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Private Interpretation and Annointing Reformed Foundations - Luke 4:16-21

Almost every home in America today has a Bible, yet few understand what a privilege it is to own and be able to read it.  Due to its ready accessibility, it is easy to forget the tremendous price that was paid so that we can read our Bible in our own language, and interpret the Scriptures for ourselves.

He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

"The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."

Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing." (Luke 4:16-21)

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Jewish Worship in the Synagogue

The first thing we see from these passages is that Jesus was a faithful Jew.   These verses, along with Jewish traditional writings, give us a good picture of Synagogue worship.  At the heart of the liturgy was the veneration given to the Sacred Scriptures.  The attendant hands the scroll to Jesus, who stands in reverence to the Word as he speaks.  He reads the scripture in Hebrew and then, either Jesus or the attendant translates the reading into Aramaic, the common language of the laity.  Jesus then hands the scroll to the attendant, who replaces it in the cabinet or ark.  If it is dropped or touches the ground, it must be given a proper burial, and another scroll takes its place.  Jesus then sits down to teach.

We also see the true meaning of keeping the Sabbath.  When God commanded us to do no work, He didn't intend for us to do nothing, but to spend our time in fellowship and worship, studying and meditating on His Word.  In Jesus' time, the Jews had become very degenerate and the religious leaders corrupted, but one good thing remained in their worship, they read the Scriptures publicly and taught the common people.  John Calvin stated that this passage was sufficient to prove that the corruptions of the papal Hierarchy, in his time (16th century), had become "more detestable than those which existed among the Jews under the high priesthood of Anna and Caiaphas".  Under the Pope, the reading of scripture had not only become obsolete, but had been "driven from the church by fire and sword, with the exception of the portions they choose to chant in an unknown tongue" (Latin).  We must also add that there are a great many pulpits in Protestant churches today, in which the Word of God is seldom opened, much less preached.

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Clarification of Terms

Many folks think the "Reformation" consisted of Martin Luther nailing the 95 Theses to door of the church in Wittenberg in 1517, but there were actually several reformations in various countries in Europe, including a Catholic Counter-Reformation, during this epoch of church history.  The most famous was the Lutheran Reformation in Germany.  We'll use the term "Reformation" in a somewhat restricted sense (sometimes called the Protestant Reformation), to refer to the summation of the movements, excluding the Counter-Reformation and the Anabaptists.  The Reformation was really quite complex, consisting of fundamental social, political and economic issues in addition to the various church doctrines.  The actual agendas and theological issues varied from country to country, and often what was a major concern in one country may have had relatively minor impact elsewhere.  We'll also use the term "Protestant" interchangeably with "Reformed", even though it's technically not correct to apply the term before the year 1529.  The term (from the Latin protestatio meaning "declaration") began as a defense of the rights of religious minorities in the aftermath of the Diet of Speyer (Feb 1529), which voted to end the toleration of Lutheranism in Germany.

The word "Catholic" in this article refers to the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) or a member thereof, not to the original meaning of the "Universal" Church, which now  consists of born again Catholics, Protestants, Jews etc.

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Private Interpretation and the Reformation

The major contentions of the Protestant Reformation can be summarized as the rejection of papal authority and several fundamental Roman Catholic doctrines, belief in the Bible as the ultimate source of revealed truth and authority, and the belief in the doctrines of  "justification by faith alone" and the "priesthood of all believers".  Two of the hottest controversies (and greatest legacies) that came out of the Reformation were the translation of the Bible into the vernacular (common language of the land), and the related principle of private interpretation.  Before we get to our discussion of this principle, I think a little history will help us to a better understanding, since the seeds of discontent were planted hundred of years before Luther.  At the risk of over simplification, I'll just give a brief overview.

