I am interested in conforming myself to the Word, but it strikes me that the Reformed church has a problem with authority. By this I mean that private individuals are empowered to promulgate a multitude of varying doctrines, often after only recently becoming acquainted with Scripture. Private interpretation appears to have worked a great evil in its violence against the body of Christ. My question is: who has the final say on matters of scriptural interpretation or the adjudication of controversies within the Church?
There are actually a number of intertwined questions within your question, but, I will try to answer them in order as best I can.
First of all, no Scripture is of private interpretation. That is, I cannot use any Scripture in any way that I want with any interpretation that I want. We see this kind of abuse when Satan tempted our Savior in the wilderness; he quoted from two verses of Scripture, Psalm 91:11–12. But, we also see the solution to this problem of selective quotation in the responses of Jesus to the temptations set before him by the enemy. He begins by citing Deuteronomy 8:3, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” It is quite significant that our Lord says “every word” because it indicates that it is not proper to engage in selective quotation, but that we must take the words of God as a whole. And so, Jesus resists the temptation by quoting from Deuteronomy 6:16, “It is written again, ‘You shall not tempt the Lord your God.’ ” But, he also puts this verse in the broadest context when he takes the tempter to Deuteronomy 10:20 to point out the whole point of the Word of God, which is to serve the Lord: “You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only you shall serve.” And, almost as a side-note, although Jesus could have spoken his own words with authority, the fact that he only responds with the written words of God is significant, in that he sets the pattern to how we should respond to the liars, i.e., not with our words or logic or ideas, but, with the written words of God.
This principle of “no private interpretation” is made explicit in 2 Peter 1:19–21, “And so we have the prophetic word confirmed, which you do well to heed as a light that shines in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts; knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation, for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.” He begins by pointing out the primacy of the words of God, which is “a light that shines in a dark place.” Nothing else brings light in the way that the words of God do. He then warns us that “that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation.” That is, we cannot impose our interpretation on the words of God. Let me expand this point. In the Church of Rome, they do not deny that the Bible is the Word of God, but they assert that the Pope is the only infallible interpreter of it. So, while they quote and use the Word of God, the only acceptable interpretation is that of the Pope. The same can be said of the Pentecostal churches, where only the interpretations of the so-called Spirit-filled interpreter have authority. The same can be said of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, where only the interpretations of Ellen G. White have authority. The same can be said of the Mormon Church (LDS), where only the interpretations of the First President have authority. And so for many churches. There is even a danger in confessional churches such as the Presbyterian and Lutheran churches that their confessions take priority over the Word of God.
The solution to this problem of multiple interpreters and interpretations is to stick to the Word of God, because it, and only it, is inspired. This is what Jesus did when he was tempted, and this is what we should do. The reason for this is that it is only the Word of God which we can know to be infallibly inspired by the Spirit of God, as we read once again in 2 Peter 1: 21, “for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.” One may say to himself, well, yes, that’s true, but, everyone always appeals finally to the Word of God. That is not, and never has been true, and it is especially untrue in the modern world. Many appeals are made to culture, history, anthropology, science, etc. For example, when the Watchtower explains why their group, falsely called the Jehovah’s Witnesses, believes in evolution, they do not begin with an exposition of the Word of God, but with an appeal to science, and then they try to fit the Word of God into their conclusions. To use another example, I had an ongoing argument with a Baptist about family baptism, and when I quoted the verse that says that the children of believers are holy, the man repeatedly rejected and even mocked that verse. He did not offer an alternative explanation or interpretation of the verse. He simply said it was inconsistent with rest of Scripture, so, it must not be true. I have had the same experience when I said I believed in predestination. People have said, “we don’t believe in that.” They don’t offer an alternate interpretation. They simply reject the doctrine, and the verses that speak of it, because it conflicts with their theological system.
Given that it is the Word of God alone which is our authority, how do we apply that in the real world? I believe that there are two principles. The first is that each of us is responsible before God to read, understand and obey his Word. Ultimately, it is to God alone that we must answer. We read about this in Romans 14:4, “Who are you to judge another’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls.” That is, in the end, it is God who is our Master, and we his servants, and each must answer to him. Having said that, there are those who are weak and lacking in wisdom when it comes to understanding the Word of God, and we should not accept their teachings, as he says in this same passage, “Receive one who is weak in the faith, but not to disputes over doubtful things” (v. 1).
The second principle is that we should not try to interpret the Word of God without seeking the help of others who know Jesus and his Word. We see this in the example of the Ethiopian eunuch, when he says to Philip, “How can I [understand what I am reading], unless someone guides me?” (Acts 8:31) And the response of Philip is seen in verse 35, “Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning at this Scripture, preached Jesus to him.” And so, the Lord has established his church and his servants within the church to teach the Word of God. We read in Ephesians 4:11–16,
And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ—from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love.
We see this put into practice in the early church, in the Council of Jerusalem. There was a dispute about circumcision in the church, and so we read in Acts 15:2, “Therefore, when Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and dispute with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go up to Jerusalem, to the apostles and elders, about this question.” They resolved the question by appealing to Amos 9:11–12, and came to an agreement, both of the congregation as a whole and the Apostles and elders of the church. When we hold our various assemblies, this is what we try to imitate: holy men of God, chosen as elders who are faithful men, seeking to properly interpret the Word of God according to his words.
It is true that with the diversity of the church today, it is very easy to escape listening to the elders of the church when they speak the word of God. But, I believe that good churches respect one another. So, in situations where people have come to us to escape from their own church, it has always been my practice to go to their former church to find out the reality of their fleeing from that church. Sometimes they have come with good references, and with good reasons for leaving, and other times, we have asked them to return and first be reconciled to their brothers.
Brother, I’m not sure I’ve completely answered your question, but perhaps it’s a start. There is, of course, much more that can be said. May the Lord bless you in his grace, now and forever.
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