Book Write-Up: The People’s Book

Jennifer Powell McNutt and David Lauber, ed.  The People’s Book: The Reformation and the Bible.  IVP Academic, 2017.  See here to purchase the book.

As the title indicates, this book is about the Protestant Reformation and the Bible.  It consists of essays from the 2016 Wheaton Theology Conference.  In this review, I will comment on each essay.

Chapter 1: “Teaching the Book: Protestant Latin Bibles and Their Readers,” by Bruce Gordon.

This essay dispels the Protestant myth that places the Roman Catholic church on the side that was against vernacular Bibles and for the Latin Bibles, and the Protestants on the side that was for vernacular Bibles and against Latin Bibles.  Not only did Catholics produce vernacular Bibles, but Protestant scholars also valued Latin Bibles because Latin was the language of biblical scholarship during the time of the Reformation.  The Roman Catholic stance on vernacular Bibles is an issue that recurs throughout this book (pp. 143, 180, and 230): another essay affirmed that the Catholic church supported vernacular Bibles (while opposing the Protestant ones), and two essays said that the Catholic church was reluctant to place Bibles in the hands of the masses.  In my opinion, the authors in this book should have attempted to integrate these different facets into a coherent picture.  This essay by Gordon was also interesting because it discussed the view of humanists and Protestants towards different versions of the Bible: the Hebrew, the Septuagint, and the Latin Vulgate.

Chapter 2: “Scripture, the Priesthood of All Believers, and Application of 1 Corinthians 14,” by G. Sujin Pak.

The main argument of this excellent essay is on page 50: “In effect, while in the early 1520s early Protestant reformers called upon 1 Corinthians 14 to empower laypersons, from 1525 forward Lutheran and Reformed leaders increasingly employed 1 Corinthians 14 to consolidate Protestant clerical authority.”  You can read the essay for yourself to see how the interpretation of I Corinthians 14 played a role in that!

Chapter 3: “Learning to Read Scripture for Ourselves: The Guidance of Erasmus, Luther, and Calvin,” by Randall Zachman.

According to this excellent essay, Erasmus, Luther, and Calvin emphasized different things in their argument that people should read Scripture.  Erasmus stressed discipleship and the spiritual life, Luther emphasized being able to answer the devil’s accusations by appealing to God’s grace at the last judgment, and Calvin wanted a widespread familiarity with Scripture so that people would be able to test what their pastors were teaching, as good Bereans.

Chapter 4: “The Reformation and Vernacular Culture: Wales as a Case Study,” by D. Densil Morgan.

This chapter concerns the production of Welsh-language Bibles in sixteenth century Wales.  The pastor at a church that I attended for four years would probably appreciate this chapter, since he is Welsh and enjoys reading about Welsh religious history.  What interested me in this chapter was its description of the Protestant myth that the Elizabethan faith re-established the authentic Christianity of the Old Celtic Church, which Joseph of Arimathea allegedly instituted, and which Augustine of Canterbury allegedly corrupted.

Chapter 5: “The Reformation as Media Event,” by Read Mercer Schuchardt.

This essay provides background about Gutenberg, who initially made mirrors that were used to capture relics on pilgrimages.  (You will have to read the chapter to see what that was about!)  Schuchardt argues that the printing press not only assisted the Protestant Reformation, but also what Martin Luther opposed: the indulgences, which the printing press produced in mass numbers.  In addition, the essay interacts with Victor Hugo’s profound claim that hearing contributes to community, whereas seeing (and, by implication, reading) fosters individualism.

Chapter 6: “The Interplay of Catechesis and Liturgy in the Sixteenth Century: Examples from the Lutheran and Reformed Traditions,” by John D. Witvliet.

This essay argues against Catholic Virgil Michel’s argument that Martin Luther emphasized the catechism  and divorced it from the liturgy.  This essay includes Protestant hymns that tried to teach people the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and Christian doctrines.

Chapter 7: “Word and Sacrament: The Gordian Knot of Reformation Worship,” by Jennifer Powell McNutt.

This chapter explored different Protestant views on the sacraments and their relationship with Scripture.  It is an informative chapter: for instance, it includes critical statements by Luther of transubstantiation.  A criticism I have, however, is that the chapter said that the Catholic Church served bread but not wine to congregants at communion, without (as far as I could see) explaining its rationale for that policy.

Chapter 8: “John Calvin’s Commentary on the Council of Trent,” by Michael Horton.

