Reading Scripture with the Protestant Reformers (2): The Role of the Church in Reading Scripture

G. Sujin Pak

As seen in part one of this series on “Reading Scripture with the Protestant Reformers,” the reformers established claims for Scripture’s perspicuity precisely on a profound optimism about the clear, unified work of the Holy Spirit as the true interpreter of Scripture. In affirming that the Holy Spirit is Scripture’s true interpreter and that Scripture by its very nature is thus self-interpreting and clear to those gifted with faith and the Spirit, then it seems Christians should hear and proclaim the same things. But such was not the case in the reformers’ ensuing experiences! Hence, if, in fact, the Spirit “cannot vary and differ from himself” (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, Library of Christian Classics 20 [Westminster, 1960], 1.9.2), then any fault or disconnection must be with the listeners. It thereby became necessary for the Protestant reformers to demarcate the proper role of the church — both concerning the ministerial offices of the church and the laity — in faithful proclamation and interpretation of Scripture.

The challenge to do so became even more pronounced for a number of reasons. Alongside asserting Scripture’s perspicuity, the Protestant reformers proclaimed Scripture’s accessibility to all believers. Against certain Roman Catholic teachings that Scripture is obscure and therefore only those of the spiritual estate can interpret Scripture authoritatively for the church, the Protestant reformers proclaimed the perspicuity of Scripture and the priesthood of all believers. All that is needed, argued the Protestant reformers, to read Scripture well is the gift of faith and the gift and aid of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, every believer receives these gifts and therefore has the necessary equipping to read Scripture. For example, in his 1520 address to the German nobility, Luther declared that “all Christians are of the spiritual estate … because all have one baptism, one gospel, one faith, and all are Christians alike, for baptism, gospel, and faith alone make us spiritual and a Christian people” (Luther’s Works, ed. J. Pelikan and H. Lehman, 55 vols. [Fortress, 1957-86], 44:127). Hence, argued Luther, the Roman Catholic Church is incorrect to claim that only the pope and priests may interpret Scripture for the church; rather, all Christians are called to read Scripture and judge whether a teaching is in accordance with Scripture (Luther’s Works, 44:126, 133-35). Thus, instructed Luther, when the pope — or any Christian, for that matter — “acts contrary to the Scriptures, it is our duty to stand by the Scriptures, to reprove him and to constrain him, according to the word of Christ in Matthew 18, ‘If your brother sins, go and tell it to him…’” (Luther’s Works, 44:136). Luther and Zwingli both appealed to the text of John 6:45, “It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God,’” to argue that since all Christians — and not merely the “tonsured and anointed ones” — are taught by God, then all Christians “certainly have the Spirit and the Word of God” (Luther’s Works, 36:151; Huldrych Zwingli, “Of the Clarity and Certainty of the Word of God,” in Zwingli and Bullinger, ed. and trans. Rev. G. W. Bromiley, Library of Christian Classics 24 [Westminster, 1953], 88-89). Indeed, Luther viewed the Roman Catholic magisterium’s claim of authority over biblical interpretation as one key facet of a larger tyranny, in which the Roman Catholic Church sought to protect itself from any reform or challenge to its authority (Luther’s Works, 44:126).

The Protestant reformers’ proclamation of the priesthood of all believers fell on fertile ground. Particularly in Germany from 1520 to 1525, there was an eruption of laypeople who took up this very call to read and interpret Scripture and correct what they believed to be wrong teachings by bringing them into alignment with Scripture (Paul Russell, Lay Theology in the Reformation: Popular Pamphleteers in Southwest Germany, 1521-1525 [Cambridge University Press, 1986], 133-34; Miriam Chrisman, “Lay Response to the Protestant Reformation in Germany, 1520-1528,” in Reformation Principle and Practice: Essays in Honor of Arthur Geoffrey Dickens, ed. Peter Brooks [Scolar, 1980], 36), and many did so through the publication of lay treatises. In these early years (1520-1525), the Protestant reforming activity was a large organism of multiple stripes and strands that was not yet clearly demarcated into what would later become separate groups of “Lutherans,” “Reformed,” “Anabaptists,” “Spiritualists,” “Calvinists,” and others. Indeed, the pressures and conflicts that resulted from the responses to this strong advocacy of the priesthood of all believers and, specifically, the call for all believers to read Scripture, led the Protestant reformers down a path that required a rearticulation of what biblical church order and offices look like and what was the church’s role in the interpretation of Scripture, if, indeed, the interpretation of Scripture belongs in the hands of all believers.

