Interpretation


Tonight we conclude our studies with one more of the controversial aspects of our understanding of the Bible. We began the series by taking in turn features of Christianity’s understanding of the Bible that have not been controversial, at least during most of her history and at least in the believing church: the Bible is the Word of God written; it possesses an absolute authority over our thought and life, it is without error, and, at least uncontroversial in Protestant Christianity, our confidence in its divine character is based upon the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit. That is, our confidence in the Bible is part and parcel of our coming to faith in Christ who speaks to us in the Bible. Then we proceeded to matters about which there has been less unanimity: the unity of the Bible, its canonicity, and, last Lord’s Day evening, its text. Tonight we come to the question of the Bible’s interpretation. It is a large subject with many parts but I want particularly to attend to the question of whether or not, or to what extent it may be said that there is an interpretation, an understanding of the Bible that comes with an authority to which all Christians are obliged to submit.

This question comes white hot out of the experience of the Christian ages. From the very beginning of the new epoch (as, of course, had been the case in the ancient epoch) believers began to disagree with one another about what the Bible taught and what it required. Most of the controversies that we are familiar with in modern Western Christianity surfaced in some form in patristic Christianity. That is proof, if we needed proof, that these differences of interpretation are virtually inevitable; they keep cropping up in different times and places, as it were, by clockwork. They are, that is, rooted in our limitations and weaknesses as human beings. By the late 2nd century the Montanists had introduced a form of the faith we would nowadays call charismatic or Pentecostal Christianity. Soon thereafter there were Calvinists and Arminians as well, though in those days they were known by other names. There were fundamentalists and evangelicals, separatists and ecumenists, Baptists and paedobaptists, rigorists on divorce and remarriage and advocates of more tolerant views. There were, of course, also varieties as well of what we are accustomed nowadays to call the liberal/conservative divide. And all of these Christians appealed to the Bible in support of their various views and practices. How was a new Christian to know what he or she was to believe when Christians differed among themselves?

It is precisely this welter of opinions – all supposedly based on the teaching of the Bible – that has through the centuries been the appeal of the Roman Catholic Church’s position that the church, by which is meant of course the Roman Church, or at least its teaching office, the magisterium, alone has the authority to declare what the Bible teaches. It was to prevent private Christians from reaching their own conclusions about the Bible’s teaching that the Roman church for centuries discouraged Christians even from reading the Bible. And the people weren’t, by and large, clamoring to read the Bible for themselves. They had been told that they could not understand the Bible without the church’s help and people do not ordinarily waste their time reading a book they cannot understand. Indeed, so sure was it that Christians were incompetent to judge the meaning of Scripture that the Roman church, in the period leading up to and during the Reformation, burned more Bibles than it published. We might have thought that the Christian church would want people reading the Bible, but, for much of its history the Roman Catholic Church did not want people to read the Bible (and took little interest in teaching her people the Bible). They did not want them to form their own opinions about what it taught. Indeed, this was a principle so deeply fixed in Roman Catholic life that the Church didn’t even care that her priests knew the Bible. It was the clerical ignorance of the Word of God that prompted William Tyndale’s famous jibe to a cleric who was criticizing his effort to translate the Bible into English.

“If God spare my life, before many years have passed I will cause a boy who drives a plough shall know more of the Scriptures than you do.”

Nevertheless, this history of keeping people from the Bible notwithstanding, her abhorrence of private judgment, and of a believer making up his or her mind about the teaching of the Bible is one of the supremely attractive things about the Roman Catholic Church to its new converts from Protestantism.

This becomes very clear if you listen carefully to the Protestant evangelicals and even the former Presbyterian Church in America pastors who in recent years have converted to Roman Catholicism. They are passionate about this; it comes near to the heart of what led them to Rome. They came to Rome, they say, because in her bosom a man or woman can find the wisdom, the security, and the solid foundation for life that the Protestant churches are all looking for but cannot find or provide their followers. They see the contrast in terms of the solid, lasting, permanent, central and universal tradition of Christianity in the world – that is, the Roman Catholic Church – and the individualistic, temporary, contradictory fashions of the Protestant sects.

