the audio recordings of these papers are available here:

Part I God’s Word: ‘Sola Scriptura’

In 1519, ten years into the reign of Henry VIII, seven people were arrested in Coventry. The Bishop of Coventry had heard that Mrs Smith, a widow, plus two shoemakers, a glover, and a shopkeeper had been teaching their children the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments in English. The parents were imprisoned, and their children interrogated. The Bishop ordered that the six men should be burned to death for the heresy of meddling with the Scriptures in English. Mrs Smith was released. As she left, a suspicious rustling was heard. The Bishop’s servant discovered a copy of the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments in English hidden up her sleeve. She was promptly rearrested. Mrs Smith and the six men were burned to death on the 4th April.


Seven years later, in October 1526 there was a great bonfire on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral, London. A bonfire of books. The books burned were the first English New Testaments to be printed on the newly developed printing presses of Europe.

The official established church in England did not allow people access to the Word of God in their own language. Why? That is one of the questions we will consider in this first session on the Reformation.

A few introductory comments:

I will try not to assume prior knowledge. So first, to define the word ‘Reformation’. It comes from two words, ‘re’ ‘form’; to form again’. It is the name given to the 16th-century movement for reform of abuses in the Roman Church. It resulted in division from Rome. Later on, a movement for reform that remained within the Roman Catholic Church became known as the ‘Counter Reformation’.

And the word ‘Protestant’ came into use after an Imperial Parliament in Germany in 1529. Some there objected to the Emperor’s condemnation of Martin Luther’s teachings. Their ‘Letter of Protestation’ gave rise to the name Protestant.[2]  It is made up of two Latin words, testare, ‘testify/witness’ and pro, ‘forth’: to ‘’testify forth’).

In the first session we will see how the gospel had been obscured by the official Church. We’ll look at John Wycliffe, sometimes called the ‘morning star’ of the Reformation; and also the proliferation of translations of Scripture in the sixteenth century. We’ll focus especially on the English Bible translator William Tyndale. Confidence in Scripture transformed lives, as we will see by looking at the example of one young woman. And we will consider the relevance of Scripture alone as our final authority, for today.

In the second session we turn to the message of the gospel itself. How can I be right with God? We will focus on Martin Luther and the truth of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.

 Thirdly we ask ‘Why’ the great epic of creation, fall, sin, salvation and restoration? We will focus on John Calvin and the supremacy of the glory of God in all things.

In the final session we consider ‘What is the Church?’ Some of the radicals of the reformation broke with centuries of tradition by arguing that the church consists of gathered groups of believers, not everyone in a territory. And, they maintained, the civil authority has no role in enforcing true religion. Most radically of all, they argued for liberty of conscience.

The Gospel Obscured

 A. God’s Word Plus? Development of Papal Claims

How did it get to the point where reading the Bible in English was a capital offence? Why did the church authorities burn copies of the Bible on the steps of St Paul’s? It was not that the Church denied the authority of Scripture. The Roman Catholic Church then (as now), accepts that the Bible is God-breathed (2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:19-21) and without fault (Psalm 119:160). But we need to take a quick look at the development of the claims that the teaching, or magisterium of the Church, headed by the Pope in Rome, had authority at least alongside, if not over, the Word of God.

* The Rise of the Papacy

During New Testament times, elders were appointed in every church. The New Testament uses several words interchangeably for the same office: presbyter, bishop, elder, shepherd and pastor.

Over the decades and centuries, some ‘elders’ in larger congregations in larger cities began to take charge over others. The title ‘papa’, ‘father’ or ‘pope’ was sometimes used of these men who claimed authority over other churches, but eventually the title became reserved to the patriarch’ or ‘father’ of Rome. In 1073, Gregory VII decreed that he and he alone could use the title of successor of the Apostle Peter, and that he had the highest authority in the Church.[3]

The Rise of Sacralism

During the first three centuries of the church, there were several waves of severe persecution. In AD 313, the Roman Emperor Constantine claimed to have seen a vision of Christ, and later professed to be a Christian. This appeared to be a great deliverance. Persecution ended. Constantine died in 380. After that, the Emperor Theodosius made Christianity the ‘official’ religion of the Roman Empire, even the enforced religion of the Roman Empire. This inaugurated the era of the State-Church. The joining of Church and State is called sacralism’. In a ‘sacral’ system, everyone born into a Christian nation is baptised when they are born. Infant baptism began to be widely practised where whole territories were ‘made Christian’ from the fourth century on.[4] But in this context, many people profess Christianity in ‘name only’. And in a State Church system, the government is involved to a greater or lesser degree in church appointments. Moving up the hierarchy becomes a good job option. This can lead to the giving of appointments to relatives (simony) or the selling of church jobs (corruption).[5]

The joining of Church and State means that religious dissent is suppressed. The church father Augustine, author of City of God, believed that the church has authority to eliminate religious nonconformity.[6] More than that, as Church and State were one, any ‘deviation from orthodoxy’ was also an offence punishable by the State. The State could kill heretics, just as it could kill criminals and rebels.[7] All through the centuries devout Christians reacted against nominalism and corruption by advocating reform. Often they were classed as ‘heretics’ and violently persecuted.

