We Need The Church to Understand the Bible

As I Was Saying

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I enjoy a good biblical debate. Instead of avoiding them, I seek them out. I enjoy the challenge and exchange of ideas. But over the years, I have found again and again that people can take the Bible and make it say almost anything they want.

A few weeks ago, I uploaded one of my sermons to YouTube on the doctrine of the Trinity. Not one day later I had someone challenging me: “I guarantee you did not become a Trinitarian from reading the Bible alone. This doctrine is ‘learned theology’ outside the Bible. If you would just stick to the Bible in your sermons, you would never teach this doctrine.”

I had an uncle who believed Jesus already returned because of Matt. 16:28, where Jesus says, “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom." (ESV)

I have friends from the Dunkard Brethren and Old Order German Baptist churches who argue that women must cover their heads based on 1 Cor. 11.

I have a Jehovah’s Witness friend who will use an assortment of individual verses to argue that the Son of God is a creature who is inferior to Jehovah God.

I have had friends argue from the Bible that eating meat is a sin, that dating is a sin, that consuming any alcohol is sin, and that not observing the Saturday Sabbath is a sin. I could go on.

The Bible is the supreme authority, but how the Bible is interpreted and understood seems to be like the days of the Judges. Everyone does as they see fit. Each one seems to think the Bible is abundantly clear, even when faced with an equally valid but opposing biblical argument.

A Variety of Interpretations

The Bible itself says this will happen. When 2 Peter was written, people were already misunderstanding Paul’s letters: “There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.” (2 Peter 3:16 ESV)

Even Satan used Psalm 91:11-12 to tempt Jesus to sin by jumping off the highest point of the temple (Luke 4:9-12).  

Protestants believe in the perspicuity of Scripture, which means we believe the Bible is clear in its teachings. Martin Luther famously declared at the Leipzig Debate, “A simple layman armed with Scripture is to be believed above a pope or council without it.” Yet innumerable times, churches have split between two interpretations of the same Bible. This has led my Catholic friends to allege that Protestants have exchanged one pope for everyone acting as their own pope.

Finding the Truth

Unfortunately, my Catholic friends have a point. How do we curb the ability of individuals to take the Bible and seem to use it to advance any and every idea and agenda?

The Bible itself has something to say about this. “And [Christ] gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” (Ephesians 4:11-16 ESV)

In other words, the church is the body of Christ. We are joined to Christ insofar as we are joined with his body. Christ has called leaders for his church so there would be unity. Not just any unity, but unity in faith and knowledge. The church is to be grounded in a common belief and teaching. Growing up and maturing in this teaching will keep us from being blown around by other teachings.

We do not interpret the Bible in a vacuum. We interpret the Bible as the church. Not the church as in each local congregation, but the holy catholic church, the true believers of all time. Many of the disagreements people have about the Bible have already been discussed and resolved by the church. Their conclusions have been summarized in what we call Creeds and Confessions.

The reformers certainly held to Sola Scriptura over and against the current church policies, but they never rejected the historical church. John Calvin quoted Augustine and the early church fathers extensively and respectfully in his writings. Likewise, the confessions that came out of the Reformation upheld the creeds of the early church.

Iron Sharpens Iron

Just like the Ethiopian eunuch did not understand the Bible passage in Isaiah without someone explaining it to him, we need help to understand the Bible correctly. The Word of God did not originate with us, nor are we the only ones it has reached (1 Cor. 14:36).

Therefore, while we ought to read the Bible on our own, we ought not to interpret the Bible on our own. Instead, we must be taught by the believers who have gone before us, all the way back to the time of the apostles. Our forebearers in the faith are certainly not infallible. However, like parents to children or teachers to students, they have much more to teach us than we do to them. Many of them not only have incredible intelligence and lifetimes of study, but tremendous sacrifice. They have suffered greatly and surrendered themselves to Jesus in ways far beyond us. They are the church. Their creeds and confessions are how they interpreted God’s Word.

The same Bible that individuals will use to say whatever they want also says we must be joined to the body of Christ, the church. We must be built up according to its leaders, joined by a common faith and knowledge.

