How to Read the Bible
The doctrine of the priesthood of all believers is an essential Reformation doctrine. But it has been misunderstood and misused to assert an unchallengeable right to private judgment. We might call this the doctrine of “the prophet-hood” of all believers. Just as all believers have direct access to God apart from human mediators, so they have a right to determine for themselves what the Bible teaches apart from any human authority. The unhappy result is that the Reformers having got rid of the magisterium in Rome had created a magisterium of the individual conscience.
Many of my generation grew up with the idea that “the priesthood of all believers” meant that the best setting in which to understand the Bible was when one was alone with the Bible and the Holy Spirit. Later we learned that “small groups” were a close second. A group of people reading a Bible passage, led by the Spirit, and sharing “what it means to me” was a powerful means of people understanding God’s Word.
However, this is not the way Christians historically have approached reading and understanding the Bible.
Opportunity for a person to read the Bible by himself or with others did not come about until the 17th century. The printing press greatly reduced the cost of making copies and greatly increased the number of Bibles that could be produced. That alone did not mean that everybody could then read the Bible in private. The literacy rate for males in the 17th century was increasing fast, and a great part of the motivation was to make it possible for people to read the Bible. But, high as the literacy rates relative to the past were, still it was about 80% of males in London and about 30% in the country that were literate in the 17th century.
It is a wonderful blessing of God to live in a time and place where the Bible is available to anyone who wants one, and when the literacy rate is close to 100%. We should not take it for granted, for there are times in the past, and places in the present, where people are not allowed to own Bibles.
To generalize, the 17th century Roman Catholic view was that it was dangerous for people to have a Bible and read it in private. It could lead to all sorts of wrong ideas and doctrines. Today, certain political systems find it dangerous for people to own Bibles, because their reading of it might undermine the government’s control.
The great Protestants have believed, also, that it was dangerous for people to have and read the Bible for the same reasons Roman Catholics did. But, they were willing to take the chance. Why?
(1) Because they believed that the Bible is God’s revelation to his people, including the ordinary folks. (2) Because they believed that the Bible was sufficiently clear that people, who read it according to the human author and God’s intent, and using ordinary rules for understanding human language, will understand everything necessary for salvation. (3) They were confident that hearing their teaching and comparing what they said with the Bible would tend to convince the people of the truth and authority of what they said. People would hear the voice of the Good Shepherd in their preaching because they were faithful to the text.
I want to underscore here something that historic Protestants have always believed but has been often forgotten or even denied in more recent times. We read the Bible in church.
That does not mean that we do not read the Bible at other times and in other places, but it does mean this:
(1) We read the Bible with respect for the history of its interpretation. We are not the first Christians to read the Bible. The Bible has been read and studied as long as it or part of it has been around. We do not assume that we are smarter, more spiritual, or more insightful than were our fathers. In fact, I assume the opposite when I study.
(2) We read the Bible in the context of the Church’s Confession of Faith. For confessional Christians, the Confession sets the parameters of doctrine. We may not agree that every proof text cited supports the statement to which it is attached. But it does mean this: When we read the Bible, and we find some passage seeming to teach some other doctrine than the Confession, we assume that we are probably wrong. From Nicea to Westminster, the Church has confessed what it believes the Bible teaches so that we may not be lead astray by error, whether our own or a teacher’s.
(3) (3) We read the Bible with the understanding that God has established a teaching office within the church. He has called some within the Church to interpret and then to teach the Scriptures for the benefit of others. How does the teacher do that? Simply in addition to studying the biblical text itself those who hold the teaching office do this: (a) Read the best modern scholarship that can be found that respects the Bible as God’s Word. Most ministers are not a Greek or Hebrew scholars. Most are not highly skilled exegetes. So, in order to teach, ministers need the help of sound scholarship. (b) Read the best of the older scholarship that rests on solid principles of interpretation. Calvin is a must for he is careful, concise, insightful, pastoral, and always seeks to submit himself to what the text says. (c) Make use of the church’s theology, especially as expressed in its Confessions. Tentative conclusions should be compared with the settled doctrines of the Confessions and, if something is found that goes outside Confessional boundaries, do not teach it.
Read the Bible. Read it whenever you like (unless some other duty, such as your work, prevails) by yourself or with others. But always read the Bible in the “church of the living God, which is a ground and pillar of truth” (1 Timothy 3:15).