Vernacular Scripture in the Reformation Era: Re-examining the Narrative

by Trevor Anderson

 I. The ‘Protestant Paradigm’

In this post I examine what historian Andrew Gow calls the “Protestant Paradigm” (PP) – a narrative regarding the status of popular piety and vernacular Scripture in the pre-Reformation era. Andrew Gow studied Reformation history under Heiko Oberman and is currently a professor of religious studies at the University of Alberta. His recent article, “Challenging the Protestant Paradigm: Bible Reading in Lay and Urban Contexts of the Later Middle Ages,” questions some widespread views about vernacular Scripture reading in the pre- and Reformation era and has served as the impetus for further work on this subject. Roughly put, the (PP) narrative says that the Reformation brought about the overthrow of “corrupt medieval institutions, worldviews and ideologies (medieval Christianity), and a return to ‘evangelical simplicity and purity,’ both in religion and in its institutional expressions.”[1] This Reformation breakthrough is understood by (PP) to have done away with “layfolks’ restricted access to ‘the Bible,’ or more correctly, to Biblical texts” and to have brought about a “‘loosening’ of ecclesiastical authority and its monopoly over the interpretation of scripture…”[2] (PP) sees the Reformation as having brought about an explosion of biblical material and biblical literacy, resulting in a dramatic awakening to the biblical gospel.

Evidence of and for (PP) begins in the Reformation era itself. For instance, we find this kind of narrative in Luther’s famous testimony about his rediscovery of Scripture:

Thirty years ago, no one read the Bible, and it was unknown to all. The prophets were not spoken of and were considered impossible to understand. And when I was twenty years old, I had never seen a Bible. I thought that the Gospels or Epistles could be found only in the postils [lectionaries] for the Sunday readings. Then I found a Bible in the library, when I first went into the monastery, and I began to read, re-read and read it many times over and reread the Bible many times, to the great wonderment of Doctor Staupitz.[3]

But this type of account is not limited to the Reformers. Desiderius Erasmus, whose critical edition of the Greek New Testament published in 1516 had a profound impact on many Reformers, including Luther, speaks in a similar way:

Some think it is an affront to piety if the sacred books are translated into French or English. But….I would like Scripture translated into every language. Christ wants his philosophy to be propagated as widely as possible. He died for all; he wants to be known by all. It will serve this end if either the books of Christ are translated into all the languages of the nations, or if rulers take care that the three languages to which especially divine wisdom has been entrusted are known by all peoples.[4]

Jumping forward in time, (PP) seems currently to be well-represented within Reformed evangelicalism. For instance, during a Gospel Coalition roundtable with D. A. Carson and Tim Keller last year, Pastor John Piper says of the Reformers: “They got it right; they got it – they got the Bible. It isn’t just that they read their Bibles differently and saw the gospel afresh; they read their Bibles.”[5] Thus, according to Piper it was not just that the Reformers had a different or fresh reading of Scripture, but that the Reformers were reading Scripture at all that made such a decisive difference for their theology. Such a statement is at home with a perception of a medieval Catholic Church that was committed to the institutional smothering of the study of Scripture, and implies that this was the case in the pre-Reformation era. Here is Piper again, in a presentation on William Tyndale at a Desiring God national conference: “It is almost incomprehensible to us how viciously opposed the Roman Catholic Church was to the translation of the Scriptures into English.”[6] And again:

Before Tyndale there were only hand-written manuscripts of the Bible in English. These manuscripts we owe to the work and inspiration of John Wyclif and the Lollards from a hundred-thirty years earlier. For a thousand years the only translation of the Greek and Hebrew Bible was the Latin Vulgate, and few people could understand it, even if they had access to it.[7]

Piper says elsewhere of Luther that, in his discovery of the gospel and translation of the New Testament, Luther “spoke against the backdrop of a thousand years of church darkness without the Word…”[8] Here Piper may be echoing a phrase from David Daniell’s biography of William Tyndale – a book Piper esteems highly[9] – which says that in producing his German New Testament, “Luther had torn down thousand-year-old walls hiding the Bible.”[10] To note a final example, after returning from a trip to Europe in 2016, Piper tells this story:

I just wanted to weep over the negatives of the Roman Catholic Church, in Italy in particular…I heard of an 80-year-old nun who was converted recently who had never read the Gospel of John. 80 years in the service of the church and never laid eyes on the Gospel of John. That makes me mad. That really makes me mad….They [Catholic authorities] burned people alive for reading the English Bible.[11]

This perspective is, of course, not unique to Piper. Reformed evangelical theologian Leonardo De Chirico expresses a similar view, stating that the Catholic Church “has forbidden for centuries the reading of the Bible in vernacular languages…[and] has prevented the people from having access to the Bible until fifty years ago.”[12] Reformed evangelical theologian Michael Reeves likewise says the following in an interview with Credo magazine:

