We know how it goes. We’ve repeated the story, maybe read about it in (some) church history books. And many of us have probably even seen a young Joseph Fiennes act it out on screen. Martin Luther stands before the Roman Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms and says,
Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures or by evident reason-for I can believe neither pope nor councils alone… I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture, which is my basis; my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Thus I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one’s conscience is neither safe nor sound. God help me. Amen.
And then he added “Here I stand; I can do no other. God help me.” Or did he? The historicity of the statement is inconsequential to this post, except to say that we Protestants – and especially those of us in the reformed arm of the Christian tradition – have too often idealized and perhaps idolized this one movement in Luther’s life. While Luther rejected a lot of the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching of his time (much of it rightfully so) he was not a lone soldier, meaning to confer upon us a legacy of eisegesis and a life of private, individual interpretation. Neither am I saying he was not perhaps guilty of these things at times (as we all are).
What I am saying is this: Luther still employed traditional exegetical methods he was trained in, scholastic and monastic when he taught Bible. He commended to us by way of example that it is not advisable to interpret Scripture in complete isolation. And while many have argued that his attitude towards the Church Fathers was probably a lot more critical than say John Calvin’s attitude toward them, Luther still had this to say,
Indeed, the writings of all the holy fathers should be read only for a time so that through them we may be led into the Scriptures. As it is, however, we only read them these days to avoid going any further and getting into the Bible. We are like men who read the sign posts and never travel the road they indicate. Our dear fathers wanted to lead us to the Scriptures by their writings, but we use their works to get away from the Scriptures. Nevertheless, the Scripture alone is our vineyard in which we must all labor and toil.
Now undoubtedly, the implications are clear here that Luther was one of the most vigilant of the reformers when it came to sola scriptura. Perhaps that is why I have always found more of a dialogue partner in Calvin who quotes the Church Fathers so readily. But in either case, neither of them would leave us make of the reformation principal what we have made of it today: reading scripture in the privacy of our own home, free from all fetters (or even knowledge) of how generations before us interpreted a passage.
And that leads me to the second part where Calvin comes in especially handy, in helping us see God’s overarching narrative and concern for calling to God’s self a covenant community all throughout the passages of the Old and New Testament. We do not simply read a passage alone in our home by light of a lamp and make a doctrine or life slogan out of it, especially not having explored what the passage means in its historical and canonical context. Yes reading the Bible alone by lamp light may bring us comfort, hope, joy, conviction of sin or all sorts of things. But interpretation – doctrinal interpretation – is a communal task in which first we let Scripture interpret Scripture. We consult our past church Fathers, Creeds, confessions. In a fractured Christianity we look to “fathers” and “mothers” of the tradition we stand in: Teresa of Ávila, Luther or Calvin or Wesley, John Knox, Karl Barth, Jürgen Moltmann, James Cohn or Stacey Floyd-Thomas.
The other day I was catching up on some blog reading. Some folks were commenting on Bob Coy’s dismissal from a Calvary Chapel mega-church in Florida back in April. Several people were quoting Psalm 51 in a bizarre mashup of defense for their beloved but fallen pastor and as a teaching to the rest of us that Bob had sinned against God alone. Not us. Not even truly his wife or kids or the many women he slept with. Here is the passage that kept coming up, said to be part of David’s confession after sleeping with/taking by force, Bathsheba and killing her husband, Uriah: “Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight.”
To turn David’s prayer into a doctrine is what I mean by classic eisegesis and a life of private, individual interpretation. It is an interpretation that neglects the broader scope of scripture as well as how others who have gone before us have interpreted this passage. Jesus himself might be the biggest challenge to this particular incident of eisegesis and poor interpretation: “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:14-15). Paul might have something to add too, “If what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall” (1 Corinthians 8:13). Matthew Henry is not always my favorite go-to source from the past, but I found his pulpit commentary helpful for this passage. He writes, “Though no sins could be more directly against man [sic] than adultery and murder, yet David feels that that aspect of them shrinks away into insignificance, and is as if it were not, when they are viewed in their true and real character, as offences against the majesty of God” (emphasis mine).
People do a lot of crazy things with private interpretations apart from historical, canonical and communal interpretation. With this passage some have excused a lack of remorse towards the victims of domestic or sexual or other forms of abuse, because really only a righteous God is the true victim. Those victims are just as unclean in God’s eyes as the perpetrator said one commentator in defense of Pastor Bob. “We are all sinners and fall short of the glory of God” said another. Perhaps that will be the next verse we look at if we do another segment on the pitfalls of eisegesis and isolated interpretation.
For now, just know that it is “independence day” you are free from the burden of isolated interpretation (or interpretation without communal representation 🙂 ) You don’t have to say, “Here I stand; I can do no other.” In fact you probably shouldn’t in most cases. If you are a Christian you are a part of a community; and even prophetic and minority voices within this communal tradition can find places to stand together. Divided, especially when isolated, we fall.