God has graciously condescended Himself to us and speaks to us even today, in His Scriptures. The Scriptures are “God breathed,” (2 Tim 3:16) and being that we can only talk when we breath out, we may surmise the Scriptures are literally God speaking to us.
However, there is a big problem…the problem of interpretation. As Todd Friel likes to put it, ever since the Fall our collective “brain is busted.” As Jeremiah wrote, “The heart is more deceitful than all else And is desperately sick; Who can understand it” (Jer 17:9)?
Even the Apostles could not understand the simplest of things Jesus said:
Then he took the twelve aside and said to them, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be handed over to the Gentiles; and he will be mocked and insulted and spat upon. After they have flogged him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise again.” But they understood nothing about all these things; in fact, what he said was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said (Luke 18:31-34).
If our brains are busted and our hearts deceitful, just like the Apostles, how can we understand even the simplest of the Scriptures? How do we know we are properly discerning Scriptures that must be Spiritually discerned (1 Cor 2:14)?
We have a few options:
- We can just read the Scriptures because what they say will be readily apparent to anyone who wants to read them.
- Just not bother reading the Scriptures, because our minds cannot contemplate things that are divine under any circumstance.
- Do not deviate in interpretation from the consensus of Christian Biblical interpreters.
The first option appears unjustified in light of the whole premise of our article. If our hearts are deceitful, what guarantee do we have that we are not deluding ourselves when we read the Scriptures?
The second option is also not possible, as we are told to meditate on God’s words and the Scriptures have always been publicly read and listened to.
So, the only possible option is the third. We check our own hearts against the hearts of Christians throughout time. The Scriptures says that the Gates of Hell will not prevail against the Church and Peter’s confession of Christ (Matt 16:18). So, we would hope that Christians over time have understood the Scriptures and as long as we stay within this historical consensus, we are on firm ground.
I put the last sentence in italics because this is purely a presumption on my part. It is reasonable, but ultimately not proved beyond all doubt. It is possible that the minority of Christian interpreters over time were correct in their interpretations and the majority wrong. However, it would become impossible for us to discern which minority opinion is correct, as being a minority and not being consistently held throughout time would make it hard to identify.
All of this being said, let me quote Vincent de Lerins (5th Century AD) on Biblical interpretation:
But here some one perhaps will ask, Since the canon of Scripture is complete, and sufficient of itself for everything, and more than sufficient, what need is there to join with it the authority of the Church’s interpretation? For this reason—because, owing to the depth of Holy Scripture, all do not accept it in one and the same sense, but one understands its words in one way, another in another; so that it seems to be capable of as many interpretations as there are interpreters….Therefore, it is very necessary, on account of so great intricacies of such various error, that the rule for the right understanding of the prophets and apostles should be framed in accordance with the standard of Ecclesiastical [pertaining to the institution of the Church] and Catholic [universal] interpretation (Commonitorium, Par 5).
All of this being said, here is my conclusion: We must read the Scriptures and test our interpretation against the historical consensus. That historical consensus does not begin in the 16th century. It begins in the 1st century. If an interpretation in the 16th century was rejected by the historical consensus of the Church in the 1st, then 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, and etcetera centuries would it not be incumbent upon us to reject the 16th century innovation?
I recommend that all Christians scour the church fathers and test their interpretations against what the historical consensus was. Simply Google “New Advent Church Fathers” [Insert Bible Verse Here]. Another online resource is the Aquinas Study Bible. I also highly recommend the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series–but that will cost you money unless you are lucky like me and got a bunch of them for free.
May God bless you in your reading of the Scriptures.
Craig, your shared wisdom astounds me. I have been contemplating how to explain the deficiencies of sola Scriptura and here you have presented an elegant argument. This line of thinking made the Early Church Fathers, specifically Ignatius, Clement, Ireneaus and Justin Martyr, my primary teachers to interpret Holy Scripture. Ironically, the Real Presence, baptismal regeneration, confirmation/chrysmatiom, holy orders, confession/reconciliation, holy unction were right there in the text – as plain as day. It was like one of those 3D pictures in a picture. I couldn’t believe how I didn’t see it. I had let all sorts of Protestant pastors tell me the Eucharist was symbolic or merely spiritual when the text, as plain as day, says otherwise. At the end of the day, shame and silliness on me. But, more importantly, all thanks be to God for His tender mercies and patience and graces given to me.
Good to hear Rock. We need God’s mercy, because we are like that dude in the picture–plagued with ignorance and comprehension problems. So, even with the method of testing the Fathers for consensus we must pray to God for wisdom and humbly rely upon him.