For something like a thousand years, Europe had been without a Bible people could read. Then Martin Luther translated the Scriptures from their original Hebrew and Greek into German; at the same time, William Tyndale translated them into English, and others translated them into French, Swedish, etc. To be able to read God’s words…was truly revolutionary and wildly exciting.[13]

Joe Mizzi, a Reformed Baptist who runs the evangelistic website, writes:

The Roman Church has had a long history of withholding the Bible from the common people….It was the Protestants – men like Wycliff, Tyndale and Luther – who first gave the Bible in the common language of the people, at the time when the Roman authorities were busy burning every copy of the Bible they could lay their hands on.[14]

These perceptions of late medieval Christianity are not without basis. Perhaps the most well-known instance of restriction on vernacular Scripture is Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Arundel’s 1409 constitutions against Wycliffite translation. Article 7 of Arundel’s constitutions forbade making or owning copies of Wycliffe’s translation, and prohibited owning other vernacular translations without diocesan permission.[15] Gow notes that “[T]he possession of vernacular Bible translation had been ‘illegal, dangerous and ultimately fatal’ for many, and this is true for fifteenth-century England. It is not exactly untrue even for the Continent.”[16] The councils of Toulouse (1229), Trier (1231), Tarragona (1233), and Béziers (1246) likewise prohibited vernacular translation to varying degrees.

Further, in something of a reaction to Reformation controversies, the two centuries after Trent saw vernacular translation of Scripture in Italy seized and burned, and no official Italian version of the Bible was able to circulate within the peninsula from 1567 to 1773.[17] “[T]he meticulous application of the Tridentine decrees to the biblical text and its vernacular translations,” writes Emidio Campi, “meant that the Bible was consigned to the margins of Italian religious and cultural life, and fell into a long decline from which it has only recently begun to recover.”[18] Catholic Spain also rejected vernacular translations (apart from scholarly Polyglot Bible editions, not for use by the laity), considering them the gateway to heresy. Between 1450–1750 the main translation work in Spanish was done by Protestant exiles and Jews expelled by the Alhambra Decree of Isabella I and Ferdinand II.[19]

In other words, (PP) does not arise from nowhere. As with any paradigm, it derives its explanatory power by offering an account of phenomena that must be explained. The question Andrew Gow asks, though, is not whether (PP) has any supporting evidence, but whether it remains a viable paradigm in light of the ‘sum total’ of phenomena. Following Gow’s lead, I will present some evidence contra (PP), and propose that it needs to be seriously revised or abandoned.

II. The Protestant Paradigm and Additional Phenomena

In what follows, I’ll give what is essentially an unordered list of phenomena that push against (PP). The list is, I hope, a good Aristotelian one, combining phainomena and endoxa—points that have to do with the ‘appearances’ (in this case historical ‘facts of the matter’) as well as with ‘reputable opinions’ of historians that are synthesizing such facts. As such, the list (and this essay in general) does not try to place another paradigm in place of (PP), but rather tries to give reasons to question (PP). I don’t offer an alternate paradigm for two reasons: first, I do not know enough to construct another even if I wanted to try. Second, paradigms and narratives seem to be extremely problematic when trying to characterize historical situations (think e.g. of B. Gregory, J. Milbank’s, or C. Taylor’s ‘grand narratives’ that have come under intense scrutiny). It may be that what we need in place of (PP) is not yet another paradigm; or, if we do need another paradigm, we will need one qualitatively different than the kind (PP) is. I don’t know how to resolve these questions, and I am not attempting to do so here. With these observations in place, I move to the list if phenomena.

1. First, we should state explicitly what the first section of this essay implies: (PP) is a paradigm, a way of looking at the data, and is not the only model on offer. According to Gow, German scholars prior to World War II had a very different view of the Protestant narratives that assumed the legitimacy of Luther’s polemic regarding pre-Reformation accessibility of Scripture—specifically, that claims about the Church’s restriction of Scripture were quite overblown and did not accurately represent the state of affairs in the late Middle Ages. For obvious reasons, the period from 1933–1945 essentially placed a moratorium on the availability of this German scholarship to English speakers. Books by prominent German scholars on the subject were available hardly anywhere, even in Germany.

