Timothy George, Author, Reading Scripture with the Reformers
Thinking in Public
(This transcript is a rush copy. It may be edited if necessary.)
September 17, 2012
Mohler: This is Thinking in Public, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I’m Albert Mohler, your host and president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
The reformers and Scripture—those are the topics that are taken up in the new book, Reading Scripture with the Reformers, written by Timothy George, who has, since 1988, been the dean of the Beeson Divinity School, where he served as the founding dean, and currently also teaches in the area of church history and doctrine. He serves as theological advisor for Christianity Today. He’s on the editorial boards of journals including First Things, Ecclesiology, and Books and Culture. He’s written many books, including Theology of the Reformers that has been translated into several languages. He received both his Master of Divinity and Doctor of Theology degrees at the Harvard Divinity School, and, Dr. Timothy George, welcome to Thinking in Public.
George: Thank you so much, Dr. Mohler. It’s a pleasure to be with you.
Mohler: Well, I’m glad to be reunited with a dear friend by means of this interview and, I have to tell you, I really enjoyed reading the book, Reading Scripture with the Reformers. And, as much as I know you, I simply just want to ask: why this book now?
George: Well, you know, you write some books because you just want to, and other books because you’re asked to. I was asked to write this book as an introduction to the series, Reformation Commentary on Scripture, that InterVarsity press is bringing out. That’s a 28-volume series of exegetical extracts from the reformers of the 16th century. So they wanted me to do something that would kind of put this in context—how did the Scripture become such an urgent issue in the Reformation—and that’s what I was trying to do.
Mohler: Well, you certainly accomplished that, but you also accomplish a good deal more, I want to argue, in terms of writing the book because you set the record straight on a number of issues. And one of the most important of these you establish at the very onset. I’m reading from page 18 of your book. You wrote: “The reformers of the 16th century shared with ancient Christian writers and the medieval scholastics who came before them a high regard for the inspiration and authority of the Bible.” Dr. George, one of the things you do so effectively here is to demonstrate the Scriptural consensus of the church by the time of the Reformation on the inspiration and authority of the Scriptures.
George: Yes; absolutely. The reformers really saw themselves, not as starting something brand new from scratch, but they were on an operation of retrieval. They wanted to go back to, first of all, the Bible, the earliest forms of Christianity in the apostolic and post-apostolic period, and bring those back to life again in a new, vibrant way because they, in fact, had become obscured in the intervenient millennium and more since the early church. That’s what they were doing and they built on this consensus—I think we can call it that—that’s already there, of course, in the earliest layers of Christianity right through St. Augustine: the idea that in the Bible we have the very words of God, what we refer to as the inerrancy of Scripture. This was not a new idea either. It was not the most urgently proclaimed in the 16th century because it wasn’t under attack in the 16th century the way it became after the Enlightenment, but they assumed all of this, and they were building on this rich heritage of biblical and patristic theology.
Mohler: Well, one of the reasons why that’s so important for us, in terms of the contemporary scene, is that there have been those, especially those associated with more neo-orthodox understandings of Scripture in the mid-20th century and beyond who tried to argue that the reformers specifically, and churchmen of the centuries before them, held to something less than what we would call the total inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture.
George: I’m familiar with that argument, but I think it’s based on pretty shoddy scholarship actually. You can go back to St. Augustine; so much of what the reformers were doing was a recapitulation of St. Augustine’s ideas with some different nuances along the way. This is deep rooted in what Augustine says in his exegesis of Scripture and how he talks about the Bible. The Bible was the divinely-inspired Word of God. This was common knowledge in the early church and the reformers were simply reiterating it in a new and different and challenging time.
Mohler: You cite historians such as J.N.D. Kelly who wrote, “It goes without saying that the fathers envisaged the whole of the Bible as inspired,” or G.R. Evans who said, “It was taken for granted by all students of Scripture in the Middle Ages that the text of the Bible was literally and directly inspired,” and as much as there was this consensus, you appear in your introductory chapters in this book to be doing two things simultaneously and, frankly, I think doing them very well. And that is convincing us that this consensus did exist and then, at the same time, the reformers were doing something new, as you say here, “The Reformation set in motion a revolution in religious life. The effects of which are still being felt a half-millennium later.” And that had a great deal to do with differences in terms of how they understood the Scripture and its authority over against the medieval schoolmen.
George: Absolutely. Well, you know, the reformers were faced with different challenges than the early church did. That’s why they could build on the patristic consensus and yet reframe it in a different way. And, essentially, that’s what theology does. We don’t cook up new things as we go along, but it is important, and Karl Barth makes this point in a good way, to state again, as if for the first time, those ancient truths of Scripture and the Christian faith. And that’s what the reformers were doing. In their day, a scholasticism had led the church away in some very unhelpful ways. One thing, by focusing on a certain kind of philosophy, largely Aristotelian, that led to a sort of distancing of the Bible from the people. Now, of course, the Scripture was there in the Middle Ages, and we shouldn’t imagine that the reformers are bringing it for the first time, but the Scriptures had become subordinated to certain kinds of traditions in the church, certain ways of understanding philosophy in the church, and this is what the reformers were very much in revolt against. Revolution—I use that word deliberately. It was really a revolutionary thing they were doing, and we’re still reaping the benefits of that if we’ll listen to them.
