Beginning in the early ’70s and all through the ’80s, I pastored a church in the burgeoning charismatic movement. Our particular part of the movement was birthed from a combination of Presbyterianism and Pentecostalism. If you think that’s an odd coupling of theologies, you’re right. The leadership of the movement ended up devising their own unique brand of theology, literally from scratch.
One component of that theology was a teaching they called “Divine Health.” The main idea behind it was that sickness should never be part of a believer’s life. A true follower of Jesus should be able to ward off all diseases and difficulties by a simple act of faith.
In a church full of young married and single people, the teaching wasn’t too hard to live by. But as time went on, our group of churches had a rash of young people, mostly under 30, die from cancer. Some of them were in leadership roles, which threw the entire movement into a free fall.
At the time I was studying Reformed theology and happened to talk with one of our movement’s original leaders. I mentioned to him that I had no trouble with the possibility of faithful Christians getting sick or having difficult times in their lives. He was intrigued. So I shared a few Scripture passages with him.
The first was Romans 5. Strangely, this text was both very familiar yet unfamiliar to him. He believed with all his heart that “since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand” (vv. 1-2).
But to his way of thinking, the first verses had no connection with the verses that followed: “Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” He looked at me and said, “Rejoice in our sufferings? How does that make any sense to having faith in Jesus?”
I explained that this wasn’t the only time the apostle Paul linked faith with suffering (see Phil. 1:29-30). Next we turned to Galatians 4:13-14, in which Paul says the very reason he preached the gospel to the Galatians at all was that he had been too sick to travel. Then in three other verses (1 Tim. 5:23, Phil. 2:25-30, 2 Tim. 4:20), Paul mentions that key members of his ministry team had been ill, one to the point of nearly dying.
This young charismatic leader was stunned. “We need to talk more about this,” he said. Eventually that movement did retool its thinking.
My concern is that since then I’ve met Reformed believers who seem to read their Bibles the same way my charismatic friend did, skipping over or ignoring passages they don’t agree with or plainly don’t like—which can lead to some really dangerous theological mistakes.
The Belgic Confession’s Article 7 on the “Sufficiency of the Scriptures” has probably the best summary on this point: “We believe that this Holy Scripture contains the will of God completely and that everything one must believe to be saved is sufficiently taught in it.”
The rest of Article 7 explains that, as fallible human beings, we can’t trust ourselves when it comes to interpreting the Bible. We all bring our cultural, historical, ethnic, and intellectual biases to it: “For all human beings are liars by nature and more vain than vanity itself.”
When reading the Bible we need to “humble ourselves in the sight of the Lord” (James 4:10). We need to respect the contextual flow of what the writers of Scripture truly meant to express. In other words, we need to honor their testimony by seeking to understand it in the most honest way we can. And we should do this because the apostle Peter tells us, “Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own human interpretation of things. For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet. 1:20-21, TNIV).For Discussion
- What is your method of interpreting Scripture?
- How do you deal with difficult passages?
- Do you believe that “because we are fallible human beings, we can’t trust ourselves when it comes to interpreting the Bible”?
- How can we best honor the testimony of the writers of Scripture?
- Why is correct interpretation of Scripture so important to Reformed theology?