Consequently, Gow thinks, the explanations for the prevalence of (PP) in English-speaking countries after WWII “lie in both the vicissitudes of war and generational change, and in the whiggish historical narratives that became useful in the West during the course of the Cold War and came to dominate Anglo-American scholarship as a result.”[20] After the war, however, German scholars revisited the subject of pre-Reformation biblical material, and by the 1960s and 70s, says Gow, “Even in Protestant-influenced scholarly circles, it was well-known that there had been many channels through which Biblical material reached the laity and common people, and many printings of vernacular Bibles before the Reformation.”[21] This research tended to be highly specialized and, of course, in German. As a result, the fruits of this labor have by and large gone unnoticed by the predominantly English-speaking world of Reformed evangelicalism. Gow, Corbellini, and other scholars are now building on such scholarship and making it available to English speakers. Thus, a critique of (PP) is not new, though it may be more or less unfamiliar to the Reformed evangelical community.

2. Second, it is not the case that vernacular Scriptures were unavailable to the laity and clergy in the late Medieval period. As is perhaps well-known, Luther’s translation, though certainly superior to previous German translations, was not the first. The first German Bible in toto was published at Strasbourg in 1466, and there were almost twenty editions of the New Testament in German before Luther published his own.[22] Such vernacular translation was not limited to Germany. Gow writes regarding vernacular printed editions:

[F]rom 1450–1519, there were in the Empire 65 Latin editions of the Bible and 22 Germanic ones; in Italy 41 Latin editions and 14 Italian ones; in France 45 Latin editions and 1 French one, as well as 21 of the Bible abrégée (abridged Bible); making for a total of 20,000 copies of Germanic Bibles in the Empire; 13,450 Italian Bibles in Italy; 1,200 French Bibles in France as well as 23,700 Bibles abrégées….By way of summation, we can say that in the later fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, Biblical material was widespread, popular and well-known among literate townspeople, clerics and nobles alike, especially in the Empire.[23]

According to Gow, the scholarly consensus is that vernacular translations were plentiful in the late Middle Ages and that these translations “were framed by an even more voluminous literature of Biblical piety and devotion, and by countless partial Biblical text editions in the vernacular (Gospels, Psalters, harmonized Gospel renderings [Diatessera] and Bible retellings [historiated Bibles]).”[24] Further, those late-medieval Christian laity who were literate (a considerably smaller number than is the case today) could usually read Latin and often preferred the Vulgate to vernacular translation. This appears to be the case, for instance, of the English Catholics of Wycliffe’s time.[25]

3. Third, there were no official, systematic, universal bans on vernacular Scripture reading put in place by the pre-Reformation Catholic Church, as Alister McGrath observes:

[N]o universal or absolute prohibition of the translation of scriptures into the vernacular was ever issued by a medieval pope or council, nor was any similar prohibition directed against the use of such translations by the clergy or laity.[26]

This is confirmed by Ellie Gebarowski-Schafer, who notes that while there were occasional bans, they were targeted and specific and were not, say, manifestations of the Church’s settled opposition to lay access to Scripture:

Vernacular translations of the Latin Vulgate were indeed banned on occasion in late medieval times, but the Roman Catholic Church did not categorically oppose lay readership of the Bible and theological writings in the common languages of Europe. Opposition to such texts was fragmented and often centred on controversies of ecclesiastical and clerical authority…rather than on the Bible itself.[27]

What, though, about the councils of Toulouse, Trier, Tarragona, and Béziers, which prohibited creation and possession of vernacular translations? Three points can be made. First, these were provincial rather than ecumenical councils. Thus, they did not hold for the Catholic Church as a whole but rather applied only to the provinces overseen by the relevant Archbishops. Second, these prohibitions were largely targeted at heretical groups like the Waldensians and Cathars who were using vernacular translations to promote heresy, not at laity per se.[28] Third, and following from this second point, these council prohibitions were not absolute and were poorly enforced. Exceptions were made for owning vernacular Scripture according to the discretion of one’s confessor or parish priest, and commands to confiscate or burn vernacular editions were almost uniformly ignored. Thus, “These rulings [by these medieval provincial councils] are better seen as experiments in the ‘war on heresy’,” with other experiments including disputations, Dominican inquisition, regime change and domestic crusade, and the foundation of the (ill-fated) university of Toulouse.[29]

These facts, along with the data on the presence of vernacular Scripture texts given in point 2, are at odds with claims like those made by Piper, Reeves, De Chirico, and Mizzi above. One might say that Piper et al. are only making the point that the Reformers were the first to encourage Bible translations from the original languages of Greek and Latin rather than translations per se (for instance, those from the Vulgate), but that does not seem to be the ethos of their statements (for instance, Piper’s first statement that the Reformers “got it; they got the Bible”). And in any case, leaving those particular quotations aside, points 2 and 3 are problematic for a broadly (PP) way of viewing things.

