope stalled, Henry grew impatient. Finally, he acted. He seized all Church property in England, emptied the monasteries of their foolish relics, executed just enough monks to scare the rest into obscurity, and declared himself the Head of the Church in England. As Head of the Church, he granted himself the divorce he wanted and went on his way with a new wife in quest of a son. In one fell swoop, the Roman Church lost all of England.

While Henry still considered himself true to Catholic doctrine, these political changes shifted the landscape allowing English dissenters the breathing room they needed. By the time Henry’s sickly son, gained through such difficulty, succeeded Henry to the throne in 1547 at the age of nine, England was ready to open up wide to Reformation theology from the continent. And the most important element of the new changes was Bibles for the people.

Although England still had several decades of tumultuous religious strife before it, in hindsight we can see the dye had been cast—there was no turning back. Additional Bibles came forth in rapid succession: Matthew’s (1537), Taverner’s (1539), and the Great Bible (1539). Later, during the reign of Elizabeth, the very popular Geneva Bible was published in 1560, followed by the Bishop’s Bible in 1568. These translations were exceedingly similar. The differences between the sixteenth century English versions were not a matter of substance, but primarily of size, spelling, font selection, and marginal notations.

Going back to Tyndale’s New Testament, all of these were translated from the Greek New Testament text of the premier Dutch scholar Erasmus, who in 1519 had prepared a printed version of the Greek New Testament from manuscripts. The manuscripts he carefully selected were of the variety called by scholars the Byzantine text, which are the most reliable and consistent grouping of medieval manuscripts available.

The Roman Church Strikes Back

At last the Papacy realized it was going to lose more than Germany, England, and Scandinavia if action was not taken. In 1545, the Roman hierarchy gathered at the Council of Trent to formulate a plan to stem further losses and devise a plan to win back the wayward heretics across the north of Europe.

The Roman Church pressed forward vigorously with a multi-tiered plan. First, they instituted discipline among the regular orders so that clergy would be forced to live up to their vows. Second, they curbed the sale of indulgences and the practice of simony. Third, a new and enthusiastic order was founded, called the Jesuits. Their loyalty was directly to the Pope and they were called to be an intellectual arm of the Church that trained teachers who could counter the theological powerhouses like Luther and Calvin that the Reformation was multiplying in great quantities. Fourth, Church courts called the inquisition were founded to ferret out and punish heretics. This had already been highly effective in Spain, so the Spanish system was exported as model for the rest of Europe still under Roman control. Fifth, and most important for our purposes, they began to issue approved Roman Catholic translations of the Bible in common languages that were meant to supplant the Protestant Bibles. All Protestant translations and virtually all books containing Protestant ideas were placed on a list of banned works, called the Index. Possession of such books would land you in the inquisitor’s court.

The Douay New Testament of 1582 was the belated and grudgingly released English version the Roman Church finally made available. It took them until 1610 to release the Old Testament to English speakers. Even then, the Catholic Bible was only a translation of the Latin Vulgate without any review of the original languages. Of course, coming some sixty years after the first Protestant versions, it was only the greatly shrunken flock of English Roman Catholics who were the least bit interested.

The central issue of the period remained authority. The clearest outcome of the Council of Trent was that the Pope’s authority over his remaining flock was made more certain than ever. To a member of the Roman Church, only the Pope, the "Vicar of Christ," could correctly interpret scripture, and indeed, even correct scripture where it conflicted with Church Councils and Papal bulls. This would result in a unified Christendom.

But the breakaway Protestant sects found the price of unity too high. Christendom had been paganized in the name of unity—the worship of Mary, the veneration of relics, salvation for sale, etc. was not to be tolerated any longer. The Protestants believed there must be a return to the pure doctrines of the early Church. Scripture must be reestablished as the final authority—the Bible alone.