The Emperor Constantine’s embrace of Christianity had led to the ‘christianisation’ of the Empire and the union of church and state. But nominalism, corruption and persecution inevitably followed. Some have argued that it was, in reality, a poisoned embrace. The blots on the reputation of Christianity through the centuries, whether the Crusades or the Inquisition, can be traced to this union of church and state, where brute force is enlisted to advance the faith. During the Middle Ages boundaries between church and state were further blurred as Popes laid claim to political power.[8] Pope Innocent III [Pope from 1198-1216] called a Council in 1215. He told the Council:

‘The Lord gave Peter rule not only over the universal Church, but also rule over the whole world. Just as every knee must bow to Christ, so every knee must bow to the Pope.’[9]

Traditions Added to Scripture

By this time, [1215], a multitude of traditions not found in Scripture were taught by the Church.[10] A Council in 1139 forbade priests to marry.[11] ‘Relics’ supposed to date from the time of Christ began to be respected, sometimes even adored. These might include bits of wood supposed to be part of Christ’s Cross, or bits of bone, hair, fingernails, teeth, or other body parts supposed to come from the apostles. It was claimed (553 onwards) that after the birth of Christ, Mary had remained a Virgin. By 1215, the Roman Church was teaching that Jesus’ mother Mary could intercede with God for sinners. The Church began to teach that certain especially ‘holy’ Christians should be recognised as ‘Saints’, that they should be honoured, and that they too might intercede with God. This contradicted New Testament teaching, where all believers are addressed as ‘saints’,(those who have been ‘set apart’, or ‘sanctified’).

The Church dispenses Grace

The 1215 Council also formalised how you get forgiveness of sin. You had to keep coming back to the Church for grace, by means of the sacraments, which now numbered seven.[12] Only the clergy could dispense the sacraments. The church had your salvation in its power. The teaching that a person had to come back and back and back to the Church for grace meant that they could never know full certainty about salvation. To take part in the so-called ‘sacrament’ of ‘penance’ you had express contrition, go to a priest to confess, get absolution from the priest, and then do the penance he prescribed. This might be saying a number of set prayers, or doing good deeds, or giving a gift to the church. This gift came in time to be regarded as purchasing pardon (or indulgence) from the church.

By the 12th Century, the Church had developed the idea that after death there would be a time of ‘purging’, or Purgatory. It taught that celebration of the ‘mass’ could unlock mercy from God to relieve the pain of purgatory for departed loved ones. And the idea grew up that people could purchase indulgences to relieve the pains of purgatory for the dead as well.[13]

From the end of the 6th Century, the word ‘mass’ (from the Latin missa fordismissal’) began to be used for the Lord’s Supper. The 1215 Council declared that at the ‘Mass’ a miracle took place whereby:

. . . the bread and wine were completely changed into the actual body and blood of Christ, only the outward appearance of bread and wine remaining.[14]

The name given to this was transubstantiation’.[15] The table was regarded as an altar where a sacrifice took place. The minister was thought of as a priest offering up the sacrifice. Increasingly, ordinary lay people were not even offered the wine in case a drop of Christ’s precious blood was spilled. The tragedy was that all of this only obscured the free offer of the gospel. The sacramental system never allowed people to know final assurance. You always had to do more.

This was an era in which death was an ever present reality for all, whether young or old. Plagues were common. Life expectancy was low. In just two terrible years, between 1347 and 1348, two fifths of the population of Europe were killed by the Black Death.[16] Everyone feared the reality of judgment after death. Instead of offering gospel hope, the medieval church kept people locked in lack of assurance and fear of death.

Until people had access to the Bible for themselves in their own language, the glory of the gospel would not be rediscovered, and the huge discrepancies between the institution of the Roman church and the biblical picture of the church would not be exposed.

We turn to a man whose life work was to enable people to read the Bible in English.

B. God’s Word Banned: John Wycliffe 1320-1384

During the fourteenth century, Oxford was one of Europe’s leading universities and John Wycliffe who lived from 1320 to 1384 was Oxford’s leading theologian and philosopher. He was critical of the abuses found in the Catholic church of his day, and is sometimes referred to as ‘the Morning star of the Reformation.’ He asserted that the Bible should be the sole authority in the life of the believer, and that all Christians have the right to know the Bible for themselves. That meant that people should have the Bible in their own language.

