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3 Myths of the Protestant "Reformation"

Updated: Jun 30, 2022

By Luke Lancaster

1. Catholics did not encourage Scripture reading in the Catholic Middle Ages.

This question really ignores the context of the times and thereby borders on the territory of myth. For the culpability of the Church in this area is really limited by the issues of illiteracy, poverty, and heresy.

First, to speak of illiteracy, most people could not read in the medieval time frame. Why fault the Catholic hierarchy for not encouraging people to read the Bible - when the people did not read period? For Catholicism, it seemed that the best way to teach the uneducated farmers and laity was through images. For example, churches had stained glass of Bible stories. Michaelangelo and Raphael painted the saving contents of God’s written Word all over Rome. It was only with the invention of the printing press in the 15th century that literacy rates started to sky-rocket.

The question also ignores the issue of poverty. It costed a ton of money to make a Bible, so much so that nobody could afford them. Nowadays, people can go into any bookstore and buy one, but back then, people needed to make them on their own. To make one, a person would need to own hundreds of sheep, which automatically eliminated large swaths of people. Then, that person would have to kill those hundreds of sheep that he owned. Who would want to do that? Then the person would have to take those hundreds of skins to a scribe that could copy the biblical books by hand. All of this totaled about three years wages! The Bible was an expensive book, so to encourage Bible reading would only be catering to the rich and wealthy.

Finally, there is the issue of heresy. If every person had their own personal Bible, then it may have been feared that every person would come up with new interpretations of it. Such interpretations would lead them to start their own heretical churches. This occurred in the Protestant Revolution in the 16th century and has continued down to today with the constant creation of new Protestant denominations. They all disagree on serious doctrines, like baptism, the Lord's Supper, abortion, women clergy, etc. In fact, just about every heresy in the history of the Church began with a heretical interpretation of Scripture. St. Peter himself said that heresy was dangerous (2 Peter 2:1) and the Church took that seriously.

Nevertheless, there were churchmen who encouraged Scripture reading. Cardinal Cisneros or Ximenes (1436-1517 AD) published the Computensian Polyglot Bible. This Bible was in the languages of Latin, Greek, Aramaic, and Hebrew, and was annotated and enhanced with a lexicon and grammar component. Erasmus of Rotterdam (1469?-1536 AD) wrote out paraphrases of the biblical books, hoping that if he elucidated the meaning of Scripture, then people would be less-likely to develop heretical interpretations. Numerous devotional books of the 15-16th centuries also quoted Scripture significantly. So, this issue is not black and white.

2. The Catholic Church chained the Bible up to prevent people from reading it

This myth ignores the issue of poverty as well. The Church did chain the Bible up, but it may not have been to prevent people from reading it. The Bible was incredibly expensive and very often had covers with expensive stones and gems, such as gold and silver plating. Catholicism was afraid of thieves robbing the precious Scriptures. This practice of locking up books was actually a common practice back then, for libraries, universities, and even Protestant churches would chain their expensive books up. Doing so allowed poorer students the ability to read them. To get a sense for this, Dave Armstrong cited Bertrand Conway in his book, “More Biblical Evidence for Catholicism” (p. 65),

“The Bible and other books were chained in the libraries and churches in the Middle Ages to preserve them from theft, and especially to make them accessible to students…The Reformers adopted this custom of having chained Bibles in their churches, and the practice lasted for over 300 years. There were chained libraries at Grantham (1598), Bolton (1651) and Wimborne (1686), England, and chained Bibles in most of the English churches…The Oxford Colleges of Eton, Brasenose and Merton did not remove the chains until the 18th century, while some libraries removed them only in the 19th (Manchester, Cirencester, Llanbadarn). At the present time we have records of over 5000 chained books in eleven Protestant and two Catholic libraries” (Bertrand Conway, The Question Box, New York: Paulist Press, 1929, p. 86).

Modern people even chain things up, such as what banks do with their pens. So, this myth ignores the issue of poverty.

3. Luther was the first to translate the Bible into the German language

This myth is just flat out wrong. Although the Luther Bible was a huge success in the 16th century, generating thousands of newly literate Germans to buy and read Luther’s German translation of Scripture, there were other German translations out there. Dr. Brad Gregory notes that there were “twenty-two editions of the complete vernacular Bible…published in German…by 1518” (Rebel in the Ranks, p. 29). The late Fr. Henry Graham publicized all the various vernacular translations as well in his book, “Where We Got the Bible.” Recent Church Historian Steve Weidenkopf says that there were 36,000 German Bible manuscripts by the fifteenth century (source).

Yet, why did the people read Luther’s translation over the others? Because Luther was telling them to revolt against Rome, and he cited Scripture in his rhetoric. Now, many German people were very patriotic towards their lands and resented having to listen to Rome. So, when a German monk that was excommunicated by Rome translated the Bible, people jumped on it. The Luther Bible was juicy - like reading a book by an ex-Trump employee. People looked upon the same gift that Catholicism had already given them with a new-found wonder, for Luther had repackaged it in an attractive, rebellious way.

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