Problematizing the Reformation: Sola Scriptura and Cessation

By July 26, 2010

Desidrius Erasmus was the most learned man of his day and in the spirit of the Renaissance he sought to get back to the original sources of wisdom (often called Christian Humanism). For Erasmus this meant the Fathers over the Scholastics, Origin over Augustine and, of course, the Greek Bible (which he translated into Latin) over all. Said Erasmus (in a 16th century English translation) ?I wold to god they were translated in to the tonges of all men, so that they might not only be read and knowne of the scotes and yrishmen, but also of the Turkes and sarracenes ? I wold to god the plowman wold singe a texte of the scripture at his plowbeme.? [1]

This sentiment tends to be credited to William Tyndale the father of the English Bible: the phrase ?If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough, shall know more of the Scripture than thou dost!? has been quoted in conference five times. Yet while Tyndale was a Protestant, Erasmus remained Catholic. In fact, Tyndale soon found himself in a heated polemic with one of Erasmus?s closest associates, the Christian Humanist Thomas More. Central to their debate was the issue of miracles, which Tyndale essentially dismissed. But More, though skeptical of many claims, defended them as still possible.

Indeed, many of the staunchest promoters of the vernacular Bible, those who went so far to claim sola scriptura (“scripture only,” a basic Protestant tenet) were also the staunchest proponents of cessation, both miracles and revelation. Said Martin Luther, ?Now that the apostles have preached the Word and have given their writings, and nothing more than what they have written remains to be revealed, no new and special revelation or miracle is necessary.?[2] D. P. Walker points out that this was technically not the full cessation-of-miracles doctrine since Luther only says that miracles weren?t necessary, not that they weren?t possible. Walker attributes full cessation to John Calvin. However, Michael Heyd found this quote from Heinrich Bullinger, Calvin?s predecessor, in 1560, that Heyd calls the first claim to full cessation: ?For after the Christian faith had been sufficiently promulgated by the Apostles, and confirmed by miracles, signs ceased. Neither is there a cause for us today to complain about that cessation.?[3] Yet this quote from William Tyndale, who died in 1536, looks like cessation as well: ?When they cry, ?miracles, miracles,? remember that God hath made an everlasting testament with us in Christ?s blood against which we may receive no miracles.?[4] Thus the Father of the English Bible may also have been the Father of cessation.

Thus Tyndale would have been horrified by Joseph Smith and all his supernatural claims. No doubt Tyndale made a significant contribution to the Restoration but not one that he intended. Sola scriptura became a means of controlling religious authority, cutting out those with claims to revelations. As Martin Luther asserted in an attack on those claiming to be prophets, ?I definitely do not want the ?prophets? to be accepted if they state that they were called by mere revelation, since God did not even wish to speak to Samuel except through the authority and knowledge of Eli.? [5] Those making such claims, argues Heyd, constituted ?a serious challenge to mainstream Reformed theologians?the claim to possess absolute religious truth through direct divine inspiration. Such a claim represented a real threat both to the role and status of the ministers, and, more important, to the principle of sola scriptura, to Scripture as the exclusive source of religious truth.? [6].

The medieval church, though wary of revelation, technically accepted the notion. Explains Gwenfair Walters Adams, ?Visions could bring new revelation that would be made part of essential doctrines of the faith. Thus it was critical that the Church scrutinize and verify any visions that claimed to mediate new revelatory content? [7]. Adams cites the interesting case of Elizabeth Barton, called the Holy Maid of Kent, who the local English church authorities actually granted the recognition as an approved prophet during Henry VIII?s reign. This all changed when Barton denounced Henry?s divorce. A major debate ensued in which Bishop Fischer, a traditional Catholic cited Amos 3:7 in Barton?s support while William Tyndale said she was of the devil for advocating Mary.[8] Barton was eventually executed. In Adam?s words,

With the arrival of Sola Scriptura, which limited the foundation of divine revelation to the Scriptures, vision could no longer be regarded as determinative for dogma or prophecy?. The Dynamic of Mediated Revelation, which had undergirded the vision?s power had been narrowed to the point that it no longer included visions. Visions as a potent source of authority were fading and it would be some time before they would revive in a new, non-medieval form. Never again would a visionary worldview be the common heritage of the people of England ? Visions and visionaries would become rare. The hanging of Elizabeth Baron sounded the death knell of the late medieval English vision [9].

Kathryn Kirby-Fulton argues that in late medieval England, the more revelatory-minded individuals resented the Lollards (a heretical English movement prior to the Reformation that followed John Wycliffe and who promoted many Protestant ideas) because of their instance on sola scriptura. For the Lollards, sola scriptura proved predestination, which the revelatory individuals could not stomach. Kirby-Fulton, cites a Lollard text that complains that rich women weep too much over their dead children. They should know, argues that author, that if the children were elect they will go to bliss and if they are not ?it is mercy of God ? lest it lyve lengere, and so more synne.? Says, Kirby-Fulton, ?These I would suggest, are among the often overlooked draconian positions that must have contributed toward Wycliffism?s lack of broader appeal.? [10] Indeed, Erasmus rejected Lutheranism because of Luther?s denial of free will (based on his belief in predestination). ?I shall bear therefore with this Church until I shall see a better one,? was Eramus?s response to Luther. [11]

Again, I am not advocating a simple reversal (medieval Catholics would not have tolerated JS’s revelatory program) but want to highlight the complexity of the issues.