Translation of the Latin Vulgate Bible into English

At this time, the universally used Bible was the Latin Vulgate translation. Only clergy and theologians had access to it. The church authorities believed that only ‘religious professionals’ could cope with interpreting the Bible. Think of a mother and her little children. A good mum doesn’t let little ones loose in the kitchen. She cooks for them. The Roman Catholic Church said that in that way, the Church interprets Scripture for ordinary people. It’s not safe to let them loose on the Bible themselves. Reformers such as Wycliffe held that a good mother doesn’t keep her children dependent for ever. They need to learn to cook themselves!

Wycliffe and his followers translated the Latin Vulgate Bible into English. The first copies were made available in 1380. This was before the invention of moveable type and the printing press. Bibles still had to be written out by hand, which could take a scribe a whole year. Laboriously hand-copied bibles, or even single pages of Bibles, were treasured by many.

Preachers sent out to spread the gospel

Wycliffe sent out many preachers to spread the gospel in the villages of England. Those who accepted his ideas were derided as ‘Lollards’. This was used as an insult: it probably meant something like ‘ignorant mutterers’. Wycliffe’s book Divine Dominion (1375), challenged the supremacy of the Roman Catholic Church and the authority of the pope. He denied the doctrine of transubstantiation.[17] He showed from the Bible that there was no scriptural foundation for the Roman Catholic teaching about ‘indulgences’. Wycliffe was banished from Oxford in 1381 to the obscure parish of Lutterworth in Leicestershire. He continued writing, and died peacefully in 1384. Some years after his death, in 1428, on order of the Church, his body was dug up and symbolically burned for so-called heresy.

His body might have been burned, but his influence could not be suppressed. His Bible and teaching continued to exert a massive influence in England. This was despite all the efforts of the Church authorities to suppress copies of his Bible.[18] One English Archbishop called Wycliffe ‘a child of the old devil, and himself a child or pupil of Antichrist’.[19] Another church leader wrote:

‘Christ gave His Gospel to the clergy and the learned doctors of the church . . but Wycliffe, by thus translating the Bible, made it the property of the masses, and common to all, and more open to the laity, and even to women . . . And so the pearl of the Gospel is thrown before swine and trodden underfoot. The jewel of the clergy has been turned into the sport of the laity.’[20]

Following Wycliffe’s death, many handwritten tracts containing his teaching were circulated. One of them, The Lanterne of Lizt (early 15C), argued that Scripture is the supreme authority in all matters of faith and conduct. All should be allowed to study the Bible in their mother tongue. The Pope is Antichrist: obedience should not be rendered to him or to his servants, as they command what is contrary to God’s law.[21]

International Influence John Hus of Prague (1369-1415)

Wycliffe’s biblical teachings and his challenge to Rome’s authority also extended through the continent of Europe. The young King Richard II is remembered in history as the youngster who rode out of London to face down Wat Tyler’s Peasant’s Revolt in 1381. Fourteen year old Richard married Princess, Anne, from Bohemia (now the Czech Republic), also then just fourteen. Anne encouraged students from her homeland of Bohemia to come over to Oxford to study. Many were spiritually transformed by Wycliffe’s teaching. They took his biblical ideas back to Bohemia.

John Hus of Prague, born in 1369, was powerfully influenced by Wycliffe’s teaching. Hus had a significant ministry, the impact of which spread far beyond the borders of Bohemia. In 1415, the Catholic Church, meeting at the Council of Constance summoned Hus and sentenced him to be burned to death. That only served to publicise his biblical teaching. A hundred years later, Luther, who lived in Saxony, the territory next door to Bohemia, was heard to say: ‘we are all Hussites now!’[22]

But to return to England. Henry V succeeded to the throne in 1413. History, and Shakespeare, remember him as the great victor at the Battle of Agincourt. We should remember him as the king who passed a law saying that whoever read the Scriptures in English should forfeit land, goods and life, and be condemned as ‘a heretic to God, an enemy to the crown, and a traitor to the kingdom.’ He should be ‘hanged for treason against the king and then burned for heresy against God.’[23]

Despite this, throughout the fifteenth century believers persisted in meeting to read the forbidden Scriptures. By the end of that century, the intense spiritual hunger experienced by many throughout Europe was being expressed in a variety of movements of popular devotion. Moreover, by the end of the fifteenth century, the sheer corruption and greed of the church hierarchy was proving impossible for people of good will to tolerate. There were louder and louder calls for reform. Crucially, by the sixteenth century, the rediscovery of ancient manuscripts combined with the introduction of new technologies means that Scripture could no longer be locked away as the monopoly of the elite. It was about to become the possession of the masses. This would inevitably fuel discontent with the gaping discrepancies between church practice and what was described in the New Testament.

And that would lead directly to the Reformation.

