26 October 2014

A People Reformed

John Knox statue, New College, Edinburgh, Scotland
Psalm 100 & Isaiah 55

Reformation Sunday, 26th October 2014

On the 15th December 1423, a Sicilian historian, manuscript dealer and collector, named Giovanni Aurispa (1376-1459), arrived in Venice, after an extended stay in Constantinople.   He brought with him a treasure trove of ancient Greek manuscripts, 238 to be precise, thus introducing Western Europeans to major texts of drama, including seven plays by Sophocles and six plays by Aeschylus, along with philosophical works, including all the works of Plato and Plotinus—texts of Plato that were unknown in the west.  Ancient Greek texts were pouring into Europe from Constantinople and points east.  The Ottoman conquests, pushing toward Europe, terrorized Christian communities throughout Asia Minor.  As a result, Christian scholars put their manuscripts into their bags, they emptied their libraries, and moved west, first to Constantinople and then eventually into the heart of Europe.  For some, like Aurispa, there was money to be made in the discovery and sale of manuscripts.  In 1453, Constantinople finally fell to the Ottoman Turks.

Aurispa wasn’t the only one interested in ancient texts.  It had become an obsession in Europe, fueled by the emergence of humanism and the Renaissance.  Christian humanism, it must be said, driven by the idea that there was something valuable buried under the artifacts of the Middle Ages.  Antiquity was buried there –literally.  Scholars started to rummage through cathedral basements and monastery libraries searching for some connection to the past.  Most of the texts they discovered were written in Latin.  In time, Greek manuscripts also reemerged.  In his magisterial history of the Reformation, Diarmaid MacCulloch, who teaches church history at Oxford, makes this startling claim—it was startling at least for me this week working on the sermon—“Medieval western Europe had access to little Greek literature; the text of such central works of literature as Homer’s epics, for instance, was hardly known until the fifteenth century.  In fact, until then, very few scholars had any more than the vaguest knowledge of the Greek language.  If they knew a learned language other than Latin, it was likely to be Hebrew, ….”[1] 

As the Ottomans advanced toward Europe they unintentionally pushed Greek culture and learning west, which would, in time, have enormous consequences for the Church.  There was a “flood of new and strange material from the ancient world,” the philosophy of Plato, as well as the writings of Gnostic Christians and Jewish mystics.[2]  During the Middle Ages, especially in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, theology was shaped primarily by the writings of Aristotle, “the philosopher whose work was characterized by lists, syntheses, systems.”[3]  But with the discovery of Plato, particularly Plato’s “sense that the greatest reality lay beyond visible and quantifiable reality,” scholars came to see how much of Christianity was influenced Plato, less so by Aristotle.[4]

Codex Regius, 8th century Greek manuscript of the New Testament
And so scholars in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries started to reexamine everything in the light of this emerging Greek world coming from the east.  It was, therefore, important to verify the authenticity of texts.  Every text had to be assessed for its “content, date, origins, motives, even its appearance.”[5]  Could a text be trusted?  Is it accurate? 

This demand for accuracy led to the shocking discovery in the fifteenth century when three different scholars came to the conclusion that the manuscript known as the “Donation of Constantine”—a manuscript that granted the pope enormous powers in the Christian world—was not written in the fourth century, as assumed for centuries, but was an eight-century forgery.  These scholars “instantly…shattered a prop of papal authority.”[6]

The motto of humanist scholarship, the battle cry of the humanists was Ad fontes! Back to the fountain!  Back to the sources!  In time, the demand for accuracy was also directed at the source:  the Bible.  It was important to read the Bible in its original languages, not through Jerome’s (347-420) Latin translation, known as the Vulgate.  Once scholars familiarized themselves with Greek they were able to read the New Testament as it was originally written. And when that happened, scholars found considerable mistranslations in the text, especially in texts that supported key components of Medieval theology. 

It’s not surprising that Ad fontes—back to the sources—became the rallying cry for the Protestant movement of the Church. At Princeton Seminary, the professor who taught me Calvin, was fond of saying that Ad fontes, back to the sources, should be embroidered on our pillows or framed and put on the walls of our homes as a constant reminder of this essential idea of Protestantism.  When Martin Luther (1483-1546) read the book of Romans, for example, in Greek, he discovered, as the theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) would later say, “a strange new world in the Bible.”[7] Luther rediscovered the gospel, the importance of grace and faith and the meaning of words such as “righteousness;” and this reading of the biblical text brought into sharp relief, at least from his perspective and others, the distortions of dogma and the abuses of power within the Church.  Reform was needed.  It was a reform led and guided by a trust in the power of scripture, accurately translated from the original language—again, back to the sources—and read simply, which, then, had the ability to reform the Church, reform the people of God.

One of the mottos of the Reformed branch of Protestantism, the so-called Calvinists, of which we Presbyterians are theological heirs, was this marvelous saying: ecclesia reformata semper reformanda secundum verbum Dei, meaning “The Church reformed and always being reformed according to the Word of God.”  This is the quote I would have embroidered.  Ad fontes is great, but this one—semper reformanda secundum verbum Dei—is even better!  (Perhaps the Tuesday morning quilting group could take this on as a project.)

