A Million Little Popes

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One of the great tragedies of medieval Roman Catholicism is that it claimed the church was the true interpreter of Scripture. Individuals didn’t need to read the Bible because they would probably misunderstand it and get the whole thing wrong. No, no, better to leave it to the clergy and let them dictate the Bible’s meaning to the laity.

But the Protestant Reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin, and even the pre-Reformers such as John Wycliffe and William Tyndale, challenged this doctrine. They believed that Scripture was meant to be read and understood by all Christ’s people, not just the ecclesiastical elite.

As Tyndale famously said, “I defy the Pope and all his laws. If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough to know more of the Scripture, than he dost.” And according to Luther, “A simple man with Scripture has more authority than the Pope or a council.”

Now, almost 500 years later, most of us would consider that a given. The Bible is the best-selling book in the world. New English translations come out every year. You can find a Bible in every hotel room and in almost every home. Bible apps on our phone allow us to carry the entire canon around in our pocket. Within Christian circles we constantly highlight the importance of “quiet time” when we, all by ourselves, free of distraction, open the pages of Scripture and read. The Bible is more available than it’s ever been, and we, for the most part, understand the importance of personally taking the time to study it.

Praise God.

And yet, for all that, we’ve reverted back to Rome.

What do I mean? Catholicism said the church possessed the authority to decipher Scripture without challenge. And although we’ve seemingly gotten away from that error we’ve fallen into a similar trap, for now the individual possesses that same unquestioned authority. We now treat the Bible as a subjective document in which the individual determines its meaning. If I think or feel that a passage means something in particular, surely it must be so!

We see this on display when people talk about “what this verse is saying to me”, or through the countless Bible devotions I’ve seen that ask questions like, “What does this verse mean to you?”  I remember a Bible study some years ago where one of the ladies attending became quite emotional because I suggested that perhaps she was misunderstanding one of Christ’s parables. “I know this is what it means!” she insisted. “It just speaks to me so much!”

In other words, we’ve made self the new Pope. Instead of Rome, the meaning of Scripture is determined by the papal authority of me.

That’s not what the Reformers had in mind. They didn’t envision a million Christians coming up with a million interpretations of the Bible. They believed that God has objectively spoken through Scripture and each reader has the blessed and individual opportunity to understand that truth. It’s not that each person has the authority to interpret Scripture, but that each individual has the ability to understand Scripture. It’s not that we subject Scripture to our opinions, but that we subject our opinions before the clarity of Scripture.

That’s not to say the personal application of Scripture is always the same. Different people in different phases of life may be convicted or encouraged by different things. Application may vary, but meaning–the doctrine behind the application–is always concrete.

I was recently discussing a piece of literature with a lady at work when she made the comment, “I think one meaning you could get from it is…” I can’t help but fundamentally disagree with that approach to any piece of writing. The written word is not meant to be a vague canvas splattered with paint, prone to the privies of its beholder. Words mean something. The question is not, “What do I think this means?” but “But what did the author intend this to mean?” What does it actually mean?

We have to ask the same question when approaching the Bible. Personal devotion is not the time to formulate what we think the Bible says but rather what God intends the Bible to say. The Pope does not have the authority to interpret Scripture because he’s the supposed Vicar of Christ, nor does the plow boy have the authority to interpret Scripture based on his subjective feelings. All may interpret Scripture because God has revealed it, God has a meaning behind it, and God has made that meaning understandable. The authority of Scripture does not rest in any church councils or individual opinions, but in God Himself.

How do we counteract this tendency in ourselves? Here’s a few helpful ways:

  • Read the passages in context. Instead of taking an isolated verse on its own, read the verses before and after to gain a better understanding of the author’s intention.
  • Cross-reference. If a passage seems difficult to understand, interpret Scripture with Scripture by studying other clearer passages that deal with the same topic.
  • Read both old and new commentaries. There is so much treasure to be gleaned from the research and wisdom of pastors and theologians. Of course their opinions are not divinely inspired, but they can be profound and helpful.
  • Pray. Pray again. Then pray some more. Ask Jesus to open your eyes to the truth of Scripture by the illumination of the Holy Spirit (cf. Luke 24:45; 1 Cor. 2:11-13).

Despite how far we’ve come from medieval Roman Catholicism, perhaps we’re repeating many of the same mistakes. The Pope is not our authority, but neither is our own self-understanding. The Word of God stands on its own two feet, and our job is not to decide what it says but learn what it says and submit to it.

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