The Gospel Recovered

C. God’s Word Unleashed: Old Manuscripts, New Technology

Hebrew and Greek manuscripts; Erasmus and the 1516 Greek New Testament

By the beginning of the sixteenth century, the movement we now call the Renaissance had been impacting Europe, pointing people away from a blind reliance on secondary authorities, and directing them to the original sources. In terms of the Bible, scholars began going back to copies of the original Hebrew and Greek manuscripts. In 1516, the leading European scholar, Erasmus, published a complete edition of the Greek New Testament. Until this time the Latin Vulgate translation had been the default text for the church. Now, ‘for the first time in centuries scholars did not have to rely on a translation of God’s Word. They could examine it in its original language.’[24]

This was dynamite. The Bible in the original language exposed the fact that many key teachings of the Roman Catholic Church rested on the unreliable Latin Vulgate translation. For example, when John the Baptist called people ‘to repent’, the Vulgate translated that as ‘do penance.’ This one mistranslated phrase underpinned the whole superstructure of the sacramental system.[25]

Paper and Printing; Guttenburg (1455), Caxton (1476)

In the fifteenth century, Johannes Guttenberg designed the first commercially viable printing press. He printed the first Bible in Germany in about 1455. In about 1476, William Caxton introduced printing to England. This invention was a key factor in the spread of Reformation throughout Europe. When Caxton set up his press in Westminster, there were already printing presses in seventy European towns. And there was another important innovation.

Since the thirteenth century, paper made from recycled cloth was in increased use as a writing material. This was much more easily and cheaply manufactured than reed-based papyrus, or animal-skin vellum or parchment[26] that had previously been used for manuscripts.

And so, in the providence of God, by the end of the 15C, the recovery of ancient biblical manuscripts, combined with the learning of the Renaissance, the introduction of printing, and the massively increased production of paper, all contributed to an increase in the availability of Bibles, and other religious literature. This was a stimulus to the increase in literacy,[27] which fuelled the demand for Bibles, which encouraged greater literacy in an ongoing virtuous circle. This speeded on year after year in the context of spiritual hunger, and especially after 1517. It has been suggested that Luther single-handed put bread on he tables of people in the printing industry all over Europe. In the sixteenth century printers put out almost 5,000 editions of his works, a further 3,000 could be added if one adds other projects with which he was involved.[28]

Bibles in the Vernacular throughout Europe

We will be looking at the foundational biblical teachings of the Reformation in the next three sessions. For now, I want to focus on the key role of the availability of the Bible in the spread of the Reformation. Before Luther nailed the theses to the Wittenburg church door in 1517, the Scriptures had been translated and, importantly, printed in these languages:[29]  

1466 German

1471 Italian

1474 French

1475 Czech

1477 Dutch

1478 Spanish (Catalan)

1488 Bohemian

And then, after 1517:

1524 Danish and, soon after, Swedish

1526 English (Tyndale’s New Testament)

1529 Swiss-German 

1553 Polish

1584 Icelandic

1588 Welsh

1590 Hungarian

The list represents less than a tenth of the printed Bibles which appeared in this period:

Literally hundreds of editions were printed involving scores of scholars, scribes, printers, craftsmen, merchants and colporteurs . . . the invention of printing and the translation of the Bible were the chief instruments of the Reformation.[30]

And the list indicates the geographical scope of the Reformation. Beginning in the Alps, it travelled through Switzerland, Bohemia, Hungary, Poland, then north up the Rhine through Germany, the Netherlands, to Denmark, Sweden, Iceland, and Britain; to the West, through France, and into Spain and Italy (despite severe opposition). There was an ongoing interdependence and communication between the main Reformed centres such as Wittenburg, Zurich and Geneva. In the providence of God the distribution of all this literature was made possible by the vibrant trade connections and trade routes which had been flourishing from the late middle ages onwards. The vigorous interchange of ideas, so important in the spread of the Reformation, was facilitated by the movement of people and literature along these trade routes, as well as by the use of the common language of Latin among the educated classes.

While we will be looking at the best known Reformers in the next two sessions, Luther and Calvin, we should be aware that on the ground through many towns and cities in Europe, there were those who were preaching from the Bible, and proclaiming gospel truth. The Reformation was not just a ‘top down’ movement coming from one or two people but a powerful grass roots movement of spiritual revitalisation, pushed forward by the power of the Word of God conveyed by the Spirit of God.

And now we’ll return to England to look at the first printed Bible in the English language.

D. William Tyndale (1494-1536)

In 1509, a hundred and twenty five years after the death of Wycliffe, Henry VIII came to the throne. By this time, the Scriptures translated into vernacular languages had been printed in many other countries in Europe, but it was still absolutely forbidden to read the Bible in English. Hand-copied sections of Wycliffe’s English Bible were circulated secretly. To be caught in possession of them meant death.

