A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
We Don’t Read Alone
February 28, 2013
Racial equality. Racial discrimination.
Separation from the world. Engagement with the world.
Submission to authorities. Civil disobedience.
Gender hierarchy. Gender equality.
The list could go on. What do all of these pairs have in common? In each case, the Bible has been cited to justify opposite positions. There is a long and robust history of folk making the Bible say whatever they want it to say. Jim Jones in Guyana and David Koresh in Waco claimed to be “back to the Bible” preachers, yet they took their followers to mass graves. Claiming to follow the Bible is not itself enough to assure we are doing God’s will, rather than simply sanctifying our own wills.
Jesus took the religious leaders of his day to task for claiming biblical warrant to do ungodly things. Paul’s harshest critiques were aimed at folk who claimed the strictest allegiance to Scripture, rather than at those who disregarded it.
2 Peter argues that the apostles’ experience of Jesus confirms the word of Holy Scripture – and conversely, that Scripture confirms the lordship of Jesus. A high view of Scripture and a high view of Jesus go hand in hand for the apostles. However 2 Peter immediately qualifies these claims with this caution: “First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation.” (2 Peter 1:20)
One of the Reformers’ primary achievements was to put the Bible back in the hands of all God’s people – not just religious professionals. Before the Reformation, only the few who knew the dead language of Latin could read the Bible. And even those who knew Latin were cautioned not to hazard interpreting the Bible themselves, but to hew instead to the church’s official interpretations. The Reformers translated the Bible into the languages of the masses, and with the recent invention of the printing press they were able to publish Bibles widely enough that all Christians could access them. People in the pews were able finally to read the Bible for themselves.
Alas, somewhere along the way “reading it for yourself” was changed by many to “reading it by yourself.” And this is where the danger comes in. Left to ourselves, we can make Scripture say whatever we want it to say. There are countless ways to misread the Bible, and the antidote to all of them is to read the Bible together with the whole company of the faithful. We learn Christ together by reading the Bible together. The Spirit teaches us the things of God by connecting us with all members of Christ’s Body as together we read Holy Scripture.
This is why we rely on our Confessions – they guide our reading of Scripture by teaching us to read the Bible together with the faithful of other times and places. The Confessions are the testimony of what the Bible teaches, as offered by our forebears in faith from various times and places. We may gain some fresh insight into God’s Word here and now, but we always stand on the shoulders of others in our reading of Scripture. The Confessions are not authoritative in themselves; their authority is secondary. Their role is to provide us reliable spectacles through which we are enabled to read Scripture with clarity and reliability. Reading the Bible with the whole company of saints protects us from misreading Scripture.
In this ordination vow, officers in the church promise, in effect, not to read the Bible in isolation – either in personal isolation or congregational isolation. To put it more positively, we commit to attending always to how the larger circle of saints hears Scripture as we seek to hear what God is saying through it to us. We need always to hear the word of Scripture for ourselves – but never by ourselves. Left by ourselves, we all too easily make Scripture say whatever we want it to say. This is why we adopt the principle of submission to higher councils of the church – they may err, but we are even more likely to err the narrower our circle of interpretation becomes.
Seeking to know God’s Word with you,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
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