Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Thoughts on Acts

The Baptism of the Eunuch (1626) by Rembrandt (Wikipedia)
If there’s one debate that will send a number of Christians into hysterics, it’s anything questioning the “priesthood of all believers.” We like the idea of all individuals standing equal before God, regardless of earthly rank or position. Therefore, we rely on the belief that each one has the ability to understand and interpret the Word of God for himself or herself, without the condescension or mediation of ordained clergy. Now I’m not denouncing this idea in general (or I certainly wouldn’t be working on this blog series). However, I’ve noticed that this doctrine tends to sour into something extreme:

On the grounds of egalitarianism, many Christians will deny that they have any need to learn from or defer to the opinions of those who are more learned then they are. They will deny any advantage others might have in understanding the Gospel that might come from knowing ancient languages, understanding Jewish culture, or reading the Old Testament and the “Early Church Fathers.” On the grounds of sola scriptura, many Christians will avoid lexicons, commentaries, and Bible versions with interpretive footnotes. They truly believe that everything they need to fully understand and correctly interpret the Bible is in their vigorous rereading of their favorite books in the New Testament. And they truly dislike any implication that their best just might not be good enough…hence the hysterics.

I’m really in no position to directly challenge this, as it lies beyond my scope of knowledge. However, I’d like to contrast the attitude of the kinds of Christians mentioned above with that of the Ethiopian eunuch, whom the apostle Philip met on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza (Acts 8:26-40). When Philip asked this obviously godly, educated, and powerful man if he understood Isaiah 53:7-8, he honestly said no. “How can I, unless someone guides me?” (Acts 8:31, ESV). He accepted the fact that he wasn’t omniscient. He needed help. He needed the input of someone else…someone who was in a position to know far more about the context of the passage. And he was fortunate that God sent him one of the foremost experts on the topic.

It would be simple to say that Christians need to have more humility when it comes to considering others’ interpretations against their own, but I’m beginning to wonder if the real need is a radical paradigm adjustment. It’s as if most of us begin reading having already accepted the idea that we’ll come to the right conclusions about the passage. I’m not suggesting that we do the opposite, assuming that we can’t understand any part of God’s Word (and wash our hands of any responsibility regarding it). But we can and, I’d argue, need to be our own worst critics and seek the help of others who might lead us closer to the truth.