Reading God’s Word (6)
So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah, and said, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he asked Philip to come up and sit with him. Acts 8.30, 31
Interpretation gone mad
The doctrine of the priesthood of all believers is one of the more glorious aspects of the legacy of the Protestant Reformation. It is also one of the more dismal.
This doctrine teaches that all believers, having direct access to God through faith and the Holy Spirit, are able to understand the teaching of Scripture and gain the benefit God intends. This should encourage us in right reading of the Word of God. We can understand the Bible; we can learn the mind of God; we can be transformed by the living Word and the indwelling Spirit of Christ into the image of Jesus Himself (2 Cor. 3.12-18).
It is a mistake to think, however, that we can do this alone.
Just because we can all read and understand the Bible does not mean that Biblical interpretation should become the hermeneutical free-for-all it has sometimes been within the ranks of evangelical Christians. The Bible is not our personal spiritual palette, for us to use in painting out the life of faith however we choose. We are part of a community and Body of believers, extending through many ages, cultures, and traditions, and the Spirit of God works through the Body, and not just individual members, to bring to light the truth of God’s Word.
There is, in other words, what J. I. Packer has referred to as a “Magisterium of the Holy Spirit” – a long, venerable, and consistent tradition of Biblical understanding, which has come down to us from the earliest days of the Church to guide us, like Philip with the Ethiopian courtier, in right reading of God’s Word.
The value of tradition
Most Christians understand the value of the interpretive tradition which is ours in the Body of Christ. Every time we recite the Apostles’ Creed or sing one of the older hymns, we are positioning ourselves within a particular framework of Christian thinking. This framework we confess and celebrate; and, when it’s functioning as it should, that framework guides us in understanding the Bible.
For example, the early Christians were accused of worshiping three gods, not one. Even today Islamic critics of the Christian faith make this same accusation. However, this is not what our tradition teaches. The Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Formula of Chalcedon, and a whole host of confessions, circulars, and theological treatises, from the New Testament to the Second Vatican Council and The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, profess the same thing: One God in Three Persons. This tradition of interpretation, this Magisterium of the Holy Spirit, both guides us in understanding the Bible and prevents us from “running off the rails,” as has happened so often, especially among Protestant believers, and is in some ways happening again.
If we will read our Bibles with the saints who have gone before, we’ll be much more likely to avoid the pitfalls of merely personal and convenient interpretations. We’ll sniff out strange winds of doctrine and refuse to hoist our sails there, preferring instead the reliable winds of the Spirit which have guided the Church in every age.
So, how do we do this?
Plenty of help
There’s plenty of help available; we just need to be willing to make good use of it. My friend Dave Conn has developed the practice of reading a one-volume Bible commentary along with his regular reading of Scripture. Works such as the New Bible Commentary, the ESV Study Bible, and the one volume Matthew Henry’s Commentary can be valuable resources for such a discipline.
Our Scriptorium column uses the Ancient Christian Commentary Series to help us in understanding books of the Bible by drawing on insights from the Fathers of the faith.
I’ve also found that regular reading through The Westminster Confession of Faith helps me both to keep clear about the primary teachings of Scripture, and to gain insights into how our forebears in the faith read and understood the Bible according to the best traditions of the Church.
Obviously, there are lots of ways to go about reading Scripture with the saints of God. Find a guide or some guides to help you understand what you’re reading. Invite them up into your chariot, and listen and take notes as they teach you and help you to improve your right reading of the Word of God.
1. What is the “Magisterium of the Spirit”? Where did this “Magisterium” come from, and why does it matter?
2. What are the dangers involved in reading and studying Scripture without any input from this “Magisterium”?
3. The authority of “tradition” is not the same as the authority of Scripture. Both are authoritative, but not at the same level. Explain.
Next steps – Transformation: How might you include some reading with the saints as part of your practice of right reading of the Word of God? Ask a pastor or church leader to help you with this question.
T. M. Moore
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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.