Mohler: Well, one of the things you address here, in terms of the problem that is in the background that the reformers were trying to deal with in terms of the role of Scripture, you point out not just the distancing of the Scripture from the people, but the distancing of Scripture from the Holy Spirit.
George: Yes; absolutely. One of the things the reformers did—and we’ll maybe get to this later in our conversation—they emphasized the importance of preaching. Now they didn’t invent preaching; it was there. St. Francis preached. There were preachers, but what the reformers did was to see preaching and put it in a different context. And that was so that the Bible would be, as Luther was fond of saying, vive voix, the living voice of God to the people, and, of course, that was actually the operation of the Holy Spirit in the midst of the church that made the Bible come alive. So why did they give their time to the study of the Scriptures? It wasn’t so they would become these erudite scholars and commentators in some kind of abstract academic way; it was so that the Scriptures could become an instrument for renewal under the power of the Holy Spirit among the people of God. That’s really what they were about.
Mohler: Now you raised the question earlier in your book, and, that is, why read the reformers? And to know you is to know you’re ready with an answer to that question. How did you answer it in the book?
George: I don’t exactly remember how I answered it in the book, but I’ll answer it to you right now. (Chuckles). Why was the Bible so important to them? How did they recover the Scriptures? For them what this meant was that the Bible again becomes vital and essential to the spiritual life. What we all just assume, almost take for granted, those of us who are evangelicals or even Protestants (and even now some Catholics), is that we read the Bible to be nourished spiritually. This in a way was a new phenomenon among the people in the 16th century and the reformers wanted us to listen to the Bible, they wanted us to hear God speaking through the Bible in a way that it would make a difference in our lives. This was—I hate to use this word spirituality because it’s so inflated today—this was really the genesis of evangelical spirituality.
Mohler: In terms of why we should read the reformers, in the background to the great project of the commentary you’ve been so central in leading, and also this book, you mention some things that we really need to think about as evangelicals. First of all, you talk about the heresy of contemporaneity, or as you say in less theological terms, “the imperialism of the present.” That reminded me of C.S. Lewis talking about chronological snobbery; I think you’re talking about the same thing. We tend to absolutize our times and we rob ourselves by not listening to the past.
George: Well, you know, we are very keen today on listening to every kind of voice imaginable out there, this one and that one, and I’m not against that. I think we all have important things to learn by listening to the voice of women, by listening to all kinds of nationalities and ethnic groups and political and social groups; I’m not against that, but what we absolutely ignore very often is to listen to what God has been saying to the church through the ages. And that’s the point I was getting at and, you’re right, to quote C.S. Lewis, I think he was making that very same point that God was speaking and saying something to His people before we were even born and it behooves us to listen in to that, to as it were eavesdrop on those conversations, and that’s what we’re able to do when we study the history of exegesis.
Mohler: You talk about twin errors you might identify in terms of how Christians in general and evangelicals often think about such things. You mention, on the one hand, primitivism, and, on the other hand, presentism.
George: Yeah. What do I mean by those terms? Primitivism is this idea that all we need to do is go back and recover exactly the primitive church, the New Testament. Forget everything that’s happened since then unto our own generation. And so we have these two poles: primitivism, the earliest, and presentism, that which is going on around us in our contemporary world. Well, in between those two poles, of course, there is a long lineage, a history, of how people have read Scripture, interpreted Scripture, and that’s what I’m calling for: an engagement with the tradition of listening to what God has been saying in His Word and by His Spirit to His people through the centuries.
Mohler: One of the things that marked the reformers, in terms of our retrospect, looking back at them, is that they really did become more faithful interpreters of Scripture. You talk about the superior exegesis to which the reformers aspired; superior to whom and in what sense and what kind of exegetical then methodology did they develop?
George: Yeah; this is actually a term I have taken from one of my great teachers, Dr. David Steinmetz, who for many, many years taught at Duke University. I had the privilege of studying with him for a year in my own graduate work at Harvard, and he wrote an article, very influential article, called “The Superiority of Pre-critical Exegesis,” and what he was doing there was essentially bringing a critique to the idea that that which is latest is automatically best. It was a critique of a kind of slavish following of what we call the historical-critical method of studying the Bible in favor of listening to how God was saying to people long before our more recent theories came into vogue. It’s superior for one reason because these people are understanding the Bible, not as kind of chopped up into little pieces or peeled back layer after layer after layer until there’s nothing left, but rather they are trying to listen to Scripture as it was given as an authentic word from God with an overarching storyline, a coherent, comprehensive biblical theology. Now, we have to say, of course they didn’t get it a hundred percent right, and we are right to enter into discussion and be critical of them, but that intentionality of hearing the Bible as the voice of God from Genesis to Revelation and seeing what we’d like to call today the pattern of intra-textuality, this was very much characteristic of the way the Bible was read in the early church, even to some extent in the medieval church, and certainly in the Reformation. And that’s what Dr. Steinmetz, I think, meant by talking—that’s a superior way than what we think of as superior, bringing our own assumptions and presuppositions to the Bible, rather than allowing Scripture to speak to us directly.