Reformation Wall, Geneva, Switzerland
Reformed and always being reformed—how?—according the Word of God.  This quote doesn’t justify reform just for the sake of reform.  It’s not supporting reform for reform’s sake. Instead, it emphasizes the power of God’s Word—when it’s read and preached and heard and practiced—to bring about the needed and necessary ongoing reform of the Church and God’s people.

It’s the divine Word that forms and reforms us. But, what do we mean by “Word”?  Say “Word of God” and the first thing that comes to mind is probably the Bible. It’s true that the reading of the Bible has the capacity to reform us.  Translating the Bible in one’s own language and giving one the opportunity to read it for oneself is one of the greatest gifts of the Reformation, both to the Church and to the world.  But it’s also risky. 

If the Bible is the Word of God, if it has that kind of authority, then we better make sure we have a good translation of the text.  And we better make sure we know how to interpret the text. This means we better make sure that we’re accessing the absolute best scholarship available to help us read it, verse by verse by verse.  Because the Bible, like any text, has been and can be used for destructive ends, it can be used as a weapon; it can cause great damage in the wrong hands.  Most of the divisions in the Church over the last 500 years after the Reformation, right up to present day, can find their origins in differing views of what the Bible actually says.  As a result, it’s easy to see why people have turned away from the Bible—either because it’s too demanding to read or because it’s become too divisive.

But there’s another way to say what we mean by “Word of God.”  Word of God—not as the Bible, per se—but as the active, dynamic, divine Word of God that’s heard behind the words of scripture or comes to us through the words of the Bible. 

Have you ever notice that when Dorothy and I introduce the scripture reading during worship we never say, “Listen to the Word of God.”  Instead, we say, “Listen for the Word of God as it comes to us from….”  It’s a subtle difference, but what a difference. 

The Reformers believed that the Divine Voice was heard in and through scripture in the plain meaning of a text.  That is, the words of the Bible, when the power of the Holy Spirit is working through the reading and hearing of the text, become God’s Word, God’s message to us.  Similarly, the words of a sermon, when the power of the Holy Spirit is at work in the preaching and the hearing of the sermon, become God’s Word, God’s message to us.  The Word of God found in sermons also has the power to reform us, reform the Church.  That’s why the Reformers elevated the importance of the sermon in worship.  The Word is heard in both scripture and sermon.

But how did the Reformers arrive at such an understanding?  From the Bible.  It’s found in many places.  One of the best examples is right here in Isaiah 55: “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,”—here it comes!—“so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (55:10-11).   So shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth…. 

“Word” here doesn’t mean scripture or the Bible.  It refers to the divine word – dabar in Hebrew—dabar is the active, dynamic, creative voice of God that causes something to happen.  When God speaks—“Let there be,” for example—new worlds come into existence.  Creation in Genesis is essentially a “speech-event,” a word-event.  When God speaks, something happens, something always happens.  God’s Word  forms us, moves us, sends us, convicts us, loves us, holds us, creates and recreates us. God’s Word brings new worlds into being, new possibilities, new people, new relationships, and new communities.  God’s Word brings life to God’s people, to the world.  This understanding culminates in the New Testament when John says, “The Word became flesh and lived among us.” (John 1:14).  Jesus is the embodiment of God’s voice, a walking sermon, for all to see, in the flesh. He’s a living Word.

That’s why we’re invited to “Listen for God’s Word.”  Be attentive.  Hear.  Really hear. Strain your ear, lean in and listen for what God might be trying to say through the text, through the sermon.  These words are alive!  They’re active!  Pay attention!  And then look for it, for that moment of grace when ordinary words—whether read on a page of the Bible or floating through the air from the pulpitsuddenly become Word, a Word that strikes us and pierces our hearts (for the way to the heart is through the ear), a Word that completely enthralls us, a Word that we need to hear. 

Word that change our lives, forever. 
Word that send us out from the safety of our pews 
into a world of need.
Word that compels us to struggle and fight against injustice and violence and suffering.  
Word that overwhelms us in its beauty and holiness. 
Word that leaves us shaking in fear and trembling. 
Word that unsettles us and disturbs us. 
Word that might even make us angry or confused. 
Word that scandalizes our middle-class sensibilities. 
Word that offers us grace and hope and healing and love and joy. 
Word that causes us to well-up with tears of joy or sorrow—maybe at the same time. 
Word that causes us to dance.

For in hearing of this Word we are changed.  And when the Word is really heard—here in our hearts, not in our heads, in our hearts, as Calvin knew, and here in our guts—we will find that we are being reformed. We will know that we are formed, reformed, and always being reformed by the Word that will never rest until there’s nothing left to be said, a Word that will continue to speak until there’s nothing left that needs to be heard.






[1] Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Reformation: A History (New York: Viking, 2003), 75.
[2] MacColloch, 76-77, including works that make up the Corpus Hermeticum, Egyptian-Greek wisdom texts attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, which date from the first to third centuries C.E.
[3] MacCulloch, 76.
[4] MacCulloch, 76.
[5] MacCulloch, 78.
[6] MacCulloch, 78.  The German cardinal Nicholas of Cusa in 1433-33, the Italian Lorenazo Valla in 1440, and the English bishop Reingald Pecock in 1450. Valla was, curiously, a student of Aurispa.