Whose Reading? Whose Interpretation?

Psalm 119:105
“Your word is a lamp to my feet
and a light to my path.”

I was reading another blog by the deeply thoughtful Craig Truglia the other day about the claim the St. Gregory of Nyssa was an advocate of universalism. I leaned toward that inference based on Gregory’s writings, but after reading this particular post, I really doubt that claim now.

However, neither Gregory of Nyssa nor universalism is the topic of this post. Sorry. Maybe someday though. And, nothing I say here has anything to do with Craig’s thoughts, FYI.

As I was reading the post, I came across a sentence that really made me stop and ponder. The sentence was quite innocuous. Here it is, “As I stated previously, what the ‘benefit’ or ‘healing’ is not entirely clear. It may not fit the presuppositions we have for these words’ meanings given the context of what is occurring” (italics mine).

What is not entirely clear? What is not entirely clear is the meaning of St. Gregory’s use here of the words “benefit” or “healing.” Why’s that important? Well, when I was a member of the Antiochian Orthodox Church, I heard many times and read in many places that the interpretation of Scripture is not really in the purview of the individual. Basically, the ability to correctly interpret the Scriptures resides in the Church, “the pillar and foundation of the truth.” (1 Timothy 3:15). Of course, there is truth to this concept. St. Peter does say, “knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation” (2 Peter 1:20).

I think the polemic (used both in Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy) at work here is against the Reformation principle of sola scriptura. Let’s look at this Latin phrase a little bit more closely before we move on. (See below for Amazon links to two excellent books on the subject.)

At its best, and according to the magisterial Reformers, sola scriptura (which simply means “scripture only/alone”) points to the idea that the Scriptures (aka the Bible) alone, due to the fact that they are inspired by God himself (2 Timothy 3:16) and contain God’s covenantal will between himself and humanity, are the only infallible source of revelation from God. Yes, God’s revelation of himself to us is seen in nature, it is defined in creeds, it is explicated in the words of the early Church Fathers, it is portrayed in icons, it is sung about in the hymnology of the Church, indeed, it is attested to in the Tradition of the Church. However, all of these sources of revelation can err. Why? Because they are unimportant? Because they are untrustworthy? No! Such sources help keep the Church from heresy and doctrinal (and practical) innovations. But, none of them are, to the point, infallible. Only the Bible is infallible. And, not because the Bible is so special (though it is). The Bible is alone infallible only because the God who inspired it is infallible. Yes, ultimately, only God is infallible! Any authority that the Bible has is because the God who inspired it has all authority. (I don’t know Latin that much so my noun/adjective agreement might be off, but if we put this as a Reformation slogan it would be: solus deus!)

Now that’s all good. What is not good, and Keith A. Mathison points this out in his book (see link below), is how the principle of sola scriptura has been twisted in meaning by contemporary (typically Evangelical) Christianity. The perfectly clear and wonderful phrase that properly ascribes to God infallibility, has come to mean solo scriptura (watch the nuance; it’s important). At its best, it means only the Bible is a revelation of God excluding the “guardrails” of 2,000 years of Tradition. (This is clearly not even what the magisterial Reformers were getting at.) At its worst, it is a solipsistic use of the Bible that basically says, “All I need is me and my Bible!” For good measure, such folks might (hopefully) throw in “with the help of the Holy Spirit to illumine my understanding.”

That cannot be the way to read the Bible. I mean, that’s how cults get started. A charismatic personality gets a burr under his or her saddle about received, historic Christianity and sets out to “restore” “the true Church” which incomprehensibly, despite Christ’s promise that the gates of hell would not prevail against the Church (Matthew 16:18), somehow got lost along its way. (And, no, the Reformers don’t fall into this category – certainly, not the English Reformers – all of whom – except maybe Zwingli (tongue-in-cheek)– wanted to reform the Medieval Latin Church. To reform something is to accept its major premise, but scale back on apparent abuses. (And, yes, even modern day Roman Catholicism sees that there was a need for reform in the medieval Church). Heck, Trent itself at the time of the Reformation was an important reform council! No, reformation is not the same as restoration. Reformation implies that there is “something there” that just needs reforming. Restoration implies “something is gone” that needs to be restored.

Why is all of this important (to me, at least)?

There’s an argument in the more traditional churches that goes something like this:

The Scriptures cannot be understood fully; therefore, we need interpreters (e.g., the Church Fathers) to interpret the Scriptures for us.

However, as I pointed out above, if the interpreters of Scripture cannot be understood fully, then why not just go back to the Scriptures themselves and pray for the illumination of the Holy Spirit who inspired the Scriptures for our sake in the first place? I mean, if you are going to read a source that’s unclear, you might as read the inspired unclear source. The Spirit is present in the Scriptures – that’s a fact! Is the Spirit present in the Church Fathers’ fallible writings? Sure. But, if I have to choose one source, I’ll choose the infallible one. Right?

Nonetheless, those same scriptures do say that we need teachers at some time in our faith development. Consider Hebrews 5:12-13:

12 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, 13 for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child.

But, notice 1 John 2:27:

27But 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.

[Please note, though, that John does say that for this statement to be true, we must abide in Jesus Christ, not be a lone “cowboy” on the open range of “biblical interpretation”! Which means, we do need each other – the Church proper – to read and understand the Scriptures together.]

I want to end this post with a great quote. I got this quote from a Facebook friend, Taylor D Barrett. Look him up, check him out! He’s a great thinker.

“The Scriptures do say that people twist the Scriptures to their own destruction. But that doesn’t mean that people of good faith and conscience can’t come to understand them through diligent study, prayer, and the illumination of The Holy Spirit. Much less that the basic message of the Bible isn’t clear even to unbelievers. It is. Acting as if it isn’t, doesn’t help promote the truth of the Catholic Church (or Orthodox, if that’s what you are – I’m Catholic, BTW). It’s merely an irrational apologetic based on a faulty epistemology and low view of Scripture. The Church doesn’t have authority because we need an external authority in order to understand the Scriptures (if that was the case, we would need an additional external authority to understand what the Church taught, and additional authority to understand what that authority taught, ad infinitum) – no, the Church has authority for one reason alone. Because Christ promised whatever the Church binds on earth, will be bound in Heaven.

“Your statement ‘if we just read the Scriptures and give our opinion, then we have no standard of truth,’ can be used against the Church as well: “if we just read the Councils and give our opinions, then we have no standard of truth.” You see what happens when you try to use bad arguments to support the truth? They backfire on you and undermine the truth. Ends don’t justify means, and fallacious arguments based on faulty epistemology and a low view of Scripture, don’t help promote the truth of the authority of the Church, rather, they serve to undermine it” (italics mine).

Truth, my friend. Truth.

Additional Reading:

Keith A. Mathison, The Shape of Sola Scriptura.

N.T. Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today.

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