Thursday, February 21, 2013

A Woman and Her Bible

Bible, Spirit, Church, Individual

At least one Biblical writer got distracted from what he was planning to write (Jude 3) and turned to another subject. That happened to me today.

On some of my days off from a part-time job, I like to try to write something for my blog. One of the subjects I have on my list is “Bill Wilson’s god”, referring to the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous and the god he commends in the Big Book. One reason that idea is on my list is that I want to follow up on an October 21 blog (  where I responded to an online World magazine column by Andree Seu Peterson in which she asserted: “Alcoholics Anonymous has a lot of good advice because they took it from the Bible. All Twelve Steps are shamelessly cribbed from Scripture—from the counsel to surrender to a ‘Higher Power’ to the exhortation to ‘make amends’ to the people we have harmed." I still hope to write about the god of the Big Book. But not today. 

It is ironic that the reason I am distracted from what I intended to write about is something I came across this morning doing my other part-time job of searching for materials for an online magazine. It was a Faith and Inspiration column by Mrs. Peterson, titled Bible Ground Rules ( in which she writes about how readers should go about deciding matters of Biblical interpretation.

She agrees with theonomic writer Andrew Sandlin who in a book Mrs. Peterson terms “controversial” wrote in the introduction: “I ask you to compare what I say here to what the Bible teaches ( Acts 17:11). And if what I argue here is what the Bible teaches, I ask you to join me. …” She finds this a reasonable way to proceed:

That, in my view, is a fair bargain. Let every man weigh what is said and make up his mind before God—but let him do so comparing what is said to the original source—the Word of God. Let the Word of God judge the word of man, always.
We might point out that the Bible is written in Hebrew and Greek and that most Christians, not knowing the languages, do not have access to anything other than translations, in which case the issues become, “Which translation will I use to decide the question(s)?”, and, since one must decide what to believe for oneself, “How do I know this translation is correct?” 

But it is more important to point out that Mrs. Peterson is reflecting a rather new view of the relationship of the individual and his/her conscience on the one and on the other hand the community in which he/she lives. Prior to the post-Reformation era the question was not “What do I think/believe?” but “What do we think/believe?” The individual conscience did not reign supreme.

The Reformers, who were ministers of the Word and sacraments, necessarily challenged the church and pointed out obvious departures of church teaching and practice from the canonical Scriptures. But the intended consequence of the Enlightenment and an unintended consequence of the Reformation combined to elevate the individual conscience and in effect make every man (and eventually every woman, too) his/her own Pope deciding right interpretation of Scripture and correct doctrine for him/her self. The individual, not the collective, conscience became the measure of all things. In the case of the Christian and the Bible, most Protestants  now believe that we, our Bibles open before us and the Spirit operating within us, not the church, must decide. This is not what Luther and Calvin had in mind. As I have written before, what has happened is that we got rid of the Pope in Rome and created millions of them all over the world.

Mrs. Peterson goes on to reject the claim that we should defer to “our betters” in deciding controversial matters:

Some people may think that’s na├»ve or arrogant. We cannot start from our puny minds but must stand on the shoulders of our betters, they say. But which betters? The Lutheran betters? The Calvinist betters? The Catholics?
My response is that, when confronted a choice of your and my puny individual minds operating independently, any of the above is preferable – Calvinist, Lutheran, or Catholic. My mind or yours operating within the church with its confessions, officers, councils, and teaching office is one thing. Our minds reading the Bible alone and trusting our impressions of the meaning to be from the Holy Spirit is dangerous in the extreme. Of such is the stuff of heresies and cults.

She goes on the point out why we must rely upon our own interpretations of Scripture:

You see the problem: Theologies are fallible—and they are once removed from the source. ‘But the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you. … [A]bide in Him’ (1 John 2:27).
Of course theologies are fallible. As one confession says, “All synods or councils, since the Apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err, and many have erred” (Westminster Confession XXXI: III). So does 1 John 2: 27 teache us that the individual conscience is the best guide and safeguard from error? Hardly.