Scott Hahn, a former PCA minister, now a Roman Catholic college professor, speaks passionately about the defects, the weaknesses of his former life and work as a PCA pastor: of pastor-centered churches, and sermon-centered services – where the people meet who happen to agree with that pastor and those sermons, at least at that moment, but who might not agree with him next year and find themselves in some other church as a result. No, not for him any longer, he says, with what is clearly a deep feeling. Not for him any longer individual opinions running every which way. Now he has his feet planted on that deposit of eternal truth and life that Christ gave to his apostles and preserved through the church to this day; that is, he means, through the bishops of the Roman Catholic Church to this day. Protestants differ over and separate over every conceivable issue, but in the Catholic Church, he says, we’ve had one voice throughout the ages, the voice of Christ speaking in his church. [Tape: “Church is One” 2nd side]

Let me say first that much of what Scott Hahn says about the Protestant church is completely true and ought to be regarded by all sincere Christians with genuine shame and embarrassment. We ought to be ashamed in the same way that, I suppose, a loyal Roman Catholic would be embarrassed by the fact that so many Popes through the ages have been an embarrassment to Christianity or that so many Catholics pay so little attention to what the church teaches and feel completely free to follow their own opinions, even when those opinions are the reverse of the authoritative teaching of the church. It is nothing to be proud of that Protestants can’t agree about the Bible, or the work of Christ, or the Lord’s Supper, or the spiritual gifts, or the ethics of divorce and remarriage. It is nothing to be proud of that Protestant Christianity has created a situation in which individual believers who know virtually nothing are making up their own minds about everything in disregard of the collective teaching of the wisest men of the church through two thousand years. It is demoralizing and humiliating to see church after church split into small pieces rather than to find a way to maintain the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace out of mutual loyalty to the faith once and for all delivered to the saints.

Thomas Howard, Elizabeth Elliot’s brother, and another of these Protestant converts to Rome, asks the question zealous Roman Catholics always put to us Protestants, an embarrassing question, to be sure. You say that the Bible alone is your authority, but you don’t agree among yourselves about what the Bible in fact teaches. In fact, you don’t agree among yourselves about anything the Bible teaches. And so, at last, it comes down to this: the Bible is the only authority as it happens to be understood by your little group of people over where you are. What good, what significance is an authority like that? This is the way Thomas Howard puts it [Touchstone, 10:4 (Fall 1997) 19-20]:

“[You say] ‘…we get it straight out of the Bible…’ The great difficulty here is that Eutychius and Sabellius and Arius got their notions straight out of the Bible as well. Who will arbitrate these things for us? Who will speak with authority to us faithful, all of us rushing about flapping the pages of our well-thumbed New Testaments, locked in shrill contests over the two natures of Christ, or baptism, or the Lord’s Supper, or the mystery of Predestination. This question formed itself in the following way for me, a twentieth century Christian: who will arbitrate for us between Luther and Calvin? Or between Luther and Zwingli, both appealing loudly to Scripture, and each with a view of the Lord’s Table that categorically excludes the other’s view? And who will arbitrate for us between John Wesley and George Whitefield — that is, between Arminius and Calvin? … Or between the dispensationalists and the Calvinists on the question of eschatology? A piquant version of this situation presented itself to us loosely affiliated Evangelicals, with all of our independent seminaries and Grace Chapels and Moody Churches, and so forth. When a crucial issue arises – say, what we should teach about sexuality? – who will speak to us with a finally authoritative voice? The best we can do is to get Christianity Today to run a symposium, with one article by J.I. Packer plumping for traditional morality, and one article by one of our lesbian feminist Evangelicals (there are some), showing that we have all been wrong for the entire 3,500 years since Sinai… The trouble here is that J.I. Packer has no more authority than our lesbian friend, so the message to the faithful is, ‘take your pick.'”

Now that is a real argument and it has a certain plausibility. The problem is that it poses a problem for which there is no simple solution. And this is true for two reasons. First, the fact is, both Roman Catholics and Protestants have traditionally maintained the inerrancy of Scripture but they interpret that Scripture in very different ways. The reason I can’t be a Roman Catholic is precisely because I look at the Bible and at Roman Catholic teaching and find that they are clearly and emphatically at odds. The Roman Catholic may tell me that I am wrong and must submit to the judgment of the Church, but the problem is: I can read. I can read the Bible and I cannot be persuaded that it teaches what Roman Catholics believe. Second, for all the claims made by Roman Catholics, it is a myth that the Roman Catholic Church speaks and has always spoken with one voice. They have the same differences we do, they just run roughshod over them and silence the opposition, or drive it out of the church.

