It being one chief project of that old deluder, Satan, to keep men from the knowledge of the Scriptures, as in former times by keeping them in an unknown tongue, so in these latter times by persuading from the use of tongues, that so that at least the true sense and meaning of the original might be clouded and corrupted with false glosses of saint-seeming deceivers; and to the end that learning may not be buried in the grave of our forefathers, in church and commonwealth, the Lord assisting our endeavors.
The Puritan colonists, away from the homeland and its educational resources understood that they needed to set up new educational practices. They knew that an illiterate populace would be susceptible to the deceptions and temptations of Satan. The one thing they wanted above all others was the ability of the people to read God’s word. Before the reformation, the church had chained and locked the Bible physically to the church and figuratively behind the barriers of Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Latin. During the reformation, the Bible was translated into the common language. Now, in the new country, the new government foresaw the danger of that precious newfound treasure being lost through illiteracy.
We are born illiterate. Someone had to teach us to read. One of my college professors once said that even class was a vocabulary class. By this, he meant that even class and every scholastic discipline has its own vocabulary, special words that mean something particular to that discipline that they might not otherwise mean. I would extend on his thesis by saying that every scholastic discipline requires learning how to read in a different way. A lawyer reads court cases differently than a doctor reads medical cases files. Both read differently than a computer programmer reads code or an architect or contractor reads a blueprint. A musician reads music differently than an anthropologist reads hieroglyphs.
We all acknowledge that it takes specialized training to read these various texts to understand what they mean and communicate them to the world. Why then do we think that the Bible would be any different? If we require specialized skill to read legal, medical, musical, and technical texts, why should the most important book be left to the whims of unspecialized amateurs?
To understand this trend, we look back to what we have already mentioned. With the reformation, the stranglehold of Rome on the scriptures was blessedly broken. Luther and Calvin looked the pope square in the face and accused the church of misunderstanding the Bible. They pitted their understanding of scripture against the “experts” and “won”. This led to a massive movement to democratize the word of God. Every person was to have access to the scripture.
While Calvin and Luther maintained even in the distribution of the Word the importance and authority of the schooled minister over the layman, the radical wing of the reformation had other opinions. A group known as the Anabaptists arose teaching what has come to be called the individual priesthood of the believer and advocating a congregational church government. The pastor was no more gifted in reading and understanding God’s word than the congregant. All people now having the Bible could pronounce authoritatively on its meaning.
Modern evangelicalism lives in a tension between tacit authority structures and a philosophical commitment to the principle of the individual priesthood of the believer. Churches maintain what could be called a facade of ecclesiastical authority which the democratization of doctrine takes place in the mobility of the membership. The pastor may seem to wield authority in the church, but the members feel free to express their disagreement with him by a “vote of the feet”. If people disagree with the pastor, they just leave. More aggressive democratization occurs more often we may think where the people in congregational churches take the initiative to vote the pastor out of office. The authority of the church has now found its seat in the congregation, often untrained in reading the Bible.
If we would have wisdom, if we would practice biblical discernment, we must take seriously the importance of reading the Bible correctly. It is no trivial matter. If true knowledge, wisdom, and discernment come fundamentally from Scripture, getting God’s Word wrong jeopardizes our entire framework for decision making.
We need to apply two correctives to the extreme democratization of Scripture. First, we must understand that the Bible, like any other scholastic discipline has its particular way of reading. It takes training to read the Bible correctly. Diligent students who wish to minister the Word to God’s people train often for three years or more of post-graduate education. They learn the original languages and use them. They learn the structures of the word, not merely as individual books, but as one whole work of God’s revelation. They study the doctrines that the church has wrestled with for over a millennia of church history. They labor to understand the thinking of the world in contrast to the worldview of the Bible. They practice reading, understanding, and explaining God’s Word to God’s people. As such, those who do not have such specialized training should give those who do deference in their reading of scripture. I suggest a rebuttable presumption for the minister of the word. The reading of the properly trained and skilled minister ought be presumed correct absent convincing evidence to the contrary. Unless the minister is clearly out of scriptural bounds in his teaching, his ministry should be supported. That is not to say that differences of opinion on disputed portions of scripture should not be indulged. Bible scholars have regular intercollegiate debates on esoteric points of doctrine or exegesis. Nevertheless, preference should be given to the minister’s position.
