Monday, January 24, 2011

Some thoughts on the right of private interpretation of Scripture

The right of every Christian believer to read and interpret the Bible is one of the distinguishing features of Reformed Protestantism. Famously, when Martin Luther was charged with heresy at the Diet of Worms this was his defence,
Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason - I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other - my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.
This attitude gave birth to what Alister McGrath calls "Christianity's dangerous idea"  - the right of private interpretation of Scripture (see here). Armed with this "right" Protestants subjected Roman Catholic traditions to the scrutiny of Scripture and attempted to reform the Church in line with the teaching of the Bible. The right of private interpretation is closely allied with two other defining characteristics of Protestantism; the priesthood of all believers and the clarity of Scripture. All true Christians may read and understand Holy Scripture because each believer has a personal knowledge of God, Jeremiah 31:34, John 6:45, 1 John 2:20. This saving knowledge of God in Christ is disclosed in the Scriptures, 2 Timothy 3:15. The basic message of the Bible clear so that every believer may read God's written Word with understanding. These principles gave impetus to the Protestant drive to give the Bible back to the people of God by translating Holy Scripture into the vernacular.

However, the Protestant "right of private interpretation" was never meant to be taken as mandating what is today called a "reader response" approach to Bible reading, where what matters most is not so much the contextual meaning of the biblical text as what the reader makes of the text for himself. Protestants were not proto-postmodernists. Standing above the right of private interpretation is the church's responsibility to listen attentively to what the Holy Spirit is saying in the Scriptures. That is why the Reformers, most notably John Calvin went to such lengths to help Protestants to read their Bibles with accuracy and care. Hence Calvin's devotion to expository preaching, his publication of voluminous Bible commentaries and his writing of the Institutes of the Christian Religion. Note what he says in the preface to the Institutes,
For if I mistake not, I have given a summary of religion in all its parts, and have digested it into such an order as may make it not difficult for any one, who is rightly acquainted with it, to ascertain both what he ought principally to look for in Scripture, and also to what head he ought to refer whatever is contained in it. Having thus, as it were, paved the way, I shall not feel it necessary, in any Commentaries on Scripture which I may afterwards publish, to enter into long discussions of doctrines or dilate on common places, and will, therefore, always compress them. In this way the pious reader will be saved much trouble and weariness, provided he comes furnished with a knowledge of the present work as an essential prerequisite.
Calvin's approach to biblical interpretation also inspired the Geneva Bible, where marginal notes helped the reader to understand the plain meaning of the text of Scripture. The ESV Study Bible attempts to do the same for contemporary believers.

The right of every Christian to read and interpret the Bible is not to be exercised in isolation from the church. The priesthood of all believers and the clarity of Scripture must not be taken to mean that the believer has no need of teaching on the meaning of the Bible and how its teaching applies. That is why the Lord calls some men to the pastoral-preaching ministry, Ephesians 4:11-12. The "right of private interpretation" does not amount to the attitude of some in the Plymouth Brethren, summed up in the (hopefully) apocryphal saying, "We all knows nothing and we all teaches each other." Well instructed Christians will be able to read their Bibles with greater understanding. Part of the purpose of preaching is to give the people of God "canon sense", that is a grasp of the Bible's redemptive-historical plot line and a good grounding in biblical doctrine.

Now, for all their emphasis on the clarity of Scripture, the Reformers and their successors did not mean to say that the whole of Scripture is equally clear and plain. Take this representative statement,
All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them. (Westminster Confession of Faith I:VII).
Note that "those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation" are so clearly revealed that the learned and unlearned may attain a sufficient understanding of them. Those words distinguish Protestantism from the Roman Catholic Church, where it is held that the faithful can only understand the Bible's essential message with the help of the Magisterium, Rome's officially sanctioned interpretation of Scripture.  However, the Westminster divines were not trying to suggest that the church has no need of biblical scholarship that endeavours to interpret those parts of Scripture where the meaning is less plain and clear. For example, a new Christian reading Daniel 11 for the first time may not be able to make head nor tale of the details of the passage, but with the aid of a good commentary (e.g. E. J. Young - Banner of Truth, or Stuart Olyott - Evangelical Press), he will hopefully have some idea as to who the kings of the north and south were and that the nasty Antiochus Epiphanes is being described in Daniel 11:21-35.

As if anticipating postmodern hermeneutics, the WCF stated that by the use of ordinary means the the unlearned as well as the learned may attain a sufficient understanding of Scripture. We cannot rid ourselves of our situatedness when we read the Bible. We all bring a certain amount of baggage to the text. But that does not mean that biblical interpretation is doomed to reader response subjectivity.  No interpretation of Scripture will ever exhaust the meaning of the text. But it is possible for the believer to achieve a grasp of the Bible's teaching that is sufficient to equip him to live the Christian life for the glory of God, 2 Timothy 3:16-17.

Like the Bereans commended by Luke in Acts 17:10-11, each believer has the right to scrutinise the teaching of the church in the light of Scripture. But this is not a licence for theological anarchy, where anything goes. If the authority of Scripture was the formal principle of the Reformation, then the gospel of grace was the material principle. Readings of Scripture that compromise the gospel are to be rejected. This involves false notions concerning God as Trinity and the Person of Christ and also erroneous views that distort or deny the biblical teaching on salvation by grace alone.  The Reformers drew up confessions of faith in part to exclude wrong-headed interpretations of the Bible. Also, when it came confessions of faith, the early Protestants had no desire to ignore the creeds of the early church, which they accepted as accurate expressions of biblical teaching. The Reformers were Reformed Catholics, holding to the historic faith of the Church that had been corrupted by the Romanism of their day. In other words, a robust commitment to sola Scriptura, which the "right of private interpretation" entails does not amount to a solo Scriptura approach that neglects the theological heritage of the Church.

The right of every believer to read and interpret the Bible brings with it the demand that Protestants be a "people of the Book". The "right" is to be exercised  by believers reading their Bibles thoughtfully and prayerfully with the help of the Holy Spirit in order to put its teaching into practice. Holy Scripture was given to enable the people of God to faithfully perform their roles in the drama of redemption in accordance with the biblical script.  According to John Webster, "Faithful reading of Holy Scripture in the economy of grace is an episode in the history of sin and its overcoming." (Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch, Cambridge University Press, p. 87). Or if you prefer the words of the psalmist, "Your word have I hidden in my heart, that I might not sin against you." (Psalm 119:11 cf. Joshua 1:8-9). If we loudly protest the "right of private interpretation" and yet fail to order our lives by Holy Scripture, then we protest in vain.

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