Rome’s Counter Reformation was not without a measure of success. Wars were spawned in the decades following the Council of Trent as the Roman Church offered financial incentives to loyal monarchs to conquer regions dominated by Protestants. This was one of the key factors that stimulated Philip II of Spain to launch his invasion of England that culminated in the defeat of his Spanish Armada in 1588. The French monarchy had swayed to the side of Papacy. Amid intrigues, broken truces, and massacres through the sixteenth century the French kings so persecuted the French Protestants, called Huguenots, that they finally fled to other parts of Europe. In Germany, Austrian Hapburgs combined with the French under the thumb of Roman Catholic Cardinal Richelieu in an attempt to rub out the Lutherans. This produced a seemingly endless cycle of sieges, massacres, and counter-massacres that finally induced the Lutheran Swedish king, Gustavus Adolphus, "the Lion of the North" to intervene to save the Protestant cause. After many successes however, he was slain, the Swedish army beaten, and Germany was again subjected to horror and atrocity. Finally in 1648, after thirty years of religious wars, amid the smoking depopulated ruin of the land of Luther, the Roman Catholics gave up and most of Germany remained in the Protestant camp.

The Crowning Glory of the Reformation Era

England was fortunate indeed to escape the bloodbaths other Protestant countries had to endure. Although a few hundred Reformers were burned as heretics by Mary Tudor (Bloody Mary) in her brief tenure as queen, her sister Elizabeth put a permanent end to religious persecution, providing religious liberty in her realm that was unheard of in that time.

When Elizabeth died childless in 1603, the nearest member of the royal family was her cousin’s son, James, the king of Scotland. James had been raised under the precepts of Protestantism. For the first time ever, England and Scotland were peacefully united. Multiple Protestant sects including the Puritans found England a place of relative peace to cultivate their ideas.

Although many Englishman had dreamed and labored of a united island of Britain, they always assumed it would be an English king who would reign over the Scots, never the other way around! Englishmen viewed Scots much the way that sophisticated New Yorkers view Appalachian coal miners. And now, the humiliation of a Scot as a sovereign king!

Because of this prejudice, James selected Scots as many of his closest advisors. This further exacerbated the festering jealousy among English aristocrats. Taking advantage of peculiar Scottish habits, jealous courtiers attempted to smear James’ reputation after his death by launching the rumor that he had homosexual proclivities. For those familiar with the temperament of James and the politics of the day, this charge is ludicrous since James was, if anything, a moral prude who not infrequently extolled the virtues of chastity and wrote a tract against the use of tobacco. It is unfortunate that liberal revisionist historians of recent decades have been so slipshod and subjective in their research (of course, this is the same crowd that claims Cleopatra and Hannibal were Negroes—completely absurd).

In any case, James’ personal habits are somewhat peripheral to the Bible bearing his name. James was king, chief executive, and a political creature out of necessity, not a scholar. During his reign, Puritans and Anglicans clerics wrangled endlessly, rattling the social landscape. James interceded. Out of the conference over which he nominally presided as Head of the Church (remember—this was the duty of English kings since Henry VIII), the idea was spawned that a new translation would ease the tensions between these two leading religious parties.

The team selected for this task was composed of the finest biblical scholars and linguists—then or now. The new Bible could not have been more timely. The translators used Erasmus’ Greek text and pored over the previous English translations from Tyndale forward. It took full advantage of this peak period of development in language, literature, and theology that has never again been equaled in the English speaking world. The result was the culmination of the English Reformation–the Authorized King James Version of the Bible.

The One and Only

The Kings James Version is absolutely unique. It is the final culmination of the English Bibles from the Reformation Era—the defining period of Western history. It alone embodies the great concepts of Western Christendom in their fullness. Its long tenure as the only Bible in common use in the English speaking world for three centuries is powerful testimony that it is God’s providential choice for the modern English speaking world. Clutch it tightly—if you speak English, it alone is the full counsel of God’s word and will for your life.


Rediscovering Western

Christian Civilization