The power of the Roman Church was at its zenith during the various crusades in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, but by the end of the thirteen century, most of the captured land had fallen to the Muslims.  During this time, we saw the rising of the universities.  The most famous figure was Peter Abelard (1079-1142), who traveled thru France studying from the masters, openly questioning and challenging them, and eventually began lecturing and writing in Paris.  Abelard wrote that "the key to wisdom is frequent questioning ...by doubting, we come to inquiry, and by inquiry, we arrive at the truth".  The church condemned Abelard for heresy, but the seeds had already been scattered.  Within the next hundred years, schools and universities opened all over the continent, debating the texts by employing Abelard's question and answer methods.  The most brilliant and famous theologian of the Roman Church, Thomas Aquinas was dispensed to France to stem the tide, but as with the Crusades, the Church had stretched herself too far.  The height of arrogance came when Pope Innocent III claimed the pope to be the judge of the world, between God and man, a boast that did not go unchallenged.

I mentioned earlier about the reading of scripture being driven from the church.  From the time of the apostles, the Bible was freely read by anyone who desired.  During the Middle Ages, the Council of Toulouse (1229) and Tarragona (1234), under Pope Pius IV, denied lay persons the right to read even Catholic versions of Scripture unless the lay person obtained permission from their parish priests.  The Council of Trent (1564) stated that anyone caught reading a Bible without written permission, would not receive absolution from their sins until they had surrendered their Bible.

In the fourteenth century, the Englishman, John Wyclif (aka Wycliffe) and his followers became the first to translate the Bible into English and taught it to laymen.  Not surprisingly the Pope condemned the reformer's teaching in 1377, but Wyclif's influential friends in England prevented the condemnation from proceeding beyond threats.  One of his followers, the Czech reformer John Hus was not so fortunate.  Hus actively promoted Wyclif's teaching that everyone should have the right to read the Bible in his own language, was excommunicated in 1411, condemned by the Council of Constance, and burned at the stake in 1415, with Wycliffe’s manuscript Bibles used as kindling for the fire.  He was offered the chance to recant his teachings and replied "What I have preached with my mouth, I now seal with my blood".  (In 1999, Pope Paul expressed "deep regret for the cruel death inflicted" on Hus and suggested an inquiry as to whether he might be cleared of heresy).  John Hus was reported to have said in 1415 that, “in 100 years, God will raise up a man whose calls for reform cannot be suppressed.”  This brings us back, 102 years later, when we see Hus' prediction come true with Luther's nailing of the 95 Theses to the door in Wittenburg.

Before we continue with Luther, we should mention the significance of Erasmus of Rotterdam.  In my opinion, the writings of Erasmus (who attended the same college as John Calvin) had a major role in sparking the various reformations.  His 1509 writing Stultitiae Laus (The Praise of Folly), published in 1511, satirically exposed many abuses and corrupt practices of the RCC (Roman Catholic Church).  Another writing, Enchiridion militis Christiani (Handbook of the Christian Soldier), first published in 1503, became so popular starting with its third printing in 1515, that it went thru twenty-three additions over the next six years.  Erasmus understood that the future of Christianity lay in the laity, not in the clergy, and saw the primary role of the clergy as educating the laity to achieve the same level of understanding as their own.  Erasmus also emphasized the priesthood of the believer – why confess your sins to another human when you can confess them directly to God.  These writings brought about a radical change in the self-perception of the laity, so it’s no coincidence that shortly afterwards, reformation movements sprang up independently in several countries, including the German Reformation led by Luther.  Erasmus and Luther, who highly respected and admired each other, later had disagreements when Erasmus remained neutral in the dispute, believing minor revisions to the existing RCC forms to be the best approach.  Erasmus caught it from both sides since the Catholic Counter-Reformation movement often condemned him as having "laid the egg that Luther hatched to start the Reformation."

Returning to Luther in 1517, posting  on a church door was a common occurrence during this period, the church doors serving as sort of a community bulletin board.  Luther was not calling the church out, merely saying that there were a few things that he would like discussed privately. However, someone translated the writings into German, and utilizing the newly invented printing press, dispensed them throughout the land.  At first, the church suppressed the issue, asking Luther to drop it, but Luther insisted on a hearing.  Due to the political situation, it took years, but eventually Luther got his hearing at the Diet of Worms.  At the hearing, Luther was given 24 hours to think it over and recant.  The next day, Luther gave his famous speech "Unless I am convinced by Sacred Scripture or evident reason, I cannot recant. My conscience is held captive by the Word of God, and to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. So help me God".  One of the main issues at stake at this Diet was the principle of private interpretation.

