The Whole Church Showing Up in Your Quiet Time
November 23, 2016
How do we read the Bible? This is a question that underlies some of the recent debates in Christianity. Many of these arguments, whether we are discussing the error of the Eternal Subordination of the Son, the latest statement by the Hatmakers declaring homosexual marriage holy, or some of the other strange teachings we’ve seen this year in the name of biblical manhood and womanhood, are made from a Biblicist reading of Scripture. I’ve read three books this year that have emphasized an important point regarding how Christians should read
Holy Scripture: the Reformation cry “Scripture alone” does not mean that Scripture is alone (Reformed Catholicity, by Michael Allen and Scott Swain, Trinity, Revelation, and Reading, by Scott Swain, and Biblical Authority After Babel, by Kevin Vanhoozer). It also does not mean that we are to read it alone, isolated from the community of faith. Even when we are alone studying Scripture or having our quiet time, we read Scripture in the context of our “interpretive communities.”
I can’t cover this whole concept in a simple blog post, but I wanted to share this point because we need to be asking ourselves what interpretive communities we are placing ourselves in. Even Biblicists have the suppositions of others influencing their own so-called private judgment. And ironically, while ostensibly being thankful to escape the trappings of Rome, many Protestants are looking outside of the church, to the parachurch, to form their theological interpretations, therefore creating their own quasi-magisterial authority---one that has no accountability or proper mode of retrieval and reform.
The priesthood of all believers has been sabotaged. Kevin Vanhoozer reminds us that “far from being a pathology that accords authority to autonomous individuals, the royal priesthood of all believers---briefly the notion that all church members are ministers of God’s Word---is actually part of the pattern of authority, indeed, part of a triune economy of authority. ‘Royal’ signals authority, ‘priesthood’ signals interpretive community; ‘all believers’ signals that individuals are not autonomous agents but citizens of the gospel.” With all the buzz about authority in evangelical circles these days, it seems we are misplacing the “principal of authority (the Triune God speaking in the Scriptures)” and the “pattern of authority, which is to say the pattern of interpretive authority, an economy that identifies Jesus Christ alone as king but accords pride of interpretive place to his royal priesthood.” And so Vanhoozer emphasizes, “The church alone is the place where Christ rules over his kingdom and gives certain gifts for the building of his living temple” (Biblical Authority After Babel, 29).
Who is in your room with you during your quiet time? This is a vital question that is often left out when we talk about Bible interpretation. Yes, the Holy Spirit is with us, and these three books offer good teaching on his role in our Bible interpretation. But if we do want to follow the Spirit, then we must not ignore the way he works and the gifts he has given to the church. God did not leave us to an isolated reading of his Word, while desperately grasping for spiritual illumination of the text. The encounter Phillip had with the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:26-40 is a good illustration of this.
For Christians, reading is an inherently communal enterprise. And reading is a communal enterprise for the same reason that Christianity is a communal enterprise. God’s purpose through Christ and covenant is not simply to reconcile individual believers to himself. When God reconciles individuals to himself, he also binds those individuals to one another, creating a new humanity and an independent body (Eph. 2.16; 1 Cor. 12.12ff). In God’s design, this body’s growth in the knowledge of God is not caused by God alone (Col. 2.19). Rather, the Lord nourishes his body and causes it to grow by the means of the body’s own proper agency and work. The church “edifies itself” (Eph. 4.16). The knowledge of the gospel’s God is a knowledge obtained and sustained “with all the saints” (Eph. 3.18, cf. 2 Tim. 3.14-15). For this reason, the Christian reader of Holy Scripture finds his place as a reader among the company of those who have been brought from death to life by the Word of God, gathered together in a common fellowship under the Lord’s guidance and teaching, and equipped by the Lord to instruct and edify one another in the shared faith. (Trinity, Revelation, and Reading, 100-101; Reformed Catholicity, 99-100)
Affirming that the church is a “creature of the Word” and that Scripture is the supreme authority over the church, Swain and Allen also remind us that the church is the subordinate servant, divinely authorized to serve Holy Scripture. This is God’s gift to us. “The church is that community created and authorized by the Word of God in order that it might obediently guard, discern, proclaim, and interpret the Word of God” (Trinity, Revelation, and Reading,103; Reformed Catholicity, 102). While we have the gift of authorized ministers, the whole church is made up of active traditioners, parents instructing children, congregants singing together in public worship, Christians edifying our neighbors, and encouraging and exhorting our brothers and sisters in the faith.
When I sit down to read my Bible, I remember that I am not alone. The Scripture is not alone either. I’m not only depending on the Spirit to work in me for that moment; I know that he has been working in the church universal through the centuries, preserving an orthodox profession and testifying to the truth of God’s Word. I know he is working in my local church, participating in this retrieval and Reformation, looking back to the church universal and “translat[ing] it into our new cultural contexts, thus enlarging our understanding of its achievement” (Vanhoozer, 25). I am thankful for the public reading and interpretation of Scripture in my church and for our confessions being faithfully handed down, serving as guardrails for me as I read. I reap the fruit of my interpretive community. The public teaching of the Word shapes my private reading. Scripture is a covenantal document, so Swain concludes, “Reading is therefore a living conversation between an eloquent Lord and his attentive servants, a conversation in which the reader is summoned to hear what the Spirit of Christ says to the churches (Rev. 2.7)” (Trinity, Revelation, and Reading, 139).