Interpreting the Scriptures as Part of the Church

hands-bibleOne of the great deficiencies of the Protestant church is its overreaction to abuses in the historic Catholic Church. While we fully recognize the importance of the priesthood of all believers (1 Peter 2:5), and the ability of all people to study the Scriptures, we often reduce the interpretation of Scripture to an individualistic responsibility. This individualism has created all kinds of problems for Protestants. Separating our interpretation from the whole of the church can easily lead us into arrogance, heresy, and reductionism. We need to recover a sense of the importance of the whole of the church for our interpretation of Scripture.

The strong reaction to the abuses of the Catholic Church in history have led some Protestants to believe that they don’t need anyone else to interpret the Scriptures. At one level, we may readily recognize the truth of this statement. You do not need a priest, or a pastor, to study the Bible. You are have a responsibility to be a student of the Scriptures yourselves, to study hard and dig deep. On the other hand, however, this is absolutely false. The limitations of our minds, experiences, and abilities mean that we cannot navigate all the interpretive challenges on our own. We need each other to help us understand the Scriptures.

In particular this means as I wrestle with the text I need to listen the voices and perspectives of other reliable Christians. Sometimes that means consulting the wisdom of the past. Consult the writings of the Early Church Fathers, of Augustine and the Cappadocian Fathers. Or perhaps I need to look to the works of Aquinas and the Medieval theologians, or the Reformers. The Puritans, as wide and diverse a body of theologians as they are, bring great insight to an array of interpretive issues. The list could continue, consult  Wesley, Whitfield and Edwards. Read from the men of yesterday like Spurgeon, James Montgomery Boice, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and John Gerstner. Learn from the feet of gifted theologians today like William Lane Craig, Grant Osborne, John Piper, Fred Sanders, and others. Let the broader Evangelical church be your help in understanding the Scriptures.

Listen too to the voices of your own local church. Listen to your pastors, Sunday School teachers, and small group leaders. Talk with wise, godly, mature friends about Scripture. Let them help you think through subjects. Submit your interpretation to their scrutiny and hear their pushback. Check your interpretations with those of trusted advisors and mentors. Be careful that your understanding of a passage does not conflict with the historic understanding of Scripture so badly that it was refuted and repudiated throughout the history of the church. Where it does conflict be so careful, so cautious, and so unsettled as to listen more carefully and more patiently to the larger church. We disagree with the years of interpretive history often to our own peril.

That is not to say that the historic understandings are inerrant. We should be willing to disagree where the text of Scripture convinces us of an alternate understanding, but we should do so very rarely, very cautiously, and very humbly. We should have very good reasons to divert, and we should always do so in consultation with our church asking for their help, guidance, and prayer. And where dissenting voices arise within our congregations we should be patient and loving. We should not immediately silence those voices but listen to them. Where heresy is being accepted we should loving and carefully help people wrestle and only as a last resort, after much conversation and prayer seek to remove them from our fellowship. We should, furthermore, be careful to distinguish between true “heresy” and what we might more graciously term disagreements over interpretation (see Justin Holcomb’s helpful distinction in this interview).

We should also seek to listen to voices outside of our own tradition and experience. I have often spoken of the danger of developing a theological bubble. We can create for ourselves a small circle of influences who are all saying the same thing, and as a result never be challenged to grow. If we listen only to those with whom we know we agree we may never be forced to defend our views from Scripture, we may never see its deficiencies or weaknesses. We may never expand our understanding of the Scriptures or learn how to better apply a passage to a situation. Listening to voices beyond our own tradition and experience helps to expand our theological knowledge and application. This is particularly true as you broaden your horizons to include the voices of various ethnicities and genders. Listening to their interpretations gives you fresh eyes and new perspectives on texts. This is a significant reminder that our interpretative work needs the aid of others. I know, for example, that if I am not intentional in this way then I will develop nothing more than a white, middle-class, male theology. I need something far more Biblical than that, and so do you. That’s why we must interpret the Scripture with the church, and not by ourselves.

You need the church to better understand the Scriptures. You need the church universal, the church historic, and your own local  congregation to help you interpret the Bible. Without listening to their voices, and without subjecting your interpretations to their scrutiny, you are more likely to wander off into heresy, to overlook important points, and to become an arrogant, self-righteous, judgmental Christian. We need each other if we are going to better understand God’s Word. Interpret the Bible as part of the church.

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