4. Fourth, our notion of “the Bible” differs from those of medieval Christians. Certainly no one needs to be reminded that the printing press provided unprecedented opportunities for complete printings of books, providing late-medieval Christians access to Scripture that was simply impossible for those Christians who preceded them. Apart from this fact about the possibility of mass-printings of Bibles, however, we should also realize that the medieval conception of what constituted a ‘Bible’ differs remarkably from our own. (This is why the word Bible is in quotation marks in the first quotation from Gow that opens the essay.) Corbellini et al. note that we should revise the expectation that biblical availability only counts if what one had access to was the complete Bible:

There is a tendency to only consider ‘complete’ bibles as measure of the presence of biblical manuscripts….[R]e-arrangements of biblical material according to the liturgical calendar…and translations accompanied by explanations and glosses are often considered less valuable and historically less meaningful than ‘complete’ translations. In spite of the fact that complete Bible translations did circulate at some point in the Low Countries, Italy, and France, both in manuscript and in printed form, the focus on the ‘completeness’ of the text does not take into account the specific practice of diffusion of the biblical text, consisting of several books written at different points in time and in different languages and often delivered to the public, in particular a non-professional public, in the form of passages and pericopes.[30]

Of course in the present day we are not unfamiliar with, for instance, evangelistic copies of the gospel of John (without the rest of the Bible) or study Bibles with “glosses” of their own from whichever Christian tradition is producing it. Thus the idea of circulating portions of Scripture or “illuminated” versions of Scripture is not unknown to us. And, apparently, neither was it unknown to late-medieval Catholic laity. Indeed, according to Eyal Poleg and Laura Light, this partial-and/or-illuminated character of medieval Bibles was a feature of the Wycliffite Bibles as well, making them one among many different types of Scripture being circulated in the later Middle Ages:

Wycliffite Bibles mirrored Late Medieval Bibles in appearance, but typically included only a few New Testament Books; Italian Bibles were personal objects, copied in scripts commonly used for commerce and only rarely containing the full biblical Canon; French Bibles, often long and richly illuminated, included extensive nonbiblical passages. All these books were Bibles in the later Middle Ages, challenging us to expand our understanding of the Bible – a book whose sanctity extended beyond its text.[31]

5. Fifth, it is misleading to think of the Protestant and Catholic positions on vernacular Scripture reading as a binary, for-and-against situation. Alister McGrath notes that the magisterial Reformers became possessed of a concern similar to the Catholic Church’s regarding incorrect, heretical interpretations of Scripture:

The magisterial Reformation initially seems to have allowed that every individual had the right to interpret Scripture; but subsequently it became anxious concerning the social and political consequences of this idea. The Peasant’s Revolt of 1525 appears to have convinced some, such as Luther, that individual believers (especially German peasants) were simply not capable of interpreting Scripture. It is one of the ironies of the Lutheran Reformation that a movement which laid such stress upon the importance of Scripture should subsequently deny its less educated members direct access to that same Scripture, for fear that they might misinterpret it (in other words, reach a different interpretation from that of the magisterial reformers).[32]

Piper actually seems to concur, in practice if not in theory, with this concern of the magisterial Reformers. At the recent 2017 national conference of the Gospel Coalition, Piper said the following to his audience (which included many pastors) regarding the exposition of passages that contain ‘many propositions’ like the one he was exegeting, Galatians 1: “There’s just no way your people can follow it. No. They can’t. They cannot put the pieces together. You’ve got to help them.”[33]  Thus Piper, wittingly or not, is saying that there are certain Scripture passages that are beyond the ken of the untutored Bible reader.

This otherwise trivial observation becomes significant when we note that Piper’s emphatic assertion is made with reference to Galatians 1, where Paul is explaining why faithful Christians should not accept another gospel, and how they can prevent being so seduced. Thus Piper is in fact applying this interpretive principle to the quintessential passage that spells out why and how it is that a faithful believer should guard against being led astray by another gospel and consequently cease being a faithful believer—the same concern as the magisterial Reformers. That this, of all passages, would need to itself be explained by a faithful guide like Piper seems (again, in practice if not theory) to militate against the impulse that one can rely on laypersons to accurately ascertain important (indeed, in the case of Galatians 1, vital) points of doctrine from Scripture.

Of course, Piper would certainly never advise keeping Scripture out of the hands ‘lay’ congregants. This does not seem to be entirely true, though, of the magisterial Reformed tradition. McGrath gives the following example of such restriction on biblical access and interpretation:

[T]he school regulations of the duchy of Württemberg laid down that only the most able schoolchildren were to be allowed to study the New Testament in their final years – and even then, only if they studied in Greek or Latin. The remainder – presumably the vast bulk – were required to read Luther’s Lesser Catechism instead. The direct interpretation of Scripture was thus effectively reserved for a small, privileged group of people. To put it crudely, it became a question of whether you looked to the pope, to Luther or to Calvin as an interpreter of Scripture. The principle of the ‘clarity of Scripture’ appears to have been quietly marginalized, in the light of the use made of the Bible by the more radical elements of the Reformation. Similarly, the idea that everyone had the right and the ability to interpret Scripture faithfully became the sole possession of the radicals [e.g. Anabaptists].[34]