For instance, some laypersons and leaders of reform responded to the call of the priesthood of all believers and the emphasis on the role of the Holy Spirit in ways that Luther and Zwingli had not intended. Specifically, some emphasized direct and even new revelation from the Holy Spirit that could be apart from Scripture. The figure of Thomas Müntzer serves as a helpful example. Müntzer argued that new revelation from the Holy Spirit was necessary to discern true teaching. Indeed, he contrasted the “living Word of God” from the “dead” word of the written biblical text (The Collected Words of Thomas Müntzer, ed. and trans. Peter Matheson [T&T Clark, 1988], 359, 365). In this way, Müntzer took the emphasis on the necessary role of the Holy Spirit in interpreting Scripture and illuminating its clear content to an extreme, for he contended that not only is the Spirit necessary to clarify its content, but new revelation from the Spirit is necessary for Scripture to be an ongoing, living Word.

Luther, Zwingli, Bucer, and later Calvin responded rather sternly, even harshly, to these persons and groups, who were increasingly demarcated as “radicals” for their differing views of the role of the Holy Spirit, their desire for more extensive and faster reform of worship and sacramental practices, and/or their divergent understandings of church order, in which any person might publicly preach and baptize without any formal training. Specifically concerning Scripture, Luther, Zwingli, Bucer, and Calvin reasserted the mutual bond of the Word and Spirit. Thus, in a 1537 statement in the Smalcald Articles that was specifically aimed against radicals of this kind of “spiritualist” bent, Luther proclaimed that “God gives no one his Spirit or grace except through or with the external Word that comes before. Thus we shall be protected from [those] … who boast that they possess the Spirit without or before the Word and who therefore judge, interpret, and twist the Scriptures according to their pleasure” (The Book of Concord, ed. T.G. Tappert, [Muhlenberg, 1959], 312). Similarly, Calvin asserted that the Spirit never utters new revelations or invents new doctrines; rather, the Holy Spirit is known precisely by confirming the teachings already revealed in Scripture. The sure mark of the true Spirit of God is precisely the Spirit’s consensus with Scripture (Institutes 1.9.1-2). In other words, the leading Protestant reformers, such as Luther and Calvin, insisted that the Holy Spirit never speaks apart from God’s Word. This meant that in the first instance, God’s Word — Scripture and the preaching of Scripture in particular — is the prime medium of the Spirit’s working and, in the next instance, any true stirring of the Spirit reiterates or illuminates something already present in Scripture.

Consequently, going forward, Luther, Zwingli, Bucer, and Calvin (and their followers) defined faithful engagement with Scripture within the opposing pressures of Roman Catholicism and radical Protestantism. Luther asserted that the common mistake of the Roman Catholics and radicals (whom he called “Enthusiasts”) is that they both misconstrue the proper role of the Holy Spirit in relation to Scripture. They insist alike that the Spirit must be added externally in order to endorse a proper interpretation. Hence, Rome believed the Spirit is conferred to the magisterium, whereas the radicals believed the Spirit is bestowed to individual believers. On the contrary, contended Luther, the Spirit “comes in and through Scripture itself” (Klaas Runia, “The Hermeneutics of the Reformers,” Calvin Theological Journal 19 [1984]: 134). The Holy Spirit never operates apart from the Word of God as revealed in Scripture; indeed, this Word is the very means by which the Spirit comes. Therefore, no claim of the Holy Spirit apart from the Word revealed in Scripture can be valid. Similarly, Calvin also diagnosed this as the common problem between the Roman Catholics and radicals when he wrote, “For when they boast extravagantly of the Spirit, the tendency certainly is to sink and bury the Word of God that they may make room for their own falsehoods” (John Calvin and Jacopo Sadoleto: A Reformation Debate, ed. John C. Olin [Harper & Row, 1966], 61). Both Luther and Calvin affirmed the need of the Holy Spirit’s guidance in interpreting Scripture, but they demarcated Scripture itself as the proper bounds of the Spirit’s working.

