Can a Reformed denomination interpret Scripture collectively to discern God’s will? A Reformed denomination such as the Reformed Church in America is fundamentally a network of churches holding each other accountable according to a shared interpretation of Scripture. We allow divergence in interpretations, but we recognize our divergences as legitimate.
Yet this is not what happened at the RCA General Synod of 2016, where I was a delegate. We did not interpret God’s Word together. We did not share a Reformed hermeneutic. To forestall the disintegration of the RCA and others as Reformed denominations, I offer this review of how the Reformed read Scripture.
We may rightly say that the Bible is the Word of God, but “is” is not an equals sign.
My father was a conservative RCA pastor with an open and ecumenical attitude. He taught that the Bible has “sufficiency” and is “infallible” – terms from Article 7 of the Belgic Confession – and he shared his convictions, I suspect, with most RCA pastors at the time (though one of his colleagues did not hold to infallibility). He thought his evangelical friends went too far with inerrancy. My dad would not have said what I heard a synod delegate say at the mic: “The Bible is the Word of God, and the Word of God is the Bible.” The delegate was contesting another delegate’s statement that the Bible contains the Word of God, so that not everything in the Bible has authority for us. Then who decides what’s authoritative and what’s not? There be dragons!
Ironically, the iron claim of the first delegate does not hold within the Bible itself. John 1:1 does not mean “In the beginning was the Bible, and the Bible was with God, and the Bible was God.” We may rightly say that the Bible is the Word of God, but “is” is not an equals sign. The Bible is the Word of God, but the word of God is more than the Bible. “By the word of the Lord were the heavens made” (Psalm 33:6), and that does not mean by the Bible.
Karl Barth taught that the word of God is first the Lord Jesus Christ, second the Bible and third the proclamation of the church, especially in preaching, and in that order. Though some in the Reformed tradition do not agree with Barth, I offer his view as a consensus baseline for a Reformed hermeneutic. I restate it in a way that my father, who was not a Barthian, could agree with: It is for the Lord Jesus Christ and in him and through him that we read the Bible, and he means us to read it for its witness to him and for the proclamation of his good news. That is how my father practiced his ministry and how many do, which is why I believe it’s a fair consensus baseline.
THE REFORMED TRADITION: 16 CHARACTERISTICS
I step forward from this baseline to identify 16 characteristics of a Reformed hermeneutic. These are not principles! These are descriptive, not prescriptive. I do not claim this list to be exhaustive, and their order is merely contingent.
- We take the Old Testament as equal in status to the New, even when we read the Old by the New. You hear the gospel in the Old Testament, insofar that you hear it with the mind of Christ. Our Lord told the Judeans that their Scriptures bore witness to him (John 5:39). The Old Testament can speak directly to the church, and it’s characteristically Reformed to preach from it on its own.
- We scan the Scriptures for the themes of promise and fulfilment, especially when they take form in covenants. Reformed theology is covenantal, and covenants do not divide law from gospel. Laws and commandments are covenantal, and they function not as independent truths but for shaping covenantal relationships, giving texture to the promises and signs of the fulfillment. As the covenants evolve through Scripture, so do the laws and commandments, especially in how they are binding.
- Scripture must be interpreted. Scripture is not rightly understood without the partnership of men and women to interpret it. God partners with us; the Holy Spirit does not compete with us. In Acts 8, Philip asked the eunuch, “Do you understand what you read?” and the eunuch answered, “How can I unless someone guides me?” While the eunuch could recognize his own suffering in the prophecy of Isaiah 53, it took Philip to interpret for him Isaiah’s witness to the gospel of Jesus, as H. M. Kuitert says in his book Do You Understand What You Read?
- With the early church, we interpret Scripture according to the “regula fidei” (rule of faith), especially as confessed in the Apostles Creed. Scripture is not flat, and not all verses are of equal value. The rule of faith tells us what the headlines are, what to look for and how to interpret what by what. Scripture is not the Word of God apart from active interpretation according to the “regula fidei.”
- We prefer the plain reading of Scripture, and we dislike allegorical and mystical interpretations. But plain reading is not the same as naive reading. Plain reading, to be accurate reading, according to the intention of the writers, requires linguistic, literary, historical and even philosophical knowledge. To read Scripture naively is to misinterpret it.
- We value education and science as gifts that the Holy Spirit employs among us, so we employ historical, literary and critical learning in our interpretation. We require our public interpreters to know the Bible’s original languages. As Kuitert says, because God works covenantally and enters into relationships within history, God’s revelation is always in terms of historical relationships and never propositions dropped from heaven. Revelation is embodied in the ancient languages of Hebrew and Greek, which no one now speaks, within cultural circles that no one now belongs to. These could be misunderstood already in Apostolic days (2 Peter 3:16). Right interpretation makes use of literary and historical scholarship.
