Why Would a Church Ban the Bible?

We’re celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation this month by exploring its hidden history. In this post, Dr. Mark Ward explains why publishing God’s Word was such a source of controversy in the Reformation era.

Learn more about the events that laid the foundation for the Reformation in our Reformation 500 timeline.

Maybe you’ve heard the story before: prior to the Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church forbade the translation of Scripture into common languages.

Now, Protestants had plenty to protest in this era, but it simply isn’t true that vernacular translation was totally forbidden. But the Roman Church did forbid it in some places at some times—and England, 1408, was one of them.

Why?

Do vernacular translations lead to confusion?

After Wycliffe translated the Latin Vulgate into English, the 1408 Constitutions of Oxford did indeed ban and even burn his work. (For good measure, the authorities also exhumed his body and burned his bones.) Records remain of Catholic arguments against Wycliffe and his followers, the “Lollards.” Catholic leaders felt that laypeople reading English Bibles would only cause confusion. Widespread familiarity with God’s words would lead to irreverence, the argument went, and it wasn’t really possible to translate the Bible with full accuracy into English anyway.

To contemporary Protestants, this way of thinking will seem foreign. Even modern Catholics may find it confounding; today, the Catholic church supports vernacular Bible translation.

But imagine you’re part of a church in a nation which has never had vernacular Bibles, just a few portions of various books available sometimes and in some places. Imagine English is not the dominant international language of trade, entertainment, and mass media that it is today. Imagine most people can’t read, that the language of educated people is Latin, and that Latin also happens to be the accepted language of the Bible—and has been for a thousand years.

Vernacular translation didn’t seem worth the risk to the health of society. Plus, English was a socially stigmatized language, like backwoods twangy English in the U.S. is today. One cleric from the pre-Reformation era wrote, “How . . . the properties of the [Greek] language can be preserved in the English tongue, or any other barbarous tongue, which is by no means governed by rules of grammar, I fail to see.”

According to Margaret Deanesly, many church leaders actually quoted Matthew 7:6 when confronted with the idea of vernacular Bibles: Neque mittatis margaritas vestras ante porcos—“Don’t cast your pearls before swine.”

And I know how they feel. Sometimes when I see what people do with the Bible, particularly on the internet, I get frustrated. Not everything professing Christians do with the Bible is good.

Hearing—and understanding—the voice of our shepherd

But Christians are not swine; they’re sheep. Sheep must be permitted to hear the voice of Christ in a language they can understand so that they can recognize his voice and follow him (John 10; 1 Cor 14:9–11). Reformation Christians have decided, because of the Bible’s own teaching, that the benefits of giving the people the Bible outweigh the risks.

And those benefits are precious: Christ himself is one of them. As John Wycliffe and his followers argued at the turn of the fifteenth century, and as later Reformers such as Luther and Calvin and Tyndale explained in greater detail, every person needs to relate to Christ individually. There is only one mediator between God and man, and it’s Christ (1 Tim 2:5). Where else do we hear his words but in Scripture?

Early Christians translated the Bible, or significant portions, into eight major languages, including Latin, Gothic, and Armenian. But there was a many-century drought in which the vast majority of Christians went without the Bible in their respective tongues. The Reformation launched a new era of Bible translation for which all sheep everywhere should be grateful.

Read about how we got our Bibles back in the Reformation 500 timeline.

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Comments

  1. Excellent article! I am grateful that we have the Bible in our language. Many gave their lives so we can read God’s Word. Far too often it seems like it’s taken for granted today. Articles like this help us realize the value of what we have. We should cherish it and pray for those who still don’t have a Bible in their language.

  2. Roger Martin says:

    We sometimes take so much for granted. Today we have so many translations of our Bible. I can’t imagine not having God’s Word to read! Thanks for reminding me, it hasn’t always been this way.

