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§ 5. Perspicuity of the Scriptures. The Right of Private Judgment.
The Bible is a plain book. It is intelligible by the people. And they have the right, and are bound to read and interpret it for themselves; so that their faith may rest on the testimony of the Scriptures, and not on that of the Church. Such is the doctrine of Protestants on this subject.
It is not denied that the Scriptures contain many things hard to be understood; that they require diligent study; that all men need the guidance of the Holy Spirit in order to right knowledge and true faith. But it is maintained that in all things necessary to salvation they are sufficiently plain to be understood even by the unlearned.
It is not denied that the people, learned and unlearned, in order to the proper understanding of the Scriptures, should not only compare Scripture with Scripture, and avail themselves of all the means in their power to aid them in their search after the truth, but they should also pay the greatest deference to the faith of the Church. If the Scriptures be a plain book, and the Spirit performs the functions of a teacher to all the children of God, it follows inevitably that they must agree in all essential matters in their interpretation of the Bible. And from that fact it follows that for an individual Christian to dissent from the faith of the universal Church (i.e., the body of true believers), is tantamount to dissenting from the Scriptures themselves.
What Protestants deny on this subject is, that Christ has appointed any officer, or class of officers, in his Church to whose interpretation of the Scriptures the people are bound to submit as of final authority. What they affirm is that He has made it obligatory upon every man to search the Scriptures for himself, and determine on his own discretion what they require him to believe and to do.
The arguments in support of the former of these positions have already been presented in the discussion concerning the infallibility of the Church. The most obvious reasons in support of the right of private judgment are, —
1. That the obligations to faith and obedience are personal. Every man is responsible for his religious faith and his moral conduct. He cannot transfer that responsibility to others; nor can others assume it in his stead. He must answer for himself; and if he must answer for himself, he must judge for himself. It will not avail him in the day of judgment to say that his parents or his Church taught him wrong. He should have listened to God, and obeyed Him rather than men.
2. The Scriptures are everywhere addressed to the people, and not to the officers of the Church either exclusively, or specially. The prophets were sent to the people, and constantly said, “Hear, O Israel,” “Hearken, O ye people.” Thus, also, the discourses of Christ were addressed to the people, and the people heard him gladly. All the Epistles of the New Testament are addressed to the congregation, to the “called of Jesus Christ;” “to the beloved of God;” to those “called to be saints;” “to the sanctified in Christ Jesus;” “to all who call on the name of Jesus Christ our Lord;” “to the saints which are in (Ephesus), and to the faithful in Jesus Christ;” or “to the saints and faithful brethren which are in (Colosse);” and so in every instance. It is the people who are addressed. To them are directed these profound discussions of Christian doctrine, and these comprehensive expositions of Christian duty. They are everywhere assumed to be competent to understand what is written, and are everywhere required to believe and obey what thus came from the inspired messengers of Christ. They were not referred to any other authority from which they were to learn the true import of these inspired instructions. It is, therefore, not only to deprive the people of a divine right, to forbid the people to read and interpret the Scriptures for themselves; but it is also to interpose between them and God, and to prevent their hearing his voice, that they may listen to the words of men.
The People commanded to search the Scriptures.
3. The Scriptures are not only addressed to the people, but the people were called upon to study them, and to teach them unto their children. It was one of the most frequently recurring injunctions to parents under the old dispensation, to teach the Law unto their children, that they again might teach it unto theirs. The “holy oracles” were committed to the people, to be taught by the people; and taught immediately out of the Scriptures, that the truth might be retained in its purity. Thus our Lord commanded the people to search the Scriptures, saying, “They are they which testify of me.” (John v. 39.) He assumed that they were able to understand what the Old Testament said of the Messiah, although its teachings had been misunderstood by the scribes and elders, and by the whole Sanhedrim. Paul rejoiced that Timothy had from his youth known the Holy Scriptures, which were able to make him wise unto salvation. He said to the Galatians (i. 8, 9), “Though we, or an angel from heaven, — if any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed.” This implies two things, — first, that the Galatian Christians, the people, had a right to sit in judgment on the teaching of an Apostle, or of an angel from heaven; and secondly, that they had an infallible rule by which that judgment was to be determined, namely, a previous authenticated revelation of God. If, then, the Bible recognizes the right of the people to judge of the teaching of Apostles and angels, they are not to be denied the right of judging of the doctrines of bishops and priests. The principle laid down by the Apostle is precisely that long before given by Moses (Deut. xiii. 1-3), who tells the people that if a prophet should arise, although he worked wonders, they were not to believe or obey him, if he taught them anything contrary to the Word of God. This again assumes right to judge, and that the people had the ability and the right to judge, and that they had an infallible rule of judgment. It implies, moreover, that their salvation depended upon their judging rightly. For if they allowed these false teachers, robed in sacred vestments, and surrounded by the insignia of authority, to lead them from the truth, they would inevitably perish.
4. It need hardly be remarked that this right of private judgment is the great safeguard of civil and religious liberty. If the Bible be admitted to be the infallible rule of faith and practice in accordance with which men are bound on the peril of their souls, to frame their creed and conduct; and if there be a set of men who have the exclusive right of interpreting the Scripture, and who are authorized to impose their interpretations on the people as of divine authority, then they may impose on them what conditions of salvation they see fit. And the men who have the salvation of the people in their hands are their absolute masters. Both reason and experience fully sustain the dictum of Chillingworth,129129Works, p. 105. when he says, “He that would usurp an absolute lordship and tyranny over any people, need not put himself to the trouble and difficulty of abrogating and disannulling the laws, made to maintain the common liberty; for he may frustrate their intent, and compass his own design as well, if he can get the power and authority to interpret them as he pleases, and add to them what he pleases, and to have his interpretations and additions stand for laws; if he can rule his by his lawyers.” This is precisely what the Church of Rome has done, and thereby established a tyranny for which there is no parallel in the history of the world. What renders this tyranny the more intolerable, is, that, so far as the mass of the people is concerned, it resolves itself into the authority of the parish priest. He is the arbiter of the faith and morals of his people. No man can believe unless the ground of faith is present to his mind. If the people are to believe that the Scriptures teach certain doctrines, then they must have the evidence that such doctrines are really taught in the Bible. If that evidence be that the Church so interprets the sacred writings, then the people must know what is the Church, i.e., which of the bodies claiming to be the Church, is entitled to be so regarded. How are the people, the uneducated masses, to determine that question? The priest tells them. If they receive his testimony on that point, then how can they tell how the Church interprets the Scriptures? Here again they must take the word of the priest. Thus the authority of the Church as an interpreter, which appears so imposing, resolves itself into the testimony of the priest, who is often wicked, and still oftener ignorant. This cannot be the foundation of the faith of God’s elect. That foundation is the testimony of God himself speaking his word, and authenticated as divine by the testimony of the Spirit with and by the truth in the heart of the believer.
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