Consider this text in its context (which, by the way, is usually taken as one step in determining a text’s meaning):

Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore we know that it is the last hour. They went out from us, but they were not of us, for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out from us that it might become plain that all are not of us. But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and you all have knowledge. I write to you not because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and because no lie is of the truth…I write these things to you about those who are trying to deceive you. But the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about everything and is true, and is no lie, just as it has taught you – abide in him(1 John 2: 18-21, 26, 27).
John is addressing a situation in which the church has been split. Teachers within the church claimed they had a special anointing and that believers, who had come to faith through the apostolic testimony, needed to receive their teaching. When their efforts were unsuccessful, the teachers and their followers left and established a new congregation. Now those who remain in the apostolic church are wondering if they have made a mistake, if they missed out on and are missing something.

John writes to say, “No.” These teachers were false teachers who, because their teaching about Christ denied the apostolic truth, are antichrists. Their going out from the church is evidence that they were not really “one of us.” Had they been, they would have remained with the apostolic truth and the church founded upon it.

The believers do not need these “anointed teachers” because they have an anointing from Christ, the Anointed One, who is God’s Prophet.  Jesus promised the apostles he would send them the Holy Spirit who would call to their remembrance what he had said, lead them into all truth, and show them things to come (John 14: 26, 16: 13). The result is the apostolic testimony and writings. Believers who are regenerated and indwelt by the Spirit receive the apostolic testimony. They do not need more.

John cannot mean that, because believers have the Holy Spirit, they do not need anyone at all to teach them anything at all, else John’s letter itself would be unnecessary. Nor would the King of the church have given to the church teachers to whom we are to submit (Ephesians 4: 11; 1 Thessalonians 5: 12;  1 Timothy 3: 2, 5: 17; Titus 1: 9; Hebrews 13: 7, 17). Nor would Paul have been so concerned at the end of his life that the apostolic tradition be received, preserved, and passed down (2 Timothy 1: 13, 14; 2: 1, 2; , 3: 14 – 4:5).

Mrs. Peterson makes one other point:

A while back, one commenter here wrote: “It’s fine to bring in other Bible texts, but … you cannot just dismiss one portion of Scripture by quoting another portion. You still have to deal with [the portion under discussion].
True and false. True that you cannot dismiss what one text appears to say by quoting another text. But this assertion misses three essentials to determining the meaning of the text of Scripture: (1) After the principle of talking into account the historical and textual context, the next principle is that to arrive at right understanding one must compare Scripture with Scripture (2) The next principle is to  interpret more difficult passages by use of the more clear. (3) The third is that one must make use of  the analogy of faith – that is of the overall message of the Bible, systematized in the historic creeds and confessions of the church.

Especially in matters that are controversial or seem to be novel, we are safest to trust the collective teaching office of the church, rather than our own consciences. The Westminster Confession states the point thusly: “It belongeth to synods and councils, ministerially to determine controversies of faith, and cases of conscience…”  This Protestant confession is concerned about the Roman Catholic error of making the Bishop of Rome the head of the church and the councils of the church infallible. It is true that an assembly or council can be mistaken. The Confession acknowledges both the supremacy of the Word and the God appointed role and authority of synods and councils when it says that their decisions, “if consonant with the Word of God, are to be received with reverence and submission: not only for their agreement with the Word, but also for the power whereby this Word” (Westminster Confession XXXI: II).

There is an inevitable tension in Protestantism about matters of interpretation of Scripture and authoritative teaching. Some Protestants go back to Rome, accept its teaching, and submit to its authority. The majority of Protestants, thinking themselves good Bereans, trust their own reading of Scripture’s meaning and the authority of what they believe are their own Spirit-guided consciences. 

However, the best way to avoid error and to know the truth is not to trust yourself to your own interpretation on the Bible. That is far more likely to produce “fallible theologies” than the church which the apostle says is “the household of God…a pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Timothy 3: 15).

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