Sunday, March 15, 2009

Can't I Just Read the Bible Myself and Figure it Out?

The angel of the Lord spoke to Philip, “Get up and head south on the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza, the desert route.” So he got up and set out. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, that is, the queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury, who had come to Jerusalem to worship, and was returning home. Seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. The Spirit said to Philip, “Go and join up with that chariot.” Philip ran up and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and said, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He replied, “How can I, unless someone instructs me?” So he invited Philip to get in and sit with him. This was the Scripture passage he was reading:
Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and as a lamb before its shearer is silent,
so he opened not his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who will tell of his posterity?
For his life is taken from the earth.
Then the eunuch said to Philip in reply, “I beg you, about whom is the prophet saying this? About himself, or about someone else?” Then Philip opened his mouth and, beginning with this Scripture passage, he proclaimed Jesus to him. As they traveled along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “Look, there is water. What is to prevent my being baptized?”
Then he ordered the chariot to stop, and Philip and the eunuch both went down into the water, and he baptized him. When they came out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more, but continued on his way rejoicing. Philip came to Azotus, and went about proclaiming the good news to all the towns until he reached Caesarea.
The Church must possess teaching authority. This reading from the Acts of the Apostles is a beautiful example of this principle in practice. The Ethiopian eunuch, obviously a well-bred, educated man, if he was literate and sat on the royal court, had access to the Holy Scriptures. However, because he sought Truth above all else, he humbled himself to a stranger, hoping that he might gain wisdom.

Philip, in this reading, is an icon of magisterial teaching. For God intends every person to read, to study, to familiarize himself with the Holy Scriptures; "ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ." But as is evident by the diversity of opinion on what means what in Scripture, man needs a standard by which to measure. In a given passage there might be several correct interpretations, but rest assured there are many, many more incorrect interpretations. God requires of us to follow the eunuch's example of humility, to invite His Apostle into our chariot, to instruct us in the meaning of what we read. He requires of us to embrace the Church which He has given to us, as He sent Philip to the eunuch.


Anonymous said...

I mean no offense to you sir, but I have to disagree for a various number of reasons. If I understand correctly, you're saying because Philip went to the eunoch to teach him, we must all go to the church for our interpretation of scripture. However that is a slippery slope to climb on. First of all, Phillip was not the church, but rather one man who was commanded by the Spirit to go to the eunoch. The eunoch was open and seeking truth, and thus Philip not only got a chance to correctly interperat the scriptures, but rather a chance to share the gospel and have someone come to know the Lord and be baptized into the faith. To imply that Philip is the direct correlation with the church is to skew what this passage is actually saying. No where in these words does it say that because Philip taught the eunich does the church need to have final authority in our lives for scripture (unless you're referring to the church in the scriptural sense that each of us is the church and so anyone who knows the Lord and has the Holy Spirit can seek truth and bring enlightenment into the scriptures). Rather, what it is calling us as believers to is to be open to the Spirit and follow His calling and to trust that when He calls He will use us to accomplish His purpose. And if we do have questions, yes by all means seek a spiritual elder to help enlighten us. But as a believer, I do not need you to tell me what scripture says to properly interperut it. As I recall, this was very similar to the Pharisees of the time, and look at what happened there.

sethz3 said...

To the previous poster: Your belief in the authority of the Bible belies your position of needing no Church for scriptural interpretation. Who spoke authoritatively on the included books of the Bible? Padre points out that without the Church we would have no Bible in his post "Scripture and Tradition". As long as you are in the business of denying Church authority, why not add some additional books to the Bible and remove those that do not fit your personal interpretation?

Anonymous said...

I thought the passage about Philip was a great example. I have been in Philip's position many times when reading the bible, and I say to myself "How am I supposed to interpret this? What does this mean?" It can be frustrating sometimes, so that is why I find it helpful to know the church's interpretation of a passage. I do not have near the knowledge of the bible or the history behind it to know how to interpret something, so I am thankful for the people who are able to guide me to a better understanding of it. Who better to go to than a member of the Church? I also enjoy reading my study bible because of the notes that accompany it. I look to other people in order to grow in my faith and knowledge of scripture, not to hinder it or have them force certain beliefs on me. There are bound to be differences in interpretations, but I guess the main thing is...God is amazing and that is what really matters! :)

Joel Haubenreich said...

To the first anonymous poster:

Philip was one man, as you say, and not holding in himself the fullness of the Church, but rather represented the Church. We may understand him as representative because of his special role as one of the first bishops, ordained by Jesus Christ (John 13). He, along with the other Apostles, was given teaching authority, which has been passed down through the ages by way of what is called "Apostolic Succession." This link might prove very helpful in understanding that.

It is true, the Holy Spirit does illumine the Scriptures for us, and there are some things that are plain. But we must always rely on the final authority of the Church which Jesus founded. For where there are irreconcilable differences of interpretations, there must be a final authority. This is the Church.

Indeed, as sethz3 pointed out, without the specific authority of the Church, we would have little idea what books we should read at all!

David said...

Joel, can you please clarify something. If I read your post right, it sounds like your saying that the church (which is made of imperfect people) is more authoritative than the holy spirit (which is God)? I understand that we don't always interpret what the holy spirit says, but that doesn't mean the church "has more authority."

Joel Haubenreich said...


Thank you, I see I was unclear in my previous response. It is not that we pass from the Holy Spirit to the Church for final interpretations. The Holy Spirit, of course, leads and guides the Church; He does so in all parts, and especially through the teaching authority of the magisterium. So it is to the Church we turn to discern the guidance of the Spirit.

Sorry for the confusion.

David said...

Thank you for that clarification Joel.

And if we could clarify one more thing please. We are using the biblical definition of church (the church is the bride of Christ, which is made up of all believers) right?

I fear sometimes we start making it something else, such as a building or organization with a hierarchy where some have more authority than others, and where some are more important than others.

Joel Haubenreich said...


What is it that Jesus left us? Some maxims, guides for healthy living, good ideas, virtuous thoughts, even good works to inspire us? Because these are good things, but they are not the beginnings of a Church. The Church is not a loose group of people who happen to like what Jesus had to say and believe that those things are true. His followers were not random people who followed His ideas, as in the case of Arius, Luther, or Gandhi. His followers belonged and still belong to something which He founded. That is, Jesus intentionally began an institution or society to which His followers would and should belong, the Church, which Paul calls "the pillar and foundation of the truth" (1 Tim 3:15).

And so yes, the Church is the Bride of Christ made up of all believers, but this role does not preclude the Church from containing within herself a hierarchy, divinely instituted. Jesus frequently addressed the multitudes, but how often more did He withdraw with His twelve apostles, and even with His three? He trained shepherds for his flock. Those shepherds have the grave responsibility to train more shepherds, and to tend His sheep wisely.

It has always been the case. Why else, then, would Paul think that he had the authority to admonish the recipients of his letters, or to stand in judgment on the heresies of others? Why did the Apostles at the council in Jerusalem feel they had the authority to instruct Gentiles how to live?