Luther then proceeded to translate the Bible into German, but the RCC organized a counteroffensive, culminating with the formulations against the Reformers at the aforementioned Council of Trent, in which the Scripture was not only banned from  the laity, but the council proclaimed that it was the responsibility of the RCC to declare the meaning of the Scriptures to prevent the "distorting of Holy Scripture".  There were three ironies here.  First it is clear that, in a few cases, the RCC has misinterpreted Scripture themselves.  The second irony is that the Reformers actually agreed that no one had the right to distort the Word of God, that each person had the responsibility to interpret Scripture correctly, and that it was the responsibility of the Church to provide pastors, elders and teachers to aid the layman in this task.  The third irony occurred years later, as more and more Catholics began studying the Scriptures for themselves, and discovering contradictions between the Scriptures and  some of the teachings and traditions of the RCC, the RCC decided to issue their own "approved" vernacular translation of the Bible.

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Private Interpretation in Modern Times

The doctrine of Private Interpretation remains a point of contention between Catholics and Reformers to this day.  The modern Roman Catholic apologist usually quotes the King James Version of 2nd Peter 1:20 "Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation".  I saw a Catholic site last week that claimed Protestants were "afraid to quote this verse" (this same site also claimed that there were 38,000 individual Protestant interpretations of the Bible due to the fact that they "did not have the Holy Spirit").  Actually, our website contains several instances of this verse, only unlike the Catholic sites we also include verse 21, which puts the quote into context.  But even without the next verse, we can easily see that verse 20 is being misunderstood by the Catholics.  The verb "is" is translated from the Greek word "ginomia",  which according to Strong's Lexicon, means "to cause to be, to become or come into being."  So we see that the NIV has a more accurate translation, Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet's own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit (2Pe 1:20-21).  We see that Peter is clearly talking about the origin of Scripture, not the interpretation of It.

The fact that the Scripture originated from the Holy Spirit rather than from man should be all the more reason for us to study it.  This apologist also brought up some interesting questions in my mind.  It's obvious that his interpretation of the verse was incorrect, but it was not clear whether or not his website was officially sanctioned by the Roman Catholic Church.  If it was, then the official Catholic position is in error.  If his site is independent from the Catholic Church, then is he not using his own private interpretation of the verse to declare that there should be no private interpretation of Scripture?  While we're appealing to the Apostle Peter's writings, we should also consider his command to  "as newborn babes, desire the pure milk of the word, that you may grow thereby" (1Pe 2:2 NKJV) and "Always be ready to give a defense to anyone who asks you a reason for this hope that is in you (1Pe 3:15 HCSB).  We can also refer to Dt 6:4-9, Mt 22:29, Rom 10:17, Eph 6:17, Col 2:18, 2Tim 2:16 & 3:14-16, and 1Jn 4:1 as additional examples of commands or support of the study of Scripture.

We may wonder today how the leaders of the RCC could torture and even kill people for the horrific crime of daring to read their Bible (many more actually died in England under the reign of Bloody Mary than in central Europe), but we should point out that though many of their methods were unspeakable (and contrary to the teachings of Christianity), many within the church had a well-meaning motivation, the preservation of the Holy Scriptures.  Luther was aware of the danger of some Scripture corruption, actually agonizing over his decision, but was willing to take the risk.  Looking back, I think we have to admit that, in some ways, it would have been better if the RCC had retained authority over the Scriptures.  We would probably not have the number of cults that we do today.   On the other hand, truth would be suppressed on issues where church is wrong.  To give an analogy, capitalism isn't perfect.  There'll always be some abuses, but the alternative being socialism, you sometimes have to accept some imperfections for the overall superior system.  I'm just drawing an analogy here, certainly not equating the RCC with socialism.  In addition, the RCC is often at the forefront of the culture battles of our time and we must stand beside her on these moral issues.

