Nov 17, 2009

On Private Interpretation

"The issue is not the right of every individual believer to worship God and interpret Scripture according to the dictates of his own conscience. No one has spoken more eloquently to this principle than George W. Truett in his 1939 address to the Baptist World Alliance: "For any person or institution to dare to come between the soul and God is a blasphemous impertinence." No true Baptist has ever denied that. What is at stake is the right of a community of believer-priests, whether local congregation, association, state or national convention, to define for itself, under the leadership of the Holy Spirit, the acceptable doctrinal perimeters of its own fellowship.

Every Christian remains free to interpret the Bible as he believes he is led by the Holy Spirit. The doctrine of religious liberty declares that penal measures must not be used by the civil authorities to enforce belief. But it also implies that the church must be free to define and maintain the boundaries of its own fellowship. A church which is unable to do this or, even worse, no longer thinks it is worth doing, is a church which has lost its soul."
(Timothy George)

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"As Bible-believing Christians we have liberty of interpretation! God must like variety of expression and interpretation. Look at the Bible itself – what a diverse collection it is! Even each of the four Gospels has a different interpretation of Jesus. Hebrews 1 says that God has spoken in "many and various ways." And those various ways have been understood in many more various ways! God has never dictated absolute uniformity in interpretation. He honors the liberty of each individual to read and interpret scripture.

Our liberty of interpreting the Bible is exercised under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Paul told Timothy that the ultimate purpose of the scripture is to "instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus." (II Tim. 3:15) John said that his gospel was written "so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name." (20:31)

Before there was a New Testament the early Christians were expressing their faith by saying "Jesus is Lord." Early Christians interpreted all of scripture in light of that confession. A Baptist Christian understanding is that we must also filter every interpretation of the Bible through that confession. How do we judge among so many different individual interpretations of scripture? We ask ourselves, "How does this stack up to who Jesus is and what he did while on earth? What did Jesus do, or not do? What did Jesus say, or not say? What is Jesus saying and doing now about this?"

"We affirm that the sixty-six books of the Old and New Testament are the inspired, written Word of God. We call them the "canon," or measuring rod, of faith. But who sets the standard of the measuring rod? Who says an inch is an inch, a gospel is a gospel, salvation is by grace? Jesus does, for he is Lord – Lord of the church, Lord of the Bible, Lord of the interpreter. It is Jesus who blesses the conscientious interpreter. That’s what James means when he says that those who continue to intentionally stoop and stare into the perfect law of liberty and do what they find "will be blessed in their doing." Jesus is the blesser! He is the giver of all beatitudes, and here is another!

Although we firmly believe in the liberty of individual interpretation, we also believe in accountability of interpretation! It is liberty of and under! All proper interpretation of scripture must be carried out under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. That’s why the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message Statement, which our church’s Bylaws affirm, says so wonderfully: "The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ.

I remember when Jesus cheers came out: "Three cheers for Jesus!" What a hubbub they caused! But early Baptists actually had two cheers. They were: "This Lord and no more!" And, "This Book and no more!" No pope, no king, or no bishop could usurp the lordship of Christ over the soul of the individual. No creed, no confession, and no doctrinal statement can usurp the authority of the Bible. As Bible Baptists we can cheer that we have liberty of interpretation, under the Lordship of Jesus Christ and from any binding creed, confession or statement. We can come up saying "Yes!" When you joined this church you were asked to say straight from the Bible "Jesus is Lord;" you were not asked to affirm a creed."

"This Book and no more!" We don’t need any other binding sources of spiritual authority in our lives. All we need is right here! We may as well register with this authority! Jesus never said, "Repeat after me." He said simply, "Follow me." And as Bible Baptists we believe that is enough – that the liberty of interpretation of the Bible, under the Lordship of Jesus Christ liberates us from having to repeat after anyone a binding creed, confession or statement!"
("Polishing the Baptist Family Name: "Bible Baptist"" by Dr. Craig A. Sherouse - Lakeside Baptist Church, Lakeland, FL)

Editorial Introduction: Dr. Craig Sherouse, became pastor of the First Baptist Church of Griffin, GA, in August, 2003. Prior to that he was the pastor of the Lakeside Baptist Church in Lakeland, FL, where he preached this series of sermons. Dr. Sherouse graduated with both the M.Div. and a Ph.D. degrees from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has also served as pastor of the First Baptist Church in Seminole, FL.

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