Bible-Thumping Clericalism

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
Grammatical forms
Syntactical principles
Exegetical procedures
Required readings in the Hebrew Scriptures
Grammatical forms
Syntactical principles
Exegetical procedures
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
Biblical Theology
History of and Issues in Biblical Criticism (Higher and Textual)
Special Hermeneutical Issues
Old Testament
New Testament

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.


21 thoughts on “Bible-Thumping Clericalism

  1. Not much to disagree with here — and thanks to modern historical study, even the elder-vs-bishop question of the 16th and 17th centuries is becoming clarified (although, in another context, but Brandon’s article speaks to the whole “apostolic succession” idea and its relatively late origins).


  2. Having listened to a retired Greek teacher for a while now, I can appreciate the remarks in this post. The different verb tenses, genders, case, grammar, etc. all have a great deal to do with the way one may read (translate) a given passage, not to mention the context in which it was written.

    I’ll even go a step further and say that an educated working knowledge of the ancient cultures in and around historical Israel and the early church is equally important to extract the best meaning of a particular gospel, epistle, etc.

    All of which casts a dim shadow on those who suddenly “feel a calling” to preach based upon some sudden emotion or critical life event and just grab a Bible, possibly spewing all sorts of misinformation to unsuspecting congregants. It also (and I’m sure this one will get me into trouble) makes small group Bible study – without being tethered to a pastor – a potential source for misleading interpretation. This is even worse in the case of the widely ecumenical “neighborhood Bible study” approach where “what does this passage mean to you” is a common refrain.


  3. Apart from the d’oh moment of #3, I am struck by the double-d’oh (aka “double down”?) of 1 vs 2. What is Rome’s reasoning exactly for insisting on the Latin rather than the original languages? And what changed developed that forbade vulgar translations then, but allows them now?


  4. Yes, but for your readers to have a rounded picture, they must also be directed to the Westminster Divines ‘The Directory for the Ordination of Minister’ and especially to this piece of sage advice to the would-be minister:
    ‘He shall be examined touching his skill in the original tongues…and if he be defective in them, inquiry shall be made more strictly after other learning, and whether he hath skill in logIc and philosophy’. Not a sign of this in the OPC stuff. How soon the rot set in. Van Til, where were you?


  5. Paul,

    There is some sign of this in the OPC stuff, namely in the requirement for an examination in apologetics. But it could and should be much stronger: we ought to require, in my opinion, more knowledge of and skill with logic and philosophy from pastoral candidates. Here the OPC seems to struggle against the same tide as other churches do, that a learned pastorate is not considered to be necessary for “effective ministry.”

    If I may quote my(all about me)self: “Prudentially speaking, and here opinions differ of course, it seems to me that we live in a time in which the dangers of relativism and the rejection of objective truth are far more pronounced than in previous generations. A consequence of this is that the standards for excellence in academics at all levels are desperately eroded. Does anyone doubt that even our best colleges and seminaries, particularly in languages, philosophy, and historical studies, only approximate the erudition of our forebears? The goals of education, therefore, sometimes must be proximate and not ultimate. I contend that sometimes we ought to be satisfied if students have mastered the basic elements of any given subject matter, and more modest about whether our teaching will result in the character formation that is only accomplished by the grace of God.” (


  6. DGH: it might be akin to Muslims insisting on the Qur’an in Arabic, if it were the case that Rome insisted on keeping the bible in its original Greek/Hebrew. But insisting on Latin is like if Muslims were to insist that a particular Farsi translation of the Qur’an is the one-and-only.


  7. Rube,

    What is Rome’s reasoning exactly for insisting on the Latin rather than the original languages?

    I don’t know the official reasoning. The unofficial reasoning is that when you actually read Scripture in the original languages, you start running away from high papalism and infallibility even if you still accept other Roman doctrines.

    It probably also is due to the fact that the Reformer’s argued exegetically from Greek and Hebrew.

    And as Darryl pointed out, Rome is as much a creature of Italy and the Roman Empire as anything else, and Latin was the imperial tongue.

    And what changed developed that forbade vulgar translations then, but allows them now?

    Basically Rome saw that forbidding Scripture to be read in the vernacular was having the opposite effect and they didn’t want the mortal wound inflicted by the Reformation to kill the patient right away. Better to give people approved Roman Bibles read the Roman way than to risk a RC layperson’s random encounters with the KJV or something else.

