Prof. Decker is professor of Practical Theology in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
The sixteenth century Reformation proclaimed three fundamental principles: justification by faith alone, Scripture alone, and the priesthood of all believers. In opposition to Rome’s hierarchy the Reformers insisted that the only authority for the faith and life of God’s people is Holy Scripture. They further insisted that every believer as prophet, priest, and king in Christ could read and understand the Word of God. Rome had effectively taken the Bible out of the hands of the people. Rome’s hierarchy, the clergy and especially the pope, stood between the believer and his Bible. The church (clerical hierarchy) interpreted the Bible for the people (laity).
Today a new hierarchy has arisen in the churches, viz. that of the professional theologians, the archaeologists and geologists, the scientists, the learned scholars. These are telling us that we cannot understand the Bible anymore. They are telling us that the Bible does not say what we have always thought it says. Furthermore, because of this they are telling us we need them to tell us what the Bible really means and how it applies to our lives today. They represent a new hierarchy between the believer and his Bible.
According to this new hierarchy the Bible contains man’s witness to God or to Jesus. What we have in the Bible is the record of the various writers’ religious experiences or encounters with God. The Pentateuch is the record of Moses’ encounter with God. Isaiah witnesses to God as he and his contemporaries experienced God. The Evangelists wrote about Jesus as they saw and heard Him. The same is true of the apostles and other writers of the New Testament. The early church gradually adopted these writings as sacred Scripture.
The Bible, therefore, is time bound according to these experts. It was written in its own time in history, and its writers were limited by the times in which they lived. They were influenced by the primitive vision of the ancient world of Bible times. They conceived, for example, of a three-storied universe: heaven above, the earth beneath, and hell under the earth. They thought that the sun revolved around a flat earth. The biblical writers had many other mistaken notions as well, such as, for example, the following: the world was created by God in six twenty-four hour days, there was a universal flood, an ax head floated, Jonah was in the belly of a great fish, a dry path was made through the Red Sea, water out of a rock went bouncing along after Israel in the desert. These men wrote in their times and for their times, but now in our scientific and sophisticated age we know better. Either these things just did not occur or there is a natural explanation for them.
These men also say that the Bible is culturally conditioned. Each writer wrote in the context of his own culture, and this affected his witness to God. When, for example, Paul wrote about marriage and divorce, or about the headship of the husband, or about women keeping silence in the churches and not usurping the authority of the man in the church, Paul was under the influence of his rabbinical training and the cultural mores of his day. Likewise were the other biblical writers limited by the cultural influences of their day.
All this radically alters how we are to understand the Bible. The Bible, according to these scholars, contains myths and teaching models. Genesis 1, 2 tells us that God created the universe, but not how and when. Genesis 3teaches that the human race fell into sin and death, but no more than that. The Bible contains misconceptions arising out of primitive conceptions of reality. And there are just plain errors in the Bible. One of these is the Bible’s account of creation. Science has proved a very old universe. The earth simply cannot be about six thousand years old as Scripture teaches. Adam and Eve were not real people living in a real garden called Eden or Paradise. Further, what Paul said about women applied in his day when women ran around with veils and were living in a male dominated society. But all this does not apply in our enlightened times.
Many factors are involved in interpreting the Bible. Two questions need to be answered in Bible interpretation: What did the writer mean by this passage relative to his own time and culture, and what does it mean for us today? The answers to those two questions often are quite different. In Paul’s day women had to keep silence in the churches, while today they may occupy church office. In Paul’s day homosexuality and lesbianism were considered a manifestation of the reprobate mind; while today such people may occupy not only the pew but also the pulpit.
Thus it is, we are being told, that we need to know ancient history, culture, language, mythology, philosophy, archeology, and the sciences, if we are to be equipped to understand the Bible. Of course, we need to know these disciplines if we are to expound the Bible correctly. But the theologians mean something quite different. They mean that if there is a conflict between one’s scientific discoveries and the Bible, one must reconsider the traditional interpretation of the Bible and be willing to change. Science determines the meaning of the Bible.
The conclusion is that God’s people really cannot understand the Bible. We are not equipped to read it correctly. We need the theologians, linguists, and scientists to tell us what the Bible is really saying.
And so it is that a new hierarchy has arisen in the churches, that of the theologians and scholars. These must tell us the meaning of Scripture. Without them we cannot understand what we read in the Bible. Just as effectively as Rome, these have placed themselves between God’s people and the Bible. They have effectively taken the Bible out of the hands of the people of God.
This is very serious indeed! The church has always confessed, and the Reformation reasserted, these precious truths that the Bible is inspired and therefore infallible. The Reformation also asserted that the Bible is perspicuous, or clear. Because the Bible is inspired and infallible it is the only rule for our faith and life. And in the Bible God speaks to us in language which we can understand. The question or issue we face is not whether we can or do understand .what the Bible is saying, but whether we believe what the Bible is saying? This is, no doubt, at least one of the reasons Jesus told us we had to become as little children in order to enter the kingdom of God. This writer teaches a catechism class of six-year-old children. These little ones have no difficulty understanding that Jesus was born of the virgin, that He healed the sick and raised the dead, that He suffered and died on the cross and was raised from the dead and now sits at God’s right hand in glory and is coming again at the end of the ages. The Scriptures are able to make us wise unto salvation through faith in Christ Jesus (II Timothy 3:15).
Our calling is plain! We must let no one, no synods, no theologians, no experts take our Bibles away from us. Still more, we must insist that the Word of God be faithfully preached. And faithfully means properly. The church does not need Sunday School stories from the pulpit, or dissertations on political or social issues. The believer needs to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd (John 10) by means of preaching. Without faithful preaching we cannot call upon the name of the Lord in faith and be saved (cf. Romans 10:13-15) Faithful preaching is preaching that expounds the Word of God. The sermons we hear must contain nothing more or less than what Scripture itself says. And we need to search the Scriptures daily, prayerfully to meditate on the Word of God.
By these means we may be assured that the Spirit of our Lord Jesus Christ witnesses with our spirits that we are the children of God (Rom. 8:16).
Following the example of Martin Luther let each of us, with Bible in hand, say to the new hierarchy, “Here I stand, I can do naught else, God help me.”