The development of vernacular languages and the invention of printing put the Bible for the first time in the hands of ordinary laymen. The Protestant Reformation increased the availability of scripture to all believers. The resulting proliferation of interpretations dismayed Luther and Calvin as well as the old Church authorities. The reaction of the religious establishment to the wide use and diverse interpretations of the Bible caused a century of turmoil and violence (See CHAPTER SEVEN)
In England this instability reached its crisis in the l7th Century Civil War with the beheading of Charles I and the establishment of a commonwealth under non-Conformist direction. For a few brief years government censorship of printing stopped, which led to an explosion of spiritual creativity, largely inspired by non-Conformist biblical interpretations.
The fascinating story of the radical groups active in the years l640-50 is vividly and ably recounted by Christopher Hill in A World Turned Upside Down. His title is apt; the radical social, political, and spiritual ideas of the various religious groups shook the fabric of English society much as the New Testament church had turned the Roman world upside down.
Look at three of these radical ideas:
1. The Levellers and Diggers took the Hebrew doctrine of the Jubilee as biblical guidance for breaking up the land enclosures which had disinherited and made homeless thousands of English yeomen; Isaiah had also condemned the immoral amassing of real property to control wealth.
2. The New Light Quakers emphasized the direct creative relationship between man and God without intermediaries; all the Lord's people were prophets as Moses had wished.
3. The Ranters understood Paul's doctrine of justification by faith to signal the end of all laws. They gave a radical freedom to the believer to follow his conscience in every particular of conduct; their spiritual descendants are the modern anarchists A.L.Morton in The Everlasting Gospel claimed that Blake was the last and best of the Ranters.
People have called Blake many things; Northrup Frye called him a "Bible soaked Protestant". He descended from the line of English non-Conformists who refused to read the Bible in the establishment way and insisted on attaching their own interpretation to it.
(A good example of Blake's commentary on the Bible comes at the beginning of the little book of Thel:
Where might the golden bowl come from? Look here. What is Blake saying here? Can you find love in a golden bowl? To grasp this lesson you have to understand that Revelations is poetry and Thel is poetry, which means the Lord may give us a great variety of meanings of Revelations 5 and of Thel, and of how they relate to one another. Think about it. If you get an idea, a new vision, share it. That's the way we learn Blake-- and the Bible.
Continuing on a few lines we come to The Lilly of the valley? Well who might that be? Look at an old hymn :
Look again at the context: "and gentle hear the voice Of him that walketh in the garden in the evening time: The Lilly of the valley". Without question Blake speaks of the saviour, talking to our heroine and opening the spiritual and material realms to her. Blake has shared with us his vision of Christ-- one of many that came to him through his long life. Does he enrich our understanding of Christ? Yes, yes, I say.
Francis Bacon had written of a second scripture to which men might more fruitfully address their attention. Paine called it the Bible of Nature; writing his Age of Reason in the language of the common man he demolished the Hebrew Bible as a tissue of fabrications, which it certainly is to a reason confined to the five senses.
Since that time the Bible has remained a best seller, but used more often as an item of household furniture than as a book. In our day it has become unfashionable even for that purpose. But for Blake the Bible was the primary and continuous fountain for the ideas contained in his art.
He used it more liberally than any other student of the Bible I know. He consider it literature, and a source for creative ideas. The Bible was the chief intellectual source of all Blake's work, but he interpreted it unlike anyone else I know.