Thank you, Craig. You are a brother in Christ.
If I understand you correctly, you are applying a truth too woodenly.
Let me first agree, then disagree.
I agree that we need to take the witness of the 1st-15th Century Church seriously. It should be given incredible weight and we should seek to understand how they came to their conclusions from the Scripture. To fail to do so shows a chronological arrogance that is exceedingly dangerous.
I disagree that, when it comes to interpreting Scripture, there are only the three options you suggest.
My principle problem with your conclusion is that you have effectively made the interpretative tradition of the Church equivalent to the authority of the Bible. How else are we to understand the following rhetorical question of yours?
If an interpretation in the 16th century was rejected by the historical consensus of the Church in the 1st, then 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, and etcetera centuries would it not be incumbent upon us to reject the 16th century innovation?
I applaud the emphasis on relying on the historical, communal, interpretative tradition of the Church to guide and instruct, but the miracle of God is that his Spirit works in Christians individually to enable them to understand, and more, to believe Scripture. That we don’t all agree now is evidence of the continuing effect of sin that you note at the beginning of your post, but the fact that there is agreement on central truths of the Biblical witness is evidence of the Spirit of God working in individuals as part of the Church.
Paul is explicit in the New Testament about about differing opinions on varying issues. He did not see them as disqualifying, but neither did he say that every opinion must align itself with the majority. In fact, in some situations, that would have meant they were wrong. The bigger issue is that there was unity, even among those who disagreed.
Let me relate an analogy that I heard recently that puts into words disparate thoughts going around my mind on this topic.
If we think of the New Testament Church as dancing their way through their life in Christ, the apostles and others taught others the dance, which was picked up with varying degrees of accuracy. The writers of Scripture wrote down the true nature of the dance, and later readers of the Scriptures try to learn the dance through those words.
The fact is, that while Paul lived and taught the truths of Christianity, he didn’t flesh out a fully theoretical explanation of the intricacies of the dance. Later interpreters and systematicians have, and produced a more intricate picture than Paul ever did. However, in doing so, there is no reason to deny the possibility that some of their theoretical interpretation of Scripture will have got the general truth, but quite possibly erred in the details.
So, while it is important to give incredible weight to earlier interpreters of Scripture in the Church, we need to read them and follow their arguments to see if their conclusions truly do follow from Scripture. If we cannot see that they do, that is when we deviate from their conclusions and humbly pray and trust in the Lord to show us where we are wrong.
Any other approach is to deny Scripture its place of authority in our lives.
“My principle problem with your conclusion is that you have effectively made the interpretative tradition of the Church equivalent to the authority of the Bible”
Here is the crux of the issue, my brother. It is epistemological. My heart is hard, deceitful, and by the grace of God the blind like me can see. He has done it before, He does it now, He will do the same in the future. He does the same with His Church throughout history.
Being that all of this is true, it is **impossible** that the whole Church throughout history get enough things wrong where everyone would be damned. It is also essentially **impossible** that there be any new doctrines which the Church has not already recognized for many many centuries. We are not awaiting new insight, any new insight is likely heresy.
So, knowing how feeble my mind is, I cannot say it is completely impossible for me to read the Scripture alone in the woods and come to the right interpretation. However, I am safeguarding myself against error when I test myself against the consensus of the Church, because we know that God’s work by the Spirit existed in all of these men, so they must all be right or right enough where us following their lead is not morally hazardous.
Next sermon you go to, start counting the centuries of the men your pastor cites and quotes. It will be the 21st and 20th centuries, 19th century if you are lucky. He will quote a Reformer and a Puritan rarely, but only terribly out of context, simply because very few people really read their 1,000 page books. Then, even more rarely, you may hear from a church father…perhaps three words like “Take and read,” and almost never actually citing a Father when it pertains specifically to doctrine.
THis is the exact backwards way to interpret Scripture. If you start with the Scripture and work forwards in history, and not backwards, then this intuitively makes a lot more sense and we can test our own hearts to make sure our interpretations have always been retained in the church. Most Protestants work backwards. This is a major problem and it is probably why they cannot recognize that their view of the Eucharist is often ridiculous, that they think schism is completely meaningless and they will leave their church over the music, and etcetera.
If you admit to yourself, “Yes, my heart is hard I need to adopt a better, historical method of exegesis,” I think you would see the superiority of the method I posit here.
