Is the Bible Still Relevant?
One of the most important legacies of the Reformation is the centrality of Scripture. Five hundred years later we need to ask whether Christians – Catholic or evangelical or mainline Protestant – perceive the importance of the Bible for their lives. According to a Pew study in 2014, approximately one-third of Americans read the Bible on a weekly basis; however, almost half (45 percent) rarely or almost never read the Bible. Perhaps even more disconcerting is that less than half of Americans can name all four Gospels.1 I fear that the Bible is in danger of becoming a classic as Mark Twain defined it: “something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.”
In the 16th century, the humanistic call ad fontes (“to the sources”) led to a new appreciation for the Bible. This was true for Catholics and Protestants. Catholic Cardinal Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros (1436-1517), for instance, oversaw the formation of the Complutensian Polyglot Bible that contained the Hebrew Scriptures, the Greek New Testament, and three different ancient translations in Aramaic (Pentateuch only), Greek, and Latin. In the preface, Jiménez explained to the pope: “And so that every student of Holy Scriptures might have at hand the original texts themselves and be able to quench his thirst at the very fountainhead of the water that flows unto life everlasting, and not have to content himself with rivulets alone, we ordered the original languages of Holy Scripture with their translations adjoined to be printed.”2
This was the first published Greek New Testament (1514); the full Bible appeared three years later (1517). It was not, however, the first edition of the Greek New Testament; Erasmus (1469-1536) completed his work in 1516 but did not see it published until 1522. Subsequent editions of Erasmus’s Greek New Testament became the basis for Luther’s German translation (1522; full Bible in 1534) as well as Tyndale’s English translation (1526), the later Geneva Bible (1560), and the King James Version (1611).
The reformers not only looked to the original texts to make new translations, but gave a primacy to Scripture that it did not have in the medieval world. They developed two views: sola Scriptura and prima Scriptura. The former considers Scripture to be the ultimate authority; the latter suggests that Scripture, while holding a privileged place, is illumined by tradition, reason, or experience.
As people began to read the Scriptures, they realized that there was a significant gap between the Christianity of the New Testament and the Christianity they knew in practice. Thomas Linacre (1460- 1524), the personal physician of Henry VIII, spent his later years reading the Greek New Testament. He famously exclaimed: “Either this is not the gospel or we are not Christians.”3 It was this realization that drove the Reformation.
Five hundred years later, I worry not so much that we need to defend the principle of sola Scriptura or prima Scriptura as much as we need to avoid nulla Scriptura.
Christians consider the Bible to be God’s word. It is worth noting that three-fourths of Americans consider the Bible to be God’s word in some way, according to a 2014 Gallup poll.4 Whether a person is Catholic, evangelical, or a mainline Protestant, it is our common ground. Though our interpretations have too often driven us apart, the Scriptures draw us together as a common source of authority. We need to remember this.
The Scriptures not only form an ecumenical base today, they give us a connection to our past. I have met Christians who were ready to jettison the Bible or at least parts of it because they are problematic. This makes no more sense to me than arguing that we should abolish the Constitution of the United States because parts of it are flawed. How would you know that you are an American? How would we know that we are Christians if we had no Scriptures?
Down in the Valley
Just as we have ways to update the Constitution, so the Scriptures are progressive and demonstrate that the understanding of God and how we live before God changes, e.g., the people of God are understood differently in Luke-Acts than they are in Exodus; sacrifices are understood differently in Hebrews than in Leviticus. The problem arises when we ossify or reify Scripture by locking the understanding of God and humanity in the ancient world. This is a human, hermeneutical mistake; it is not the mistake of Scripture. I think of the Scriptures as a mountain spring. We are a long way down in a valley. Our obligation is to stand on the banks of the river that flows from that spring. We do not and cannot stand beside the spring at its source; we are removed by centuries and cultures from that possibility.
The antiquity of the Scriptures does not, however, void their value. They point us to God. How else can we give any specific content to our understanding of God? We could deduce some things from nature, but this is limited at best. It is the Scriptures that show us that God is not a remote being who must be discovered; God seeks us. The Scriptures teach that God is love in the cross of Christ. The Scriptures relate God’s liberation of the captives and care for the marginal. The Scriptures command us to extend to others the gracious experience of God that we know in our own lives. The Scriptures give us the language and inspire us to respond to God in prayer.
It is a mistake to underestimate the power of these texts. Paul’s letter to Romans changed Augustine and, consequently, Western civilization. Romans challenged a medieval monk named Martin Luther who changed history again. A Swiss pastor named Karl Barth read it during World War I and changed the course of 20th-century theology.
A surrender of the importance of the Scriptures would eliminate some of the greatest potential that we have to serve people. There would have been no Mother Teresa apart from the gospels. There would have been no Martin Luther King Jr., without Martin Luther’s insistence on the importance of Scripture. This is our legacy. May we hold it securely!
Gregory E. Sterling is The Reverend Henry L. Slack Dean and Lillian Claus Professor of New Testament at Yale Divinity School. Concentrating his research in Hellenistic Judaism, the writings of Philo of Alexandria, Josephus, and Luke-Acts, he is the author or editor of seven books and more than 70 scholarly articles and chapters.
- Abigail Geiger, “5 Facts on How Americans View the Bible and Other Religious Texts” (Pew Research Center, April 14, 2017), reporting numbers from the 2014 US Religious Landscape Study.
- Diego López de Zuniga, et al. ed. Biblia polyglotta, 6 vols. (Alcalá de Henares, Industria Arnaldi Guillelmi de Brocario in Academia complutensi, 1514-1517), vol. 1, fol. 3r. The translation is from John C. Olin, Catholic Reform: From Cardinal Ximenes to the Council of Trent, 1495-1563. An Essay with Illustrative Documents and a Brief Study of St. Ignatius Loyola (Fordham, 1990), p. 62. Six hundred copies of the Complutensian Polyglot Bible were printed; Yale’s Beinecke Library has one of the extant copies.
- Cited by Roland Bainton, Erasmus of Christendom (Scribner, 1969), p. 58.
- Lydia Saad, “Three in Four in U.S. Still See the Bible as Word of God,” (Gallup, June 4, 2014).