Mohler: Reading your book, Reading Scripture with the Reformers, I was struck by the fact that so many conversations that take place at a certain era in church history come back again and, in one sense, generations have to discover anew some of the things that were affirmed long ago. For instance, in the second of the exegetical principles you delineate for the reformers—the first being an absolute confidence in the inspiration and authority of Scripture—the second is that the Bible is to be rightly read in light of the rule of faith, the regula fidei, and that’s very, very similar to what evangelicals in our generation have been learning over against learning the grand storyline of the Bible or the metanarrative of Scripture. The reformers did not apologize for having a certain understanding about the basic fabric of the Christian faith as they read the Scripture.
George: For example, the doctrine of the Trinity: well, of course, that word trinity is not in the Bible, and yet the Bible is Trinitarian from first to last. How do we know that? We know that because this is a purport of Scripture. This is where Scripture invariably, I would say inevitably, leads us if we listen to it aright. And the rule of faith—that’s a kind of quaint term, I know, to a lot of evangelicals—it simply means that we want to follow the pattern that is already there, the pattern of Christian truth the Bible itself expressed, of course, in the Apostle’s Creed, in the Nicene Creed, in these classic documents of the faith that cut across all of our confessional lines and ground us back once again in what God is saying to us in the Scripture. It’s not adding anything to the Bible; I want to be sure to make that point. I’m not here claiming that alongside the Bible there is this extra thing, the rule of faith, which we also need. No; I’m saying that the rule of faith is an accurate summary of that which we find in the Scriptures itself, and when we come to the Bible, it behooves us to listen and read along with those who stood closest to the Apostles themselves—in fact, to the Apostles themselves in the words of Scripture.
Mohler: Now, that gets to another point that you raise and, in one sense, I think you’re defending the reformers over against their critics in the 16th century and beyond. For instance, to take a 20th century critic Jacques Maritain, you defend Luther over against his accusation that what Luther represented was, “the advent of the self.” You point out that for the reformers, Scripture was to be interpreted within the community of saints.
George: Absolutely. Well, you know, one of the themes I think you very astutely pick up on is kind of woven throughout this book because it’s in the reformers. I am dead-set against the idea that interprets the Reformation as this kind of recrudesce of individualism, the individual, lone conscience standing before God. This is Hegel’s idea of the Reformation, by the way, and it’s led a lot of people astray, both in theological liberalism—this is the gospel of liberalism essentially—but also, I have to say, on the more conservative side so that it’s just “Jesus and me,” and we forget about the fact that we are a part of a community of faith and God has been speaking to His people. There’s a corporate as well as an individual dimension always in the Christian faith. That’s what the reformers were about. Maritain, of course, is a Roman Catholic, a Thomist theologian, and he has a kind of, let me say, prejudice against Luther, and you see this on both the Catholic and also the more liberal Protestant side misinterpreting the reformers in terms of a paradigm of individualism.
Mohler: Well, that’s where you talk about the imperialist kind of presentism that’s found on both the left and the right, where we try to read figures to affirm our own worldview.
Mohler: One of the things I delight in whenever I read something that Timothy George has written is how he just peppers his writing with these wonderful little anecdotes and other things that are so well documented, in terms of his research. As much as I’ve read all of this before, you know, Timothy, I tell you, I had not come across the phrase, “fliegen schriftlich,” these flying writings. So the Reformation took wing in many different ways, but one of them was, of course, as you make clear, on the technology of the printing press and these arguments literally did go flying around Europe as these theological issues were the frontline, headline issues of debate.
George: You know the first book to be printed, of course, was the Bible by Gutenberg in 1455, but soon all kinds of other writings also found their way into the printing press. And these fliegen schriftlich, the flying writings, as they were called in German at the time, these were really broad sheets, these were almost like posters, we would say today, just a few sheets, very often illustrated, by the way, with a woodcut. Sometimes it would be a sermon of Luther; sometimes it would be an exegesis of Scripture, a few passages or verses of Scripture; often it would be a kind of polemical thing, but these just took off and became, in a way, the means by which the message of the Reformation connected to the people. Along with that, of course, there was, first and foremost, the translation of the Scripture itself. Luther’s 1522 German New Testament became a bestseller almost overnight, and in 1534, he gave the complete German Bible for the first time to the people. And this is something that shaped not only his time, but really a whole culture of German Protestantism and of evangelicalism, right down to our own time.
Mohler: “I was looking at a very recent Germany Encyclopedia and I came across an article on Luther and it credited Luther with establishing and fixing the German language in the 16th century. That it was Luther’s translation of the New Testament had actually fixed the language, such that when people wanted to know how to spell a German word the authoritative spelling ended up being that of Luther’s New Testament.
George: “It’s so true. In English we are familiar with the King James Bible, the authorized version. It had an almost similar impact on our language but I would say that Luther’s Bible had a tremendous impact on solidifying and advancing the language, giving it a kind of lyricism that comes to flower in Germanic studies, like Goethe, certainly not a good Lutheran or Christian, but who was able to build on the linguistic revolution that came out of Luther.
