The Roman Catholic Church taught that the laity should not be allowed to read the Bible. Only the Pope and the priests and officers of the Church could interpret the Word of God. The official Catholic interpretation of Scripture is called the Magesterium. The Catholic Church elevated its traditions to the level of Scripture. It held that there were seven sacraments, not two. It taught that the faithful should pray to Mary and the saints. It offered indulgences for sale for the forgiveness of sin.
The Protestant Reformers rejected all that. Luther saw that the basis for Christian truth is the Bible only. Tradition is valuable. The Reformers often quoted from Augustine and the other Church fathers. But the Bible alone is authoritative. When Luther was urged to retract his criticisms of the Catholic Church at the Diet of Worms, he said, “My conscience is bound by the Word of God. Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God.”
The Genevan Reformation developed along the same lines:
First we affirm that we desire to follow Scripture alone as rule of faith and religion, without mixing with it any other thing which might be devised by the opinion of men apart from the Word of God, and without wishing to accept for our spiritual government any other doctrine than what is conveyed to us by the same Word without addition or diminution, according to the command of our Lord. (Genevan Confession)
The Bible, God’s infallible word, is sufficient for Christian teaching and living. It is the final the authority in all matters of controversy.
Evangelical Protestant Churches give central place to the Bible. Luther translated the Scriptures into German to give the Bible back to the people. Tyndale and other did this for the English-speaking world. Bishop William Morgan translated the Bible into Welsh in 1588. Evangelical Protestantism is a reading religion. The Reformation gave birth to a literary culture as people voraciously read the Bible and helpful spiritual books. Today’s emphasis on universal literacy is a fruit of the Reformation.
The Reformation calls us back to the Bible. We must test everything “by the word and the testimony” of Scripture. We must continue to be in conflict with Rome over the vital issue of the authority of the Bible.
The Reformers and the Radical Mystics
But it was not just against Rome that the Reformers had to contend for “sola scriptura”. Some elements within the so-called “Radical Reformation” began to prefer their inner “spiritual revelations” to the Word of God.
A radical like Sebastian Franck held that the Bible is a dead letter and full of contradictions. He pointed people to the life-giving inner Word. The “Spiritualist” Radicals exalted the Spirit over the Word and this led to an unbiblical mysticism.
The British 17th Century Quakers were heirs of the 16th Century European radicals. They held that, while the Bible is the word of God, it is the inner light of the Spirit that really matters.
George Fox, the founder of the Quaker movement once listened to a sermon on 2 Peter 1:19. The preacher taught is people that, ‘the Scriptures were the touchstone and judge by which they were to try all doctrines, religions and opinions’. Fox immediately expressed his disagreement with the preacher and cried out, ‘Oh no, it is not the Scriptures…but the Holy Spirit, by which the holy men of God gave forth the Scriptures, whereby opinions, religions and judgements were to be tried; for it led into all Truth, and so gave the knowledge of the Truth.’
You note the way in which Fox set the Spirit against the Word. This led to all kinds of bizarre behaviour. Quakers would “feel led of the Spirit” to go naked as a sign, much to the outrage of society. Richard Sale said of Fox, ‘Praises, praises, eternal praises to thee forevermore, who was and is and is to come, who is god over all, blessed forever.’ What unbiblical blasphemy!
The most shocking example of extreme Quaker conduct was when James Nayler rode into Bristol in 1656, consciously re-enacting Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. His followers hailed him as ‘Jesus’ and cried ‘Hosanna’ and ‘holy, holy, holy Lord God of Israel!’
When we set the Spirit against his inspired Word we leave ourselves open to such fanatical delusions. We are counselled to “test the Spirits whether they are of God” 1 John 4:1-2. The Holy Spirit will always glorify Jesus and point us to him as the Word made flesh for our salvation. Christ said of the Spirit, “He will glorify me, for he will take of what is mine and declare it to you.” John 16:15.
The Puritans battled against the traditionalism of Rome and Anglicanism on the one hand and against the mysticism of the Quakers on the other. They defined themselves as “sola Scriptura” over and against both of these positions:
The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man's salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down or necessarily contained in the Holy Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelation of the Spirit, or traditions of men. [Emphasis added]. (Baptist 1689 Confession, Chapter 1:6.)
This teaching has obvious relevance for today’s scene. The extremes of behaviour associated with the recent “Toronto Blessing” movement are redolent of 17th Century Quakerism. We must not pit the Spirit against his Word. He speaks today though the Book he inspired. The Spirit will never contradict his Word and since the closure of the New Testament cannon, he will not add to it either. We need the Spirit to enlighten our minds to understand the Truth. But illumination is not the same as revelation.
We must be very careful and circumspect about claiming that “the Lord told me this or that”. While not denying that the Lord does sometimes speak to us and prompt us in unusual ways – it is in the Bible that we hear his voice speaking clearly to us each time we read it. We may not claim the “The Spirit told me to do so and so” if what we are being told to do is plain against the teaching of Scripture. We must look to the Book to guide us. We should not wait for mystical impressions to tell us what to do, but learn to think and act wisely and Biblically.
The Reformers and Puritans held Word and Spirit together in fine balance. We have a lot to learn from their deep theological wisdom today.