This is not to say that there was no difference between Protestant and Catholic approaches to reading and interpreting Scripture: there certainly were essential differences, like the role of Tradition in interpretation. Nevertheless, insofar as (PP) characterizes the Reformation as triggering an explosion of vernacular access and freedom of lay (as opposed to magisterial) interpretation, it seems to miss the historical mark with respect both to the Catholic and Protestant positions: access to Scripture was quite a bit better under medieval Catholicism than is commonly acknowledged, and Protestant access was perhaps more restricted than has been commonly thought.

6. Sixth, (PP) seems to overlook that all translation—in the Reformation era, as now—must also involve interpretation, and that interpretation presupposes a theological framework within which the interpretation occurs. This was true of the translations of the Reformers (Luther, Wycliffe, etc.). We can see Luther acknowledging this truth that translations are not functionally equivalent to the original manuscripts in his insistence that, without knowledge of the original languages, the true gospel will inevitably be lost. Here is Piper quoting Luther on this point and affirming this intuition:

Luther spoke against the backdrop of a thousand years of church darkness without the Word when he said boldly, “It is certain that unless the languages [of Greek and Hebrew] remain, the Gospel must finally perish.” He asks, “Do you inquire what use there is in learning the languages?…Do you say, ‘We can read the Bible very well in German?’ ” (As many American pastors today say, “Isn’t a good English translation sufficient?”) Luther answers, “Without languages we could not have received the gospel.”….In other words, he attributes the breakthrough of the Reformation to the penetrating power of the original languages.[35]

So translation requires interpretation of the originals, which, as Luther suggests, introduces the possibility of corruption of the message of the original. (This is why a pastor must know the original languages and not settle for ‘translation languages’ like German or English, lest they stray away from the gospel present in the Hebrew and Greek originals.) But since any translation implies interpretation and an underlying theological framework, the Reformers’ translations also involved these variables, as Gow observes in the case of Luther:

Because all translations are also interpretations, it can be argued that far from trying merely to ‘free’ the Bible from the sole authority of the Roman magisterium, Luther, his followers and other Protestant reformers all over Europe eventually detached scripture from its Roman mooring-lines and bound it into new structures of authority of their own devising, starting with their new translations/interpretations.[36]

Gow then comments on Luther’s own theological importations into his German translations of Scripture:

I have discussed Luther’s circular reasoning for [his Christological] translations [of various Hebrew passages] elsewhere;[37] in essence, he claims that ‘common sense,’ context and the right kind of faith (a.k.a. ‘knowledge’) are more important for translation than familiarity with Hebrew grammar or word meanings….Thus Luther’s version, an evangelical, solafideist and Christological reading, was also a highly contingent, constructed one, just like the versions he claimed to be rendering obsolete.[38]

This observation about translation and interpretation provides one alternate way of looking at the Catholic opposition to Wycliffe’s translations as well. On this alternate reading, it is not the mere fact that Wycliffe was translating Scripture into the vernacular, but rather the way he was translating, that was objectionable. The Anglican historian Edward L. Cutts writes:

[T]ranslations into the vernacular were made. … [T]here were Saxon versions of different books. And we have the authority of Sir Thomas More for saying that ‘the whole Bible was long before Wiclif’s days, by virtuous and well-learned men, translated into the English tongue, and by good and godly people with devotion and soberness well and reverently read.’ Speaking of the constitution of Archbishop Arundel, 1408, forbidding the reading of Wiclif’s translation of the Bible, or any other translations unless approved by the bishop of the diocese, or if necessary by a provincial council, he says ‘this order neither forbad the translations to be read that were done of old before Wiclif’s days, nor condemned his because it was new, but because it was naught’ (bad).[39]

On More’s reading, the chief objection to Wycliffe’s translating was its quality and agenda, not its mere existence. Of course, this reading will be deeply unsatisfying to (PP) for at least two reasons. First, it begs the question by assuming that the Catholic translation was serviceable, while (PP), inclining toward the Wycliffe translation, presupposes it was not. This is a fine objection, but what is relevant for our purposes is not to prove whether or not Wycliffe’s translation was wrong, but rather that More’s objection to Wycliffite translations moves the locus of disagreement from the mere fact of vernacular translations to the question of what makes a good translation or not and who is authorized to oversee such translation.

