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Leaving the Lights On
by Joost Nixon
It is ironic that those who so love the Reformation might—out of love for it—ignore some of the very principles the Reformation most loved. With the 500th year anniversary of the publication of Erasmus’ Greek New Testament upon us, it seems fitting for us to return to the three of the famous fighting slogans of the Reformation.
The first Reformation slogan I’d like to highlight is “Ad fontes,” or, “back to the sources.” Ad fontes emphasized the value of primary sources. The reasoning went, ‘Why just read books discussing the great authors when you can read the authors themselves.’ But there were some obstacles to going “back to the sources.” First, to gain direct access to Plato and Paul, one must learn Greek. With humanism’s emphasis on teaching Latin and Greek, more students were able to read Romans in the original. But the second problem was getting access to Greek manuscripts. The Greek New Testament was simply not available. Scholars had to track down individual manuscripts piecemeal, and it was not cheap. Here, we tip our hats to the single-mindedness of one Desiderius Erasmus. In a letter to Jacob Batt in 1500, Erasmus writes,
“I have turned my entire attention to Greek. The first thing I shall do, as soon as the money arrives, is to buy some Greek authors; after that, I shall buy clothes.”
We can be thankful for Erasmus’ willingness to buy his clothes off the racks at the Salvation Army, because sixteen years later he published an entire Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. Now scholars not only had the ability to read the Greek New Testament, but they had the manuscripts to read. Peace-loving Erasmus did not know it at the time, but the publication of the Greek New Testament exactly five hundred years ago upended the church. It shined a great light in the midst of darkness, and led to translations of the New Testament in German and English and other languages. The cry, “Ad fontes!” had led God’s people back to the Scriptures.
As students applied themselves to study the Bible, they began marking the chasm between some teachings of the church, and those of Scripture. Luther famously championed the phrase “Sola Scriptura.” He argued the church’s authority was genuine, but fallible. The one infallible authority was “Scripture alone.” Though Erasmus was instrumental in handing us the Greek NT, his commitment to the Bible’s authority was as wobbly as a Wildebeest calf dancing on a sheet of oiled glass. Well, maybe not quite that wobbly. But we can see how tenuous it was by simply reading Luther’s interaction with Erasmus on the subject in his Bondage of the Will. Erasmus could be justly critical of the church, but only until the conflict disrupted his peace. Ultimately when the pressure was on, Erasmus caved by claiming the Bible was unclear and thus we need the church to interpret it for us. Most followed Luther over Erasmus, and in bringing readers into direct contact with the infallible Word, the light blazed.
One final Reformation saying needs emphasis, and it is “Post tenebras lux,” (“After darkness, light”). Mangle the Latin pronunciation if you must, but please don’t mess up the attitude. Post tenebras lux calls for joy like a hot dog calls for mustard (don’t quibble, mustard haters!). We’ve lived in the light for centuries. But imagine yourself stuffed in a mine-shaft, despairing. Lost. Imagine yourself there for a long time, with a mile of dirt between you and sunshine. And a long way off a tiny suggestion of light appears. It grows from suggestion to certainty, and you are led slowly up to sky and sun. Can you feel that relief? Can you feel that joy? That thankfulness? That hope? Now you are ready to say Post tenebras lux!
And now that the lights are on, how do we keep them burning brightly? Years ago a time-gnarled pastor preached to a crop of unseasoned ministers about the need to distinguish between whole foods and supplements. We get our best nutrients right from our food. Vitamins and supplements are fine—but we cannot live on them. Scripture is our food, and books about Scripture are our supplements. We must always take in far more Scripture than books about Scripture. If we are thankful for what the Spirit has done in the Reformation, and if we want our children to live under the smile of the sun, then we must do what the Reformers did. Ad Fontes! Sola Scriptura!
Dr. Joost Nixon currently teaches the Veritas Press Omnibus 2 Primary Self-Paced course and is engaged in the work of training pastors in the developing church through Training Leaders International. He is the Academic Director of the upcoming Veritas Press Scholars Academy Reformation Tour through Germany in June, 2017.