By Will Wellman
This year is the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation—500 years since Martin Luther posted his 95 theses to the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg, Germany. To mark this occasion, PCPC’s In Community Speaker Series will explore the Reformation and its relevance for today. Pastor John DeBevoise kicked off this series on September 24 th with an overview of the Reformation, it’s central tenets, and an honest discussion of the church’s ultimate call towards unity in Christ.
On Reformation Sunday, October 29th , we’ll have a panel including Pastor John, Father John Lipscomb, and others to discuss the recent trend toward unity in both Catholic and Protestant circles, as opposed to the celebration of our differences. The series will continue in the Spring with talks on the changing role of women in the Reformed church, the history of race in the Reformed church, and the role of education in the Reformed church, past and present.
In my own reflections on the 500th anniversary, I’ve been thinking particularly about Biblical interpretation. Much of the core disagreements between Luther and the Catholic leadership of his day centered around differing Biblical interpretations. Luther found the practice of indulgences to be counter to the overall message of the Gospel, specifically against what he saw as Jesus’ call to repentance. If we can buy our way to salvation, what need is there for grace?
One result of the Reformation was the democratization of Scripture. As time passed more and more laity had access to the Bible, and likewise the ability to seek after their own interpretations. This had both good and ill effects. While the readership (and literacy) expanded greatly, the unity of the church suffered. Suddenly, rifts were occurring over the most trivial interpretive disagreements and new denominations being formed at the drop of a hat.
Today, it’s important for us to consider what our aims are in interpretation. What are we seeking after when we come to Scripture? Are we looking for ways to bolster our moral authority? Are we weaponizing Scripture into a divisive instrument? Are we diminishing Scripture to an arguing point?
In the Letter to the Ephesians (4:11-16), we read:
And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.
I lift up this passage because it speaks to the importance of unity, and that the body of Christ should always work towards love. The passage calls us to see there is a diversity of ways we serve God, a diversity of ways we live out our lives as Christians. And I think this is a key to interpretation.
The Bible is the living word of the living God. It is not a static document. It is not a text to prove our point. It is not something to be used for division. Rather, it is the inspired word of God, speaking anew to all times and contexts and peoples. When we see interpretation as a one-size-fits-all process, we fall into the trap of making our word is God’s word. We begin to prioritize ideas over relationships, and quickly leave behind any semblance of good news, with division in our wake.
Instead, we are called through interpretation to enter the world of Scripture and open ourselves to the inspiration of God’s word. We are not to simply read Scripture but take the risk that we will be changed through our reading. As the Protestant philosopher Paul Ricoeur said, “Faith is the attitude of one who accepts being interpreted at the same time that he or she interprets the world of the text.” And in our interaction with the Bible and openness to the work of the Spirit, we are transformed and called to participate in the work of the kingdom, always moving toward building up in love.
This approach to the interpretation of Scripture is one that sees the Bible as a living document that changes us and the world we live in for the better. We move away from “being tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine” and move towards growing “up in all aspects into Him who is the head.”
-by Will Wellman
Interim Director of Adult Education
Will has been at PCPC since 2014, starting as an intern and then pastoral resident.
Outside the office, Will can be found hanging out with his wife Taylor, kayaking, writing poetry, or working on The EcoTheo Review.