The Bible and Protestantism

One of the most enduring descriptions of Protestantism comes from the English theologian William Chillingworth (1602-44). In his The Religion of Protestants the Safe Way to Salvation (1637), he famously declared that "the Bible, the Bible alone, is the religion of Protestants." This is perhaps one of the most familiar statements of one of the slogans that emerged from the early Reformation and is characteristic of Protestantism as a whole—the Latin phrase sola Scriptura ("by Scripture alone").1 At its heart, Protestantism represents a constant return to the Bible to revalidate and where necessary restate its beliefs and values, refusing to allow any one generation or individual to determine what is definitive for Protestantism as a whole.2

This might suggest that Protestantism is a text-centered religion like Islam. It is important to appreciate from the outset that this idea can be misleading. There are indeed parallels between the two, particularly in relation to how texts are interpreted and the problems that arise through an absence of centralized authority figures and structures. While some very conservative Protestants do treat the Bible as if it were the Christian Qu'ran, the majority are clear that the Bible has a special place in the Christian life on account of its witness to Jesus Christ rather than its specific identity as a text. For Martin Luther, the purpose of scripture was to "inculcate Christ," who is the "mathematical point" of the Bible.

C H R I S T I A N I T Y S D A N G E R O U S I D E A

C H R I S T I A N I T Y S D A N G E R O U S I D E A

Martin Luther Bible Images

Title page to the New Testament, from the King James Bible. London: Robert Barker, 1611.

The real contrast is thus actually between the Qu'ran and Jesus Christ, not the Qu'ran and the Bible. When the first generation of Protestants spoke of the "authority of the Bible," this was to be understood as "the authority of the risen Christ, mediated and expressed through the Bible."3

Protestantism shares with other forms of Christianity an emphasis and focus upon the historical figure who stands at its center—Jesus Christ. As Stephen Charles Neill, a Protestant missionary-scholar with vast firsthand experience and knowledge of the religions of India and Africa, once commented, "The historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth is the criterion by which every Christian affirmation has to be judged, and in the light of which it stands or falls."4 For Protestantism, Christ is both the focus and foundation of the Bible.

Precisely because Jesus Christ stands at the heart of the Christian faith, Protestants argue, so must the Bible. There is the most intimate interconnection between the Bible and Christ in the Protestant tradition. The Bible is the means by which Christ is displayed, proclaimed, and manifested. Why read scripture? For Calvin, the answer was as clear as it was simple: because by doing so we come "to know Jesus Christ truly, and the infinite riches which are included in him and are offered to us by God the Father." Karl Barth, widely regarded as Protestantism's greatest theologian of the twentieth century, made much the same point: "From first to last, the Bible directs us to the name ofJesus Christ."5

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