In the face of this hostility from the State Church, a young scholar called William Tyndale declared to a clergyman in 1521: ‘If God spare my life, I will cause a boy that drives the plough to know more of the Scripture than you do!’[31] He resolved to translate the Bible into English, working directly from the Hebrew and Greek texts. This was revolutionary. Some of the key teachings of the Roman Catholic church rested on the Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible. Going back to the original sources, meant that Tyndale’s Bible challenged Roman Catholic dogma. When the New Testament spoke of ‘elders’ the Vulgate introduced the word ‘priest’. Tyndale brought back the more accurate translation of presbyter or elder. Where the Greek New Testament had the word ekklesia – a word loaded with democratic associations – the Latin Vulgate translated it as ‘church’. This had institutional implications. Tyndale translated this more literally ‘congregation’, which neatly sent a message about church being a gathered group of believers.

As translation of the Bible into English was still illegal, Tyndale had to escape to the Continent and work in secret. In 1524 he went to Hamburg where he met Martin Luther. The following year he moved to Cologne. Here he managed to arrange for his translation of the New Testament to be printed in English. In 1526 the first print run of 6,000 copies was smuggled into England, hidden in bales of cloth and other goods. Church officials, especially in London, did everything they could to intercept Tyndale’s New Testaments and destroy them. But copies kept appearing. The Bishop of London bought up as many as possible and burned them at St. Paul’s Cathedral. Those caught distributing the New Testaments were burned at the stake. Despite this, Tyndale moved straight onto translating the Old Testament direct from the Hebrew texts.

His great achievement was not only based on the fact that he understood the original Greek and Hebrew as well ‘as it was humanly possible to do’,[32] but that his English style was as clear is it was possible to be. Compared to Wycliffe’s earlier translation from the Latin Vulgate, Tyndale’s translation is as if ‘a fuzzy, out of focus picture, has suddenly become sharp.’[33]

In 1530 Henry VIII again gave orders that all English Bibles were to be destroyed. This attempt to destroy Tyndale’s Bible was very successful. Only one complete copy of the first print run of the NT survives. You can see it today in the British Library.[34] In 1535 William Tyndale was wretchedly betrayed by a supposed friend, and arrested in Antwerp. He was imprisoned for sixteen months in the castle of Vilvoorde near Brussels. One of his letters, written from imprisonment, can be seen in the British Library. Suffering from dreadfully cold, damp conditions, he asked for a warm cap and coat. He also requested a lamp, his Hebrew Bible, a grammar and a dictionary. Though the months of suffering his testimony to God’s love was so attractive that it led to the conversion of his jailer, the jailer’s daughter, and others of his family.[35] Eventually Tyndale was put on trial and found guilty of heresy. On 6th October, 1536, he was strangled and burned at the stake. As he died, he cried out ‘Lord, Open the King of England’s Eyes’.[36] Tyndale did not die in vain. Two years later Henry VIII gave permission for the publication of the English Bible.

So, to review where we’ve got to: we have seen that during the Middle Ages the power of the gospel was obscured, as access to God’s living Word was severely restricted. By the sixteenth century God’s Word was being translated into the languages of ordinary people across Europe, and made available in great quantities due to the development of printing. As that happened, the lives of countless men, women, young people and children were transformed by the power of the gospel, as we can see by looking at the testimony of one young woman.

E. God’s Word Living and Active: Anne Askew 1521-1546

Anne was born in Lincolnshire in 1521. When she was just 15, her wealthy parents brutally forced her into an arranged marriage. Anne had been very well-educated. By reading the Bible for herself she came to firm gospel convictions. Eventually, her husband, a Catholic, drove her away from home, and away from their two children. She fled to London, where she had friends at court. In 1546 she was arrested and accused of heresy. Under torture, she not only refused to give away the names of fellow believers, she held her own in theological argument, always referring back to Scripture. The central question in her interrogation was whether she accepted the Catholic claim of transubstantiation. She rejected that, arguing from the Bible. Here is part of her own account of what happened next:

‘Then they did put me on the rack and thereon they kept me a long time. And because I lay still and did not cry, my Lord Chancellor and Master Rich took pains to rack me [with] their own hands, till I was nigh dead . . . Then was I brought to an house, and laid in a bed . . . My  Lord Chancellor sent me word if I would leave my opinion I would want for nothing. If I would not, I should be taken forth to Newgate and so be burned. I sent him again word, that I would rather die than to break my faith.’[37]

Her written testimony composed just before her death read:

‘But as concerning your Mass, as it is now used in our days, I do say and believe it to be the most abominable idol that is in the world. For my God will not be eaten with teeth, neither dyeth he again. And upon these words that I have now spoken, will I suffer death.’[38]

On the 16th July, 1546 crowds gathered in Smithfield, London to witness the execution by burning of four so-called ‘heretics’: John Adams a tailor, John Lasselles, a gentleman of the court of Henry VIII, Nicolas Belenian, a former priest – and twenty-six year-old Anne. A Bishop preached to the four prisoners to try to get them to change their mind. Anne listened carefully. Whenever he said anything contrary to what she believed Scripture stated, she exclaimed: ‘There he misseth, and speaketh without the book.’[39]

John Foxe in his Acts and Monuments wrote:

It happened well for the men that they died together with Anne Askew. For albeit they were strong and stout, yet through her example and prayer, they were more emboldened . . . beholding her invincible constancy. Also . . . stirred up through her persuasions, they did put away all fear.” [40]

The horror aroused by the brutal treatment of this woman meant that the authorities only managed to serve the cause of Reformation by their harshness. She had died rather than deny her belief in the gospel as she found it in the Word of God.