- We value theology in the interpretation of Scripture, understanding theology as the disciplined reflection on the interplay of Scripture, human thought and the intellectual sciences. If Scripture is a rich and varied landscape, theology provides the maps and itineraries for exploring it as well as the culture developed for living in it. Reformed theology is never not biblical theology, and no communal reading of Scripture is not theological.
- All the intellectual tools of exegesis are required for preaching – for the public proclamation of the Word of God within the church. Any interpretation not grounded upon such exegesis is private and has no claim upon the congregation.
- God does not speak to us apart from Scripture. Scripture is sufficient. We are skeptical of private revelations. What God might tell you privately has no claim on anyone else nor on the church. Scripture is how we know the public will of God, and we do not pry into God’s secret will. The public word of God is more than sufficient for abundant life.
- We regard Scripture as the only rule but not the only source. The Reformation slogan “sola scriptura” does not mean “only Scripture”; rather, “by Scripture alone.” Like “sola gratia” (by grace alone) and “sola fide” (by faith alone), it is not in the nominative case but in the ablative, pointing to an instrument: a yardstick, a ruler, a “regula.” So Scripture is not our only source but our only rule by which to measure other sources. Article 2 of the Belgic Confession teaches two means of knowing God: that “most elegant book” of God’s creation and the holy Scriptures, in which God is more clearly and sufficiently revealed and by which alone we make sense of creation. A Calvinist metaphor for Scripture is eyeglasses. The Bible never exists alone, but always in dynamic relationship to our experience of the world.
- We have a Reformed way of handling Scripture’s relationship to reason, tradition and experience. We do not allow any of these three to rival the authority of Scripture. Because we cannot help but assume our own reason and start from within our own experience and tradition, to grant authority to any one of these effectively raises it over Scripture. But then to define Scripture’s authority in terms of a formula, such as inerrancy, puts it under reason. Scriptural authority is not a formula but an active submission, a discipline, a piety, a “religio.”
- The Holy Spirit guarantees Scripture’s authority and is required for interpretation. The Bible without the Holy Spirit it is only literature. It becomes the word of God by the working of the Holy Spirit in the minds and hearts of its readers and listeners. The witness of the Spirit is what guarantees the authority of the word. There is no guarantee without God’s active gift.
- We typically control our interpretations by doctrinal standards and confessions. These vary in stringency, but they all serve as jointly held hermeneutics, allowing the churches to hold each other accountable – “according to the word of God” – in discipline and mission.
- We say that “the word of God is free,” and new interpretations of Scripture are cautiously welcomed. Feminist or liberationist readings are not ruled out when they challenge long established interpretations. The test of such readings is not tradition nor received theology but the “regula fidei,” together with sound historical and literary scholarship to honor the intent of the biblical writers.
- The word of God is given to the church to go beyond the church into the world. The message makes the church the first-fruit of and witness to the sovereignty (kingdom) of God. Not only theology but every science, every discipline and every enterprise engage the Word of God. God’s Word speaks to all of life and culture.
- The Word of God is free from the church and for the church. The Bible is the church’s book in that the church, under the Spirit, compiled the Bible to suit its purposes, yet the Bible has apostolic authority not derived from the church such that the Bible judges the church and not the other way around. Church councils study the Bible together with humility for mutual accountability.
We now go behind these Reformed characteristics for three characteristic forms of the Word of God within the Bible itself. The Word of God as written and as proclamation are familiar. The Word of God as conversation is less familiar but no less biblical.
THE WORD OF GOD AS WRITTEN
Scripture reports the God and Father of the Lord Jesus literally speaking to him only twice: at his baptism and, according to John 12, on Palm Sunday. Otherwise, our Lord depended on Scripture like everyone else. In Matthew, the first thing he said after his baptism was “It is written, man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” From God’s mouth to our minds, in written documents.
God partners with us; the Holy Spirit does not compete with us.
Only once did the Lord God literally speak to Israel – at Mount Sinai. Thereafter God dictated words for Moses to write down in a book (scroll) of the covenant (Exodus 24). This core of the Torah was expanded with further laws and ordinances as well as narratives containing the prior conversations of God with the patriarchs, conversations thereafter embedded in written stories. God also spoke privately to the prophets and through them. Their messages and stories also became written documents that we know as the prophets. A third set of documents, the writings, are not God’s speeches but Israel’s reflections on its life with God. The prophets and writings are a great conversation engaging the Word of God. The prophets engage each other and the Torah, while the writings talk back to God.
We note that while for Islam, the Koran is a transcript of recitations in a single voice, the Torah contains a multitude of literary forms and voices and the prophets and writings represent a sprawling and contentious conversation. And while Judaism never elevated the prophets and writings to the same status as Torah, the Christian church did, bringing our talk back to God into the Word of God. Thus our human response to revelation became part of the revelation.
The faith inherited by the Lord Jesus depended on written documents, but these documents required interpretation. His disputes with his opponents were not over the documents but how to interpret them. His apostles continued the new interpretations of old texts. The New Testament may be regarded as one huge interpretation of the Old Testament in terms of Christ. The New Testament demonstrates that the Word of God is not a static deposit of truth but a message drawn out of what is written by means of interpretation and application.
