The western church, as you know, wades around in a thick sludge of individualism. We admit it. We bemoan it. But sometimes we don’t realize just how deep our individualism runs. As I peel back the many unforeseen layers of my presuppositions, I often see individualistic tendencies governing my beliefs and behaviors. A few posts ago, I wrote about the individualism that colors our buzzphrase “feeling called to…” For this post I want to look at the individualism that has given rise to the idea that you can understand the Bible by yourself.
Put frankly, you can’t understand the Bible by yourself. You need the community of God to rightly interpret the text.
You may think this is heresy—or Catholic—but hear me out. I don’t want to deconstruct a presupposition for deconstruction’s sake. My aim is to bring us back to a more biblical view of the Bible. I want us to study the Bible in community because that’s how the Bible was meant to be read, studied, and lived.
Can we really not understand the Bible by ourselves?
No, we can’t. In fact, we need several things to happen before we can even read the Bible.
First, we need textual critics to plow through all the manuscripts and determine what’s the most accurate version of the Bible. There are currently over 5,000 different manuscripts (or portions of manuscripts) of the New Testament with over 300,000 differences. It takes a lot of work—a lifetime of painstaking education and laborious study—to be able to sort through the pile of parchment to come up with a New Testament that best reflects the original words of Jesus, Paul, Luke, and Peter. But do not fret. This can be done with remarkable accuracy, though I’ll save you the details. My point is: you need other believers (or some non-believers!) to do this work before you open your translation and read. You cannot just read the words of Jesus and Paul without some human mediation.
Second, you need someone to translate these manuscripts from Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic into the version(s) that you read. Some of our English translations come from a single scholar (e.g. Eugene Peterson’s The Message). Others come from more than 50 or 60 different scholars (e.g. the NASB, ESV, NLT). In other words, you need a community of believers to translate the original languages of the 5,000 manuscripts, compile and edited by many textual critics, before you can read the Bible. Again, you cannot just read the words of Jesus and Paul without many human mediators.
Third, you also need a publisher. Before the 15th century, when the printing press was invented, your “publisher” would have been a scribe whom you would pay big bucks to hand-write a copy of the Bible. Today, there are many publishers who have taken this scribal role to edit, print, and bind your Bible. Again, many people are involved in this process—a process that ultimately ends with an ESV Bible at your nightstand.
Once you’ve received your copy of the Bible and are ready to read, you still need help to rightly interpret it. Now, there is a layer of truth that most every believer can understand by simply reading by themselves. But I don’t think we fully appreciate how much of our understanding of the Bible comes from history, tradition, and our current leaders and pastors (i.e. community) without even knowing it. Most of our crucial Christian beliefs were formed through a community of believers wrestling with God’s word. The trinity, the atonement, your view of baptism, and the end times were all shaped, in part, by the community of God’s people led by thinkers such as Tertullian, Anselm, Zwingli, Luther, Ryrie, and others. Even our doctrine of salvation by grace through faith was heavily influenced by the fact that Martin Luther was hyper-attracted to Romans and Galatians instead of James and Revelation—both of which he despised. If Luther and his community emphasized James, Revelation, and, say, Matthew (none of which mention justification by faith alone), what would be the center of our view of salvation?
Now, none of this should be disturbing, because God works through community. God worked through Luther and the Reformers to rightly correct the church’s view of salvation by opening his eyes to Paul’s words in Romans and Galatians. To say we need the community to rightly understands the Bible only means that God works through community. He raises up gifted teachers who have the ability to study, synthesize, and articulate God’s truth better than others.
This is why Paul says that God has given “pastors and teachers to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for the building up of the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:11-12). Or in the words of that castrated African: “How can I [understand what I’m reading] unless someone guides me” (Acts 8:31). If we could just study the Bible on an island, or on a chariot, and build ourselves up, why would God feel the need to gift teachers to guide us?
Community: you can’t live without it; you can read without it.