Yesterday I listened to three theologians talk about the authority of Scripture. I was surprised when one of them said, “We don’t read the Bible individually. We read it in community.”
That sounded postmodern to me. The speakers did not go on to give a clear explanation of what this meant. I thought it meant that our community tells us what a given text means. If our community has more than one view of a given text, then those views, plural, are the only views we can hold.
I went online to see what I could find out about reading the Bible in community. It turns out that emergent church leader Brian McLaren discussed this question in his book A New Kind of Christianity. (For more details see the two-part review, “Christianity and McLarenism,” by Kevin DeYoung at thegospelcoalition.org.) One of the ten questions McLaren considers is “How should the Bible be understood?” He thinks that the Bible need not be consistent (that is, one Biblical author can contradict another) and that we learn what the Bible means by conversation within our community. He also evidently does not believe in an orthodox view of verbal plenary inspiration.
With further online research, I found that reading the Bible in community means slightly different things to different people.
I think for the three theologians reading the Bible “in community” means that they listen to the voices primarily in their school. What does the school’s faculty believe about a given passage? That view, or those views, become the controlling parameters. In this view we would be extremely unlikely to come up with an interpretation other than the one(s) held by the faculty at the school.
For some, like McLaren, it means that we listen carefully to the voices of people in the global community who are often not heard: feminists, liberation theologians, third world theologians, homosexual writers, etc. For people like McLaren, there is often no one correct interpretation of any given passage. There might be multiple different interpretations, all of which we should accept as true.
Others seem to place a special emphasis on the community of Christians over time. These people would place special emphasis on the writings of the Church Fathers, the Desert Fathers, the Medieval theologians, and the Reformers and their successors. These people would tend to read Scripture from the framework of their tradition.
Still others believe that our emphasis should be on the community of Christians in our local church. These people tend to downplay the role of preachers and teachers in the church. In fact, they warn that too often church people either too readily accept what is taught or that they too readily forget. In any case, they think that if we read Scripture in community, we come up with the right interpretation(s) and we remember and apply much better.
When I was talking with Dr. Rene Lopez yesterday, I mentioned this blog I was working on. He reminded me that about 20 years ago he and I heard a nationally recognized NT scholar talk about a community hermeneutic. I had forgotten that. The speaker had suggested way back then that we interpret the Bible in community.
Going online after my talk with Rene, I found there is much material on a community hermeneutic. One blogger says, “The individual or private reading and study of the Bible is really an invention of the modern era, yet we often make it into a most important value.”
I find this whole idea of a community hermeneutic to be antithetical to our individual responsibility to be faithful stewards (1 Cor 4:1-5). We are all to be Bereans and to search the Scriptures for ourselves (Acts 17:11). We are not to allow our tradition to cloud our understanding of the Scriptures (John 5:39-40). We will stand individually before the Lord Jesus Christ at His Judgment Seat (2 Cor 5:9-10).
The Lord gives each local church teachers to equip the saints (Eph 4:11-12). James warns, “My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment [at the Judgment Seat of Christ]” (Jas 3:1).
Peter says that we are to be like newborn babes who “desire the pure milk of the word, that [we] may grow thereby” (1 Pet 2:2). The immediate context concerns the public preaching of God’s Word at church (see 1 Pet 1:25; 2:1). We are to come to church hungry, ready to learn from the teacher.
I grasp the idea that if I am in a church or ministry, I must agree to disagree on non-essential issues. We can’t have everyone going around trying to disrupt our church. But, on essential issues we must not be wishy washy. That is why we need to find a church on which we agree with the fundamentals. We may not agree on head coverings for women, the timing of the Rapture, or on tithing, for example. But we sure better agree on justification by faith alone, eternal security, the deity of Christ, substitutionary atonement, Jesus’ bodily resurrection, the Second Coming, and the inerrancy of Scripture, to name some essential doctrines.
We always should be open to the teaching of our Pastor and elders at church. If we are in a solid Bible-teaching church, we will accept most of what is taught from the pulpit. In addition, we should be open to consider the views of everyone in our church (or school or fellowship). Sermons and Sunday school lessons often lead to private discussions on Scripture.
But we are responsible to interpret the Bible for ourselves. We cannot successfully say at the Judgment Seat of Christ, “But the community You gave me moved me away from my earlier Free Grace beliefs and told me that Lordship Salvation is true. So I am not responsible for misleading many when I evangelized.” Unbelievers will not be able to get away with saying at the Great White Throne Judgment, “I should get into Your kingdom because of all the good works I did in Your name. The community to which You led me taught me that my good works will get me in and I have been faithful to what the community said. Since I was faithful to the community, You must let me into Your kingdom.”
While others are responsible if they mislead us, we are still individually responsible for what we believe. If we misinterpret key portions of God’s Word, then that is on us. We are personally responsible for what we believe, do, and what we share with others.