“Do you understand what you are reading?” “How can I,” the official replied, “unless someone guides me?” (Acts 8:30-31).
This was a memorable episode recorded in the Bible (book of Acts) by the ancient historian Luke. An Ethiopian official for Queen Candace traveled along the road between Jerusalem and Gaza when the Spirit told Philip to join his chariot. The official was reading a passage from Isaiah and Philip was able to tell him that the passage was about Jesus. The passage is a wonderful account (as the whole book of Acts is) of the Triune God actively seeking out and saving sinners through His word. We also receive a wonderful reminder that we can’t be as arrogant as to believe we don’t need God’s help to interpret scripture. God by His Spirit used Philip to declare the truth of the gospel to this official. The Spirit gave the meaning of the scripture to the official by using a human agent. It’s not a stretch to see God doing the same thing with His church today. We are told in Ephesians that God “gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ”. (Ephesians 4:11-12 ESV). So it got me thinking about the idea of personal interpretation and the phrase, “Well, that’s your interpretation”. That particular statement maybe honestly stating the obvious, the interpretation is coming from me. However often times what is really meant is that it’s your interpretation and because it differs from my interpretation it’s wrong. Or it may suggest something worse that everyone is allowed to have their own interpretation and everyone’s interpretation is valid.
In the realm of theology and philosophy, the science of biblical interpretation is called hermeneutics. Up against the Roman Catholic Church, the 16th century reformers believe people should have the right to read the Bible for themselves in their native language. They stressed people use proper hermeneutics in interpreting scripture believing people are able to interpret certain parts of the Bible (especially dealing with salvation) and come to a clear understanding of salvation. Basically they taught no one needs to wait for any clergy, and pope, scholar, or ecumenical council to explain the real meaning of a part of the Bible. Because of this, the reformers stated that every person had the right to interpret scripture for themselves. An example of this thought is found in the Westminster confession of faith (1646) which states,
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. – The Westminster Confession of Faith
As a Reformation Christian, I believe in the concept of personal interpretation. I also understand that there is only “one” meaning to any passage of scripture, the right one. That is to say that there may exist more than one “application” in a passage, a scripture passage has one meaning not many differing meanings. Martin Luther encouraged Christians and theologians alike to look for the “the true and actual meaning” of scripture. He says “we want to treat Holy Scripture skilfully, our effort must be concentrated on arriving at one simple, pertinent, and sure literal sense.” It is my duty and yours to discover the real meaning of the passage and receive the tradition and wisdom of the historical church in properly understanding scripture. The Reformers and Roman Catholics disagreed on many things but they agreed that no one is allowed to have scripture mean what we want it to mean. It is true that Protestants believe each Christian has a duty to interpret scripture for themselves but that is not license to have a “what this verse means to me” interpretation.
On this point is where reformation Christians are often accused of being arrogant for believing our interpretation is right and other ones are wrong. Or even worse, by some of our more pious brothers and sisters it is implied that we trust more what our reformed writers think than the Bible itself. In both cases our critics have missed the target. For us it’s not arrogance but it’s humility. Often when discussing scripture in my bible study I may refer to what a reformation theologian said regarding that passage. Sometimes my comments may result in some eye glares but I think it’s important for the edification of the group. As one theologian said, during the reformation “God gave the church some of the godliest, educated and gifted teachers the church has ever known.” We look to the reformers not because we think what they say replaces the Bible as some have suggested. We look to them because of their faithful “interpretation” of the Bible. The reformers would be the first to say to never put their writing over sacred scripture. Instead they are an invaluable resource in helping the church to understand what scripture is saying. Like in the case of the Ethiopian official, the Spirit sent Philip a faithful interpreter to him. In the 16th century, the Spirit sent the church the magisterial reformers to guide the church in a very troubled time. The official displayed a characteristic that I think is being lost in today’s church, humility. From our perspective, it’s not arrogance to look to the reformers for help it’s an act of humility. “How can I, unless someone guides me?” said the official of Candace. I think we all can learn a simple humility from this event in scripture; we should be humble examining our personal interpretation and being careful that it’s not outside of the universal church’s understanding. We should always be driven to find the accurate meaning of scripture.
Many evangelical Christians accuse reformation Christians of bowing down to reform thinkers. My concern is that modern evangelicals despise their heritage and dismiss the reformers all together. There is an arrogance that exists which seems to say that the reformers served their purpose but they are no longer needed. I believe humility would lead us to explore the reformers and discover the many gifts God have given us through them by His Spirit. Unfortunately too many of us are too confident in our spiritual ability to ask for help. That makes us easy prey for false teachers and corrupt doctrine. However imagine if we would go to God and pray for true understanding of His word with hands open humble in heart. We may not find a spirit filled lightning bolt of understanding coming from heaven but the Spirit speaking through a 16th century reformer whose book provided biblical understanding to countless many for hundreds of years. Maybe we should ask ourselves; do we truly understand what we’re reading? Even if the answer is yes, let’s be humble enough to get a second opinion. Sola Deo Gloria