Scripture interpretation belongs in the Church

Bible study baby

He who does not have the Spirit and presumes to find it in Scripture, looks for light and find darkness… – Hans Denck, 16th century Anabaptist 

Christianity Today has reported on recent survey results about how frequent Scripture reading leads to Christian taking more liberal positions (as well affirming conservative ones). Fellow MennoNerd Ryan Robinson has blogged about it over here. CT reports the following observations (emphasis mine):

Frequent Bible reading has some predictable effects on the reader. It increases opposition to abortion as well as homosexual marriage and unions. It boosts a belief that science helps reveal God’s glory. It diminishes hopes that science will eventually solve humanity’s problems. But unlike some other religious practices, reading the Bible more often has some liberalizing effects—or at least makes the reader more prone to agree with liberals on certain issues. This is true even when accounting for factors such as political beliefs, education level, income level, gender, race, and religious measures (like which religious tradition one affiliates with, and one’s views of biblical literalism).

The part of the article that I am most concerned about is contained in this sentence: “Comparatively very little research has looked into what happens when one actually reads the Bible, especially when one reads it independently outside the church.

And also this paragraph:

Why does this happen? One possible explanation is that readers tend to have expectations of a text prior to reading it. Given the Bible’s prominence in our society, it’s little wonder that many people think they know what’s in it before they open it up. But once they start reading it on their own, they are bound to be surprised by something, and this surprising new content is then integrated and grafted on to the familiar. Beliefs do change with the addition of new information.

Ok, so what’s my problem? While I am certainly one to promote frequent reading of the Holy Scriptures, I am concerned that a) we think we can truly eliminate any external bias from such reading, and b) that we should do that outside the context of  the church.

During the time of the Reformation Martin Luther touted the idea that people should read and interpret the Bible on their own, but quickly found that this was unwise because of all the varied interpretations people were coming up with. They eventually located the qualification for interpretation with theologians. The idea of reading the Bible on your own outside of the church has sometimes been called “Me and My Bible” or “Solo Scriptura” and this is a dangerous distortion of the reformation doctrine of Sola Scriptura.

The biggest strength of the Anabaptist movement has been it’s emphasis on community and in this context of understanding Scripture, using that community as a filter for discerning the leading of the Holy Spirit which resides in each believer.

C.A. Snyder writes that “[Anabaptists] believed that the best interpreters of Scripture were those who had received the Holy Spirit. This meant, they said, that an illiterate peasant who has received the gift of the Holy Spirit is a better interpreter of God’s Word than a learned theologian who lacks the Spirit.”

Hans Hut, a 16th Century Anabaptist said “God’s commandment does not consist in the letter, but in the power which the Spirit gives.”

As Snyder points out, it would perhaps be more correct to label the Anabaptist view as “Scripture and Spirit together” rather than “Scripture Alone”. I’d be shocked if more reformed pastors and theologians would disagree with this these days, even if they won’t state it exactly in the same way.

But how to keep individual “Spirit-led interpretations” in check? As with most things in the Anabaptist world, the answer is “Community”.  Snyder writes “One very early Anabaptist document recommends that the brothers and sisters read Scripture together, and then ‘the one to whom God has given understanding shall explain it.’ This process of congregational discernment provided one way of placing some controls on the interpretations of Scripture and prophecy”.

Menno Simons eventually attached the need to measure all spiritual claims against the life and words of Jesus Christ himself: “By the Spirit, Word, actions and example of Christ, all must be judged until the Last Judgement.

In summation, the Anabaptist position of interpreting Sacred Scripture is to understand that “God’s will is revealed in Scripture, interpreted by all believers through the power of the Holy Spirit, discerned in community, and tested by the measure of Christ.”

So, back to the survey: I don’t care what the specific conclusions of the survey were, in fact I would support the views that it says frequent Scripture reading leads one too. I am concerned however when it seems to promote the idea of “Solo Scriptura”, this is a very dangerous notion that seems alien to Scripture itself. Consider the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8:

Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” This is a desert place. 27 And he rose and went. And there was an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28 and was returning, seated in his chariot, and he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29 And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over and join this chariot.” 30 So Philip ran to him and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31 And he said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.

This wasn’t just a demonstration of hospitality on the part of the Eunich, it was a very real demonstration that we should not and can not interpret Scripture on our own. And if the community of the people of God is the church, then we should read it outside the confines of the church. Yes, read it on your own, but then bring your observations and your questions to the church for discernment and discussion. If your church does not allow for that and isn’t open to changing, what can I say, find another church (whether it be within your current denomination or not).

So, as interesting as these survey results are, they come with a warning: keep the interpretation of Scripture where it belongs, in the church. It wasn’t written for you, it was written for us.

Sources: From Anabaptist Seed, C.A. Snyder

11 thoughts on “Scripture interpretation belongs in the Church

  1. good stuff here, Andrew.

    You’d be surprised, though, how many people would say that they want to be taught rather than contribute. I suggested to a SS class recently that, perhaps, rather than one person in a pulpit giving a teaching, that a fuller understanding of the Scripture might happen if the Spirit-led community “wrestled” with it together… Boy, some folks REALLY didn’t like that… “What if we get folks teaching us wrong things? What if someone takes us down a bad road? I’m hear to be taught, I’m not qualified to teach.” and such.

    Communal interpretation of Scripture does not negate the need for “experts” to be present… but it allows for even those experts to be tested and kept accountable.

    • Yes, it is a tough balance that I wrestle with: Eph 4:11 clearly teaches that there are different gifts for different people and we do need to make allowances for people who are not group contributors (I’m an introvert, so it takes a lot for me to contribute at times). There are practical aspects to having someone preach every week for the sake of planning, etc, but then to open that up to the church for confirmation.

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  3. I think the issue here is that Anabaptists read scripture in a community with out the pressure of any religious institution holding them to “orthodoxy”. Thus I think the article is spot on and I think it reflects what occurred with the Anabaptists. When you approach the text with the doctrines of the “Church” in mind that is what you will see but these people did not approach it in that fashion.

    The Acts 8 account is some what mute because there was one Christianity at the time (no denominations) and the leaders for a lack of a better term was definitely Spirit lead. Anything after the death of the Apostles et al we can not be so sure of whether they were correct in their council.

    • It’s that communal Scripture interpretation which gives rise to the rather dearth of any substantial texts by Anabaptist teachers/scholars. To write such a text means you are putting your singular intepretation forward as “the” acceptable one. Rather than depending upon texts, those of us in the Anabaptist tradition point, instead, to the community as the interpretation and life as the hermeneutic…

      This does not mean texts aren’t written, but they are written out of that communal process… even the Dordrecht and Schleitheim confessions were communal and no one person attached their name to it.

  4. Robert

    I think you misunderstood what I meant, I am just saying that the Anabaptists read scripture in community but not in the community that Conservatism or those that adhere to strict orthodoxy prefer. So it was like the Anabaptists (a group) read the Bible alone-that is alone from Protestants and Roman Catholics and thus many of their doctrines are considered liberal. This harmonizes with much of what the article stated.

    • Thanks for your insights. Interestingly, Anabaptists typically have been quite closely aligned with Catholic theology as opposed to reformed. The insistence on communal interpretation is similar (but uniquely different) to the magisterium and sacred tradition.

  5. I think that to determine a specific way for Anabaptists to read the Scripture isn’t a historical way to go about it. Conrad Grebel read the Bible in community, albeit a pretty radical Bible Study that stood against the new authorized teaching of Zwingli. But Michael Sattler came to many of his conclusions on his own. I think the important thing is how we read the bible, not who we read it with. And that’s a different discussion.

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