THE WORD OF GOD AS PROCLAMATION
The last of the Gospels appeals to the first lines of the Torah for the identity of our Lord. Again, John 1:1, “En archei een ho logos, kai ho logos een pron ton theon, kai theos een ho logos.” How to understand “ho logos”? It is was not inappropriate for the Hellenistic church, in its environment, to regard “logos” as essentially a thought or an idea. But St. Jerome was more concrete in his Latin translation. In the Vulgate John 1:1 is: “In principio erat verbum, et verbum erat apud Deum, et Deus erat verbum.” A “verbum” is a word expressed. It’s more than an idea and more than a text. It is a text interpreted and proclaimed. The proclamation began with our Lord in the synagogue at Nazareth. Our Lord read out the words of the prophet and said, “Today this word is fulfilled in your hearing.”
Proclamation is what our Lord offered on the lakeshore, on the mount and on the plain. He described it in the parable of the sower. Proclamation is what the Apostle Peter did from the rooftop on Pentecost and what the Apostle Paul offered in the synagogues and lecture halls. Proclamation continues in the church in the form of preaching. Proclamation is the difference between the Jewish and Christian uses of Scripture. As “verbum,” the Word of God is objective, public and the same for everyone (The personal messages from God in the Bible we place under the rubric of “call,” but the call always is ultimately in service to the public message).
Proclamation is the primary way we hear the Word of God in church. Under proclamation, we hear earlier formulations of the word in promise, covenant and prophecy. Under proclamation, we receive the Word in the form of laws, decrees and ordinances. Proclamation dominates the church’s experience of God’s Word, especially as Bible reading decreases outside of worship.
THE WORD OF GOD AS CONVERSATION
When Theodorus Beza published his Latin edition of the New Testament, he replaced Jerome’s “verbum” with “sermo.” His version of John 1:1 is this: “In principio erat Sermo ille, et Sermo ille erat apud Deum, eratque ille Sermo Deus.” Sermo was the preference of Erasmus and Calvin, but, as Marilynne Robinson points out in The Givenness of Things: Essays, it went back to Tertullian and Cyprian. While “verbum” means a thought expressed, “sermo” means a talk, a discourse, a conversation. “Sermo” is derived from “sero” – to join together, weave, entwine – and it is more transactional.
Beza seemed to know that to the ordinary urban Hellenistic speaker of Greek, “ho logos” meant something more like “the talk” than the “the speech” or “the idea.” It meant “word” in the sense of “I’d like to have a word with you.” In this sense, the Word, while public, is not merely objective, because it engages its hearers in interaction. The narrative of John’s gospel bears Beza out. Our Lord engages in conversations throughout, with Nicodemus, the woman at the well, the crowd, the scribes and Pharisees, the man born blind, Mary and Martha, the disciples in the Upper Room, Pontius Pilate, Mary Magdalene, Thomas and Simon Peter. The Gospel of Matthew is speeches, Mark is action and repartee, and Luke shows video clips, but John’s gospel is Shakespearean, with conversations framing soliloquies. In the beginning was the talk, the “sermo.”
John’s gospel evokes the Old Testament, which is manifestly a great conversation with God about God. In the Psalms, we hear the poetry move from voice to voice. Job is a dramatic debate. Stories take the form of conversations: God with Moses, God with Samuel, God with Elijah, God with Jeremiah. The form is not accidental but material. God’s word calls for our answer and welcomes our answer – the answer from those who are in God’s image.
The Bible is by form and structure a conversation. The prophets and the writings converse with the Torah. The prophets argue with each other (Isaiah, Ezekiel and Haggai offer mutually exclusive visions of the temple). The Hebrew habit of expression is dialectical, offering truth not as synthetic conclusions but as two (or three) thoughts suspended in tension. Luke and John made use of Matthew and Mark, but they maintained their divergent themes and points of view. Paul and James balanced each other in their letters to the churches. The early church accepted this conversation for what it was and in compiling the canon never bothered to edit the materials into a single voice.
Does this speak to church synods? We do not say that a synod’s proceedings are words of God, even though we often say that a sermon is a word from God, no matter how inexpert the preacher’s exegesis. We allow for proclamation what we do not allow for conversation. And yet a preacher first converses with Scripture to prepare her proclamation. Can a synod engage in biblical conversation and regard that as God speaking, assuming all the tools and tests of responsible exegesis?
The RCA, at least, is shy of biblical conversation. Its General Synod has devolved into a convention for receiving promotion and ratifying the business of its staff. Is it capable of becoming a council of pastors and presbyters sent from the churches to interpret the Word of God together for their common life and witness? Is it capable of experiencing Scripture in creative conversation? I can’t imagine that there is any better way for our assemblies and councils to spend their time.
Daniel Meeter is pastor of Old First Reformed Church, Brooklyn, New York.