Yet, Calvin added another layer of critique by addressing the issue of what is the right role of the church in the interpretation of Scripture. Calvin maintained that both the Roman Catholics and the radicals misconstrue the proper role of the church in the proclamation and interpretation of Scripture. Many radicals, on the one hand, despise the ministerial offices and “even Scripture itself in order to attain the Spirit” (The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Romans and Thessalonians, ed. David W. and Thomas F. Torrance, trans. Ross Mackenzie [Eerdmans, 1960], on 1 Thess 5:20). Here, Calvin pointed to the common radical belief that having the Spirit trumped all else, often leading to their rejection of traditional church structures, church offices, and training for ordination. On the contrary, argued Calvin, God designated human ministers as the means by which the Word of God should be proclaimed and the faithful edified (Institutes 4.1.5; 4.3.2). Hence, Calvin, Luther, and Zwingli strongly affirmed the need for authorized ministers who take on the public leadership of the church through the means of being properly called, trained, and ordained. They continued to affirm the priesthood of all believers, but clarified that the priesthood of all believers should not operate in a disorderly fashion, and it should not disregard the ministerial offices God has ordained. Rather, “all things should be done decently and in order” (1 Cor 14:40); hence, all have the right of judging the degree to which a public proclamation concurs with Scripture, but such is not a public disruptive practice but first a private reproof along the lines of Matt 18:15 (“first point out the fault when the two of you are alone…”). In this way, the Protestant reformers sought strongly to affirm both the public ministry of the church and the priesthood of all believers.

At the other end of the spectrum, on the other hand, were the Roman Catholics. The Roman Catholics stoutly affirmed the role of human ministers and church offices, an affirmation with which Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli agreed. Yet, contended the Protestant reformers, the Church of Rome left little to no room for the priesthood of all believers. The reformers viewed the Roman assertion that only the “spiritual estate” can interpret Scripture authoritatively for the church as a demand that Christians receive church teaching unquestioningly. On the contrary, insisted the reformers, Christians should not mindlessly accept what is preached and taught; rather, Christians are called to test all things in accordance with their agreement with Scripture. Consequently, the reformers sought to carve out a middle path between the errors of the radicals and Roman Catholics, as seen in this admonition from Calvin: “Let us remember that the fact that the reading of the Scripture is recommended to all does not annul the ministry of pastors, so that believers should learn to profit both by reading and by hearing, since God has not ordained either in vain” (The Second Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians and the Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, ed. David W. and Thomas F. Torrance, trans. T. A. Smail [Oliver & Boyd, 1964], on 2 Tim 4:1).

Similarly, the next generation of Protestant reformers, led by the work particularly of Philip Melanchthon and John Calvin, distinguished between the “tyranny” of the Roman Catholics and the “sedition” of the Anabaptists. They encouraged ordained clergy not to act like tyrants, but allow room for lay voices. This included an admonition to the clergy to cultivate the necessary virtues of humility and teachableness, for “God has never so blessed his servants that they each possessed full and perfect knowledge of every part of their subject. It is clear that God’s purpose in so limiting our knowledge was first that we should be kept humble and also that we should continue to have dealings with our fellow Christians” (John Calvin, The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Romans and Thessalonians, Preface to Romans, 4). Hence, pastors, even as they preach and teach, continue to be lifelong learners, for it is incumbent upon them “to determine whether what they say conforms to that which God has given through the Scriptures” (Calvin, as cited in Ward Holder, “Ecclesia, Legenda atque Intelligenda Scriptura: The Church as Discerning Community in Calvin’s Hermeneutic,” Calvin Theological Journal 36 [2001]: 283). The next generation of Protestant reformers equally urged the laity to avoid sedition (Philip Melanchthon, Corpus Reformatorum: Philippi Melanthonis opera quae supersunt omnia, ed. K. Bretschneider and H. Blindseil, 28 vols. [Schwetschke, 1834-60], 15:1176). That is, they should refrain from any disregard for God’s public ministry or eschew any incitement to disorderly practices; rather, they should follow the biblical orderly procedures outlined in texts such as Matt 18:15-17 and 1 Cor 14:29-33.

In these ways, the Protestant reformers affirmed a robust ecclesial reading of Scripture. On the one hand, God bestowed church ministerial offices to guide the public proclamation and interpretation of Scripture, in which pastors and teachers of the church took responsibility to be humble in ensuring the conformity of their words to the Word of God. On the other hand, all Christians are called to read Scripture and test the preaching and teaching of church leaders in their own minds and hearts and through, at least initially, private processes of admonition and correction. Such practices supported both the integrity of the church’s ministerial offices and the priesthood of all believers. In the end, all preaching and interpretation of Scripture aimed at the edification of the church — for the church’s “teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16). Lastly, the church discerned God’s voice, not so much by discerning who had the Spirit, as if the Spirit were external to the Word, but by discerning the Spirit’s perspicuous teaching in Scripture.

Posted Mar 29, 2017