The great problem with the Roman Catholic claim to provide an absolutely authoritative interpretation that settles forever the problem of divergent opinions about the meaning of the Bible is that, from a logical point of view, it amounts to the commission of the fallacy of “petitio principii” or “begging the question.” That is, as an argument, it assumes what must be proved. Of course, if the church speaks with a single voice and that voice is the voice of Christ speaking through the bishops, then we do have such an authoritative interpretation of the Bible and we have been given a sure foundation for thinking and living. There should be no interpretation of the Bible except that authorized by the Pope. But that claim, of course, is exactly what is in dispute.

It is an entirely too-simple view of the church in its early centuries that leads the advocates of Rome to speak of the church’s single voice and clear witness to fundamental things. Fact is, if you had asked the church, the Christian church and its bishops, in the fourth century whether Arius or Athanasius were right about the deity of Jesus Christ, most of the time, most of the bishops would have sided with Arius. Later on, most of the bishops of the medieval period would have sided with the semi-Pelagians against Augustine. Why should we assume that the church that produced the Canons of the Council of Trent is the one pure voice of Christ speaking in the world and not the Protestant Reformers, whose lives and ministries were, in many respects, so much like those of Athanasius in the fourth century, who was also drummed out of the church by the church, for his loyalty to what, later, Christians came to agree was the true teaching of the Bible? Why do we assume, for example, that the Roman bishop speaks for all bishops? The Orthodox don’t think so. The Protestants don’t think so. Two-thirds of the Christian world, for a thousand years, hasn’t swallowed that argument.

Both Anselm and Thomas Aquinas, two of the most important Catholic theologians, denied the immaculate conception of Mary – that she, as well as her son was conceived without the stain of original sin. But the Roman Church today teaches that doctrine. Anselm and Aquinas held the teaching office in the church. Were they wrong? Indeed, at the time the doctrine of the immaculate conception was declared to be the teaching of the church in 1854, it was also declared that if a person refuses to believe that doctrine he has made a shipwreck of his faith? Pope Pius XII issued a similar warning about those who refuse to believe in the doctrine of the Assumption of Mary – that shortly after her death her soul was reunited with her body and she was raised to heaven where she was enthroned as the Queen of heaven – a doctrine that became official Catholic dogma in 1950. [Cf. R. McBrien, Catholicism, 885-887] Is that so? Was Mary conceived without original sin? Thomas Aquinas didn’t think so. If he were wrong how do we know the bishops are right today? In one of the most important papal pronouncements in Roman Catholic history, we are told that if we are not in submission to the Roman pontiff we cannot be saved. But Popes haven’t believed that for some time. The Roman Church used to burn Bibles. Was that right? If it was wrong, how do we know the church isn’t wrong today about one thing or another? For centuries Roman worship was conducted in Latin, a language the people did not understand. Was that not utterly foolish? Was that not a preposterous practice given the premium placed in the NT on understanding the truth and on meaningful worship? The Roman Church has, thankfully, abandoned that practice and is even encouraging Bible study. But is that not virtually a confession that she had led her people astray those long centuries; that she had actually been an impediment to the spiritual development of her people?

You see, if you had appealed to “the church,” or “the voice of the church” in Jeremiah’s day — or for most of the 500 years before his day — for the authoritative interpretation of the Bible, you would have received a defense of “pluralism” and “syncretism,” a mixture of Moses and the Prophets with the paganism round about. We know that is true for that was the reason God sent his prophets to the church in that day. And if you asked the church in Jesus’ day, you would have been led astray again. Jesus tells us that himself. And if you asked Boniface VIII if you could be saved without being subject to the Pope he would have said — he did say — you couldn’t, though the present Pope doesn’t agree. If you had asked some of the renaissance Popes if you could purchase forgiveness with money they would have said “yes,” or, some, perhaps, would have said “no” with a wink. But were they Christ’s voice when they spoke so? Devout Roman Catholics don’t think today that they were Christ’s clear voice, at least, if they do, they do not think it necessary to agree with that voice.

In the final analysis we are left asking this question: who says Rome is the church of Christ, and that Rome now is speaking the truth and that she alone can tell us what the Bible means? Sometimes Rome has spoken the truth; often it has not. Much of what it now says, it did not say before; much of what it used to teach it teaches no longer; and much of what it now teaches it has continued to teach in defiance of reformers who have arisen within her and been cast out from her as was always the case in biblical times and has been ever since. You see, like it or not, Rome is really in just the same spot we are. They think that they see the truth; they think that they are the biblical Church. So do we, though our sense of the church is broader. But no historical argument can solve this disagreement. Rome is old, but so is the Eastern Church; both stretch back in some form or another to the early centuries of Christian history following Pentecost. But each Church believes she is the true church of God. But equally ancient are many of the doctrines and practices that the Protestant church holds and some of which she holds over against both Rome and the East. Thomas Howard, understandably, wishes for a “recognizable church,” those are his words, but you couldn’t recognize the true church in Elijah’s day — for it was 7,000 knees that had not bowed to Baal hidden among the homes, the priests and the sanctuaries of Israel. And who were these people: they were those who had maintained the true faith as it had been revealed in Holy Scripture against the claims of the church of their day.

