The sixteenth century rediscovery of the Bible, and the advent of the modern nation state

Posted by dianamuir on October 25, 2013

“It was in this small town (Wittenberg) that the Elector Frederick founded a university, which has since become known to all the world.  And it was in this university that the doctors began to sharpen their wits in matters of Holy Writ; they rejected the glossings and musings of interpreters and took the biblical writings to hand, preaching and writing thereof.  However, there soon arose a great tumult between them and those who did not follow their religion.  The abuses of several popes and bishops had contributed significantly to the rise of this unrest.  The originator of this reformed religion was Martin Luther, a doctor of Holy Scripture, who converted many to his opinions, learned and unlearned, princes and kings, bishops, priests and monks.  However the others, who are greater in number, hold fast to their glossings and musings and ingrained traditions, and out of this, discord has arisen, much blood has been shed, and any books have been written, and indeed on both sides.”

This succinct succinct description of the Reformation appears in the entry for Wittenberg in Sebastian Münster’s Cosmographia of 1544.   The translation is by C. Scott Dixon, who uses it to open his 2012 historiographical survey of scholarly work on the Reformation, Contesting the Reformation.   Dixon’s survey is at once readable and  erudite, covering the vast sea of scholarship on the social, political, cultural, and intellectual causes  of the Reformation.   Dixon’s decision to open with Münster is brilliant.   A better one-paragraph summary of the Reformation has never been written.

If contemporary historians of the Reformation have had a failing, it has been an inability to take that generation at its own word.   The Reformers said that their central objection was to the centrality of “glossings and musings and ingrained tradition,”  a state of affairs that the Reformers burned to replace with Holy Scripture.

In my article,  Biblical Nationalism and the Sixteenth Century State,   I show that taking them at their word reveals  that the  sudden shift from “glossings and musings” to a direct reading of scripture was powerful not only because scripture was suddenly available in the vernacular, but because full-text Bibles suddenly replaced the paraphrases of the fifteenth and earlier centuries.     Readers of full-text Bibles were exposed to narratives not visible in the paraphrases or veiled by “glossings and musings” that shaped – and often limited –  perception of the text.

One  aspect of the text first visible to sixteenth century Christians in the the new full text Bibles was the political history of Israel, as a nation that is created, unified, enters into a covenant with God, and achieves sovereignty.   Another is the idea of a world rightly divided into ‘kindreds, tongues, lands, and nations’, with each kindred, tongue and nation straitly commanded to occupy its own land and to respect the sovereignty of neighboring nations.

The new, Bible-reading, Protestant peoples of Europe, the English, Dutch, Swedes, Scots, Danes, Czechs, Hungarians, and the Puritans of New England, used read the Bible as their own history, understood themselves as heirs of the New Covenant, and attempted to behave so as to be worthy of their status as a chosen people.  (The Hapsburgs, of course, put an end to Portestantism as the dominant religion of Czech and  Hungarian lands.)

The new, Protestant peoples read the Bible as a political charter, establishing their right to national self-determination,  and leading directly to the idea that “The principle of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation.”



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