Some regard the Reformation purely as a top-down political movement of protest against Rome. But the testimony of Anne and countless others demonstrated spiritual energy exploding through Europe. This came from the recovery of the Living Word of God as originally written, printed in the vernacular everyday language. ‘It could be read and understood without censorship by the Church’, without mediation by a priest.[41] As people read the Bible for themselves they discovered that Purgatory is not there! Priests hearing spoken confessions and then prescribing acts of penance: they are not there either!  Those major supports of the whole Catholic system collapsed. Instead, people discovered the good news of justification for sinners on the basis of Christ’s finished work. Tyndale memorably described the gospel as

Good, merry, glad and joyful tidings that maketh a man’s heart glad and maketh him sing, dance and leap for joy.[42]

We’ll be looking at that message of justification in the next session. In closing we need to apply the teaching of Sola Scriptura for today.

F. God’s Word Today: Sola Scriptura?

Matthew Barrett writes:

‘Sola Scriptura means that only Scripture, because it is God’s inspired Word, is our inerrant, sufficient and final authority for the church . . . [It] acknowledges that there are other important authorities for the Christian . . . but Scripture alone is our final authority. It is the authority that rules over and governs all other authorities. . . church tradition and church authorities play a ministerial role, Scripture alone plays a magisterial role . . .all other authorities are to be followed only inasmuch as they align with Scripture, submit to Scripture, and are seen as subservient to Scripture.’[43]   

What is the current attitude of the Roman Catholic Church towards Scripture and authority?

The Roman Catholic Church since Vatican II (1962-1965) has encouraged Catholics to read the Bible for themselves. Today many are saying that the Reformation represents a monumental tragedy, a schism in the Church which we must mend. The push is for ecumenical reunion. Many Evangelicals support the Churches Together movement which supports joint evangelistic endeavours with the Roman Catholics and so, in effect, they suggest that the Reformation is over. In fact, the fundamental position of the Roman Church with regard to authority has not changed. Greg Allison writes:

‘The Catholic structure of authority is like a three-legged stool. One leg is Scripture . . . A second leg is Tradition, the teaching that Jesus orally communicated to his apostles, who in turn communicated it to their successors, the bishops, and which is maintained by the hierarchy of the Catholic Church . . . The third leg is the Magisterium, or teaching office of the Church. Composed of the pope and the bishops, the Magisterium continues to provide the official interpretation of Scripture and to proclaim Tradition, with infallibility . . . The issue of authority continues to be a major point of division.’[44]

In 2016, a statement released by the Reformanda Initiative[45] included:

‘The Roman Catholic theological method is powerfully illustrated by Rome’s promulgation of three dogmas (i.e., binding beliefs) with no biblical support whatsoever. They are the 1854 dogma of Mary’s immaculate conception, the 1870 dogma of papal infallibility, and the 1950 dogma of Mary’s bodily assumption. These dogmas do not represent biblical teaching, and in fact clearly contradict it. Within the Catholic system, this does not matter because it does not rely on the authority of Scripture alone. It may take two millennia to formulate a new dogma, but because Scripture does not have the final say, the Catholic Church can eventually embrace such novelties.’[46]

I believe we have to stand, with the Reformers, on the supreme and only authority of the Word of God. God has spoken in his Word. How dare we add to it? How dare we take away from it? How dare we deny it?

The !689 Confession expresses the truth of Sola Scriptura in this way:

‘All religious controversies are to be settled by Scripture, and by Scripture alone. All decrees of Councils, opinions of ancient writers, and doctrines of men collectively or individually, are similarly to be accepted or rejected according to the verdict of the Scripture given to us by the Holy Spirit. In that verdict faith finds its final rest’


Before the Pilgrim Fathers sailed to America in 1620, their pastor, John Robinson, preached a farewell sermon. He said:

I Charge you . . . that you follow me no further than you have seen me follow Christ. If God reveal anything to you by any other instrument of His, be as ready to receive it as you were to receive any truth from my ministry. I am verily persuaded the Lord has more truth and light yet to break forth from His holy word. The Lutherans cannot be drawn to go beyond what Luther saw.  Whatever part of His will our God has revealed to Calvin, the Lutherans will rather die than embrace it. And the Calvinists . . . stick fast where they were left by that great man of God, who yet saw not all things. This is a misery much to be lamented.