Secondly, and most importantly for our purposes, we need to learn how to read the Bible. The problem with democratization is not the desire for every person to read and understand the Bible. The problem is the assumption that we can without help. The minister of the Word has a responsibility not only to teach the Word but also to teach the congregation how to read the Word.
In that vein, as we need a foundation for understanding God’s Word to proceed to discuss wisdom and discernment, allow me to suggest one sentence with three guideposts to reading the Bible well.
The Bible is one book, by one author, to one audience.
One of the most detrimental outcomes to the democratization of the scriptures probably does not come from the mind of anyone other than the Bible publisher, and he has no idea he is leading people into error. If you were to look at most Bibles printed, especially before the last quarter of the last century, you would see each verse beginning a new line. This method of Bible publishing was designed to help people find their way to a particular place when called upon to do so by a speaker. In an effort to help people navigate their Bibles, the printer has created an unintended consequence of affecting how people read their Bibles. Another popular set of books uses this same printing methodology, copies of legal statutes. By this subtle comparison, people began reading the Bible like a statute book, each law in isolation to another. The flow of argument was lost for the sake of atomistic proof texting. People would look to the Bible for a single verse that would justify a doctrine instead of trying to understand the Bible as a whole.
This extreme atomism has broken up not only the chapters and books of the Bible, but the structure of the Bible itself. The organization of the Old Testament itself is problematic. We borrow the order of the Old Testament book from the Jerome’s Vulgate, which organized the books according to chronology, topic, and length. When Jesus says, “These are the words which I spake unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me,” He uses a division and order of the Old Testament books that still exists in the printing of the Hebrew Old Testament. This order seeks to express the unity of the word and the connection between the books rather than an arbitrary order. For instance, in the original ordering, the Torah (“Moses”) explained the law of God, the prophets explained God’s faithfulness to bring Israel into the promised land and Israel’s failure in the promised land leading to exile, and the writing (“Psalms”) tell God’s people how to live in the land (Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Solomon, Ruth) and in exile (Lamentaions, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Chronicles)
The largest separation that has entered into our understanding of the scriptures involves the division between the Old and New Testaments. Some have gone so far as viewing the Old Testament as merely historical background for the New Testament with no authority over the church. When Paul speaks to Timothy the last words we probably have recorded of the apostle, he encourages him to remember the Old Testament. He urges Timothy to remember “that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.” (II Timothy 3:15-17) Paul was not talking about the New Testament when he wrote this, since it was not what Timothy was taught as a child, nor what was readily available during his ministry.
The Bible from Genesis to Revelation tells one story. When we open a book, we expect it to have a single point. In essence to tell us a story. A large portion of the Bible tells and retells parts of the story. It is a simple story that changes the world. It is a story that hides the depths of its profound examination of humanity. The totality can be expressed in three words: creation, fall, and redemption. Since creation and fall only occupy the first three chapters, redemption functions as the primary theme of the Bible. The Bible tells the story of God redeeming His people, in Christ and through Him and them, redeeming all creation.
If you would understand the Bible well you must adopt the principle that the Bible is a unity. It tells one story and must be understood together. The Westminster Confession of Faith puts it this way. “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.” (WCF 1.9) The first resort to understanding Scripture is Scripture itself. Only if the totality of the Bible is “not manifold, but one” would this principle work. Context governs the meaning of any specific verse or phrase. Note that context may be broader than it might first appear. The true searcher must not only look at the context of the verse in its paragraph, but also the chapter, book, the place of the book in the canon and the testimony of the whole Bible. The meaning of the verse will not be anything exceptional to these contexts.
