Sola Scriptura … Sine Verbo? Where the Geneva Bible Lost the Word of God

I accept that Scripture – truly translated, that is – must be our source and arbiter of doctrine, if that is what is understood by ‘sola scriptura’. But if I were to rally around a slogan, it might be ‘Verbum prius’, or ‘the Word first’, by which I mean Him who is the Incarnate Word. For he not only gave us the writings that we call the Scriptures, but also gives himself in the Word faithfully spoken (in preaching or liturgy), in the Supper (where we partake of Him who is the Word), and so forth. For the Word is bigger than the writings. And no matter how the writings may be corrupted by men, he remains true.

The Geneva Puritans made ‘sola scriptura’ a rallying cry, but what I find interesting is that when they produced their version of the Scriptures in 1560, in the Geneva Bible, they removed the Word from many passages. Keep in mind that their Bible was a second revision of the 1537 Matthew Bible the first revision being the Great Bible. The Puritans said in their preface that “the former translations required greatly to be perused and reformed,” and they were the men to do it because they had “clear light.” Also, they would be more literal, because literalism was more “reverent.”[*] Below are three of their “reverent reformations”:

1 Corinthians 13:12 – We see in a dark speaking

♦ 1537 Matthew Bible: Now we see in a glass, even in a dark speaking.
♦ 1560 and 1599 Geneva Bible: For now we see through a glass darkly.

(1) ‘Dark speaking’ is a noun phrase that translates the Greek noun ‘ainigma’; that is, ‘enigma’ or (Strong) ‘obscure saying’. This refers to God’s Word, which is mysterious, but in which we seek understanding.
(2) Tyndale put noun-for-noun. The Geneva revisers put adverb-for-noun, with ‘darkly’. So much for reverent literalism.
(3) The sola scriptura men removed the word as the place  in which we look.

Psalm 23:1-2 – He feeds us in a green pasture

♦ 1537 Matthew Bible: The Lord is my shepherd; I can want nothing. He feedeth me in a green pasture, and leadeth me to a fresh water.
(MB note: This fresh water is the healthful water of the Word of God.)
♦ 1560 and 1599 Geneva: The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to rest in green pasture, and leadeth me by the still waters.
Geneva note: He hath care over me and ministreth to me all things.)

(1) All reference to feeding and the Word is removed in the Geneva Bible, though the early Reformers (and in part St. Augustine) considered this Psalm to be about the Word as our pasture, water, oil, and table set before us in the presence of our enemies.
(2) The Puritans also removed eternal life from verse 6. The MB had, “that I may dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” The Geneva Bible put, “I shall remain a long season in the house of the Lord.”
(3) The sola scriptura men removed the word as our food and refreshment.

1 Peter 1:13- Trust on the grace brought when Christ is declared

♦ 1537 Matthew Bible: Trust perfectly on the grace that is brought unto you by the declaring of Jesus Christ.

♦ 1599 Geneva: Trust perfectly on the grace that is brought unto you, in the revelation of Jesus Christ.
(Geneva note 3: He setteth forth very briefly, what manner of hope ours ought to be, to wit, continual, until we enjoy the thing we hope for: then, what we have to hope for, to wit, grace (that is, free salvation) revealed to us in the gospel, and not that, that men do rashly and fondly promise to themselves.)
(Geneva note 6: He setteth out the end of faith, lest any man should promise himself, either sooner or later that full salvation, to wit, the later coming of Christ: and therewithal warneth us, not to measure the dignity of the gospel according to the present state, seeing that that which we are now, is not yet revealed.)

(1) The Puritans reinterpreted 1 Peter 1:13 and referred it to the second coming. Among other problems, including semantic mumbo-jumbo, they conflate the first and second comings, and turn the second coming into the time of grace. This ignores and suppresses all the significance of the Incarnation: Jesus’ first coming to us – God taking flesh upon himself to suffer and die for our redemption – has brought to us who dwell upon the earth the very time of grace prophesied by the prophets. It inaugurated the New Covenant. It changed everything, and now God has poured out his Spirit upon all flesh: “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us … full of grace and truth” (Joh 1:14), and, “The grace of God that brings salvation to all men has appeared” (Tit 2:11). For Jesus has appeared in the flesh. But what do the Geneva commentators say? They tell us “not to measure the dignity of the gospel according to the present state, seeing that that which we are now, is not yet revealed.” This is their reverent teaching?
(2) The grace we must trust on is brought to us when Christ is ‘declared’. This old English word carried the senses of speaking and showing forth. When Christ is declared, he is revealed: faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word (Ro 10:17). This is the power of God unto salvation (Ro 1:16), by which we are raised up in the resurrection life of the Lord. This is supreme and excellent grace.
(3) The Puritans removed the word as the means of grace and salvation. They made the second coming the means of grace and salvation.


Why did the Puritans make these changes? Why did they exalt their Scriptures, but at the same time knowingly take away teachings that would turn us to the Scriptures, and which teach about the Word? I say “knowingly” because they had the earlier versions at hand, and anyway, they proclaimed themselves learned and wise to amend and correct the English translations.

I think I know what happened, but I need space to tell about it. God willing, this I will do in the upcoming Story of the Matthew Bible. Please subscribe for updates on this website if you are interested. I send mailouts to my subscribers 2 – 5 times a year at most.

© Ruth Magnusson Davis, August 2017.


[*] See the preface to the 1560 Geneva Bible, also apparently included in the Tolle Lege edition of the 1599 Geneva Bible.


4 thoughts on “Sola Scriptura … Sine Verbo? Where the Geneva Bible Lost the Word of God

  1. Very informative. This is what i was looking for. Could you please add me to your list so i can follow the updates. Also, please let me know how i can get the october testament. Thank you.

  2. This is MOST interesting. I’ve read that the term “ten commandments” made its first appearance in the Geneva Bible, which fits right in with the Puritans’ view on the Mosaic Law’s role in the New Covenant saint.

    • I’m not sure what you mean Manfred… ? But the term Ten Commandments was in the first English Bibles, ie before the Geneva Bible. Thank you for your comment.

  3. Very Interesting. Since I stick to the earlier version of the Bible, I didn’t know this. Explains a lot of what the “modern church”—if that is the correct description—is doing by changing not just the services, but the meanings of statements in the Bible, ‘by light of current moral standards (what standards?) and contemporary customs.’ I’d like to be added to your updates Ruth.

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