With his final breath, William Whitaker told those with him, “I desire not to live, but only so far as I may do God and his Church service.”
William Whitaker died after a short illness at age 47, yet he had already served the church in significant ways as a professor at Cambridge. Moreover, no one could have anticipated the impact of his life and scholarship over the subsequent century.
In the first blog post in this series, I introduced William Whitaker, noting his rise as a scholar and churchman at the University of Cambridge. In the second post, we looked in more depth at his arguments for Bible translation. Whitaker presented six arguments in defense of Bible translation, building on the importance of reading and studying the Scriptures in one’s own language.In this final installment, we will consider Whitaker’s legacy, especially as seen in the Westminster Confession.
William Whitaker and His Scholarship
William Whitaker was born near Burnley, England, in 1547, a year after the death of Henry VIII. In 1563, Whitaker enrolled at Trinity College, Cambridge. He excelled in his studies and was eventually appointed Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge in 1580, at the age of 33. He served in this position until his untimely death at age 47 due to illness.
Whitaker was a well-respected scholar and churchman. He published several books, including his most well-known, A Disputation on Holy Scripture, Against the Papists, Especially Bellarmine and Stapleton, referred to simply as A Disputation on Holy Scripture.
In his classic work, Whitaker defends the Reformed positions on Scripture, especially rebutting the Roman Catholic arguments set forth after the Council of Trent. Whitaker devoted a significant portion of his work to the topic of translation.
Whitaker’s Influence on the Doctrine of the Word
During the first decades of the Protestant Reformation, the reformers set forth several views about the Word of God, especially arguing for the authority of Scripture over the church. Many of the reformers were involved in translation work; however, they did not focus on the theological underpinning for Bible translation as part of these theological discussions.
After the Council of Trent, though, the Roman Catholic Church took a firm position again the reading of Scripture by the laity, reserving the privilege for the clergy. Furthermore, they argued that Scripture could be translated, but they contended that translations had no practical benefit for the laity and should be undertaken with extreme caution.
One of the earliest theologians to address translation in the context of a systematic treatment of theology was Theodore Beza. Beza taught theology alongside John Calvin in Geneva, Switzerland, and eventually became Calvin’s successor. Beza’s lectures on systematic theology were collected and published in 1591 as Propositions and principles of diuinitie propounded and disputed in the vniuersitie of Geneua.
In his discussion of the doctrines of the Word, Beza defended the Protestant position that everyone should read the Scriptures. He then notes that the Scriptures in the biblical languages are not accessible to those without advanced studies, and, as a result, it is necessary to translate the Scriptures into the languages of all Christian peoples.
Around this same period, the theologian Girolamo Zanchi was lecturing in theology in Strasbourg and Heidelberg. In 1585, he published a systematic theology, entitled Confession of the Christian Religion, that included a brief note on Bible translation.
Like the other Reformers, he affirmed the importance of all believers reading the Scriptures. He then remarked that God always spoke in the language of those He was addressing because He intended for His audience to understand. He then inferred that God wanted the Scriptures translated into the languages of every nation so that everyone could read, understand, and find salvation.
While Beza and Zanchi were lecturing and writing on the Continent, Whitaker was starting his studies at the University of Cambridge. When he published Disputation on Holy Scripture in 1588, he was, no doubt, aware of these scholars and their writings.
Like them, Whitaker argued for translation based on the command for believers to read the Scriptures. However, he significantly expanded and supported from Scripture the argument for translation based on the mandate to read. He then developed additional arguments as outlined in our previous blog post.
In the decades following Whitaker, the topic of translation began to appear in theological works in England. For instance, in 1622, John Yates noted in his systematic theology, A Modell of Divinitie, that translations are to be received and used for private and public reading.
Similarly, in 1623, William Ames affirmed that translations should be made available for the general use of the church in his theological work, The Marrow of Sacred Divinity.
Another influential theologian and church leader, James Ussher, included a statement that the Scriptures should be translated in his Body of Divinity, published in 1645.