Second, this reading might be dissatisfying because on some versions of (PP) Thomas More is portrayed as a scoundrel, and so his testimony about Wycliffe’s translation might be seen as prima facie suspicious and perhaps deliberately false. While not making this inference, Piper does have this to say of More in comparison to the Reformers: “Where Luther and Tyndale were blood-earnest about our dreadful human condition and the glory of salvation in Christ, Erasmus and Thomas More joked and bantered.”[40] And again: “Erasmus—and Thomas More with him—did not see the depth of the human condition (their own condition) and so did not see the glory and explosive power of what the reformers saw in the New Testament.”[41]

Here I would only mention that Thomas More died a martyr, beheaded by a political authority who demanded he renounce allegiance to his Church, and that, while imprisoned in the Tower of London before his death, More wrote a work titled Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation. Being martyred for one’s faith does not seem congruous with Piper’s statement that More was “always playing games compared to Tyndale.”[42]  It is true that More joked with Erasmus about the Reformers (in ways I, too, find inappropriate and regrettable), but one need only recall Luther’s reaction to Zwingli’s death to see that this is a moot point. Pronouncements about an individual’s behavior often cloud important issues by putting the cart before the horse: we allow disagreeable behavior to influence our sense of a larger historical moment rather than the other way around. Such determinations are of course matters of art rather than science – sometimes personality is an important factor in a particular situation. But in examining (Reformation) issues like the ones at hand, there are surely enough embarrassing anecdotes to boil blood on both sides of the conversation. This is not to defend More or throw a tu quoque at Luther; it is rather to try to keep the main thing, the main thing.

7. Finally, the quotations from Erasmus and Luther that began this post, quotations which on (PP) are taken as something like voices crying in the wilderness preparing the way for a Scriptural revolution, do not accurately represent the state of affairs in the late medieval Church. Such calls for more vernacular Scripture, according to Gow and Corbellini, were the results, not the cause, of a transition from Vulgate to vernacular translations that was already well under way in the medieval period. Gow writes:

[L]ate-medieval nobles, burghers, lay brethren and sisters, and nuns had access to and read a variety of Biblical texts and devotional works both in manuscript and printed vernacular versions (in the widest sense) of the Bible. Their readings of these texts helped create a demand for more complete and accessible versions of the Bible in the period known as the Reformation.[43]

In other words, the amount of vernacular scriptural texts in the late medieval period that were already in circulation and used by Catholic laity caused a demand for more of the same thing. One result of this was the many printed editions of vernacular Scriptural texts circulating prior to the Reformation mentioned above—an increase of supply from printers to meet demand. Corbellini et al. likewise write:

 Erasmus and Luther’s pleas for a more general and personal access to vernacular Bibles were thus much more the results of a ‘cultural revolution’ starting in the late Middle Ages than revolutionary manifestos for freedom of reading and translating.[44]

Of course, it would be an overreaction to Corbellini and Gow’s evaluation to pretend that therefore Erasmus and Luther were merely crying wolf, as if everything was in unimprovably good order and their call for more accessibility was completely without grounds. As we have seen above, there were reasons to be unsatisfied with the availability of the vernacular in the Middle Ages. The replacement image is not of Luther and Erasmus simply lying or making up the problem of lack of vernacular availability, but rather of these two men giving eloquent and prominent voice (with, apparently, some exaggeration) to a desire current among many of the laity that was already finding partial fulfillment in the amount of written and printed biblical texts circulating. The point is that this desire as well as its (partial!) fulfillment were already present within the milieu of the late Middle Ages.

III. Conclusion

There are many phainomena and endoxa that facilitate an adjustment away from (PP) that I have not mentioned above; for more, I encourage those who are interested to consult the selected bibliography below for work that has been helpful to me in writing this post. In closing, let me reiterate that I do not pretend that shifting away from (PP) has any more theological implications than it in fact has. If one gave up (PP), I do think that one would be giving up the perception of the medieval Catholic Church as an anti-vernacular, anti-popular piety, anti-Scripture institution. But this shift alone would not entail, for instance, that Wycliffe or Tyndale were actually wrong in what they did, nor would it entail that the provincial councils that restricted access to Scripture were right in doing so. Such events would, I think, be read in different lights than they might have been before, but questions about the relation between Church and Scripture are obviously far bigger and wider-reaching than the issues examined here.

Nevertheless, in any type of investigation, including this one, we are after the truth of things, and (PP) seems to get at the truth of the matter very poorly or not at all. As Gow says pithily: “The real trouble with all these narratives of decadence and decline is that they are so often wrong.” Perhaps it is time to lay (PP)’s own decadence and decline narrative to rest along with other broad-brush stories of Western disaster that seem to obscure rather than clarify the conversation.

Selected Bibliography

Corbellini, Sabrina, et al. “Challenging the Paradigms: Holy Writ and Lay Readers in Late Medieval Europe.” Church History and Religious Culture 93.2 (2013): 171–188.