About the Author

Rev. Aaron Vriesman is pastor of North Blendon Christian Reformed Church in Hudsonville, Mich.

See comments (4)


Yes, I agree that we are called to be part of the body of Christ, and that interpretation of Scripture needs the body. And we must also be cognizant that the Church means the whole Church, which includes people, men and women, from every tribe and tongue and nation. I think we can be in danger of misinterpretation when we define the Church too narrowly, or listen for hundreds of years to only European, white, male theologians. We need to realize that we may be missing an important part of the interpretation when we only listen to one segment of the Church and neglect hearing other voices. "The eye cannot say to the hand, 'I don't need you!'" Let's be careful not to be guilty of that in our interpretation. 

When there are individuals within a congregation who misinterpret what the Bible says, it is a reflection on the quality of the preaching.

That's my pet peeve. Too many pastors preach thematically, responding to the latest news story or some social issue. 

Just preach the Bible. Exegete the text. Take a congregation through a verse by verse study of a book of the Bible. 

That doesnt lead to ambiguity; that leads to clarity and leaves very little room for misinterpretation.

Just try it.

Fifty to sxty years ago the Ref Doc taught to me in school, church, and catechism used words like authiority, infallibilty, inerrancy, literal, and, yes, perspicuous to describe Scripture.  Some of that is still deeply seated in me.  I am still commitedly Chrstian, Reformed, and Crhistian Reformed.  So I resonate with a lot of the standard theology of this article including its core contention that the Spirit has led the church through the centuries and it is at our peril thaat we demean the insights of God's faithful saints of the past.

Still,I have declining faith in the traditional interpretaitions of these descriptors we have used for Scripture.  The particular issue in this article is perspicuity.  One could wryly observe that it is eaxactly the LACK of perspicuity that leads to the hunddreds of denominations we see, and the deep differences we experience on significant issues even within my own denomination.  Now i, of course, have perspicuity, and if you agree with me you do too!  If you don't agree with the perspicuity I have, I still love you, but feel sorry for your benightedness!

Serioulsly, it is abundantly clear that I am not in sole possession of perspicutiy.  So the article relies on the standard solutions that perspicuity is both historic and communal.  But that leaves us with the same problem.  We may select Augustine and Calvin, quote them selectively, and just as. selctively omit things they wrote which we now regard as conspicuously wrong. Other will select and quote other popes. And communal?  Same problem.  Which community among the hudreds of denomination?  And when we talk about the perspicuity with which the Spirit leads the church communally, we have to deal with the nuberous inconvenient examples of the lonely prophet versus comunal apostacy.  Perhaps the gold standard of historic and communal Spirit-let decision-making is Acts 15.  Have you ever read sloppier exegesis than that synod's flippant comunal rejection of 2000 years of the most perspicuous of God's commands regarding circumcision and diet?  "It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us..."  REALLY??!!  Two thousand years of divine commands and communal affirmation of them dumped on the basis of that kind of emotionalism?

OK.  I confess.  I have been exposed to some heresey.  But can you understand why the traditional pat answers don't satisfy me either?

I am not a theologian. I need help--REAL HELP.  Not just hackneyed tradition.

Exciting, yet scary ideas come from writers like Peter Enns (e.g. HOW THE BIBLE ACTUALLY WORKS* *In which I explain how an ancient, ambiguous, and diverse book leads us to wisdom rather than answers--and why that's great news) and Karl Allen Kuhn (HAVING WORDS WITH GOD: the Bible as conversation).  Are ideas like these primarily heresey? Visionfully prophetic?  Some of both?  Is there reformed discussion of these ideas, or even a few good book reviews in lay language?

Great article! I was raised in the CRC & am very grateful for my grounding in the Bible. In my opinion,however,  there are too many Protestant churches/denominations. The logical conclusion, I think, is that “Sola Scriptura” does not really make sense, because which group is correct or the most correct?  Besides, the historic Church had to decide the Canon of Scripture. If Scripture is the final authority, why doesn’t it tell us  which books are supposed to be in the Canon?  Eastern Orthodoxy & Roman Catholicism hold the answer: Holy Tradition.