This chapter provides the historical background for the Council of Trent.  According to Horton, many Protestants expected it to be a farce, even though they may have supported the existence of some council to serve as a check on the papacy.  John Calvin defended Protestant ideas such as the notion that a Christian can be assured of forgiveness, but he also appealed to history in arguing against Trent.  Calvin argued, for example, that the priority of the Roman bishop did not go back to the time of the church fathers.  From Horton’s telling, Calvin valued the fathers, and Calvin defended some of his Protestant beliefs about church tradition and the marginalization of the apocrypha in reference to them.

Chapter 9: “The Bible and the Italian Reformation,” by Christopher Castaldo.

This chapter will interest people (like me) who did not know about the Protestant Reformation in Italy during the sixteenth century.  Castaldo actually says that this “may come as a surprise” to a lot of people!  But there were Catholic reformers and Protestant vernacular translations in Italy, the “bastion of the Roman church” (page 171).  Protestants challenged doctrines and were persecuted there.  Castaldo also discusses how Protestantism may have influenced Michaelangelo’s work.

Chapter 10: “Reading the Reformers After Newman,” by Carl Trueman.

John Henry Newman was a Protestant who converted to Catholicism in the nineteenth century.  As Trueman argues, other people did that, too, but many talk about Newman because of his effectiveness in explaining his conversion.  Trueman counters some of Newman’s claims: that Protestantism devalued church history, and that Luther was an antinomian.  Trueman also observes Newman’s odd relationship with the usual conservative-liberal boundaries: Newman criticized liberalism because he stressed the importance of dogma, but his insistence that the dogma be upheld by Rome placed him on the opposite side of Protestants and evangelicals, who themselves emphasized dogma.  Moreover, Trueman contrasts trends in contemporary Protestantism with classical Protestantism: whereas prominent elements of contemporary Protestantism emphasize religious experience, classical Protestantism focused more on dogma, Luther’s tower experience notwithstanding.  This chapter was informative, but it was slightly unclear on page 198, where it discussed the question of whether “Christ is mediator according to his person, not simply according to his human nature[.]”  Trueman seemed to be saying that the Catholics believed Christ was mediator according to his person and that the Protestants challenged this position, but then he appeared to depict the Protestant argument as saying that a person, not a nature, intercedes.  But was that not the Catholic position?  Trueman could have been clearer here, but Trueman provides references to Aquinas and Calvin in a footnote, so those may provide greater clarity.

Chapter 11: “From the Spirit to the Sovereign to Sapiential Reason: A Brief History of Sola Scriptura,” by Paul C.H. Lim.

John Calvin believed that the Holy Spirit interpreted Scripture for the believer.  Would that not lead to subjectivism, as each Christian asserts that his or her interpretation is Spirit-led?  As Lim points out, Calvin was aware of this problem, for it was occurring in his time!  Lim did not thoroughly explain how Calvin got around this problem, however: Lim merely says that Calvin acknowledges that our understanding is partial right now and will be full in the eschaton (a la I Corinthians 13).  Perhaps Lim should have raised certain considerations that other essays in the books raised: the importance of scholarship and the church in biblical interpretation.  That could have improved, not only this essay, but also the book as a whole, by showing how Calvin held different concepts (i.e., scholarship, community, and Spirit-led interpretation, even by the laypersons) together.  This chapter was interesting in that it discussed how Hobbes and Locke interacted with the problem of individualistic interpretation.  Hobbes said that the sovereign should have the primary authority to interpret, like Moses, whereas Locke stressed the importance of reason in interpreting the Bible.  Lim did not really explain Hobbes’ rationale, unless that rationale was that somebody needs to give the final interpretation lest there be chaos, and that somebody had might as well be the sovereign!

Chapter 12: “Perspicuity and the People’s Book,” by Mark Lamberton.

Is Scripture perspicuous?  As Lamberton notes, Calvin affirmed that it was, and yet Calvin still felt a need to write volumes of commentaries to explain it!  Lamberon affirmed the importance of Christian community in interpreting Scripture, but, really, the chapter was more impressive in its questions than its answers.  To quote from page 232: “Is a highly trained, technical reading of…1 Corinthians 13 necessarily a better reading than an obedient and embodied, nontechnical reading?”

My critiques notwithstanding, I am still giving this book five stars.  It is informative, thoughtful, deep, and sophisticated.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher.  My review is honest!


About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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