he following post from yesteryear came to mind recently when someone approached me wanting to quibble about a fairly basic point of Christology. I had been teaching on the humanity of Christ and had stressed the importance of being precise in how we frame our understanding of Christ's two natures.
My interlocutor objected, saying he doesn't think doctrine is an exacting science. He told me, "I always ask, 'If an unbeliever stranded on a desert island with nothing but a Bible read this text, what would he get from it?' I think that's the best test of one's interpretation."
I replied that an unbeliever stranded on an island with nothing but a Bible is no standard by which to measure the accuracy of one's hermeneutics. In the first place, even if he had a full library and research team, an unbeliever is incapable of receiving the things of the Spirit of God: "They are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned" (1 Corinthians 2:14).
In the second place, the desert island exegete—even if he became a Christian—would simply not be able to decipher several common expressions of Scripture on his own. There are plenty of times when even the most devoted believer absolutely needs to rely on study aids and the scholarship and insight of godly men who have gone before.
There's simply no real virtue in the sort of desert island approach that says we should never look at commentaries or study helps in our quest to understand and interpret Scripture. We can't always get the full meaning of a verse from a simple face-value interpretation.
So here's a post where we dealt with that same issue a few years ago:
Sola Scriptura and the role of teachers in our spiritual growth
Do commentaries and study aids violate the principle of 1 John 2:27?
(First posted 19 January 2007.)
ou have seriously misunderstood sola Sriptura if you really imagine that it rules out human teachers or eliminates systematic theology. The Reformers (including Calvin) often cited the works of Augustine, Tertullian, Jerome, Cyprian, Ambrose, and othersranging from the early church fathers through Aquinas. They didn't follow any of them slavishly, of course, but they certainly took them seriously. Not one of the major Reformers would have tolerated the claim that because the Church Fathers were mere men they were therefore irrelevant or incapable of shedding any helpful light on tough theological questions.
Sola Scriptura means that Scripture alone is the final court of appeal in all matters of faith and practice. It is an affirmation that "the whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man's salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from scripture" and that "nothing at any time is to be added [to the Bible], whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men." It recognizes that there is ultimately no higher spiritual authority than God's Word, so "the infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself; and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture . . . it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly."
But none of that means we're obliged to discard the wisdom of godly men from ages past and require each man to try to discern truth from scratch by reading nothing but Scripture by himself.
As for Calvin, he certainly did "point people to the truth in God's Holy Word"but one thing he did not do was steer people away from the important theologians of the past. In fact, Calvin's works are filled with references to the Church FathersAugustine in particular. Calvin knew it was important to demonstrate that he was proposing nothing wholly novel and that his theology was in the doctrinal lineage of the greatest theologians of the church. He regarded himself as Augustinian, in precisely the same way many today think of themselves as "Calvinists."
If Calvin wrote for this blog and someone responded to one of his posts by refusing to read what Augustine wrote, Calvin would probably write that person off as arrogant and unteachable.
Incidentally, 1 John 2:20, 27 is the apostle John's response to an early outbreak of gnostic-flavored spiritual elitism. He was refuting some false teachers (he called them "antichrists") who insisted that real truth is a deep secret, different from the apostolic message, into which people must be initiated by some anointed swami. The Holy Spirit indwells and anoints each believer, and He is the One who truly enlightens and enables us to understand truth. But He also gifts certain people with a particular ability to teach others (Romans 12:6-7; Ephesians 4:11). So while John was condemning the notion of enlightened masters in the style of Freemasonry and gnosticism, he was not making a blanket condemnation of teachers. He himself was a teacher.
A follow-up message asks me if I am suggesting it's wrong for someone to abandon all books and human teachers and rely only on what he can glean from the Bible for himself. Answer: yes, I think that's wrong because it's arrogant and reflects a sinful kind of unteachability. This is my whole point: sola Scriptura doesn't rule out the valid role of teaching in the church.
Furthermore, it is simply not the case that any common, unskilled, unschooled individual, sitting down with his Bible and no other tools, can expect to come to a full and mature understanding of Scripture without any help from godly teachers who understand some things better than he will ever get it on his own. Here's Bernard Ramm's famous response to the arrogance reflected in such a perversion of sola Scriptura:
It is often asserted by devout people that they can know the Bible completely without helps. They preface their interpretations with a remark like this: "Dear friends, I have read no man's book. I have consulted no man-made commentaries. I have gone right to the Bible to see what it had to say for itself." This sounds very spiritual, and usually is seconded with amens from the audience.[from Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1970), pp. 17-18 (emphasis in original).]
But is this the pathway of wisdom? Does any man have either the right or the learning to by-pass all the godly learning of the church? We think not.
First, although the claim to by-pass mere human books and go right to the Bible itself sounds devout and spiritual it is a veiled egotism. It is a subtle affirmation that a man can adequately know the Bible apart from the untiring, godly, consecrated scholarship of men like [Athanasius,] Calvin, Bengel, Alford, Lange, Ellicott, or Moule. . . .
Secondly, such a claim is the old confusion of the inspiration of the Spirit with the illumination of the Spirit. The function of the Spirit is not to communicate new truth or to instruct in matters unknown, but to illuminate what is revealed in Scripture. Suppose we select a list of words from Isaiah and ask a man who claims he can by-pass the godly learning of Christian scholarship if he can out of his own soul or prayer give their meaning or significance: Tyre, Zidon, Chittim, Sihor, Moab, Mahershalalhashbas, Calno, Carchemish, Hamath, Aiath, Migron, Michmash, Geba, Anathoth, Laish, Nob, and Gallim. He will find the only light he can get on these words is from a commentary or a Bible dictionary.
So it is no test of the soundness of an interpretation to ask what a novice with access to nothing but Scripture itself would make of a particular verse. It would be safer to assume that the desert island guy's interpretation will probably fall short of the mark.