“Philip ran up and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and said, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said, ‘Well, how could I, unless someone guides me?’” Acts 8:30-31a NASB
- The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, depends not upon the testimony of any man, or Church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God.
- The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word: and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.
VII. 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.
VIII. The Old Testament in Hebrew (which was the native language of the people of God of old), and the New Testament in Greek (which, at the time of the writing of it, was most generally known to the nations), being immediately inspired by God, and, by His singular care and providence, kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentical; so as, in all controversies of religion, the Church is finally to appeal unto them.
- The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.
- The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined … can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.
– Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 1 (emphasis added)
We have been engaged in a heated discussion at church that I won’t bore you with. However the argument behind the arguments has been fascinating. A few have even brought it to the forefront: What do the Scriptures say? This question lies at the heart of Protestantism. We all say that we are guided by Scripture and Scripture only, if we are true to the tradition of sola scriptura. But that seems to only beg questions that we do not wish to address, hiding, as it were, behind the big book.
To help illustrate this, I want to step outside of a strictly religious context and venture into another world I am familiar with, the world of Law. Reading judicial opinions it is always fascinating. You are presented with a particular factual situation, and the judges choose what laws apply to that situation. Where this gets truly fascinating is when the judges agree on what laws apply, but disagree on how. This is exactly what we do when it comes to Scripture. We have a text that we agree is authoritative, but we can read the same text and come to opposite conclusions. “A government of laws, not of men,” we proudly proclaim, but of course, it is judges who decide what law governs and how. We keep trying to remove human input to establish absolute authority, but we never can.
When Luther laid out the standard of sola scriptura, he did so with the expectation that he going to an authority that was authentic, unencumbered with decades of human detritus, utterly unassailable, and one that would be clearly understood by all. While he never explicitly stated it, he also believed that anyone reading Scripture would come to the same conclusions as to its meaning and application, namely his. He was surprised, hurt, and angry when things didn’t turn out that way, with the Anabaptists getting the worst of it.
Because we are dealing with what we deem Holy Writ, it is simultaneously important that we get it right and that its application and understanding be universal. It makes disagreements tricky. Presumably, someone must be wrong, and the consequences can be eternal. But who?
“The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined … can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture…”
We certainly hope that this is true. Some go so far as to formally ask for the Spirit’s guidance as they read or listen to Scripture. I’m not sure if God is so interested in the formalities, but certainly we should enter into the Bible with the expectation that God will be there with us, impressing upon us what He wishes us to understand.
How are we to make sense of this process, and how do we know we’ve got it right? More importantly, if we wish to engage our neighbor, how do they know we’ve got it right?
Entire books are written on this subject, and I hardly think I can add anything to them. But even these texts falter on the question of handling differing understandings.
My first fight with my wife faced this problem squarely. It was out first Christmas together. I was driving down to her parents, and tuned in the most wonderful live performance of Handel’s Messiah by an early music ensemble from Montreal. It was spellbinding, and I couldn’t wait to share the experience with my then girlfriend. Meanwhile, she was preparing for my arrival by playing Christmas carols on her piano to greet me when I arrived. I came in, greeted her, and started telling her about the Messiah performance, that she just had to hear. She got upset, repaired to her room and slammed the door. I was left staring at the dog, both of us wondering what had just happened.
Slowly, all too slowly, the idea dawned on me. Maybe she was upset because she wanted me to listen to her playing, and took my enthusiasm for Handel as a criticism of her playing. At almost the same time, I think the thought struck her that maybe I wasn’t thinking of her piano playing at all. We talked. I explained that I didn’t realize that she had planned a special “concert” for me, and that I was just looking to share an experience with her. Two totally different understandings of the same experience, and each one valid, but so far apart in reaching mutual understanding….
So I conclude with some observations.
First, we are all selective in our use and understanding of Scripture. Traditional Protestant teaching separates the Old Testament into the moral and the ceremonial Law. We are to uphold the Ten Commandments, but pass lightly over the directive about preparing sacrifices. Some wish to restrict themselves to only those things Jesus taught in the Gospels. Traditional Christian readings of the Song of Songs treat the book as an allegory of God’s love of the Church, yet at the time it was written, there was no church.
Second, we must confess to our own limited understanding. We “see through a glass but darkly,” and bear the stain of sin everywhere. We can see this in the obtuseness of the Disciples, in Peter’s comment about the difficulty in understanding Paul’s letter, and indeed, in our own struggles. If it were easy, we would have no need of the Spirit’s help.
Third, it can be very difficult to fully grasp what God may be saying to other people. We can, and should go back to Scripture, but we must bear in mind that everything filters through our own understanding. In practical experience, only rarely do we hear the same thing at the same time. I am still called upon to evaluate what you report as coming from God, but I must admit that I cannot live inside your head or your heart.
No matter what we do, everything must pass through our minds. There is no getting around this. We can claim that Scripture is self-explanatory, but even then, it must pass through our understanding to become self-explanatory. God promises to one day write the law in our hearts, and certainly we aspire to so unite our wills with God’s that we will will what He wills, without having to think about it. But for now, I, at least am not there, and I am suspicious of anyone who claims to have achieved that union.
So, approach Scripture with expectation, and humility. Trust that God will guide you, but keep in mind that we may not understand Him aright. Until we know as we are known, our understanding is provisional and imperfect. Be respectful of others, and realize that they labor under the same limitations as you. Pray, pray, pray, for understanding, wisdom and peace. The good news is that God is more than able to look out for Himself. Be patient, and let Him do His work. “‘Tis grace has brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”