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Reformed and Always Being Reformed:  Our Presbyterian DNA
I.   The Bible:  Found in Translation

Isaiah 55: 8-13 & John 1: 1-5, 14-18

Second Sunday in Ordinary Time/ 16th January 2005

© Reverend Kenneth E. Kovacs
Catonsville Presbyterian Church
Catonsville,  Maryland

Years ago at the General Assembly, I heard the story of a missionary serving deep in the jungles of South America who invited several villagers to attend a Bible study.  They gathered in a circle around a fire reading from John’s gospel.  The minister led them through the text and when he was done speaking, turned to the villagers and asked them in Spanish, “So what do you think?”  There was silence and then one man began to cry.  Thinking that he offended the villager, the minister apologized and asked what was wrong, to which the villager said, “That was the first time anyone had ever asked me what I thought about anything.”  Raised under the influence of Roman Catholicism, he was told only the church had the authority to interpret scripture, not the individual.  Only the church could tell him what scripture means and therefore what to believe.  

This story has stayed with me more than fifteen years because it powerfully captures part of what it means to be a Protestant.  Today, there are, of course, plenty of Roman Catholics who are in Bible studies and read the Bible for themselves, free from whatever Rome tells them they are supposed to believe.  But that they do so is in large part due to the Protestant Reformation and its innovative use of the Bible.  The reformers cried, “Solo scriptura,” “Scripture alone.” This was against the Roman Church that believed (even today) that what has authority in the church is scripture and tradition (church tradition).  This Protestant Principle, the idea that everyone has the right to interpret the Bible for oneself, emerges during the Reformation because the reformers believed the official teachings of the church in the sixteenth century were at odds with what the text really says.  So the reformers, like Martin Luther (1485-1546), John Calvin (1509-1564), Ülrich Zwingli (1484-1531), John Knox (1514-1572), and others wanted the Bible translated from Latin (which most people did not read or understand) into the language of the people.  Johann Gutenberg’s (c. 3497-1468) new-fangled printing press allowed for the production of relatively inexpensive copies of scripture.  The translation of the Bible into the vernacular was directly responsible for the widespread rise in literacy across Europe because people wanted to learn to read in order to read Holy Scripture for themselves, in their own homes.  The Bible was thus taken out of the hands of the priests and placed in the hands of the laity.  That’s why the Bible is there in your pew, in English.  It is your right to read it and interpret it.

This is certainly one of the blessings of the Reformation, but it comes not without a price – a terrible price.  How does one interpret the Bible?  Who has the authority to interpret it?  Who is right and who is wrong?  Who says?  This Protestant Principle, when combined with Europe and America’s celebration of the individual, which develops after the Enlightenment, has had a devastating impact upon the body of Christ.  One of the key reasons we Protestants are so schismatic, especially Presbyterians, is because we divide and split apart when we have variant interpretations of scripture.  Scratch the surface of most conflicts in the church and you’ll find underneath different interpretations of scripture.  Fights over slavery in the nineteenth century, which split the Presbyterian Church apart, were battles over scripture - does the Bible support or condemn the institution of slavery?  The Bible was used to justify both views.   The truth is, taken out of context we can justify and support just about any viewpoint.  The same was true of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s.  The current debates regarding religion and politics, the determination of what we consider a “moral value,” even the presbytery debate that took place in this sanctuary on Thursday regarding civil rights for same-sex couples and the definition of marriage, are really debates about scripture – what does the Bible really say?  How do we know?

You see, while we Protestants still lift up the authority of scripture, we have yet to agree on a single way to interpret scripture.  After all these years we’re still fighting over a text – a text that we believe is special and unique, but one we’re not sure how to interpret.  There are plenty who revere the Bible, but never read it.  There are plenty who read it and know it through and through, but still don’t get the primary message.  Sometimes I feel the way we read scripture is not unlike a Rorschach or ink-blot test that psychiatrists use.  How it is interpreted often says more about the interpreter than about the actual text.  Some people go to scripture assuming they already know what the Bible says or is supposed to say.  Some people read scripture making all kinds of assumptions about the text or God or Jesus or humanity.  So the reading of it only confirms their assumptions.  Others like to come up with proof-texts, verses, often one verse taken out of context and used to justify their perspective.  In debate people throw Bible verses at each other and think if I can find more proof-texts that support my view than you, then I win.  It’s not enough to simply quote scripture, to come up with a verse that supports your view (because there are plenty of verses which can be used to discount your view); plus, as Jesus said, even the devil can quote (see Matthew 4: 1-11) scripture. The Presbyterian theologian, William Placher points out, “Fundamentalists quote a single proof text to settle the matter, and liberals can’t remember any passages at all.”[1]  Maybe fundamentalists take the Bible too seriously and maybe liberals don’t take it seriously enough.  But moderates and liberals take the Bible seriously, too.

