Owning Scripture was not only pricey but possession could lead to imprisonment or execution. Fourteenth-century forerunners of the Reformation such as John Wycliffe of England and one of his followers in Bohemia, Jan Hus, were persecuted for providing Bibles in the common language of their people. In the case of Hus, translation work contributed to the heresy case against him resulting in his execution at the stake. In the next century, William Tyndale was hunted down wherever he set up his printing press as he moved from place to place to clandestinely provide Scripture in English. He was eventually caught, strangled, and burned at the stake for publishing the Word in the vernacular.
The Latin sola Scriptura means “Scripture alone,” which is the cornerstone sola because understanding the meaning of “Christ alone,” “Grace alone,” “faith alone,” and “to God’s glory alone” requires harvesting information from Scripture alone. Some of the key personalities of church history such as Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Knox were all influenced first and foremost by Scripture as it revealed justification by faith. For Augustine, it was Romans that confronted him with his promiscuous and sinful life; for Luther, the understanding of the meaning of faith was brought to light using Galatians and Romans; for Calvin, the Psalms were essential because they provide “an anatomy of all the parts of the soul;” and for Knox it is believed his key passage was the Lord’s High Priestly Prayer in John 17. As these reformers read the Word, the Holy Spirit illumined their understanding of its message of grace and justification so they could embrace the gospel and grow in sanctification. Sola Scriptura requires acceptance of the Bible as God’s revealed will through, as the Westminster Confession 1:6 would say in a century, “the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word.”
In the nineteen seventies All in the Family was a popular television situation comedy. Inevitably at some point during each episode politically conservative Archie would become involved in an argument with his politically liberal son-in-law, Michael. In one program the two were wrangling over a theological issue when nebulously Christian Archie looked to the top of the television for the Bible, but it was not there. He asked his infinitely patient but shrill voiced wife Edith where she put the Bible. She informed him that it had been moved to the top of the refrigerator. Location of the Bible on top of these important home devices may have been intended to show that the Word held some relative importance, but it instead shows that even though nearly every household in the United States had at least one Bible at the time, they were items of decoration more than books to be read.
The common availability of Bibles currently would have been appreciated at the time of the Reformation because Bibles and books in general were scarce. The movable type printing press had been available for less than a century, so publishing was expensive and purchasing a New Testament or whole Bible was a pricey undertaking. Some historians estimate that a tradesman in England in the sixteenth century might have to spend a month’s wages for a New Testament.
Owning Scripture was not only pricey but possession could lead to imprisonment or execution. Fourteenth-century forerunners of the Reformation such as John Wycliffe of England and one of his followers in Bohemia, Jan Hus, were persecuted for providing Bibles in the common language of their people. In the case of Hus, translation work contributed to the heresy case against him resulting in his execution at the stake. In the next century, William Tyndale was hunted down wherever he set up his printing press as he moved from place to place to clandestinely provide Scripture in English. He was eventually caught, strangled, and burned at the stake for publishing the Word in the vernacular. Lives were sacrificed for the translation and distribution of Scripture. If Wycliffe, Hus, and Tyndale could return to visit their homelands today they would likely be encouraged by the availability of the Word, especially with digital Bibles accessible on a variety of devices, but they would also be discouraged by the common indifference to and ignorance of Scripture.
This Reformation Day would be a good time to establish a plan for reading Scripture. The Bible can be read in a year and there are reading schedules available for such a method, but maybe it would be better to read it through in two to allow for better understanding. The book of Proverbs lends itself to daily reading with its thirty-one chapters working out to one a day for a thirty-one-day month; some individuals read Proverbs every month in addition to their other daily Bible passages. However, familiarity with Proverbs may lead to friends avoiding you because every time something proverbial happens you say a verse or two of Solomonic wisdom addressing the situation. Generally, it is better to read the books consecutively and many of the books in the Bible are not only consecutive but chronological, however Acts may make more sense when it is preceded by the reading of Luke. Luke and Acts are a set that tell the history of Jesus and the post-ascension Apostolic ministries.
Avoid what R.C. Sproul described in his book, Knowing Scripture, as “lucky dipping,” which involves closing your eyes, flipping the Bible open randomly, planting your finger on a page, and then opening your eyes to read the verse touched. Scripture is not a pious Ouija Board for guidance mysteriously directed by the Holy Spirit. Some would say that lucky dipping provides God’s special message for the day, or a revelation of the Divine will for a particular problem, but most likely many dips would be required to get a message that made any sense and its interpretation would be subjective and forced. Systematic Bible reading provides the opportunity for the Spirit to speak through the passages read daily while prayer for guidance can address the particular concerns you have at the moment.
Commentaries and study guides have their place and can be very helpful for understanding Scripture, after all, the Ethiopian eunuch needed Philip as his commentator-preacher to explain Christ from Isaiah 53:7, but unless you are well disciplined with a good chunk of time for your study, simply read God’s Word. As you become more familiar with the Bible, you can study it better after accumulating data from your reading.
One of the reasons Catholicism has kept the Bible in Latin for centuries is because its leadership believes Scripture is too difficult for the average person to understand and interpretation is required. Reading Scripture can be intimidating especially as one ventures through genealogies, Levitical law, and the challenges of prophetic imagery, but remember the Word is God’s revelation, not his concealment. The vast majority of Scripture is plainly understandable; the theological term is the perspicuity of Scripture—Scripture is clear, lucid.
If you are just beginning your Bible reading program and do not know where to start, then begin with the Gospels. For brevity start with Mark; for beauty and detail read Luke; for the particularly Jewish aspects such as fulfillment of prophecy read Matthew; and for detailed information about the passion of Christ read John. However, any of the gospels is straight forward in its message, after all they are the good news and clear language facilitates conveying the Gospel message.
Read to see the forest, not the trees. Do not get bogged down with, “Why did he say that?” or “How much value in dollars is a drachma?” or “Why are Paul’s sentences so long?” Read the passage through and write your questions in the margins of your Bible—some Bibles have enlarged margins and digital ones have note recording features—when your read the passage months or years down the road your accumulated data from the intervening time of Bible reading could provide the answer to your earlier inquiry. When you can answer your own questions after further reading, it shows that you are learning the Word. Remember too that repetition is the mother of memory, so the continued practice of reading the Bible through contributes to better understanding.
The Bible should not be taken for granted, nor should it be left on the television for the appearance of piety, nor on top of the refrigerator for storage. Over the years many have suffered and died to provide the Scripture to successive generations. The Bible is God’s revealed written will and it is necessary for knowledge of Him and understanding His expectations for His people. The Bible not only teaches all that is needed for knowing, glorifying, and enjoying God, but it also testifies to itself—“Your Word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105); “Sanctify them in the truth; your Word is truth” (John 17:17); “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of our God stands forever” (Isaiah 40:8); and “It is written, ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God’” (Matthew 4:4).
Dr. Barry Waugh attends Fellowhip PCA in Greer, SC.