In other words, we don’t set up the Reformers, Luther, Calvin et al as authorities. Our authority is God’s Word. It was returning to God’s Word that enabled the Reformers to rediscover the gospel, in particular the key truth of justification by faith. We turn to that next time.


[1] Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, Volume 6, 164, ‘History of Seven Godly Martyrs Burnt at Coventry’, p67, accessed 21/4/2017.

[2] The ‘Protestant Reformers’ did not use that name, they regarded themselves as those who were looking back to the Word of God to see how the Church matched up. They did not originally intend to break away from the Catholic Church, rather their desire was for the Church to go back to New Testament practice.

[3] Pope Gregory ‘the Great’ appointed provincial ‘bishops’ as his deputies, and to mark their authority he gave them a ‘pall’ or ‘pallium’, a piece of costume to mark their prestige.

[4] ‘This universal baptizing of babies formed one of the building blocks of Christendom’, David F. Wright, What has Infant Baptism done to Baptism? An Enquiry at the end of Christendom, Paternoster Press, 2005, p12. (David F. Wright is himself a paedobaptist). The eminent paedobaptist scholars, Prof. F. Hendrick Stander and Prof Johannes P. Louw document that infant baptism was not the practice of the apostles and their immediate successors, but only came to be the majority position in the church by the latter part of the fourth century (Baptism in the Early Church, 1994, Didaskalia Publications, South Africa, and Carey Publications/ARBCA, 2004). The most comprehensive work on the subject to date (953 pages) concludes that infant baptism became the usual practice in the fifth and sixth centuries, and that there is no firm evidence for any instance of infant baptism before the latter part of the second century. Everett Ferguson, Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries, Eerdmans, 2009, pp856-7.

[5] ‘As long as the Church had remained separate it had been a powerful witness for Christ in the world . . . when it was suddenly brought into partnership with the State, it became itself defiled and debased. Very soon the clergy were competing for lucrative positions as shamelessly as the court officials . . . in congregations where a godless element predominated, the material advantages of a profession of Christianity changed the purity of the persecuted churches into worldliness.’ E.H. Broadbent, The Pilgrim Church, Pickering 1931, reprint 1985, p. 23. From 664 AD, Rome asserted supremacy over the church in Britain. That was when the Celtic tradition gave way to the Roman Church at the Synod of Whitby.

[6] Positively, and biblically, Augustine’s insistence on man’s original sin and God’s grace alone as the cause of salvation was carried over in the theology of the Reformers Luther and Calvin as we see in sessions 2 and 3.

[7] Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God, Princeton University Press, 2003, p38.

[8] In the year 800 AD Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne, King of the Franks, ‘Holy Roman Emperor’. Popes now believed that it was in their power to throne and dethrone monarchs.

[9] S.M. Houghton, Sketches in Church History, Banner of Truth, 1980, p59. During the 1300s, the Western Church itself was shaken by the so called Great Schism, during which, at one point, three rival popes claimed authority. This farcical situation which was only resolved when a Church Council, or gathering of church leaders, sacked all three claimants and elected a Pope who was accepted by the whole Western Church.

[10]  It was thought that alongside the written Scriptures, there was a spoken tradition based on Christ’s words that had been passed down through the successors of the apostles. It was taught that there was an unbroken line of apostolic succession from Peter onwards, symbolised by the ordination carried out by bishops.

[11] Fourth century Council of Elvira, and Council of Carthage. Confirmed at Second Lateran Council in 1139, called by Innocent II.

[12] (1) Baptism, (2) Confirmation, (3) the Eucharist or Holy Communion, (4) Confession (penance), (5) Marriage, (6) Ordination (whereby a man becomes a priest, and given authority to dispense the sacraments), (7) Anointing of the sick (extreme unction).

[13] The Catechism of the Catholic Church: 210. ‘What is purgatory? Purgatory is the state of those who die in God’s friendship, assured of their eternal salvation, but who still have need of purification to enter into the happiness of heaven. 211. How can we help the souls being purified in purgatory? Because of the communion of saints, the faithful who are still pilgrims on earth are able to help the souls in purgatory by offering prayers in suffrage for them, especially the Eucharistic sacrifice. They also help them by almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance.’

[14] Robert Godfrey, Calvin, Pilgrim and Pastor, Crossway, 2009, chapter 7, p164. 

[15] For the Reformers, this teaching of transubstantiation led to an idolatrous worship of bread and wine, and a blasphemous ‘re-sacrificing’ of Christ, rather than reliance on the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ on the cross.

[16] R. Tudur Jones, The Great Reformation, IVP, US, 1985, p10.

[17] E.H. Broadbent, Pilgrim Church, p. 118. This ‘struck at the root of that supposed miraculous power of the priests that had so long enabled them to dominate Christendom.’