This claim or that claim notwithstanding, there is no touchstone other than Holy Scripture, the faith once and for all delivered to the saints. There is no infallible church. Churches have been wrong – every church has been wrong – just as Christians have been mistaken.

The Reformers, therefore, were surely right in their contention that the right of private judgment is the birthright of every child of God; it is the right to hear his or her Father’s voice speaking directly to him or to her through the Scripture. This is what we encounter everywhere in the Bible itself. The Bible was written to be understood by God’s people. It addresses them directly on every page. It is meant for them to believe and to obey.

Here is John in his First Letter (2:24-27):

“See that what you have heard from the beginning remains in you. If it does, you also will remain in the Son and in the Father…. I am writing these things to you about those who are trying to lead you astray. As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit – just as it has taught you, remain in him.”

The appeal is to the truth as it was first revealed and to the anointing that John earlier referred to as “the anointing of the Holy One.” That anointing obviously doesn’t keep Christians free from sin, nor does it keep them free from errors of biblical interpretation, but it is striking that John says nothing about submitting one’s mind to the authoritative interpretation of the church or her teachers but appeals directly to believers and their understanding of the truth.

Indeed, it is a striking fact, a fact that should be more carefully considered in consideration of Roman Catholic and Orthodox claims, that New Testament Christianity was one grand protest against the official teaching of the church of that day, against its magisterium, and against its tradition. Jesus, Paul, and the other apostles protested that the church had misunderstood, misinterpreted, and misapplied her Bible. So little did what the Roman Catholics refer to as the “consent of the fathers” – the authoritative tradition of interpretation to which all believers must submit –so little was that a true and authentic authority that the New Testament church began by repudiating and overturning that consent of the fathers, that is several hundred years of rabbinical teaching about salvation.

And when they took their message to the world, it was regarded as to the credit of believers that they took care to compare what Paul was teaching them with the Scripture itself. The remark Paul makes about the Beareans being nobler than the Thessalonians because they examined the Scriptures every day “to see if what Paul said was true,” bears powerful witness to the fact that every believer has both the right and the responsibility to subject even official interpretations to the test of fidelity to the Bible. History had already proved and would prove many times more that the teaching of the church will often fail that test!

Now, surely that does not mean that the Church does not have an important role to play in shaping the understanding of believers. Five times in Psalm 119 (34, 73, 125, 144, 169) the psalmist prays: “Give me understanding…” That godly man fears that he might misunderstand God’s holy Word. So he takes care. And a man who prays that way will take care in other ways. The Ethiopian eunuch was a wise and good man and knew enough to know and was humble enough to admit that he needed help to understand the passage he was reading from Isaiah. A wise person seeks counselors and we find them among both the living and the dead. Indeed, the Christian who wishes really to understand the teaching of the Bible has every opportunity to consult on any question the wisest minds and the truest hearts of the church’s past as well as many teachers who are alive and at work today. If a man or woman really wants to know and really cares to find the truth, he or she has all manner of useful helpers. There are the creeds and confessions of the church, the great theologians and biblical commentators. There are the preachers whom the Lord used through the ages to communicate his truth. I can’t tell you how much I have learned and how much I have profited from other teachers, from both within and without my own theological tradition as a Protestant, Calvinist, paedobaptist, Presbyterian. In so many ways others have made the Bible’s teaching plain to me and have made it come alive.

In mid-19th century Edinburgh there were so many great preachers that visitors to the city would make the rounds, hearing first this man and then that, at a morning service in one church, an evening service in another, and two more the following Lord’s Day. And you can do the same today. Let those wise and good minds and hearts teach you the Bible and its right interpretation. Fact is, good men disagree about one thing or the other about the Bible’s teaching and you will have to make up your own mind. There is no getting round that. But there is nothing to prevent you from being sure that you have been well prepared to make a wise decision. The preaching you hear, the books you read, the other Christians you come to know and talk with, all should help you.

