Interpretive Authority: Who Decides what the Bible Means?

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As soon as we encounter the variety of ways people cite the Bible to establish their views, we see the need to think more carefully about interpretive authority. After all, when we observe readings as diverse as that between, say, John Macarthur Jr. and Joel Osteen, Pope Francis and Lewis Farrakhan, and between groups like the Watchtower Society and the Gospel Coalition, it’s apparent why we need to think more deeply about the question, “Who decides what the Bible means?”

We evangelical types often attempt to answer the question with a few vague notions lingering in our heads, leftover from the Reformation. We appeal (explicitly, or implicitly) to the priesthood of all believers, scripture’s so-called perspicuity, and sola scriptura. But in doing so, we need to remember that since these were originally reactionary teachings, they were susceptible to imbalance when passed down and received.

The priesthood of all believers can lead to radical interpretive autonomy, where Bible readers do what’s right in their own eyes. The Believer’s priesthood, according to Scripture and the Reformers, simply means that we can approach God even apart from earthly mediators, and that we have a right and responsibility to read the Bible for ourselves. But this doesn’t mean, for example, that any one believer has ultimate interpretive authority to say what all Christians must believe about, say, the Trinity. For that, readers must look to the collective priesthood of all believers, that of the “one holy catholic and apostolic church.”

The same is true for the so-called perspicuity of Scripture. Historically this doctrine asserted a pretty minimal claim that inflated over time. Scripture’s perspicuity simply meant that a reasonably literate believer who read the Bible closely and prayerfully could perceive its basic message. But this doctrine is severely chastened today by the fact that the vast array of Christians who believe the Bible still disagree about what it means on some pretty central issues. So, whatever significance this doctrine may still hold, it doesn’t imply that a new believer who merely reads their Bible will be able to articulate the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, an affirmation, by the way, that unless we receive, according to the Athanasian Creed, we “can’t be saved.”

Too, evangelicals often assume sola scriptura opposes tradition, and so many vow to hold no creed but the Bible. Yet, this assumption not only misunderstands the Reformers, it also fails to recognize that everyone approaches the Bible through some creedal lens, whether acknowledged or not. And even those unaware of sola scriptura typically assume the only thing necessary for good theological conclusions is to set alone with a Bible and a concordance.

Theologian Wayne Grudem, for example, continues to commend this sort of approach to countless seminarians through his popular Systematic Theology (21). Characteristically, Grudem denies the orthodox doctrine of the Son’s eternal generation simply because it’s not explicit in any one text of Scripture. Responding to this sort of approach in another context, Michael Horton offers an apt reply:

“We are dealing with the greatest of all divine mysteries (i.e. Trinity), and we must have more reflection at our disposal than our own. This is the danger of “biblicism”-that is, marginalizing the history of doctrine in favor of explicit biblical statements, when at least among the orthodox, the history of doctrine is the history of biblical exegesis” (“Why Historical Theology Matters: Trinity and the Dangers of Biblicism”).

In other words, Grudem’s kind of biblisicm ain’t biblical! As Horton points out, it only substitutes my reading of the Bible for our reading of the Bible, bypassing centuries of church reflection, to all of a sudden arrive at the immediately “obvious” meaning of Scripture. In the end, this sort of individualistic Biblicism replaces the scope of the Bible’s teaching, as perceived by the church through time, with what is said in so many words.

In view of all this, it’s easy to see, at least in part, what sound interpretation entails. When Barth says, “the door of Bible texts can open only from within” (CD 1/2: 533), he means that the assumptions we bring to the Bible must reflect those of the community baptized into the Threefold Name. And this Spirit-gifted community is not merely local or worldwide, but one stretching back across the ages. Sound reading entails, then, that we begin to gratefully receive the manifold gifts of the Church universal. Practically speaking, we must commit ourselves to a lifelong apprenticeship to the great tradition. This doesn’t mean we stop reading our Bible “devotionally,” or personally. But it will entail a serious concern to ensure that our appeals to the Bible reflect a family resemblance, especially in our theologizing.

The fact that such an apprenticeship seems unrealistic and even unnecessary to many evangelicals serves only to indict our sort of Biblicism. For generations we have imbibed overly pietistic reading practices along with imbalanced preaching on Scripture’s perspicuity. And as we approach the third decade of the third millennium, the digital age continues to reconfigure our brains to expect short, quick, and shallow treatments of deep questions. So yes, apprenticing ourselves to the great tradition means taking the road less traveled. It will take discipline and, as Bath says, it will mean becoming a studiosus (Evangelical Theology, 171-72).

Thankfully this task is easier today than in previous times. Rich resources abound for cultivating a more catholic biblicism. In closing let me commend some sources toward this end. Several works written or edited by the late Thomas Oden deserve mention. His Ancient Christian Commentary series, Ancient Christian Doctrine series, along with his Classic Christianity: a Systematic Theology can help evangelicals reconnect with the faith and reading posture of the apostolic tradition. A similar series The Church’s Bible edited by Robert Wilken is a treasure trove worth consulting too. The Reformation Commentary on Scripture edited by Timothy George is a sister series to Oden’s and just as rich. Finally, the six volume Expositions of the Psalms in the Works of Augustine: A Translation for the 21ST Century, offers a good example of what reading the Psalms with the Church should look like. If you read Jason Byassee’s Praise Seeking Understanding in tandem with one of Augustine’s volumes, you’ll be on your way toward a more positive sort of biblicism.




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