“Secrets of the Dead,” viewed on the Public Broadcast System, investigates critical events of bygone generations bringing to light exactly how history evolved into the world of today.
A recent presentation featured the introduction of the English Bible into the British Isles, tracing the extensive influence the early translations by William Tyndale and John Wycliffe have had up to the present day. The PBS program clearly made heroes out of Tyndale and Wycliffe who liberally placed Bibles in English hands. It also made scoundrels out of the medieval Catholic clergy who alone had the power to confect the Eucharist, seeming to keep the people at arm’s length from God. The handy Bible versus the exclusive sacrament was a constant theme of the show.
The Holy Eucharist certainly depends on the mediation of a priest, as Secrets of the Dead made clear. The priest, in Catholic eyes, continues the unique bridge-building ministry of Jesus Christ, the sole mediator between God and man. Perhaps with some sad justification, Wycliffe and Tyndale viewed the priesthood and the priest as a barrier between God and man. Even a little bit of knowledge about the Protestant Reformation reveals that the diocesan clergy often were obstacles to faith rather than channels of grace. Poorly educated priests, poorly spoken priests, high-living priests, low-living priests — the faithful of the later Middle Ages did have some legitimate gripes.
But instead of renewing the priesthood as St. Charles Borromeo and St. Ignatius Loyola did, Tyndale and Wycliffe eliminated the priesthood and disseminated their new and heartfelt translations of the English Bible to the parishioners of Britain. Now every man and every woman could be his or her own priest. There was no longer need for priestly mediation, nor for an episcopal hierarchy, nor for ordained clergy at all. Access to God was readily available through God’s written Word, the Sacred Scriptures, the Holy English Bible handily kept on one’s bedside table.
The inventing of the printing press and the general religious unrest of the era made these hand held bibles very popular. The handy Bible became for Protestants what prayer books and missals were for Catholics. They afforded quiet and practical admission to the presence of God. The Bible is, after all, the Word of God. The reformers argued that it need not be filtered through Church teaching or papal decree or episcopal definition or rude sermon. In the Bible, God speaks directly to the heart. No man standing apart in vestments mumbling in Latin is required. The individual conscience, not the hierarchical Church, became the arena of salvation.
The Protestant believer discovering God for him or herself in the Bible was then accurately traced by PBS through the burgeoning of Protestant sects which swelled as charismatic preachers like John Knox, Charles Wesley and John Smyth engendered Presbyterianism and Methodism and the Baptists and on and on. PBS’ multiplying pictures of the abundant founders of Protestant sects on the TV screen was visually clever. But the program also vividly exposed the Achilles’ heel of Protestantism. The Word of God was never intended to become chiefly a handheld book for private meditation. The Sacred Scriptures are meant to be proclaimed in the midst of the assembly, to be understood in the context of the assembly’s traditions, to be interpreted and appreciated in the whole context of what it means to be a follower of Christ.
The Bible, the creeds, the sacraments, the priestly offices of the baptized and the ordained, the example of the saints — these are all part of a package called Christianity. The Bible, with all due respect, cannot be properly grasped apart from the entire context of what it means to be Church.
The Bible does not compete with the Eucharist. The Bible should be employed along with the Eucharist as a “lens,” to use Pope Benedict’s happy metaphor, through which the breadth of revelation will be fully perceived. The Eucharist celebrates in sign what the Bible illustrates in word. To oppose the two, as some eager reformers did, or to neglect either, as some Catholic clergy might have done, is to deprive the believing community of the fullness of Christian tradition. Both word and sacrament are integral to the full Gospel message.