Cutts, Edward L. Turning Points of English History. New York: E. S. Gorham Publishers, 1908.

Duffy, Eamon. The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400–1580, second edition. Yale University Press, 2005.

Gow, Andrew. “Challenging the Protestant Paradigm: Bible Reading in Lay and Urban Contexts of the Later Middle Ages.” In Scripture and Pluralism: Reading the Bible in the Religiously Plural Worlds of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Edited by Thomas J. Heffernan and Thomas E. Burman. Leiden: Brill, 2005. 161–191.

______. “Christian Colonialism: Luther’s Exegesis of Hebrew Scripture.” In Continuity and Change: The Harvest of Late-Medieval and Reformation History. Essays Presented to Heiko A. Oberman on his Seventieth Birthday. Edited by Robert J. Bast and Andrew C. Gow. Leiden: Brill, 2000. 229–252.

_______. “The Contested History of a Book: The German Bible of the Later Middle Ages and Reformation in Legend, Ideology, and Scholarship.” The Journal of Hebrew Scripture 9 (2009): 2–37.

Lampe, G. W. H. (ed.) The Cambridge History of the Bible, vol. 2: The West from the Fathers to the Reformation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969.

McGrath, Alister. Reformation Thought: An Introduction, 4th edition. Malden: Wiley Blackwell, 2012.

_______. The Intellectual Origins of the European Reformation. New York: Basil Blackwell Publishers, 1987.

Nowell, Peter B. “Burning the Bible: Heresy and Translation in Occitania 1229–1250.” Unpublished paper. Online:

Piper, John. Filling Up the Afflictions of Christ: The Cost of Bringing the Gospel to the Nations in the Lives of William Tyndale, Adoniram Judson, and John Paton. Wheaton: Crossway, 2009).

Poleg, Eyal and Laura Light (eds). Form and Function in the Late Medieval Bible. Leiden: Brill, 2013.

Walsham, Alexandra. “Unclasping the Book? Post-Reformation English Catholicism and the Vernacular Bible.” In Journal of British Studies, 42.2 (2003): 141–166.

Campi, Emidio and Mariano Delgado. “Bibles in Italian and Spanish.” In The New Cambridge History of the Bible, Volume 3: From 1450 to 1750. Edited by Euan Cameron. Cambridge University Press, 2016. 358–383.

Gebarowski-Schafer, Ellie. “The Bible in Roman Catholic theology, 1450–1750.” In The New Cambridge History of the Bible, Volume 3: From 1450 to 1750. Edited by Euan Cameron. Cambridge University Press, 2016. 489–517.


[1] Andrew Gow, “Challenging the Protestant Paradigm: Bible Reading in Lay and Urban Contexts of the Later Middle Ages,” in Scripture and Pluralism: Reading the Bible in the Religiously Plural Worlds of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, ed. Thomas J. Heffernan and Thomas E. Burman (Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2005), 188.

[2] Gow, “Challenging the Protestant Paradigm,” 165. Sabrina Corbellini et al., “Challenging the Paradigms: Holy Writ and Lay Readers in Late Medieval Europe,” Church History and Religious Culture 93.2 (2013), 172, also describe (PP) as “the traditional view that considers circulation and readership of vernacular Bibles among lay people as one of the pivotal points of the Reformation movement as opposed to the prohibitions and strict control by the Roman Church.”

[3] From his Table Talks, cited and translated in Andrew Gow, “The Contested History of a Book: The German Bible of the Later Middle Ages and Reformation in Legend, Ideology, and Scholarship,” The Journal of Hebrew Scripture 9 (2009), 19, article 13.

[4] Erasmus of Rotterdam, Paraphrase on Matthew, trans. Dean Simpson (Toronto, 2007), 17.

[5] “Keller, Piper, and Carson on Seeking Reformation through TGC,” beginning ~1:55. Youtube. May 2, 2016. Online:

[6] John Piper, transcript of “Always Singing One Note–A Vernacular Bible: Why William Tyndale Lived and Died,” Desiring God National Conference, 2006. Online:

[7] John Piper, “Always Singing One Note.”

[8] Piper, “Sacred Study: Martin Luther and the External Word,” in The Legacy of Sovereign Joy (Wheaton: Crossway, 2006), 96.

[9] David Daniell, William Tyndale: A Biography (Yale University Press, 2001)

[10] Daniell, William Tyndale, 194.

[11] “What’s the Best Book You’ve Read on the Reformation? Tim Keller, Don Carson, and John Piper Discuss,” beginning ~0:40. The Gospel Coalition website, October 25, 2016. Online:

[12] Leonardo De Chirico, “The Vatican Files, N. 4,” reformation21, July 2011. Online:

[13] Michael Reeves, “Interview with Michael Reeves on the Reformation,” Credo Magazine, October 31, 2011. Online:

[14] “Private Interpretation of the Bible,” Online:

[15] Corbellini et al., “Challenging the Paradigms,” 174–75.