I understand what you are saying, but you have not addressed my main concern, i.e. that Scripture’s place as the ultimate authority is undermined by granting veto power on any interpretation by the historical position of the church. I am completely on board when you say the church has never been so wrong that all during a certain period were damned. I am also happy to allow that no essential doctrine has ever been missing from the church. However, even throughout the history of the Bible there were times when God’s truth was neglected (Judges), the Scriptures lost (Josiah’s time) and doctrines were applied in such a way that they brought death (Pharisees).
I am also totally happy to assert that historic understandings of Scripture be given enormous weight, but to keep the Scriptures’ place of authority, those historic interpretations have to convinvce that the Scriptures actually teach their interpretation.
This is where I see wiggle room. The history of thought in human societies often produces different emphases and extremes without always losing the whole. Your discussion of Reformation understandings of justification down to today does not engage with recognition in that camp that there is human agency, even an unresolvable tension between divine and human responsibility. My general thought about historic interpretaion across the board is that some facets of truth become so ingrained in the thought processes of a culture that to correctly understand God’s truth an emphasis on an under-recognised facet arises. This can lead to neglect of the ingrained facet, because it is so “obvious” that it is hidden in plain sight. As culture moves on, however, the celebrated (over)emphasis is passed into folklore as the one way to interpret. That is why I think searching the historical understandings of the church is beneficial, as you have suggested, but they must not take precedence over the Bible itself. Before God, an interpretation must convince from the Scriptures, trusting that the Spirit will guide imperfect Christians to saving truth, even if our sin prevents that from happening perfectly.
I do not see how I am undermining the authority of the Scriptures. The Scriptures are the sole source of revelation from God, but my argument is that our hearts are so hard that we are liable to misinterpret them. Our only check on our hearts is to read the Scriptures in line with how they have been historically understood. This does not mean the historical consensus is infallibe, or above the Scriptures.
Rather, it means the Scriptures are above the historical consensus, but the historical consensus is above us.
Does that make sense?
I debate the subject, against a Roman Catholic, here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qlUgQDNKOLo&lc=z13thbbgovzdzvou223dv11jkkzwx3lfq
Perhaps I’m still not understanding. If the Scriptures are above historical consensus, but historical consensus is above us, for all intents and purposes historical consensus is our final authority because we cannot – even theoretically – claim Scriptural truth against historical consensus.
It is possible the consensus is wrong but it is unlikely. There is also great freedom where there is no consensus.
In that case, I have no problem with the suggestion. As long as a doctrine can be shown to come from the Bible, I’m happy to accept it. And if it was the consensus until the Reformation, I am willing to accept the challenge that it may have more weight than Protestants normally give it. However, considering the doctrines that can be wrongly believed without damning a person, there is even more freedom – though we should all desire to be of one mind and know and love the truth.
I’ve been wanting to ask you what you mean by consensus. The consensus of whom? Modern Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox believers couldn’t care less about consensus. Fully one-third of Christendom is Protestant. Where are their convictions figured in?
You say we need to look long and hard at the centuries prior to 1517. But don’t we also need to look long and hard at the centuries since? Isn’t the Holy Spirit still active? Doesn’t St. Vincent speak of Everywhere (including northern Europe), Always (including the 16th century), and By All (including Protestants)?
I actually believe we must be diligent in prayer and deliberate in study. If our hearts can’t be trusted, then why are you trusting that you have finally arrived and have epistemology down pat?
I don’t have a formula, but I believe there are some things we can employ to do a better job.
1. Scripture is actually pretty doggone clear on most things. Sound exegesis and reasonable hermeneutics can get us a long, long ways down the road. Any text, no matter how tightly formulated, can be interpreted in hundreds of ways. But only two or three of these can compete for true validity. There may be 40,000 Protestant denominations, but fully 38,957 of these cannot hold up under the lightest of scrutinies.
2. By and large, the Apostolic Fathers added no tradition to Scripture. And they were effusive in their use of Scriptures to back up doctrines of any sort.
3. If we persevere long and hard enough–if with all our heart we truly seek him–he is faithful to reward our efforts. I study writings on all sides of an issue, in all eras, from around the world. I think this is what St. Vincent must have meant: that we look at the big picture…with a magnifying glass. A particular stance will stand out. It may be a majority view, a plurality view, or a minority view…but it will come across as the right view for many reasons: its compatibility with Scripture, its compatibility with the earliest of the fathers, its compatibility with our own experience, its compatibility with the views of the mature Christians we know, and its compatibility with mature groups of Christians across time and throughout the world. Is it beautiful? Is it selfless? Is it humble? Is it gracious? Is it glorifying? Is it compassionate? Is it holy?
You sometimes speak as if we must find the truth and then follow it…even if we have to hold our nose. I understand the sentiment. The truth may indeed run afowl of our own ingrained preferences.