But absolutely key is an honest, humble heart that really wants to know the truth. Too many minds are already made up and are sure they know what the Bible must say before even consulting the pages of Holy Scripture. It is the hunger to know God’s truth that is the most important prerequisite for finding it. Paul prayed for the believers in his churches that the

“God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened…” [Eph. 3:17-19]

Well every Christian should desire for himself what Paul desired for his churches. George Whitefield tells us that shortly after his conversion at Pembroke College, Oxford,

“I began to read the Holy Scriptures upon my knees, laying aside all other books, and praying over, if possible, every line and word. This proved meat indeed and drink indeed to my soul. I daily received fresh life, light, and power from above.”
[Journals, 60]

And there is another lesson. One learns the meaning of the Bible best, one gets its point most accurately, when one is concerned not only to understand, but to practice, to live the
Bible as well as interpret it, or, better, to interpret it rightly so that one can live it faithfully. I know that questions of right practice have often sent me back to the Bible to search out its meaning and existential questions – questions of great importance to my own soul and my own life – have made me more interested to know precisely what the Bible really does say about this subject or that.

To give believers a right of private judgment regarding the interpretation of the Bible was a great risk and it has produced harm, no doubt. It is amazing what absurd conclusions even real believers take away from the Bible. Allowing believers to seek to understand the Bible for themselves has produced mischief. In the same way allowing believers to remain sinners after their justification has produced great harm. But such has been God’s will and such is reality that no one can contravene. But this right of private judgment through the ages has also produced a direct connection between God and his people through the Word. It is for that reason, no doubt, that God did not place anyone or anything between his Word and the believing man or woman. He wanted them to hear his own voice; he wanted them to deal directly with Him!

There is a very interesting passage in one of John Chrysostom’s sermons on the Book of Acts. In the late 4th century the great preacher is dealing with precisely the question we must face today.

“There comes a heathen and says, ‘I wish to become a Christian, but I do not know whom to join; there is so much fighting and fraction among you, so much disagreement. Which teaching am I to choose?’ How shall we answer him? ‘Each of you,’ he says, ‘asserts, “I speak the truth.”

Chrysostom then replies, “It will not help to assert our particular position. Rather we tell him to go the Scriptures. If anyone agrees with the Scriptures, he is a Christian and you can trust him.” But, the man comes back, “But I don’t know the Scriptures and different ones among you equally appeal to the Scriptures to support quite different conclusions. I want to become a learner and you are forcing me to begin as a teacher, as if I, a complete novice, am capable to distinguishing the correct interpretation of the Bible from the incorrect.” Interestingly, Chrysostom says nothing about the authority of the church alone to interpret the Bible or the church being his infallible guide. He could hardly have said such a thing in any case as the church of Chrysostom’s day was divided down the middle between Arians and orthodox. He says, rather, that the first thing to inquire after is whether all of this supposed doubt and confusion is real or pretence. That’s a great insight, I think. Many who profess confusion are really simply masking an unwillingness to believe what they do not wish to believe. But, says the great preacher, if the man really believes that Christianity is true and paganism is false then there is already in that man a measure of sense and sound judgment. He must now put that power of judgment to work on the teaching of Holy Scripture, seeking God’s help. Start with the main points, Chrysostom says, and work downward from there.

What is that but the right of private judgment and a dose of wisdom and sense about how to find the truth? [Homilies on the Acts of the Apostles, xxxiii; cf. C. Gore, Roman Catholic Claims, 50-51]

Some 1350 years later John Wesley summarized the same advice in a famous statement.

“I am a creature of a day….I want to know one thing, the way to heaven. …God himself has condescended to teach the way….He has written it down in a book. O give me that book: At any price give me the book of God! I have it: here is knowledge enough for me….I sit down alone: only God is here. In his presence I open, I read his book; for this end, to find the way to heaven….Does anything appear dark and intricate? I lift up my heart to the Father of Lights….I then search after and consider parallel passages….I meditate thereon….If any doubt still remain, I consult those who are experienced in the things of God: and then the writings whereby, being dead, they yet speak. And what I thus learn, that I teach.” [In Packer, Truth and Power: The Place of the Scripture in the Christian Life, 108-109]

The fact that Wesley came to some conclusions we do not share is the inevitable risk and result of private judgment in a world of sin. We will all commit errors of mind as surely as we commit errors of life. But that spirit of eagerness to know and understand the mind of God is what God is after in his people and placing his Word in their hands is how he, in his infinite wisdom, seeks to cultivate it.

Think of it carefully,
Study it prayerfully,
Deep in your heart
Let its oracles dwell.
Ponder its mystery,
Slight not its history,
For none ever loved it
Too fondly or well.