  3. As a Catholic, I thank you for the balanced presentation on a topic fraught with false caricatures.

  4. Mike Gallagher says:

    Thanks Mark, for opening the discussion on this issue. I’m not a scholar who can adequately address the points that you raised surrounding this issue nor am I an orator who is capable of putting my thoughts together in a way that is necessarily convincing or non-confrontational. But I think there are several points to be raised/clarified on this issue, which is a much more nuanced issue and, as you alluded to, more understandable by the people of those times vs. those of us who are removed from the situation by 600 years. So I’m just going to toss out a few points to further the discussion and to maybe shed a bit more light (hopefully not heat) on the topic.

    Relative to Wycliffe’s body being exhumed and burned, I believe that it was common practice at that time to not allow heretics to be buried in consecrated burial grounds – thus the removal of his remains after he was declared a heretic by the Church. Why they (and who was they?) burned the bones, I don’t know, but maybe they had no other place at the time that would accept his remains.

    I believe that in addition to translations in English at that time, the Church had also translated the Bible/Gospels into at least Spanish, Italian, Danish, French, Norwegian, Polish, Bohemian and Hungarian (Graham, Right Rev. Henry G., Where We Got the Bible: Our Debt to the Catholic Church).

    In addition to the fact that the printing press was not invented until 1440, the production of Bibles by hand or by other printing means was extremely time consuming and expensive, i.e., out of the range of possibility for the common person. Also, the people were not literate at that time and the faith was therefore passed on verbally, through readings at the Mass, and through artwork and stained glass windows.

    The translations that were made available through people like Wycliffe and Tyndale contained numerous errors and heretical interpretations of the faith compared to the teachings of the first 1500 years of Christianity. The Church’s concern was not simply just putting translations out in the vernacular, but rather putting inaccurate translations out in the vernacular.

    I was also wondering about when Margaret Deanesly mentions that many church leaders quoted Matthew 7:6. What does she mean by “many” and were those authoritative statements by the Church or just personal statements by some Church leaders. It would seem to me that the more appropriate scripture quote that applied at that time would have been from Acts 8:29–31: “And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go up and join this chariot.” So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.”

    At the time that vernacular editions of the Bible began being published, there were not the abundance of Bible commentaries that we have now and there certainly were not enough teachers like Philip, to sit individually with each person who picked up a copy of the Bible.

    I’m sure that the points I raise need both clarification and correction by someone with capabilities well beyond me, but I just raise them to help with the balance of the overall issue.

    • I’ve done some reading in Andrew Gow, who heavily criticizes the triumphalist “Protestant Paradigm” which assumes that no Roman Catholic Christians anywhere had any part of the Bible before Luther. Diarmaid MacCullouch, in his well-regarded book on the Reformation, also notes that the English church’s ban on Bible translation was “unparalleled in Europe at the time.” 2017 is a good year to be honest and not triumphalistic.

      I am currently working on forming an honest understanding of this issue, historically speaking. One piece of honesty that I think most scholars agree on is that there were few if any translations of the whole Bible, or even significant portions, during the period that used to be called the “Dark Ages.” And those translations that were made were made from the Vulgate. Even Wycliffe translated from the Vulgate. These were problems that needed to be rectified, whatever their cause.

      • Mike Gallagher says:

        Mark,

        Thanks for the reply and yes, an honest understanding of the issue would be helpful for each of us, but is likely not an easy goal to achieve due to all the polemics surrounding matters like this. I would like to spend more time on learning about these issues, but find that running a small business tends to take away from that possibility at least at this point in my life.

        Have you ever heard of Dr. David Anders? He was a Presbyterian who grew up in a very anti-Catholic home and decided that in his studies, he would do his research/thesis on the Reformation. He may be a good resource for you to bounce things off of as his approach is logical, scriptural, historical and seems to be well thought out. He has a website at http://www.calledtocommunion.com/ and http://calvin2catholic.com/ and also does a call in show on EWTN called Called to Communion.

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