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.