A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
October 31, 2014
We continue our series looking at Reformed worship for markers of church authenticity, since Reformed confessions declare that wherever God is rightly worshiped the church is truly present. How does our hearing of the Word mark us as a “true church”?
When Paul proclaimed the Christian Gospel in the synagogue in Beroea, his hearers were said to be “more receptive” than his hearers elsewhere (Acts 17:11). Reformed theology holds that the authentic church is marked by the sincere preaching and hearing of the Word. So by being more receptive to the message of the Gospel, the Beroeans were showing that they were a “true church” indeed.
But notice that this doesn’t mean they just swallowed whole whatever Paul told them. To the contrary, their greater receptivity was marked by diligently seeking to verify Paul’s claims. “They welcomed the message very eagerly and examined the scriptures every day to see whether these things were so. Many of them therefore believed.” (Acts 17:11-12)
So I suppose the first thing I should say as a preacher is simply this: Don’t take my word for it! Whatever I preach, check it out against the breadth of the Bible’s witness. If it’s truly a word from God, the extra scrutiny will only clarify that.
The church has long held as a principle of sound biblical interpretation that “Scripture interprets Scripture.” In other words, don’t build doctrine on passages apart from their larger biblical context. Moreover, don’t treat isolated verses or ideas as having the same weight as precepts that arise repeatedly across the biblical record. So, for example, weekly Sabbath observance is mentioned countless times in the Bible, but the Jubilee year is mentioned just twice in Leviticus and once in Numbers (Leviticus 25, 27, Numbers 36), so we can safely conclude it is far less important in God’s economy.
Perhaps you have heard of the practice of seeking divine direction by opening the Bible randomly and laying a finger like a Ouija pointer at some place on the page. I don’t recommend it (in case you didn’t gather that from my Ouija analogy). I once heard of a person seeking God’s direction in this manner with the King James Bible, and his finger fell on Matthew 27:25 – “And he cast down the pieces of silver in the temple, and departed, and went and hanged himself.” Seeking a better word from God, he quickly shut the Bible and reopened it, this time to Luke 10:37 – “Go and do thou likewise.” Linking unrelated, isolated verses is not what we mean when we say “Scripture interprets Scripture!”
Rather, it means digging deeply and widely into the biblical narrative to corroborate and flesh out what we hear in a particular passage. One of the key principles of Reformed interpretation is that biblical claims that are brief or not fully clear are to be interpreted in light of passages that are fuller and clearer. The relative weight Scripture gives to particular teachings is itself significant.
2 Timothy 3:16 tells us that “all scripture is inspired by God.” So why, in our Prayer for Illumination, do we still ask the Holy Spirit to quicken our hearing of Scripture as it is read and proclaimed? We do so because the Holy Spirit is at work both in the writing and in the hearing of Scripture. And one way we can put legs on our prayer that the Holy Spirit quickens our reception of the Word is to learn from the Beroeans, and compare what we are hearing to the broader Scriptural testimony.
Proportional interpretation of Scripture leads us to give greater weight to teachings that receive greater attention in the Bible. Jesus exposes our tendency to read and apply Scripture disproportionately to serve our pre-determined agenda – “Woe to you … for you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.” (Matthew 23:23) Keeping the main thing the main thing requires our constant vigilance.
The Prayer for Illumination is offered in church to the end that the Holy Spirit will enable us to hear God’s Word in a way that transforms us according to God’s will. One way that happens is by our listening to each text with the whole Bible in view, so that the whole counsel of God may shine light on each passage we seek to understand. We search the Scriptures to interpret Scripture, so that no text is heard by itself. Rather, each passage is clarified as it is joined to the whole of the Bible’s witness, and as a result we have a more sure word from God to nurture us in faith, hope, and love.
Listening for the whole counsel of God,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
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