Mohler: At this point of the conversation, what is abundantly clear is that Timothy George is a very careful thinker and scholar, who is seeking to put the reformation and their reformers in historical context. And not just to get the story right but in order to understand the importance of the reformers today. The antidote to the kind of chronological snobbery that C.S. Lewis warned us about is this kind of intelligent, careful, analytical but especially respectful retrieval of history.
Mohler: Timothy, as I was reading your book I came across so many familiar figures when you see a title, which is Reading Scripture with the Reformers, you think immediately of the magisterial reformers, Zwingli, Luther, Calvin. But you bring in some lesser known figures including one I did not know about before, and that is Argula von Grumbach. Her story is too good not to tell.
George: Agrula, you can tell she is German by her name. She was born in Bavarian in 1492 when Columbus sailed the ocean blue, that same year, and she grew up in a family in a wealthy enough to provide for her a copy of the Bible in German. And this was very unusual not only for a woman but for anybody to have. But she read this Bible and it had a great impact on her and she grew up embracing the reformation. It is an amazing thing. She was the confidant of Andreas Osiander, the reformer of Nuremburg. She met with Luther when he was at the castle of Wartburg. She corresponded with Melanchthon, with Martin Bucer. She is a remarkable woman and I think what you are referring to in the book is where I tell the story of her defense of an 18 year old student at The University in Ingolstadt, who had been forced by torture to recant his faith in Jesus Christ and the Protestant message. She actually challenged the faculty of Theology at that university by appealing to the scriptures the Old and New Testament which she had read as a girl and now was able to inter into a somewhat sophisticated dialogue with these people who had doctorates in Theology. Well, one of the things that shows is the power of the gospel on the lay people, she was a woman, she had no standing in the church and yet the word of God gave her an authority and freedom to speak truths into that very convoluted situation.
Mohler: She responded to the faculty of that University, “I can find no word in the Bible about this Roman church. I will be glad if you can show me about what God has said about the Roman church.” And then she said, I love this, “I hear nothing about any of you refuting a single article, ah but what a joy it is when the spirit of God teaches us and gives us understanding from flitting from one text to the next, God be praised.” That is just a simple confidence in the scripture.
George: Absolutely, I think people think of the reformation as a “top-down” movement. You’ve got the Princes and Luther. No, the reformation was a “bubble-up movement” you have the leadership and people like that but it had an impact on every level of society, like people like Argula von Grumbach.
Mohler: We often discuss the era before the Reformation in terms of the shorthand. Which is not accurate, but nonetheless is very popular by referring to those centuries as the dark ages, and that goes back to Petrarch, who identified them that way, but he had a more important function and that was pointing the reformers back to the sources of classical learning and going back to the sources of scripture and the earliest church fathers. In one sense, the Reformation was a recovery movement.
George: It was. And Petrarch was interesting because one of the things we forget about him is that in a way, the modern study of history today began with him. What Petrarch said is that we can engage with even the ancient past, he went back to the Roman era Cicero and people like that and especially Augustine was so important to Petrarch and he would have conversations with these people and he would write letters to them even though they had been dead for centuries and centuries, but there was a sense of contemporizing in his desire to recover and retrieve the ancient past and make it a living force in his own life. So he gave us this sense of looking at history and chronology of time both understanding continuity but also with distancing. So the technical word for what I am talking about that comes from Patriarch is contextualization. We try to place and context and see with perspective that which has come before us and so he is a very important figure often overlooked I think in the particular Protestant telling of the story.
Mohler: The seal of the city of Geneva had the reformation as its motto, the words: Post tenebras Lux, After the darkness light. Was that an accurate motto for the reformers to take up in Geneva?
George: Well I think again, what is happening in Geneva is this sense of the excitement that is breaking out in their midst and there was a kind of new shinning a greater clarity that came to force with this revolution in preaching. Before the reformation came to Geneva, sermons were occasionally attached to a mass. Usually printed sermons before hand, didn’t follow an y particular theme and now you have this exposition of the scripture verse by verse, chapter by chapter that Calvin followed, following those in Zurich before him, thousands of people are crowding into the cathedral of St. Pierre, to listen afresh to the word of God. Now when you compare situation spiritually speaking, to what went before it was like shinning after the darkness. I am not denying that there was new life in the 16th century but that light was not anything that was already to be found in the Scriptures and even in the earlier church that is what the reformers were building on.
Mohler: And I think you point directly to what the reformers claimed, they were not claiming to be teaching a new thing but rather to be teaching the word and finding in that word the gospel had been there all along. In the context of the historical and ecclesiological epic, there is no doubt that there was light coming after centuries of darkness, and quite frankly it was a matter of life and death. This was not some type of dispassionate Biblical discussion.
George: Absolutely right. We think of theology as distant from real life. “I am not a theologian,” people would say, meaning that they don’t have time for these abstract ideas. No theology was life, there was no separation of theology and spirituality of real life. Because we are dealing with here, eternal matters. Dealing with life and death and time and eternity we are dealing with things with ultimate meaning. So the reformers understood that and they were blessed to live in an age that took seriously theology.
