Monday, June 26, 2023

Private Heresies (Acts 18:18-28)

"They … explained to him the way of God more accurately" (Acts 18:26).

When the Reformers of the 1500s freed lay people from the bondage of Roman ecclesiastical rule, they left two great legacies: the principle of private interpretation and the translation of the Scriptures into the vernacular. Until then it was illegal to translate the Bible into any language but Latin. The church believed the common man did not have the capacity to interpret the Scriptures on his own. He had to rely on the church’s interpretation as divinely authorized. The Roman Church believed that if the Bible were put into the hands of the common man, heresy would abound. Lay people would interpret passages according to their own experiences rather than educated analysis. This, of course, was a legitimate fear, and many of the concerns expressed by Rome were realized in the years following the Reformation.

The church was concerned about possible heresies, but it also feared losing its power over the common people—power that was extremely profitable. This two-fold motivation instigated the slaughter of many Reformers who tried to translate the Scriptures into their native tongues. The Reformers were aware of the dangers of private interpretation, but they were willing to risk everything for the sake of exposing multitudes to the Gospel. Luther, Calvin, and others were convinced of the clarity of the Scripture and of the right of every Christian to interpret the Scripture.

Yet the Reformers did not condone arbitrary or haphazard interpretations. Just because every person can read the Bible and understand it apart from the interpretations of the church does not mean they can create their own interpretations contrary to sound rules of biblical hermeneutics. This is why it is still important and necessary to have teachers in the church.

If you refuse to learn from others, and choose to rely only upon your own conclusions, you are very likely to fall into private heresies. Your privilege of private interpretation does not give you license to distort the truth. The best way to keep your interpretations in check is to abide by rules of hermeneutics and compare your conclusions to that of traditional orthodox theology.

What is your attitude toward the teaching of church fathers? How do you strike a balance between private interpretation and tradition? When you study Scripture, do you ever check your conclusions with commentaries or systematic theologies? Obtain such resources and incorporate them into your study!