King's Evangelical Divinity School

7 June 2013

Are You a Subversive or Submissive Christian?

Last night the BBC aired an excellent programme by the broadcaster Melvin Bragg entitled The Most Dangerous Man in Tudor England. The programme explored the life and work of the Bible translator William Tyndale. Bragg introduces his film thus:
Today many have never even heard of him. Yet this man's legacy lives on in every English-speaking country. Tyndale's influence is immeasurable. His translation of the Bible fuelled a Protestant ascendancy that went throughout the world. The biblical ideas that he released into the common tongue fired the English Reformation. And his genius, now acknowledged, makes him, alongside Shakespeare, one of the co-creators of the modern English language.
Tyndale has long been one of my favourite characters from the Reformation period. At that time in England, the Bible was only available in the ancient languages of scholars and thus the preserve of intellectuals, priests and church leaders. Tyndale wanted to translate the Bible into the everyday vernacular so that it could be read and understood by common men and women. But this was subversive stuff, threatening those church leaders who, through their knowledge of the ancient languages, controlled the reading and interpretation of the Bible. On an occasion when a priest openly attacked him, Tyndale famously said him:
If God spare my life, before very long I shall cause a plough boy to know the scriptures better than you do! (
This access to Scripture has always represented an important defining feature of the Reformation and Protestantism. The Roman Catholic Church did not encourage a universal reading of the Bible, instead emphasising the teachings of the church whose leaders, it was (and is) maintained, can alone interpret the Bible correctly. The Reformers, on the other hand, believed the Bible should be made available to all, and that, for a large part, was understandable to all (hence the doctrine of the perspicuity, or clarity, of Scripture).

Tyndale's views and efforts to translate the Bible into English were so subversive, threatening the status quo, vested interests and the authority of church leaders, that he paid the ultimate price and was eventually burned at the stake. But not before he had succeeded in his work and ministry of bringing the Bible to everyday folk.

Today the Bible can, of course, be found in almost every language. In a few societies it remains subversive to read it, and it seems in modern Western society it is increasingly subversive to believe those bits of it which challenge the pervading Zeitgeist and cultural fashion of the day. But there is another way in which the Bible remains subversive, in much the same way it did in Tyndale's day, through how it can challenge vested ecclesial interests and authority. 

Some people within the Church twist the Scriptures, often for their own purposes (which is warned about in New Testament times, 2 Pet 3:16, 2 Tim 4:3), whether to promote a viewpoint that is erroneous, or that benefits them personally (e.g. financially), while control over how the Bible is read and understood helps cement control over congregations and maintain positions of authority and power. The "democratisation" of Scripture, where every congregant can read, understand and correctly apply the Bible for themselves threatens all that.

Thus, while the Bible is now available in everyday language, exercising control over hermeneutics and how the Bible is understood can, at its most extreme, result in people being controlled within a cultic or heavy shepherding context, or maybe within a mega-church promoting the cult of personality. But the control of hermeneutics can extend well beyond these extreme examples to everyday churches and even institutionally, across for example a wide and moderate denomination, where certain doctrines are presented as established truth, and to challenge them can result in disciplinary action or even expulsion. 

Of course, as Christians we all need a set of basic rules and beliefs, sometimes referred to as the fundamentals of the faith. Thus there is a stage at which by ditching key orthodox tenets one moves into the realm of heterodoxy. The Bible also makes clear we should be submissive to our spiritual leaders who will one day give an account of how they watched over us (Heb 13:7), not domineeringly but by example (1 Pet 5:1-3). But have you noticed how human nature seems to thrive not only on establishing but also extending and widening inexorably rules and regulations? This can be seen in the expansion of law-making, Health and Safety rules and regulations, and so on. It can also be seen in many churches' statements of faith and lists of doctrines, with some running into many pages. In some such cases this is evidence that hermeneutics has been appropriated by elites and woe betide the individual who questions certain viewpoints.

So while Tyndale's subversive work resulted in a Bible for all, more subversion is needed in the form of Christians being equipped to interpret and apply the Bible for themselves. Not to make the work of their spiritual leaders more difficult, you understand (if more people knew how to interpret the Bible correctly it would make the work of good Christian leaders so much easier), but so that as people of God we can be shaped by the word of God.