Mohler: One of the crucial chapters in your book is entitled the “Erasmian Moment.” How do you understand Erasmus, the hinge figure in terms of development of the reformation?
George: I’m chuckling at your question, because Erasmus is such an enigma. Luther had this wonderful statement that Erasmus is a slippery eel, only Christ can catch him. It’s true the more I read Erasmus, not only was he the first public intellectual in the West, but he is also one of the slipperiest and most obfuscating and most self constructing people, so there is a lot of suspicion one has when you read Erasmus and so I give full weight to all of that. However, it has to be said in spite of that in the midst of that kind of a figure there is also a something shinning through his own life and work, the glorious gospel of Christ, which he recovered by recovering the scriptures. So that’s why I talk about the Erasmian Moment. He is important because he did bring to the floor the text of the Bible the first critical edition of the New Testament which was published in Basil in 1516 by Erasmus that was the basis for every single text of scripture that we continue to use even to this day. And for that we can be very thankful.
Mohler: Well, you include in this chapter on the Erasmian Moment, two statements along with many others that caught my eye in framing the situation, first is the old statement that came back from the early 16th century that Erasmus laid the egg that Luther hatched. So Luther’s contemporaries understood that he did have some dependence upon Erasmus.
George: That statement, actually came from some catholic opponents of both Luther and Erasmus, who recognized exactly what was going on there. When somebody told Erasmus what they were saying in Cologne, Germany, that he laid the egg that Luther hatched, he smiled and said yes, but Luther produced different kinds of chickens.
Mohler: But you can tell, certainly in this chapter when it comes to an end knowing of Erasmus in terms of his biography he came under a great deal of fire at the end of his lifetime by the fact that is was not sufficiently anti-Lutheran, and that’s why he wrote this incredible work against Luther, in terms of the issue of the will, with Erasmus defending the idea of free will. But I have not seen before and did not remember at least the statement from Erasmus that quintessentially describes his character when he said, “let others court martyrdom, I don’t consider myself worthy of this distinction.”
George: Absolutely. Isn’t that telling? So there is a sense of something always a little bit academic in the bad sense of that word, going on with Erasmus. Nothing suited him better than a nice bed and a warm dinner by a fireplace. And don’t call me to the stake- don’t ask of me to be martyred. How different from Luther, at the Diet of Worms, “Here I stand so help me God, I can do no other.” Those are not Erasmian words. Now this great divide that you refer to, based on the freedom of the will 1524, this was a watershed in the reformation of course and what Erasmus was proposing there was really not a full appreciation of the amazing grace of God. It was a way to hedge his bets, it was a way to cut and backtrack and so in that way we have to follow Luther and not Erasmus on that issue.
Mohler: Now, when it comes to Scripture and tradition, jumping from Erasmus to the reformers themselves, you point out very carefully that there was a battle over the tradition, so that the reformers did not ignore the tradition, as a matter of fact after the scripture the second most quoted source in the institutes of Calvin is Augustine, and after that Bernard of Clairvaux, there is this war over the historical Augustine and then the quest of the historical Paul in terms of an anachronistic way of looking at it, but what you point out is that solo scriptura was that for which the reformers were willing to die, but that did not mean that they did not have concern whatsoever for the tradition of the church.
George: It’s a very naïve misreading of the reformers to say that the word I’ve used which I think I learned from David Steinmetz, is nuda scriptura, the Bible alone, the Bible above everything else, the Bible to which everything else must be subjected and critiqued, that was the view of the reformers, we take all of these traditions and creeds of the church as exalted and wonderful as they may be and we do not give them a kind of authority alongside the Bible much less above the Bible but we subject them to the Bible that’s what sola scriptura means but clearly this was done by the reformers in conversation with the ongoing tradition of the church as you point out Bernard, Augustine, they chose their fathers, not everything was of equal value but they were clearly in conversation about this great tradition of Christian exegesis and bringing it back to life again in the same time when it had been obscured. So I think when we think about scripture and tradition, we need to move earlier than some of these more post tridentine- the council of Trent and Post enlightenment distinctions that we make and that’s what I was trying to do in this chapter in the book and look at how the reformers treated the tradition of the church vis-à-vis their confidence in the sole and sufficient authority of the word of God the holy scriptures.
Mohler: This whole idea of Sola Scriptura, you make very clear really was rigorously applied by the reformers they were willing to let good and kindred go, so to speak, theologically speaking in order to base everything upon the scripture, and you quote from this statement made by reformers at the Diet of Spire in 1529, “There is, we affirm, no sure preaching or doctrine, but that which abides by the word of God,” then concludes, “whosoever upholds and abides by this foundation shall stand against all the gates of hell while all merely human additions in vanity set-up against it must fall before the presence of God.” That is a quintessential statement.
