People of the Book: The Rule of Faith b/w The Fallibility of All Interpretations
February 7, 2021
2 Peter 1:19 – 2:3
For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. 17 He received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” 18 We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain.
19 We also have the prophetic message as something completely reliable, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.20 Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. 21 For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.
But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves. 2 Many will follow their depraved conduct and will bring the way of truth into disrepute. 3 In their greed these teachers will exploit you with fabricated stories. Their condemnation has long been hanging over them, and their destruction has not been sleeping.
Well that one ends on a cheery note!
I choose to pair Scripture readings with visuals – though I imagine sometimes my choices may be a tad perplexing. Allow me to explain this week’s.
2 Peter affirms that the testimony of the Apostles is rooted in their own actual experience – that it is trustworthy and that any truly prophetic message may come out of a human’s mouth, but the words belong to God. And in the next breath, the author speaks of false prophets who introduce destructive heresies; who fabricate unfaithful interpretations of the Gospel message.
So – how do you know which is which?
That’s why I reached for figures groping their way through a snow-blinding blizzard.
That and it might just be the closest we get to any actual snow this winter.
But that challenge of discerning between faithful and unfaithful interpretations is what this sermon series is about. Our hope is that you might have some tools to do that work yourselves.
Today we’re looking at two guidelines and I like to think of them as two sides of the same coin.
So – what’ll it be? Heads or Tails?
Heads it is.
One guideline is called “The Rule of Faith.” Put simply, the Rule of Faith suggests that when you sit down to read a passage, it’s often best to ask “How has the Church understood this passage before?” People have been interpreting Scripture for a long time. Maybe there’s helpful wisdom to be gleaned from our spiritual forbearers.
A helpful function of the Rule of Faith is that it can serve as a corrective lens of sorts. If an interpretation is vastly out of step with how the Church has understood a text in the past, the Rule of Faith invites you to pause, take a second look and ask yourself once more “is this interpretation faithful to the text?”
When the Rule of Faith is working well, it can be a much-needed anchor, especially in times of great turmoil. In our own Book of Confessions, the Rule of Faith may best be embodied in the Theological Declaration of Barmen.
Germany, 1932 – a faction emerged in the federation of German Evangelical Churches that espoused a very pro-Nazi version of the Christian faith. As Hitler came to power the “German Christians,” as they were known, formed a new National Church that was basically a subservient department of the State. The Martin Luther Memorial Church was constructed in Berlin at this time and the design incorporated all manner of Nazi symbolism into its architecture.
To many German pastors, however, this was deeply troubling and in response, a group of clergy gathered in 1934 and composed the Barmen Declaration. This confession draws heavily on the Rule of Faith and it reads like a firm rebuke to the German Christians. It has a certain formula:
Step one – cite Scripture.
Step two – interpret Scripture a’ la’ the Rule of Faith.
Step Three – call out the interpretive liberties of this newly nationalized Church.
In view of the errors of the “German Christians” of the present Reich Church…we confess the following Evangelical truths: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life: no one comes to the Father, but by me.”
Jesus Christ…is the one Word of God which we have to hear…trust and obey in life and in death.
We reject the false doctrine, as though the church…would have to acknowledge…besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths, as God’s revelation.
The pattern continues: Recite Scripture. Rebuke bad theology. Repeat.
That’s the Barmen Declaration and that is the Rule of Faith at work – calling the Church back to its foundations. As such, the Rule of Faith can be a lifeline in the midst of an interpretive blizzard.
Now – the challenge with the Rule of Faith is that when we speak of the Church’s traditional understanding of Scripture…we must constantly ask ourselves, “what Church are we talking about?” How broadly inclusive are we being when we define “THE CHURCH’S” consensus.
My mother-in-law served as a delegate to the World Council of Churches in 1975. She was one among a number of other delegates from your western churches – the US, England, Germany, etc. There were also delegates from places like South Africa, Angola and Mozambique. A passage from Romans 13 came up in the Council.
Romans 13 says “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed.”
I probably don’t have to tell you how “The Church’s consensus” about a passage like that differed between the delegates from your more wealthy, Western nations and those delegates from African countries desperately struggling against centuries of colonialism.
It’s as different as Heads…and Tails.
Which brings us to the other side of this coin and the guideline called “The Fallibility of All Interpretations.” Think of this one as a humble recognition that – no matter how old or time-honored an interpretation might be – we must always be open to the possibility that it may be quite wrong. And in case that feels very post-modern, this corrective clause was hard-wired into our Reformed theology from the very beginning. Let’s take a trip to Scotland in the 16th Century.
The Scots Confession was written in 1560 at the conclusion of a civil war. Mary De Guise was the French-born, very Catholic Queen Regent of Scotland. When she died unexpectedly, the Protestant nobility quickly declared Scotland’s independence, formed a Parliament and declared Scotland a Protestant nation. How did they celebrate – by writing a confession of faith of course. The Six Johns – most notable among them John Knox, all ministers – were asked to draft a statement. They cloistered away for the space of four days and then emerged with 15 pages of very dense, theological prose.
They brought it before Parliament, read it all the way through – TWICE – before adopting it as the nation’s own confession of faith. You know the only way that meeting was bearable is on account of the cool accents. But in the 20th chapter, the Scots Confession affirms this idea of the fallibility of all interpretations. It reads:
As we do not rashly condemn what good men, assembled together in general councils lawfully gathered, have set before us; so we do not receive uncritically whatever has been declared to men under the name of the general councils, for it is plain that, being human, some of them have manifestly erred, and that in matters of great weight and importance.
The Rule of Faith says honor what has gone before, but the other side of the coin is to remember that “just because it’s old, does not mean it’s gold.”
By now you might be wondering, isn’t this all a bit much? We’re talking about Bible study here. How crucial can any of this be? It’s just Scripture.
I’d like to share a scene from a film with you. The film is called Twelve Years a Slave, and though it is based on the memoir of Solomon Northup, I make no claims that this “sermon” you are about to hear actually took place. But I do not doubt that sermons much like this were preached all across these United States – so much so that these interpretations of the Bible became rather routine…a Rule of Faith you might even say. Let’s see what you think of this understanding and use of Holy Scripture:
I’m going to go out on a limb and say That is the worst sermon I’ve ever heard in my life…and I should know, I’ve given plenty of them.
That is Scripture he’s reciting – Luke 12:47 to be precise – but that is a very poor interpretation of it.
The Bible is not a weapon nor is it a tool of intimidation.
When there is no good news to be found in an interpretation, well, the Fallibility guideline might be worth a look.
The Bible is complicated. Making heads or tails of this book will always be a challenge.
But leave it in the wrong hands and it can do untold damage.
The next time somebody recites Scripture to justify a lashing,
Remember, instead, that Scripture ought to be “a light shining in a dark place;”
“a lamp to our feet and a light to our path.”
May it continue to lead us in God’s direction.
 The Theological Declaration of Barmen, 8.09 – 8.12
 Scots Confession, 3.20
 Gratitude to Stephen Rosene who translated the Fallibility guideline into this phrase during a Senior High Sunday School class on the topic.