Whitaker’s defense of Bible translation led to the most developed statement on the place and importance of translation in the theology of the Word. However, Whitakers contributions would probably have been largely forgotten if it were not for the next development.
Whitaker’s Influence on the Irish Articles and Westminster Confession
When Whitaker set forth his classic defense of Scripture in 1588, he presented the most comprehensive argument for the translation of the Scriptures to that date.
At that time, the primary statement on the beliefs and practices of the Church of England was known as the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion. These articles presented the Reformed view on Scripture but said nothing about translation.
In 1615, church leaders in Ireland met in Dublin to draft their own articles. Bishop James Ussher published the resulting Irish Articles of Religion. One noteworthy development in these articles is the first explicit statement on Bible translation.
In section 4, it states: “The Scriptures ought to be translated out of the original tongues into all languages for the common use of all men…”
The statement does not offer any Scriptural arguments in favor of translation but does affirm the importance of reading the Scriptures with comprehension. It proceeds, “…neither is any person to be discouraged from reading the Bible in such a language as he doth understand, but seriously exhorted to read the same with great humility and reverence, as a special means to bring him to the true knowledge of God and of his own duty.”
In 1643, the Parliament in England called for an assembly of church leaders to meet and address various issues related to the Church of England. These meetings culminated in the Westminster Confession in 1646.
Like the Irish Articles, the Westminster Confession affirmed the importance of Bible translation. However, the Westminster divines drew on the wording and argumentation of William Whitaker.
In Chapter 1, section 8, it states that the people of God are commanded to “read and search” the Scriptures and, consequently, the Scriptures are to be translated. This rationale for translation comes directly from Whitaker’s argument for translation based on the scriptural mandate for all God’s people to read the Scriptures and specifically Christ’s statement to “search the Scriptures” from John 5:39.
The confession continues by noting that believers have hope through the patience and comfort they receive from the Word in their own language, citing Romans 15:4. This argument follows Whitaker’s concluding point to his first argument, where he cites Romans 15:4 to note that without the Scriptures there is no hope since comfort and patience come from the Word.
In the same section, the Westminster Confession also started that Christians have an “interest in” the Scriptures, referring to a spiritual benefit from being able to read and live according to them. This rationale follows closely with Whitaker’s second argument for translation which focuses on the benefit of the Scriptures in resisting temptation.
It is also noteworthy that the Westminster divines drew on Beza’s argument that those without access to the biblical languages should have a translation in their own language. They stated that the people of God have a right to the Scriptures, yet they do not know the original languages; hence, the Scriptures are to be translated.
The reasoning for translation set forth in the Westminster Confession reveals the influence of Whitaker’s arguments laid out many decades earlier. Moreover, the affirmation of Bible translation in these two confessions shows how firmly the leaders of the church believed in the importance of translating the Bible.
The unique commitment of the Church of England to translation is underscored by the fact that these confessions were the only ones of the Reformation era to affirm Bible translation.
William Whitaker lived during a tumultuous time in English history. During the first twelve years of his life, the English Reformation was overturned and then reinstated. The English Bible was, at various time, freely available and condemned. Thousands fled England during the reign of Queen Mary I, including Whitaker’s uncle.
With these events shaping Whitaker’s life, it is not surprising that he defended the truths of Scripture and the place of the Word in the church with such commitment.
Whitaker would probably never have imagined that subsequent generations of church leaders would value translation so highly and seek to guard it so securely that they would affirm it in their confessions.
Nor would he have imagined that generations of pastors and missionaries would devote themselves to translation, affirming and living out their belief that the Bible should be translated for every language and read by every believer.
Nor would he have envisioned a day when every English-speaking Christian who wanted a Bible could have one, with the Bible in English being the most widely disseminated and read book in history.
And we should not image that the Bible will continue to be loved, read, and translated without faithful servants of the Word like William Whitaker to defend it.
In our own generation, we need to affirm and defend our beliefs about God’s Word. And Whitaker’s arguments are just as forceful today as when he first penned them.
Let us remember the words of Whitaker, that we have a cause good, firm, and invincible. May we seek to serve our Lord and His church until our own final breath.