That's why, at King's Evangelical Divinity School, our courses in biblical interpretation are often specifically sought out by individuals who are keen to study, understand, reflect upon and apply the Bible for themselves. There are some great, wonderful churches out there who absolutely recognise the importance of the work of men like Tyndale, who acknowledge the Bible's commandment that we should all study and meditate upon the word of God. These churches focus on providing their people with good, in-depth biblical teaching, as well as equipping their congregations with the necessary tools to read the Bible for themselves. Unfortunately an increasing number of churches do not do these things, either through failing to emphasise the importance of Bible study, or more ominously (and like the priests in Tyndale's day) because they seek to secure and control the interpretation of Scripture for themselves for their own vested interests. We frequently receive enquiries from people from such churches desperate for knowledge and understanding of the word of God and the tools to interpret it for themselves.

Why not do something subversive today and apply to study for a degree in biblical interpretation?

If you can, watch Melvin Bragg's film on William Tyndale. It's available on the BBC website for the next few days (though not sure if it can be accessed in every country).

Download my new book from Amazon Kindle...
... or buy a print copy (out 10 June).


Chris said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nev said...

Great article Calvin. I think the tension between Roman Catholic and Protestant models of interpretation is definitely one of the most difficult, all-time problems to solve and, while I am very very grateful that I have such easy access to the Bible myself, I'm less convinced than ever that the proliferation of 'interpretations' is ultimately beneficial.

Clarity of scripture is a wonderful ideal but in practice it seems impossible to achieve (as far as I can see). The 'four views' and 'counterpoints' series exposes this fact very well (there's even four views on the ending of Mark now!). Even the very basic things, such as atonement for example, attract several interpretations, all of which are ably defended from the bible by sincere and devout Christian truth-seekers.

I mean, where is it all going to end? How many interpretations and traditions of interpretation can the church and the world bear? Will it ever lead to a true unity among Christians? As far as I can see Christians are more divided than ever. Some, like many Pentecostals seem to just make stuff up as they go, while others, such as NI Baptists are quite Pharisaical, almost a cult!

Chris said...

Hi Calvin, thank you for a great article, looking forward to reading the new edition of 'The Jews, Modern Israel and the New Supersessionism'.

Calvin L. Smith said...

Thanks Chris.

Nev, you make some good points. Understand that when I refer to the "democratisation" of biblical interpretation I am not endorsing a postmodern, pluralist reader-response free-for-all. I believe Christians can discover, for the most part, authorial intent and thus challenge fanciful interpretations. I also accept that elites (people with degrees in theology and biblical studies - welcome on board!) will always have a greater insight than everyday Christians who have not studied to secure these skills (otherwise why go to Bible school?). Nonetheless, the democratisation means interpretation is not the special preserve of elites, that's my point.

Nev said...

Thanks for the clarification Calvin, that's very helpful.

Since my original posting I've mulled over again what I wrote and, you are right, it is very important for everyone to have easy and full access to the Bible for themselves, and thus to be able to challenge fanciful interpretations.

And, by citing the 'four views' example I wasn't suggesting an 'anything goes' approach to interpretation. I do just wonder, though, given that denominational/traditional positions now appear so firmly entrenched, how will it all work out in the end? Are we stuck defending our respective corners awaiting a final adjudication from on high in the eschaton? Or is there some way past the impasse? A way to get Christians of different traditions to learn from one another and to develop more harmonious interpretations? Is that something worth striving for do you think?

Calvin L. Smith said...

"I do just wonder, though, given that denominational/ traditional positions now appear so firmly entrenched, how will it all work out in the end? Are we stuck defending our respective corners awaiting a final adjudication from on high...?"

You see, I believe challenging some of these entrenched positions is what the democratisation of hermeneutics allows for (and why, five centuries after Tyndale, still makes reading - and interpreting - the Bible subversive).

Andrew Sibley said...

Calvin - Nev makes a good point, how do we stop the Reformation developing an 'anything goes' approach to biblical interpretation? There has to be some accountability, or the church will fragment until there is nothing left of it - which surely instead calls for submission to God and away from subversion. The Reformers did not reject Augustine's way of reading scripture even as they challenged the authority of Rome - seeing symbolic references to Jesus throughout the OT - as did the New Testament authors.

Nev said...

There's no doubt studying hermeneutics inculcates a greater sensitivity and humility in the interpreter. Which certainly occasions empathy towards those holding differing interpretations, and makes for more openness and willingness to listen to the other and to seek the good in what they say.

However, such an attitude may be seen by some as 'going soft', as blunting the sharp edge of criticism of bad theologies. Truly, it's difficult to strike the balance just right.