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Anointing of Pastors

The second principle that the Reformers gleaned from these verses is that Jesus said of himself "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach...".  The Reformers maintained that pastors or elders should be called to preach based upon an anointing by the Holy Spirit.  John Calvin stated that those sent by God to preach the Gospel are "furnished with the necessary gifts, to qualify them for so important an office".  Calvin wrote that, in his time, men totally unfit for the office are taking upon themselves the name of pastor, under the pretense of a divine calling.  This statement remains true today, including many Protestant pastors.

This differed from the Roman Church's position that popes should be chosen based on ancestry (based upon the false assumption that the Apostle Peter was the first Pope).  Many bishops obtained their position by purchasing it from the Church.  Calvin was well aware of the system, since his father's influence obtained him a chaplaincy at Noyon Cathedral, which allowed him to receive an income from those attending mass.  Young John was only eleven years old at the time, so, as was often the practice of the day, his father hired a substitute to conduct mass for him, since he was not yet old enough to be ordained a priest.  Calvin remarked that in the Papacy, where bishops, "who are more ignorant than many asses (male donkeys for the under 30 crowd), proudly and openly vaunt that they are Christ's Vicars, and the only lawful prelates of the Church".  The Apostle Paul writes that the true preaching of the Gospel does not lie in the enticing words of man's wisdom, but in the power of the Holy Spirit (1Cor 2:4).

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Closing Comments

On a personal note, I don't consider the Roman Catholic Church as my enemy.  I have many Catholic friends, and it's encouraging that more modern Catholics are studying the Bible for themselves.  I see these folks, like myself in an honest search for the truth, and since our "image of God" has been distorted by sin, our interpretations of Scripture are not infallible.

I'd also like to repeat that we should not take private interpretation of Scripture lightly.  It is not a license to interpret any way we'd like, rather with the help of the Holy Spirit, we must make every effort to interpret it correctly, including enlisting the aid of  the Church (Eph 4:11).  We must know why we interpret a particular Scripture or doctrine the way we do.  If we disagree with the Church's interpretation of a particular passage or doctrine (either Catholic or Reformed), we must also understand the history behind the Church's decisions, and be willing to debate the issues with an open mind.  The Bible has been studied by scholars for two thousand years and we must not regard their interpretations lightly.  It is the height of arrogance to say "I believe my interpretation is correct and the Church is wrong", when it's only our opinion and we haven't done the proper research.  If, however, after we've followed the proper rules of hermeneutics, done the required exegesis, exhausted all resources and debated the issues, our honest interpretation remains in conflict with that of the Church, we should follow our own conscience, as did Luther.  I must admit that, of the many times that I initially found the interpretations of the historical and reformed Church at odds with my own, upon further research, I found myself almost always in agreement with the Church's position.

I enjoy reading the writings of Catholic theologians, and have learned quite a bit from them, but find that many Catholic apologists have a distorted view of the Protestant's positions (and often vice versa).  Now, there are many theological issues in which the interpretation of the Reformers and Catholics are simply not compatible with each other, and we should continue to debate them (without compromising what we honestly believe the Bible presents as truth).  I think however, both sides could benefit from a better understanding of the other.  For example, Luther's doctrine of the "priesthood of the believer" is understood by many Catholics to mean that there is no distinction between the priest and laity.  This doctrine  actually stresses that each individual Christian has a role and function in the church, and can approach God in prayer without going though a human intermediary (1Tim 2:5).

I've read several Catholic sites lately that also misunderstand the Protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura to mean that the Bible is only source of truth.  This doctrine actually declares that the Holy Scriptures are the ultimate authority for truth.  The Reformers recognize truth in traditions and church councils, creeds, confessions etc, but when any person or document (whether Catholic or Protestant) is in conflict with the Bible, he or it must be rejected.

I hope we have a deeper appreciation of our rich Reformed heritage and the role that these Scriptures (Luke 4:16-21) played.   I'll close by urging everyone, when reading your Bible in your own language, to remember the sacrifices of the giants of the faith who, in the name of Christ and under the power of the Holy Spirit, made this great privilege  possible.

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