This probably is the best known and least debated in conservative evangelical circles. We accept that the Bible was written by inspiration of God. (II Timothy 3:16) While liberal theology with its denial of the supernatural has not made inroads into the public doctrines of the evangelical church to deny the divine authorship of scripture, it has shaken the confidence of many in the text of scripture. The careless adoption of textual criticism by many evangelical scholars continues to send tremors into the confidence Christians place in the Bible. Textual criticism is unavoidable in the face of variants, but some ministers choose to emphasize the variants rather than build confidence in the received Word.
The divine authorship requires two methods of dealing with scripture which we must adopt if we would exercise discernment. First, we cannot accept contradiction within scripture. The Bible does not disagree with itself. Games with numbers notwithstanding, the Bible speaks with a single voice to the people of God. Its doctrine and message does not contradict itself or the known facts of reality. Any supposed error or contradiction we cannot pass off as the work of a faulty human. we don’t have that luxury. We must search the scriptures to see where our understanding has failed and what where the truth lies. The truth lies in the pages of scripture, not in the minds of men.
This means that we must not attempt to find the modern concepts of science within the pages of scripture. It was popular in the previous century to discredit Christian scientists based on the failure of the church to abandon the geocentric view of the solar system in favor of the heliocentric. The problem was that the church had adopted the popular scientific view of the time and was unwilling to be skeptical of popular scientists. The Bible and only the Bible’s explicit teaching must be held inviolate against all assaults as the very Word of God. All other human conclusions may be accepted but only with the understanding that future general revelation may invalidate our present incomplete knowledge.
Second, we must admit that we will not understand everything the Bible speaks about. The divine authorship of the Bible means that God reveals Himself. Part of that revelation humbles man. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9) If we were to understand everything about the nature of God, we would doubt whether God was truly higher than us. His incomprehensibility proves His divine nature and the truth of His revelation. Man cannot make the incomprehensible indubitable. God knows what man can understand and reveals Himself to the level of man’s understanding. What is plain an comprehensible are all the truths necessary for faith and obedience. We should anticipate that God has given us all the tool necessary for the proper exercise of discernment.
Next to the idea of the one book, this one probably generates the most controversy. The point of disagreement arises regarding the difference between salvation before and after the coming of Jesus. While evangelical Christianity generally subscribes to the idea that all people before and after Christ were saved by Him, pushed on the issue regarding Israel in prophecy, they buckle into a two people interpretation.
The Bible was written to one people of God. Israel is the church. The promises made to the people of God in the Old Testament are applicable to the people of God in the New Testament.
Linguistic axioms help us understand why this must be. If we are to understand Old Testament prophecy, we must understand that the prophets were speaking to people of their time. If we would understand what a prophecy means to us, we must first understand what it meant to them. Generally, they will understand it bounded by their language. Images like temple, Jerusalem, and Israel take on larger concepts its original readers would have only understood in seed form. They would have understood these images literally, but also as standing for greater idea such as the place where God chose to put His name, the city of God, and the people of God. Understood this way, the New Testament comes in and reveals the same things only with explicitly attaching those broad ideas to more specific elements. How else should we expect prophecy to operate? Those earlier could not have known what those later would. They would not even have the language to describe it to them.
A fascinating example of inconsistency regarding interpretation comes form certain view of the end times. Some incorrectly suppose a future establishment of Israel based on Old Testament prophecy. Israel represented God’s people and should be understood as the formation of the church, fulfilled in the coming of Jesus Christ. While they refuse to accept that the prophet used Israel as this concept for the lack of an analog to what would occur, they apply this type of logic to Revelation to see the scorpions prophesied as Cobra attack helicopters.
Discernment requires a faithful reading of Scripture. Merely taking bits and pieces and cobbling together a framework of wisdom will not work. We must understand the fullness and depth of the Scriptures as a whole. The Bible is one book telling one story of man’s creation, fall and redemption. This redemption God alone accomplished and applied through Jesus Christ. This redemption, God applied to all His people in all ages. There has been and only ever will be one redeemer of God’s people, the Lord Jesus Christ. Discernment begins with our union with Him. Discernment requires seeing Him on every page of the Bible. This is what it means to be a student of the Bible. To read the Bible well, we must begin with the principle that the Bible is one book, by one author, to one audience.