Vernacular Translations

In the sixteenth century, however, it was only the many Anabaptist communities who most radically caught Erasmus’s vision to disempower the structures of catholic Christianity – both Protestant as well as Roman – by means of vernacular translations of the Bible.  Against hierarchy and creed, these free church traditions were keen to replace received dogmatic and ecclesiastical consensus with a religion by democratic consensus.  In seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England, this simple Erasmian Christianity resulted in the emergence of various nonconformist, antitrinitarian groups – Socinians, Sabellians, and Unitarians – and, eventually, Deism.  All of these developments were, in one way or another, the result of putting the Bible into the hands of the common man without reference to how the Church had interpreted her sacred text.

The magisterial Reformers advocated a different strategy.  While they agreed with Erasmus that the Bible should be translated into the vernacular, they never assumed it would be studied outside the ecclesiastical context, that is, outside of the catholic dogmatic consensus which all Protestants retained while rejecting the unbiblical accretions of Romanism developed during the Middle Ages.  Hence, Luther produced the Small Catechism, the Large Catechism, and the Lutheran Church, as a whole, produced the confessional standard The Book of Concord.  Calvin, in Switzerland, produced the Geneva Catechism (1541) and, in Germany, Hungary, Belgium, and the Netherlands, the Reformed produced the Heidelberg Catechism (1563).  In England, the Presbyterians produced the Westminster Standards.  Finally, the Reformed Anglicans had their matchless Prayer Book and the Thirty-Nine Articles, the twentieth of which recognized the Church as “the witness and keeper of Holy Writ.”

Each Protestant community had its own confessional standards, all of which assumed the validity of the orthodox standards of the ancient Catholic Church…

Therefore, the study of the Bible was always prefigured, in confessional Protestant traditions, by the received orthodoxy contained in the catechisms, creeds, and confessions.

From: The Ecclesiastical Text: Text Criticism, Biblical Authority, and the Popular Mind by Theodore P. Letis (Philadelphia: The Institute for Renaissance and Reformation Biblical Studies, 1997), pp. 134-135.

Theodore P. Letis (1951-2005) was director of the above-named institute.  He was also the author of The Majority Text: Essays and Reviews in the Continuing Debate (1987), and A New Hearing for the Authorized Version.