The Reformation and Danish Society: The Bible and the Word

There had been sermons in people’s native languages and translations of the Bible during the Middle Ages. But after the Reformation, Bible reading was given the highest priority. It was no longer the Pope and priests of the old church who had a monopoly on its correct interpretation. The ideal was that everyone should have access to the word of God, and be able to receive and understand it themselves. The reformers were passionate about spreading the word of the Bible, but they also wanted to make sure that it was the right, Protestant understanding that gained ground. New translations and new interpretations were disseminated using the new technology of the printing press. Hundreds or thousands of identical copies of the same text could now be printed in a short period of time. It has been claimed that without the printing press there would have been no Reformation.

The first Danish translation of the Bible authorised by church and state was published in 1550. Hymnbooks and other approved publications that conveyed the word of God – in a Lutheran way – were also supported, whereas ‘harmful’ books were censored. Luther’s Small Catechism was the most important book. It was seen as the layperson’s Bible, i.e. as a manual for the correct understanding of the Bible. The word of God was not only to be read, it was first and foremost to be preached from the pulpits of Denmark. Pastors were to be better educated, and during their visitations to local parishes bishops were to check that sermons were suitable and clear.

The world of the Bible was also present in people’s homes, where people knew the stories of the Old and New Testaments. Proverbs and quotes from the Bible were part of everyday speech, and have left many traces in the Danish language. During the 1500s actual Bible reading only took place in more prosperous homes, but during the 1600s and 1700s - as literacy became more widespread and Bibles became cheaper - far more people had access to the Bible.

The pietists of the 1700s campaigned for everyone to be able to read and understand the Bible itself – although still with Luther’s catechism as a manual for its correct interpretation. Not until the religious revivals of the 1800s did independent Bible interpretation become a possibility for many. At the same time, the 1700s and 1800s were a period when critiques of the Bible based on science developed. It was also during this period that scientific studies of nature independent of the Bible emerged.

Many different views of the Bible have existed up until the present day. In more fundamentalist readings, the word of the Bible provides the foundation for how the world was created and precise instructions on how to live. This kind of interpretation was more common in the past, but can still be heard when, for example, the Bible is used to argue against the inauguration of women pastors in Denmark. In the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Denmark interpretations are generally more open, with an emphasis on ‘the living word’ rather than the dead letter. Grundtvig was a strong advocate of this view of the Bible. Today most Danes view the Bible as a historical and literary text of both religious and cultural historical significance.   

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