[18] Seventeen years after Wycliffe’s death, in 1401, King Henry IV prohibited the translation of the Bible into English or the owning of the same, those opposing this prohibition were regarded as heretics and were to be burned.

Copies of Wycliffe’s bible were banned by a synod of clergy in Oxford in 1408. The synod declared: ‘ . . no one shall in future translate any text of Scripture into the English tongue, or into any other tongue, by way of book, booklet or treatise. Nor shall any man read in public or in private, this kind of book, booklet or treatise under penalty of excommunication.’

[19]     Quoted in Christian History, ‘Why Wycliffe translated the Bible into English’, p33. accessed 21/4/2017.

[20]     Henry Knighton, a Catholic chronicler, quoted in Christian History, ‘Why Wycliffe translated the Bible into English’, p33. accessed 21/4/2017.

[21]     William L Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith, p. 12; ‘The Lantern of Lizt’, accessed 21/4/2017.

[22] Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers, p80.

[23]     E.H. Broadbent, The Pilgrim Church, (London: Pickering and Inglis, 1931, rep. 1978), p122.

[24] Stephen J. Nichols, The Reformation, Chapter Three, p. 72. ‘Up until then there had been ‘no complete Greek text, the original language of the New Testament, nor had there been for centuries. Instead there were Greek manuscripts, literally thousands of manuscripts, in monasteries all over Europe and the Mediterranean regions—the legacy of the tireless labors of monks performing their scribal duties. Erasmus had a remarkable gift for sniffing these manuscripts out . . . He collated them, publishing in 1516 the Novum Testamentum Omne, a critical Greek text of the New Testament alongside the Latin text.’

[25] Vishal Mangalwadi, The Book that Made Your World, Thomas Nelson, 2011, p149.

[26] D. MacCulloch, Reformation: Europe’s House Divided, p71.

[27] ‘Suddenly people had something to read, and in their own language. Where readers had numbered in the thousands, soon there were tens of thousands of readers, then hundreds of thousands. By 1500 at least 3 per cent of Germans, about 400,000 people, could read. To serve this rapidly growing audience, printers opened shops in every sizeable town. Soon peddlers travelled the countryside selling books and pamphlets, with the result that huge numbers of Europeans began not only to read the Bible for themselves but to read commentaries and tracts. Sales totals were incredibly high, given the size of the literate populations – between 1517 and 1520, 300,000 copies of Luther’s publications calling for Church reform were sold.’ Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God, pp74-5.

[28] Andrew Pettegree, Brand Luther, Penguin, 2016, p. 334, cf. p280, ‘Luther was the true patron saint of the Wittenberg printing industry  . . . Luther was the major motor of the town’s revived economy. No wonder he could rely on a cheerful greeting as he plodded through its streets.’

[29] David Daniell, William Tyndale, Yale University Press, 1994, pp92-3, and Lewis Lupton, History of the Geneva Bible, Volume 1 The Quarrel, Fauconberg Press, 1966, pp31-51.

[30] Lewis Lupton, History of the Geneva Bible, Volume 1 The Quarrel, pp50-51.

[31] David Daniell, William Tyndale, p79.

[32] Daniell, William Tyndale, p92.

[33] Daniell, William Tyndale, p58.

[34] David Daniell, William Tyndale, p6.

[35] Foxe, quoted in Daniell, William Tyndale, p381.

[36] David Daniell, William Tyndale, p383.

[37] The Examinations of Anne Askew, ed. Elaine V. Berlin. Oxford University Press, 1996, pp127, 132.

[38] The Examinations of Anne Askew, ed. Elaine V. Berlin. Oxford University Press, 1996, p144.

[39] ‘When she was brought vnto the stake, she was tied by the middle with a chayne, that held vp her body. Whē all thinges were thus prepared to the fire, Doctor Shaxton, who was then appoynted to preache, beganne hys sermon. Anne askew hearyng, and aunsweryng againe vnto hym, where he sayde well, confirmed the same: where hee sayd amisse, there sayd she he misseth, and speaketh without the booke.’ Foxe, 1576 edition, Book 8, pp1234-5,

Accessed 21/4/2017.

[40]  Foxe, 1576 edition, Book 8, pp1235,

Accessed 21/4/2017.

[41] David Daniell, William Tyndale, p58.

[42] Quoted in David Daniell, William Tyndale, p123.

[43] Matthew Barrett, ‘What is Sola Scriptura?’ Credo, January 2017, pp21-25, pp22-3.

[44] Greg Allison, ‘Has Rome Really Changed its Tune? The Catholic Church – 500 years later’, Desiring God, September 24, 2016, accessed 21/4/2017.

[45] accessed 21/4/2017.

[46] ‘Is the Reformation Over? A Statement of Evangelical Convictions’, accessed 21/4/2017.