But such a constraint must be balanced out against an understanding that the truth comes from the Father of Lights. The truth, my friend, is inherently beautiful. It is not an acquired taste. (And by that I mean that people often hold as lovely an untruth that they have been converted to.)
It’s hard as the dickens to tell the difference.
The fact that you have to hold your nose may mean you should shy away from a particular conclusion. Then again, the fact that a new concept suits your fancy may mean you should shy away from it. Satan disguises some evils as good to get you to bite. On the other hand, some evils look as god awful as they are. Likewise, some good things are disguised as evil, and some good things appear altogether fetching.
I’ll stop there. I like where your heart is taking you in many ways. I just think you’re being far too simplistic, and that concerns me about your approach.
The heart IS deceitful. It can manipulate us even at those points where we believe we’re overcoming its corrupt influences.
Consensus that was reached in any point in time, the whole Church could not fall away. As for so many issues where there was never any disagreement anywhere, this leads me to believe that Protestantism in making disputes is opposing the consensus that had previously existed.
But why don’t you care about the early post-Apostolic era (the era of the Apostolic Fathers)?
Here there was no Marian devotion, no intercession of the saints, no purgatory, no penance, no transubstantiation, no sky-high church liturgy, no papacy, and no infant baptism.
I do realize that, as EO, you don’t hold to all of these. But why do you hold to any of them.?
If consensus once established cannot be contra-indicated, then why does everyone on your side gloss over those writers chronologically closest to the Apostles (and punt to “development of doctrine”)?
Protestantism (at its best) contends that it is reestablishing the consensus that was there in the beginning.
Good point, but it would be fair to view the apostolic fathers as exhuastive. THey do affirm the Eucharistic sacrifice. And being that none of Protestantism does, that whittles down our options.
First, I’m not sure I can buy that conclusion. Many if not most of the early citations are vague enough that the authors may be speaking of offerings of prayer and praise and thanksgiving. Tertullian directly states that this is what Malachi 1:10-11 is talking about. A number of the writers speak of commemoration of the Passion, or they use phrases like “living sacrifice” and “spiritual sacrifice.”
But even if what you say is the truth, that doesn’t whittle down our options to two. To be fair, it narrows them down to zero.
Didache is pretty clear that it is a “sacrifice” and speaks of it as such. So, I would not even need to get into Justin Martyr or Irenaeus who both speak of the bread and wine’s “transformation.”
The Didache is pretty clear that WHAT is a sacrifice?? Our prayer and praise and thanksgiving?
Here is the text:
“But every Lord’s day do ye gather yourselves together, and break bread, and give thanksgiving after having confessed your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure. But let no one that is at variance with his fellow come together with you, until they be reconciled, that your sacrifice may not be profaned. For this is that which was spoken by the Lord: In every place and time offer to me a pure sacrifice; for I am a great King, saith the Lord, and my name is wonderful among the nations”
Not so clear now, is it? Could be the Eucharist, but sure doesn’t have to be!
As for transformation, everyone who believes in the Real Presence acknowledges a transformation. What the Reformers do not acknowledge is a disappearance of the elements of bread and wine. Check the Early Church Fathers. They don’t either!
Obviously “give thanksgiving ” means Eucharist. And you are wrong, the disappearance of the elements is spoken of by Irenaeus: “For just as the bread which comes from the earth, having received the invocation of God, is no longer ordinary bread, but the Eucharist, consisting of two realities, earthly and heavenly, so our bodies, having received the Eucharist, are no longer corruptible, because they have the hope of the resurrection.”
It is no longer ORDINARY bread (it is still bread, just set apart for sacred purpose).
It is both EARTHLY (bread) and HEAVENLY (Christ’s glorified body).
The bread hasn’t disappeared!
Obviously, The Eucharist means The Thanksgiving.
In evaluating texts from the early church, you can’t willy-nilly assign the word its whole theological significance across time.
True, but being they call it a sacrifice and then say “break bread” immediately beforehand, that kind of narrows its meaning.
No, Craig, it doesn’t.
Before the destruction of the Temple, the Qumran community, owing to its lack of access, spiritualized the sacrificial system. Ritual purity was emphasized, and the sacrifices themselves became such things as prayer and good deeds. A similar thing happened in Rabbinic Judaism after the destruction of the Temple.
In Romans 15:15-16, Paul speaks of the preaching of the Gospel among the Gentiles as a “priestly ministry,” calling them a “pure offering.” If you somehow believe that in the early church the only thing called a sacrifice was the Eucharist–and not Gospel ministry or worship or prayer–you are sadly mistaken.