[1] Quoted in Margaret Aston, Faith and Fire: Popular and Unpopular Religion, 1350-1600 (London: Hambledon, 1993), 200.

[2] Martin Luther, Sermons on the Gospel of St. John in Luther?s Works, ed. Jarolav Pelikan (St. Louis: Concordia, 1961), 24:367.

[3] Quoted in Michael Heyd, ?Be Sober and Reasonable?: The Critique of Enthusiasm in the Seventeenth and Early Eighteenth Centuries (Leiden: Brill, 1995), 30.

[4] Quoted in Ethan H. Shagan, Popular Politics and the English Reformation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 80.

[5] Quoted in Heyd, “Be Sober and Reasonable,” 27.

[6] Ibid., 22.

[7] Gwenfair Walters Adams, Visions in Late Medieval England: Lay Spirituality and Sacred Glimpses of the Hidden World of Faith (Leiden: Brill, 2007), 165.

[8] Ibid., 200-1.

[9] Ibid., 204.

[10] Kathryn Kerby-Fulton, Books under Suspicion: Censorship and Tolerance of Revelatory Writing in Late Medieval England (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006), 391.

[11] Quoted in George Hutston Williams, The Radical Reformation (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1962), 11.

Article filed under Christian History


  1. Good reminder. I am slowly coming to believe that anti-Protestantism is crucial to understanding the religious claims of earliest Mormonism.

    Comment by smb — July 26, 2010 @ 10:56 pm

  2. Good stuff Steve. Thanks.

    Comment by WVS — July 26, 2010 @ 11:28 pm

  3. Perhaps some of the anti-Mormonism among Protestants in the 1800s was driven by some of the same religious intellectual forces that drove anti-Catholicism among Protestants in America. BTW, Erasmus is sort of a hero for me–I love his reply to Luther that you quoted above.

    Comment by DavidH — July 27, 2010 @ 12:33 am

  4. Very nice, Steve. One thing that stands out to me is that sola scriptura was aimed at Catholicism, while cessation was aimed at the Anabaptists and other radical movements. For that reason, the two teachings don’t appear simultaneously. I don’t think Luther, for example, really comes out against revelation until he’s forced to ward off competition on his left flank in the 1520s. The works with the most clearly prophetic claims that I know of in the early Reformation, from Melchior Hoffmann and Ursula Jost, are very much located in the Radical wing.

    An interesting wrinkle is that even for Luther and his colleagues, revelation and vision had their polemical uses (but as something you printed, not as something you received). Luther wrote prefaces for new editions of Lichtenberger and Bruder Claus, and Andreas Osiander did the same for a tract attributed to Hildegard of Bingen and the Vaticinia de summis Pontificibus.

    Comment by Jonathan Green — July 27, 2010 @ 11:30 am

  5. Well, if the founding fathers were able to resolve their concerns about deism, I’m sure we can still expect the best from Wm. Tyndale. 😉

    Comment by Wilford Woodruff — July 27, 2010 @ 1:10 pm

  6. Jonathan, right, Michael Heyd argues that cessation of revelation was directed at the radicals. However, cessation of miracles was generally directed at Catholics; I’m pretty sure that Tyndale’s quote about no more miracles was against Catholics.

    Heyd also notes that sola scriptura was used to argue for cessation of revelation: if the scriptures were perfect and complete then no more revelation was needed.

    That’s interesting about Luther publishing those works. Hildegard did have some prophecies that sounded like foretelling the Reformation: that the church was corrupt and the lay leaders would take it over to reform it (or something).

    Pres. Woodruff, I know your being facetious, but that is a good point. Not everyone has to be a good proto-Mormon in order to have made important contributions.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — July 27, 2010 @ 3:55 pm

  7. I am not familiar enough with the older materials, but in the 17th and 18th century in England, it seems like there is a lot of the cessationist rhetoric aimed at the Catholics (e.g., critiques of exorcism accounts).

    Thanks for the post, Steve. It seems to me that cessationism is the big counterpoint to early Mormonism. More so than just about anything.

    Comment by J. Stapley — July 27, 2010 @ 8:09 pm

  8. way to throw a wrench in things, steve.

    Comment by g.wesley — July 28, 2010 @ 10:47 am

  9. Nicely done, I enjoy people exploring the fact that there may be more nuance than we expect.

    It is also interesting to see how hardened positions like this were, even through to 1980 or so and how common it is now to read, hear and see people who feel inspiration and revelation in the individual life is important.

    From twelve step programs to television evangelists, there is a constant stream of expressed, public belief in personal revelation of the sort that major Churches would have rejected in the 1950s.

    Comment by Stephen M (Ethesis) — July 30, 2010 @ 5:57 am

  10. […] that the English Reformation was kicked off with the execution of its last major female prophet, Elizabeth Barton. Barton (the Holy Maid of Kent) was a church-approved visionary, but when she denounced […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Women and Revelation in Christian History — March 31, 2011 @ 1:51 pm


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