George: That’s a very protestant statement is the Diet of Spire of course, was where essentially the Lutheran Princes of Germany said, to the emperor Charles V, we take our stand on the word of God and that was a big dividing point in the reformation and still is today. As you know I have been involved with discussions of Roman Catholics and so forth, we have a lot in common, but there are still some very fundamental differences and this is one of them. We cannot accept later traditions that have no grounding and no clear evident authority in the written word of God as binding upon the church in the conscience. That we cannot do, no matter which magistrate or authority may approve of it.
Mohler: You mentioned Luther himself and if any one figure predominates on the horizon of your book, it is Martin Luther. But you make very clear that Luther was first and foremost a rigorous exegete and preacher of the word of God.
George: Absolutely , we think of Luther often as a great theologian. He was, and we think of him as a terrific pastor and preacher, he was. We think of him a polemicist and he certainly was that- he could say some very sharp things that we may not want to repeat in his full voice but nonetheless at his core, he was a student of scripture, and he never forgot the fact that in 1512 he had been appointed as a doctor of the scripture. He never renounced his doctorial degree because he said this gave him a kind of standing to teach and preach the word of God to the church. He was a monk, and he gave up his monastic vows. He married a runaway nun, Katherine von Bora, but he kept coming back to the fact that he had been appointed, ordained and set-apart as a teacher of the word of God. That’s why I think Luther is so important for us today. I was to make a confession on your program here that I have never said before publically. You know I love Luther, and I love Calvin and I probably would say, even now I am closer to Calvin than to Luther on most things, but as I have gotten older and read more of both of them, I find myself drawn more and more in it back to Luther because I think Luther was the one great geniuses of the reformation. Calvin and others certainly built upon and extended and somewhat solidified his views. That is why I think Luther is so important for us today. I want to make a confession on your program here that I have never said before publicly. You know, I love Luther, and I love Calvin, and I probably would say even now, I am closer to Calvin than to Luther on most things. But, as I have gotten older and read more of both of them, I find myself drawn more and more back to Luther because I think Luther was the one great geniuses of the reformation. Calvin and others certainly built upon and extended and in some ways solidified his views. That is why if anything, you are right to say, “I tilt my head to Luther more than anybody else.” I think we probably have more to learn from him than anybody else.
Mohler: Well, and of course the context is different. The personalities were hugely different. I often tell my students that I would have loved to have studied with Calvin, but I would have wanted to have lived with Luther.
George: Yes, that is well put.
Mohler: Just because of the freeness of his conversation. I mean, we don’t have Calvin’s table talk. That wasn’t his personality, but Luther, he probably never had an unarticulated thought. And then he had students around him to write things down. Talk about three words for us as related to Luther and what you call “Lutheran ways,” and that is eratio, mettatio, and temptatio.
George: These were Luther’s preferred terms on how one reads the Bible. Prayer, eratio, Mettatio, meditation, and temptatio, temptation. Now the first two are not particularly unusual. They are there in the medieval tradition. That we come to the Bible on our knees as it were in prayer. And we should always read the Bible with our hearts open to heaven above, seeking the wisdom and illumination of the Holy Spirit. So prayer is essential. And then the whole question on meditation. This literally means in Hebrew, like a cow chewing the cud over and over again. Digesting inwardly, consuming the word of God. Your word was found and I did eat them, said Ezekiel. That is what meditation is. And for Luther, meditation also had the idea of saying it out loud. It wasn’t simply enough to be back there alone by yourself and to study, communing with the various spirit of scholarship. No, speak the scriptures. Say it out loud. Repeat it. in prayer, on your knees, as well as before the people of God. But then the thing that really Luther brings to the study of the Bible that is in some ways distinctive, if not unique, is this emphasis on temptatio – temptation. The German word of course is enfechten, this comes from the word for fencing in Germany. A fechten is a person who engages in the sport of fencing, which as you know, can be a very dangerous sort of thing. You could lose your life if you are not very careful. And so there is this sense that you do exegesis of the scripture not only on your knees, but you also do it in a sense at your risk. There is something very risky and dangerous and life threatening when we expose ourselves to the powerful word of God, which kills as well as makes alive as Jeremiah says.
Mohler: Well, this temptatio is exactly what I think ought to mark far more evangelical pulpits than I think it probably does. And that is this anxiety, lest we get it wrong. Lest we fail in the task of preaching. And lest we preach anything other than the true gospel from the true word of God. Just very quickly, I have to ask you, what did Calvin then contribute to the reformation tradition in terms of the understanding of scripture and its interpretation?
George: Well, Calvin, here I have already confessed I love Luther a little more than Calvin, but let me say, Calvin was a better exegete than Luther. I mean by that he was a more careful student of the language of scripture, of the context, the historical context of scripture, he learned more from Petrarch, and so if you really want to read magisterial commentaries on Scripture, read Calvin’s commentaries. They are still worth reading today. In fact, they far outshine so many of the contemporary commentaries that are there because he wants to engage us with the meaning and the intentionality of the biblical writer, and he does that in a very sophisticated and engaging way. You know, Calvin’s commentaries in a way were meant to be kind of the spelling out of what become his great magisterial statement of theology in the Institutes of the Christian Religion. And it is really important if you read Calvin, to read Calvin with bifocals. Read the Institutes, but also alongside that in stereo, read the commentaries because they will give you a whole different slant on what Calvin is engaging with in scripture.