[16] Gow, “Contested History of a Book,” 21. He is quoting Alister McGrath, In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture (New York: Anchor Books, 2002), 88: “biblical translation was more than just a scholarly challenge in the early sixteenth century—it was, in Tyndale’s case, illegal, dangerous, and ultimately fatal.”

[17] Emidio Campi and Mariano Delgado, “Bibles in Italian and Spanish,” in The New Cambridge History of the Bible, Volume 3: From 1450 to 1750, ed. Euan Cameron (Cambridge University Press, 2016), 358, 371.

[18] Campi and Delgado, “Bibles in Italian and Spanish,” 371.

[19] Campi and Delgado, “Bibles in Italian and Spanish,” 372.

[20] Gow, “Challenging the Protestant Paradigm,” 164.

[21] Gow, “Challenging the Protestant Paradigm,” 164.

[22] Oxford Illustrated History of the Bible, ed. John Rogerson (Oxford University Press, 2001), 201.

[23] Gow, “Challenging the Protestant Paradigm,” 180. He is citing statistics from Uwe Neddermeyer, Von der Handschrifl zum gedruckten Buch, Schrifllichkeit und Leseinteresse in Mittelalter und in der friihen Neuzeit, Qyantitative und qualitative Aspekte, Buchwissenschaftliche Beitrage aus dem deutschen Bucharchiv München 61 (Wiesbaden: Harassowitz,1998).
      See also the following in The Cambridge History of the Bible, vol. 2, The West from the Fathers to the Reformation, ed. G. W. H. Lampe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969): W. B. Lockwood, “Vernacular Scriptures in Germany and the Low Countries before 1500,” 428–434; C. A. Robson, “Vernacular Scriptures in France,” 436–451; Kenelm Foster, “Vernacular Scriptures in Italy,” 452–465; Margherita Morreale, “Vernacular Scriptures in Spain,” 465–474.

[24] Gow, “The Contested History of a Book,” 7.

[25] Rev. Edward L. Cutts, Turning Points of English History (New York: E. S. Gorham Publishers, 1908), 206–207. Link here. See also Geoffrey Shepherd, “English Versions of the Scriptures before Wyclif,” in The Cambridge History of the Bible, vol. 2, 365–87.

[26] McGrath, The Intellectual Origins of the European Reformation (New York: Basil Blackwell Publishers, 1987), 124.

[27] Ellie Gebarowski-Schafer, “The Bible in Roman Catholic theology, 1450–1750,” in The New Cambridge History of the Bible, Volume 3: From 1450 to 1750, ed. Euan Cameron (Cambridge University Press, 2016), 490.

[28] Peter B. Nowell, “Burning the Bible: Heresy and Translation in Occitania 1229–1250,” Unpublished paper, 3–7. Online:

[29] Peter B. Nowell, “Burning the Bible,” 12.

[30] Corbellini et al., “Challenging the Paradigms,” 177.

[31] Eyal Poleg and Laura Light, “Introduction,” Form and Function in the Late Medieval Bible, ed. Eyal Poleg and Laura Light (Leiden: Brill, 2013), 7.

[32] Alister McGrath, Reformation Thought: An Introduction, 4th ed. (Wiley Blackwell, 2012), 110.

[33] “No Other Gospel,” April 3. Beginning ~14:44. Online:

[34] McGrath, Reformation Thought: An Introduction, 110.

[35] Piper, Filling Up the Afflictions of Christ, 96.

[36]  Andrew Gow, “Challenging the Protestant Paradigm,” 166.

[37] Gow is referring to his article “Christian Colonialism: Luther’s Exegesis of Hebrew Scripture” in Continuity and Change: The Harvest of Late-Medieval and Reformation History. Essays Presented to Heiko A. Oberman on his Seventieth Birthday, ed. Robert J. Bast and Andrew C. Gow (Leiden: Brill,  2000), 229–252, esp. 242–250.

[38] Gow, “Challenging the Protestant Paradigm,” 167.

[39] Rev. Edward L. Cutts, Turning Points of English History (New York: E. S. Gorham Publishers, 1908), 206–207. Link here.

[40] Piper, Filling Up the Afflictions of Christ, 40.

[41] Piper, Filling Up the Afflictions of Christ, 40.

[42] Piper, Filling Up the Afflictions of Christ, 40.

[43] Andrew Gow, “Challenging the Protestant Paradigm,” 191.

[44] Corbellini et al., “Challenging the Paradigms,” 173.

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