As we kickoff our anniversary year, I thought it would be good for us to remember some of the key components of what it means to be Presbyterian, what we might call our theological DNA.  As the Westminster Confession of the 17th century makes clear, Holy Scripture is the “rule of faith and life.”  Both theological conservatives and liberals would agree with this.  For Presbyterians, the Bible has authority over us, unlike any other book because we believe that this is the best available resource we have regarding the nature and purpose of God.  What we find here is the witness or testimony of God’s people who have encountered the living God, especially the revelation of God in and through Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  There is no other source to which we can turn to know the nature of God, to learn about Jesus Christ, to discover the meaning of our lives, to learn the means of salvation, hear God’s good news, or learn what God expects of human life.  Only in the pages of scripture do we discover what it means to be human. 

So how, then, how do Presbyterians interpret scripture?  Is there a Presbyterian way to read the Bible?  This is not easy to answer.  Presbyterians do agree, in a statement from the General Assembly, that whether you’re a literalist or take a more metaphorical reading of scripture, we are still commanded by our Lord to love God and love neighbor, so that “all interpretations are to be judged by the question whether they offer and support the love given and commanded by God.  When interpretations do not meet this criterion, it must be asked whether the text has been used correctly in the light of the whole Scripture and its subject.  …Any interpretation of Scripture is wrong which separates or sets in opposition love for God and love for fellow human being, whether individually or socially.  No interpretation of Scripture is correct which leads to or supports contempt for any individual or group of persons either within or outside the church.”[2]  This is what Presbyterians regard as the “rule of love.”

There is no official way, but there are prevailing ways.  I think the quotation from the Presbyterian, George MacDonald (1824-1905) says it well, “But herein is the Bible greatly wronged.  It nowhere lays claim to be regarded as the Word, the Way, the Truth.  The Bible leads us to Jesus, the inexhaustible, the ever unfolding revelation of God.  It is in Christ ‘in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge,’ not the Bible, save as leading to Him.”[3]  The Bible has authority not because of its teachings, not because of its values (many of which are completely foreign to us, if not illegal or deemed immoral in 2005), it has authority not because of its life-principles or because it is a guidebook for life, but because through it we are led to an encounter with the Living Word of God who is Jesus Christ, and we discover through Jesus Christ the nature and purpose of God.  The Bible is significant because it leads us to Jesus and because, we believe, Jesus still speaks to us through the pages of scripture.  We have to be careful when we talk about the Bible being the Word of God; it contains the Word of God.  As the text from Isaiah shows, God’s word is connected to the action of God.  Yahweh is the God who speaks and when Yahweh speaks things happen.  The Word is God, is living, dynamic, redemptive.  The Word of God makes something happen and reveals who God is.

The Gospel of John picks up on this theme by saying in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God and later the Word took on flesh and dwelt among us.  Jesus is the Living Word of God, the language of God in the flesh.   So that when we read scripture, we don’t go to it in a literal sense saying these are the actual words of God as dictated to the writers, although the Holy Spirit is involved.  That’s why before we read scripture I do not say, “Listen to the Word of God,” but “Listen for the Word of God.”  In other words, pay attention and listen for what God might be saying to you directly and to us together, through these words.  Scripture is sort of like a membrane through which God continues to speak to us.  And the Holy Spirit is still using this text and only this text to communicate to us the hopes and dreams of Yahweh for all people. 

Recently, Robert Alter, in an editorial in The Sun, shared his conviction, after completing what is being called a monumental translation of the first five books of the Old Testament discovered in his “adventure as a translator, . . .that the Bible is more complex and more daring, more surprising, than our Sunday School notions of it.”  This is so true.  If we’re not drawn into its complexity, if we are not captivated by the daring world of the Spirit, if we are not surprised by what we hear, then we are not hearing it.   The Bible is not a safe book; it is radical in its implications.  This is because the Bible is not a dead text from the past, but a living, breathing witness that cannot be controlled or limited with a singular interpretation.  Reformed theologian Thomas Torrance put it well when he said, “The Word of God summons us to listen to it not as though we know already what it has to say, not as though it only confirms what we have already said to ourselves, but to listen in such a way that we are lifted outside ourselves and hear what only God can say to us.”[4]  This is how Presbyterians approach scripture.   When the Bible is approached with reverence and respect, and maybe most of all with humility and repentance, we are given the opportunity to hear the Word of God, 

a Word that does not come from within us, but beyond us, 

not mirrored self-reflections 

or selfish justifications of our perspectives 

or opinions, 

or simply echoes of our ignorance;

a Word that strikes us and overwhelms us even as it heals us, 

judges us even as it redeems us, 

questions us through and through down to our roots, 

even as it affirms us and sends our spirits soaring; 

a Word of grace and hope that we could never speak to ourselves.  So then let us listen for the Word of God.


[1] William C. Placher, “Is the Bible True?”  Pamphlet published by the Center of Theological Inquiry, Princeton, NJ.

[2] “Presbyterian Understanding and Use of Holy Scripture,” Position Statement of the General Assembly, Presbyterian Church (U. S. A.), 1982.

[3] George MacDonald, 365 Readings, Edited and with a Preface by C. S. Lewis.  New York:  Collier Books, 1986.

[4] Thomas F. Torrance, “Christology in Biblical and Dogmatic Theology,”  Theology in Reconstruction (London:  SCM Press, 1965), pp. 141-142.