Mohler: You know, to be in Geneva as you have been many times, and as I have been, you see exactly what you portray in this book. Calvin went into his study, he studied and studied, and then he just walked that short walk to the pulpit and preached. It is a picture of the kind of… absolute focus upon preaching that made the reformation what it was.
George: And you know, he did that without a note. As you say, he lived just a few feet away from the Cathedral of Son Pierre. He would walk into the pulpit without a note, usually with his Hebrew Bible or his Greek new testament with him, and he would simply preach extemporaneously, we would say, without referring to any notes. But of course, he had been immersing himself in the text of scripture in the language of scripture, in the thought forms of the biblical writer, so that when he went into that pulpit, he opened his mouth and there gushed for this powerful articulation of the word of God. How then do we have all of these sermons by Calvin if he never had a manuscript? Because there was a company of strangers they were called, mainly French refugees that fled to Geneva during the wars of religion. They sat on the front row and they copied down, they took down word for word as best they could what Calvin was saying. And so that is why we have these transcriptions of Calvin’s sermons. He later would correct these, and they would be published. We still have to this day, it is remarkable to think about. We still have sermons of Calvin that have never been critically edited yet. There is a process to bring them into new critical editions. But that was the power of the preaching of the word of God. Now, I am not saying that is the only way you can do it, you know, people use manuscripts and I am not getting into that debate, but what was unusual about Calvin was you just have to say, the anointing power of the Holy Spirit on a person who was so saturated and soaked with the text of scripture.
Mohler: Now you also deal at least to some degree with the reformation in Zurich, and thus with Zwingli, but what about the Anabaptists? What do they contribute to this discussion?
George: I wish they contributed more, and I do have a little bit about the Anabaptists in this book because I think they are worthy of our attention. The problem of course in writing a book on the Anabaptists and biblical commentaries is that they didn’t write many. They didn’t have time to. They were being harassed and hunted down. We have a few. Hans Dink gave us a commentary on the book of Micah, for example. Often enough they Anabaptists exegesis of scripture comes in different forms, for example, when they were brought before the magistrates on trial for their life, many of them of course were martyred in the 16th century. They would face an inquisitor who would ask them about this or that, about their faith, and very often the Anabaptist would respond to the person who was inquisiting them with great learning from the Bible, quoting the scripture, and giving exegesis sometimes of the scripture even to confound their questioner. Well, that shows that the Bible had a very important role for the Anabaptists, but unfortunately they lived in a time where they didn’t have the luxury that the mainline reformers did to write down their comments and produce very many of the commentaries on scripture. So, the Anabaptists, I think we learn more from their example from the way in which the Bible informed how they lived in the world, how they engaged with the culture in the world; it was a countercultural movement. And I think in our age, more and more Christianity is called to become a countercultural movement, so we have a lot to learn from the Anabaptists, but I wish we had more commentaries from them.
Mohler: Well, learning from all of the reformers as you have drawn them together, you serve as general editor of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture released by Intervarsity Press. Just tell us how all of this culminates in that project.
George: Well, some of your listeners will know I am sure about the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, of which the general editor was our friend, Thomas Oden. Twenty eight volumes they produced now come to a completion. Well, the Reformation Commentary on Scripture is a sequel to the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. We are trying to do for the 16th century exactly what those wonderful scholars did for the early church. We take the entire Bible in canonical order and we are going through book by book the entire scripture, reading alongside the reformers. And so we have divided the commentary into 28 volumes. Three have been published so far, and we look forward to others coming out, and the purpose of this is really to encourage and be a resource for preachers and teachers of the Word of God. It is not for scholars who simply want to study the footnotes. They don’t need such a thing, but we want to put in the hands of pastors and teachers and preachers of scripture a resources that will enable them to enter fully into the call of God on their life to proclaim the precious word of God.
Mohler: Timothy George, you are ever my dear friend and teacher. Thank you for joining me today for Thinking in Public.
George: My great pleasure, Al. God bless you.