    But I’m quite sure that in approving vernacular translations, Rome never thought it would have ex-Prots trying to prooftext Romanism. That just turned out to be a happy turn of events for them.


  8. Yes, as an anti-roman protestant, those explanations which make rome look bad make sense to me. But I’m still curious what rome says about itself.


  9. This is interesting. The catholic encyclopedia has no entry for “Vulgate”, but it does have one for “Revision of Vulgate“. Some choice quotes:

    This is about latin scriptures leading up to Jerome and his Vulgate:

    The Latin text of the Sacred Scriptures had existed from the earliest times of Christianity. The translator or translators were unknown to St. Augustine and St. Jerome; but the former says that the old Latin version had certainly come “from the first days of the Faith”, and the latter that it “had helped to strengthen the faith of the infant Church.” Made and copied without any official supervision these western texts soon became corrupt or doubtful and by the time of St. Jerome varied so much that that doctor could declare that there were almost “as many readings as codices.” It was this that as Richard Bentley, writing to Archbishop Wade, declares, “obliged Damasus, then Bishop of Rome, to employ St. Jerome to regulate the last revised translation of each part of the New Testament to the original Greek and to set out a new edition so castigated and corrected.”

    Isn’t that just like Rome, to have the church exercise authority over the text, rather than vice versa.

    This is about what happened after Jerome created the Vulgate:

    Substantially, no doubt, the present authentic Clementine text represents that which St. Jerome produced in the fourth century, but no less certainly it, the printed text, stands in need of close examination and much correction to make it agree with the translation of St. Jerome. No copy of the actual text is known to exist; and the corruptions introduced by scribes, etc., in the centuries posterior to St. Jerome, and even the well intentioned work of the various correctors, have rendered the labours of trying to recover the exact text from existing manuscripts both difficult and delicate. This, however, is the work which must be done as the first step in the revision of the Vulgate. It is consequently the aim of the present commission to determine with all possible exactitude the Latin text of St. Jerome and not to produce any new version of the Latin Scriptures. Of course it is altogether another matter to determine how far St. Jerome was correct in his translation: to settle this will no doubt be the work of some future commission.

    And from another page about bible versions,

    After the first printing of the Vulgate by Gutenberg in 1456, other editions came out rapidly. Their circulation with other Latin versions led to increasing uncertainties as to a standard text and caused the Fathers of the Council of Trent to declare that the Vulgate alone was to be held as “authentic in public readings, discourses, and disputes, and that nobody might dare or presume to reject it on any pretence” (Sess. IV, decr. de editione et usu sacrorum librorum). By this declaration the Council, without depreciating the Hebrew or the Septuagint or any other version then in circulation and without forbidding the original texts, approved the Vulgate and enjoined its public and official use as a text free from error in doctrine and morals.

    I don’t see how “Vulgate alone” and “without depreciating the Hebrew or the Septuagint…and without forbidding the original texts” fit together…but then being a protestant, I am not well-trained in the art of cat-lick gymnastics.


  10. I read Trent session IV, and in all honesty, I gotta say I don’t see it ever saying “Vulgate only”, or forbidding (or even mentioning) original greek/hebrew languages. Their stated goal is to “[make] known which out of all the Latin editions, now in circulation, of the sacred books, is to be held as authentic”. So the Reformers are certainly ‘guilty’ of rejecting that the Vulgate is authentic, and ‘guilty’ of interpreting the scriptures contrary to the roman church, but I see no condemnation in there of direct use of greek/hebrew.

    Likely there are other texts/practices that say “vulgate only” and/or “no greek/hebrew”, but unless they are in an ‘infallible’ council, cat-lickers always have the Dude’s out of “well that’s just, like, someone’s opinion, man”


  11. I once asked a KJV-only type how he approached missionary evangelism since he and his brethren believed the 1611 version to be the only authorized translation of Scripture. In other words, how did they translate it into native languages around the world. He said that the “natives” in missioned countries had to first be taught to speak and understand King James English and, once they learned it, they were evangelized with the KJV. Somebody help me.


  12. Zrim,

    Indeed. And they’ve got a doctrine of infallibility to go with it. The KJV is the only translation protected by translator infallibility.


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