Reading Steven Wedgeworth’s comments about the clericalism of Reformed confessionalists reminded me of an important point about ministerial authority that seems worthy of comment. Buried within the Confession of Faith’s first chapter, arguably one of the best presentations of the Protestant doctrine of Scripture, is a point about the necessity of knowing the Bible’s original languages:
8. The Old Testament in Hebrew (which was the native language of the people of God of old), and the New Testament in Greek (which, at the time of the writing of it, was most generally known to the nations), being immediately inspired by God, and, by his singular care and providence, kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentical; so as, in all controversies of religion, the church is finally to appeal unto them. But, because these original tongues are not known to all the people of God, who have right unto, and interest in the Scriptures, and are commanded, in the fear of God, to read and search them, therefore they are to be translated into the vulgar language of every nation unto which they come, that, the Word of God dwelling plentifully in all, they may worship him in an acceptable manner; and, through patience and comfort of the Scriptures, may have hope.
That paragraph has all sorts of implications for distinguishing Protestants from Roman Catholics: 1) Protestants were generally humanists who valued and benefited from the discovery of the most reliable manuscripts of the Bible as opposed to Rome’s doubling down on the Vulgate; 2) Protestants advocated the translation of Scripture into the vernacular for the laity to read but Roman Catholics opposed such access to Scripture (which was by the way a literary boon to national languages such as German and English); 3) (In the category of Duh!) Protestants put the authority of Scripture above the Pope and/or magisterium.
But Protestants did not advocate a Bible-study free for all where any reading of the Bible was as good as any other. That’s where the business about needing to know Greek and Hebrew provides ammunition for Presbyterian and Reformed clericalism. In all controversies of theology and church life, believers are to rely upon the Word of God as opposed to tradition. But the version to be consulted is not the NIV, KJV, or ASV. The church is supposed to consult the Bible in the original languages in the hope of deriving the most authentic understanding of God’s revelation. This means that laity and even your average Presbyterian
elder bishop can only stand by and watch as assemblies of commissioners appeal to the Greek and Hebrew either in committee work or on the floor of presbytery or General Assembly. After all, to be a member of the church, you don’t even have to be able to read — though it helps with singing and other parts of worship. And you certainly don’t need to read Greek or Hebrew to be a member or even an elder bishop. But to be a minister in a Reformed church, you need to know Greek and Hebrew. For instance:
The Recommended Curriculum for Ministerial Preparation in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church
This Recommended Curriculum was approved by the Fifty-fourth General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church to serve as a guideline to ministerial candidates, presbyteries, and seminaries (Form of Government, Chapter XXIII, Section 3). The elements in the Curriculum are not to be understood as additions to the constitutional requirements stated in the Form of Government (XXI, 3, 4; XXIII, 3, 6) regarding the preparation and evaluation of qualifications of candidates for the ministry of the Word. Seminary course work by itself may not ensure fulfillment of the Recommended Curriculum for candidates whose presbyteries use the Curriculum as a guideline; therefore presbyteries may expect supplementation of a candidate’s seminary course work through individual guided study, supervised ministry experience, or other means.
I. Bible Content
Study of the English Bible
The candidate should be required to read through the Bible in English.
Course work should include areas such as archaeology, history and geography, emphasizing the significance of these disciplines for the grammatico-historical interpretation of Scripture.
Required comprehensive examination on Bible content
Goal: The candidate should have a thorough knowledge of the content of the English Bible and an ability to communicate it.
II. Biblical Languages
Required readings in the Hebrew Scriptures
Required readings in the Greek New Testament
Goal: The candidate should be able to exegete the Scriptures from the original languages in the preparation of sermons and Bible lessons, using lexical and grammatical tools.
III. Hermeneutics (or, Principles and Methods of Interpretation)
Principles of Interpretation
History of and Issues in Biblical Criticism (Higher and Textual)
Special Hermeneutical Issues
Goal: The candidate should understand the principles, procedures and problems involved in the interpretation of God’s Word, and should demonstrate a growing proficiency in the faithful exposition of Scripture. He shall be able to read the Bible as God intended it, in its organic unity and its historical diversity. The centrality of Christ, the covenant and the kingdom in the Scriptures determines our understanding of the Scriptures as a whole and as individual texts. The Bible is the progressively unfolding history of the redemptive acts and words of God, climaxing in the coming of Christ and his kingdom, ushering in the new age, the last days.
Christ has accomplished this through his death and resurrection, and the sending of his Spirit to the church on the day of Pentecost. The Bible also holds out the blessed hope to Christ’s church that this new covenant kingdom, which is not yet consummated, will appear in the fullness of God’s glory with Christ’s return on the last day.
IV. Use of the Bible in Ministry
The candidate should be required to prepare advanced exegetical papers on assigned Old Testament and New Testament passages.
The candidate should be required to use his interpretive skills and tools in the preparation of sermons and Bible lessons/courses.
Goal: The candidate should be able to faithfully explain Scripture for the building up of God’s people, moving from a careful study in the original languages through the interpretive process, and arriving at a clear exposition of the text’s meaning and application for the church today.
So while Roman Catholics appeal to apostolic succession as the basis for episcopal authority, Reformed Protestants appeal to ministers who can actually read and make sense of what the apostles wrote.