Mohler: For far too long, evangelical Christians, in particular as a subspecies of those who are identified as Christians around the world who have suffered from a kind of almost intentional historical amnesia. We come to understand then not only that we are robbing ourselves of so much wisdom from the past, but we are also committing that sin that Timothy George describes as “Imperialistic Presentism.” We are acting as if the present is all that matters, and that of course, is an insult not only to the twenty centuries of the church that came before us, but to the very understanding of what it means to get up today and teach and preach the unchanging gospel from God’s eternal word. This does require careful attention to the sources, the most important of the sources of course being scripture itself. I can still remember that day over thirty years ago when I first sat in a classroom and I was confronted with professor, Timothy George. I can still remember it was a Tuesday afternoon, and I was a twenty year old newly minted seminarian, and this Harvard educated, bearded professor got up, and I can still remember the very first words he said. I think of all the teachers I have ever had who have had a great influence on my life, only Timothy George’s original words have stuck in my mind over three decades. He looked at us as seminary students gathered in a large classroom, and he said, “Hello, my name is Timothy George. I teach church history. And my task is to convince you that there was someone between your grandmother and Jesus, and it matters.” And of course it does matter, and I can still remember how his lectures mattered. And it was wonderful to have my dear friend and teacher as my conversation partner in this edition of Thinking in Public, and particularly if there is any one thing that distinguishes Timothy George amongst his many distinctions; it is his very careful scholarship and his affection for the tradition of the church and the reformers. But most importantly, for the faith once for all delivered to the saints. There were several things that became very clear in this conversation, and certainly become very clear when you read Timothy George’s new book, Reading Scripture with the Reformers. The first is the affirmation of scripture that is absolutely foundational to the reformation and to the Christian faith. Without any hesitation or qualification, the reformers affirmed that the Bible is the word of God. They had such a confidence in the Word of God, that they based their lives and their theologies, their doctrine and their teaching upon it, their communities of faith, their churches, and of course they were willing even at the point of the sword, to depend upon nothing else than their confidence in Christ and in the absolute truthfulness and the inspiration of the Word of God. One of the things that Timothy George helps us to understand is that distinction between sola scriptura and scriptura nuda. That is to say, the reformers staked their lives and their doctrine, their preaching and their teaching, upon the scripture alone as their final authority, but they understood that they were not the first readers of scripture. They also understood that they were not in any sense the first faithful readers of scripture. What they wanted to do was connect the church to that line of faithful teaching, and of course this led to a good many historical and exegetical arguments, and that is what makes this kind of careful scholarship so interesting and so productive for us today. The affirmation of sola scriptura is absolutely necessary in every generation if the church is going to hold fast to the gospel. But it is also certainly important for evangelicals that we need to be careful that we do not turn ourselves into presentist individualists who simply listen to ourselves and those around us and not to those who have been faithful teachers throughout the history of the church.
The second thing we learn in terms of the understanding of the reformers and scripture and their exegesis of scripture, how we read the scripture with them, is their careful exegesis. They gave their lives and dedicated their energies to the faithful interpretation of scripture knowing that it is a science and it is an art, and it requires the most careful, diligent study. And so they gave themselves to the study of scripture. They wanted to understand what the scripture says, and in a day in which this kind of interpretive discussion was itself often a matter of life and death, they were willing to make very clear their determination to allow the scriptures to speak and to seek to hear the scriptures as God himself speaks through his word.
Third, they were so faithful in doctrine. They understood that it really mattered only by the time you actually got to the teaching. In terms of how the scripture makes healthy the church. Well, it is by the affirmation of those doctrines that we find that are clearly revealed in scripture, and that is why the regular fide is so important. Reading scripture according to the rule of faith. As Timothy George had very clearly in his book and in his conversation, this is not something extraneous to scripture, it is not something we need in addition to scripture. It is how we explain and summarize what we find in scripture, and without any apology, we affirm those doctrines that scripture clearly reveals.
Fourth, passionate preaching. You do not have the reformation without preaching, and that preaching is drawn from all that just came before. From the affirmation of the inspiration and full authority of scripture. From their affirmation of the importance of careful exegesis. They knew what they understood the scripture to teach before they stood up to teach Christ’s people.
Third, faithful doctrine. They understood that God, in his mercy to the church has revealed those truths that we definitely must know if there is to be salvation and spiritual health, confidence for this life and for the life to come.
Lastly, there was this affirmation of preaching. They were a company of preachers, and that is one of the things that make reading the reformers so helpful to us, because unlike reading from some other eras of church history, these were not dispassionate academics. And I love the way Timothy George said that, in the worst sense of the word. They were instead active churchmen and more than that, they were preachers. They were preachers of the word of God. And so as they engaged the biblical texts, as they read it, as they sought to understand and interpret it, as they sought to apply it in their preaching, it was the living, breathing word of God that animated their preaching, and their preaching was undertaken with such confidence, that in the reformation formula, the spirit always accompanies the Word and as the Word is rightly preached, God speaks alive to the congregation through the faithful preaching of his living Word. This is the kind of conversation that could have gone in so many different directions and could have gone for so many hours, to talk about reading scripture with the reformers is to open up what truly is a life’s dedication of time and effort to try and understand all the riches that we would gain thereby. But the reality is that the book like this is written for preachers. One of the most important aspects of this new book by Timothy George is that even though it is written by an academic, it is written by one of the world’s most capable theologians, it is written for preachers to take up. And as I said immediately upon my reading of this book, if the preacher has the slightest amount of homiletical testosterone, he is going to be absolutely committed to go to the pulpit with a new energy and dedication upon reading this book.
Many thanks again to my guest, Professor Timothy George, for thinking with me today. Before I close, I want to make sure you know about the first annual Expositor’s Summit, a conference taking place on the campus of Southern Seminary, dedicated to the very task by which we have been speaking: the preaching of the Word of God. It is going to be held October 30-31 of 2012. The theme of this conference is, “Preaching in a Post-everything World.” Please join John MacArthur, Alistair Begg, and me for this important conference. We look forward to seeing you there. For more information, visit sbts.edu. Thanks for joining me for Thinking in Public. Until next time, keep thinking. I’m Albert Mohler.