I’ll never forget it.
My first day on campus at seminary and I was participating in what’s called matriculation. That’s a 10 dollar word to say I was registering as a new student. All these fancy words….
Anyways, I was sitting down looking at the classes I was going to be taking. I was going for an MDiv in Christian Apologetics…at least that’s what I started out to do. Anyways, I was looking at the classes and one caught my eye.
I didn’t even know how to say the word, much less know what it meant. So I asked the person assigned to help me, “Hey, what does this mean?” They chuckled in that semi-snarky superior way that makes you feel like an ignorant peasant and said, “Hermeneutics.” I said, “Yeah, I see the word but what does it mean?” They said, “It basically means how to interpret the Bible.” I said, “Then why don’t you just call it that, Biblical Interpretation?” They said, “Because it’s called hermeneutics.” I said, “Right, but if you called it something that people understood…you know what, never mind.” So I enrolled in a hermeneutics class where I was to learn how to interpret Scripture. I remember finding that curious to think that the Bible, specifically the New Testament, had been around for the better part of 2000 years and we still didn’t know how to interpret it…
The class wasn’t bad and taught me many things I did not know. One thing I remember that really stuck out to me was the statement that “a text can never mean what it’s never meant.” I wasn’t real sure what that meant and, frankly, I’m still not sure what exactly that means. I was also struck by the statement made by my professor that a text can only have one meaning. He said the author (in this case the inspired human author) meant one thing only and we must work to discover that one thing.
I found that to be a little unsatisfying, to be honest. I remember thinking that didn’t seem right somehow, that a text could only have one meaning. I remember thinking, ‘Well that’s funny because so many people seem to have so many different interpretations of what different texts mean.’
Have you run into that? It seems like some things are so widely interpreted that you have a hard time determining what it actually means. For example, the accounts in the Acts of the Apostles (the book of Acts) of the household baptisms of the Gentile converts. So I read those texts that say the person who believed and their entire household was baptized and I am quite certain it means exactly what it says; that everyone in the household was baptized, husband, wife, children, servants…you get the picture. A Baptist will read that very same text and argue that it doesn’t mean what it says; that the children weren’t baptized but only those who professed faith.
See the problem?
I had a problem. As a church planter and pastor, I was preparing sermons to feed the flock under my care. As I was preparing those sermons, I was studying the text of Holy Scripture. What wasn’t plain, I researched. That’s how you do hermeneutics, right? The problem became, for me, that different commentators had different things to say about some texts. Take the baptism narratives again, for example. Presbyterian commentators would say it’s a clear indication of paedo-baptism. A Baptist commentator would say the exact opposite.
What’s an honest pastor to do?
Did anyone agree on what Holy Scripture had to say?
Well, as a matter of fact, yes. In the historic Church, the Catholic Church, there appeared to be remarkable agreement on what Holy Scripture had to say. Now yes, there were some variances but what I found was surprising. The Church was remarkably consistent throughout the last 2000 years or so in how she interpreted Holy Scripture. She was also remarkably consistent in how the text of Holy Scripture was to be applied to our daily lives.
Caveat: I am no expert in Catholic hermeneutics. However, I have learned and am learning so here are some things I’ve learned. Historically, the Church has interpreted Holy Scripture with four basic senses, if you will, of how to interpret. They are:
Here’s the point I’m trying to make. I was greatly comforted in knowing, as a pastor and preacher, that my need to interpret biblical texts had been answered. I no longer had to struggle to know if what I was seeing in the text was “right” or “wrong.” Rather, I had the long history of the teaching of the Church to rely upon. What sweet comfort that discovery was for me as a pastor!
Maybe you struggle as well with some texts of Holy Scripture. Maybe you’re like me and wonder what in the world does some of this mean? I want you to know the peace and comfort I have found, knowing that the Church has wrestled with these very things for over two centuries now. She has much wisdom and remarkable consistency to offer us as we feed our own souls and the souls of our flock.
Mother Church has much to teach us. Let us be grateful for her. Let us be humble and accept her wisdom. Let us praise God for His kindness in giving us teachers to show us the way!
I have recently converted to the Roman Catholic Church. My family and I are in the latter stages of coming into full communion with the Church. It’s been quite a journey for me personally. I say this because I recently had a friend who is Protestant, but also exploring the claims of the Catholic Church, encourage me to write about this and so I shall.
There were lots of things that compelled me to “swim the Tiber” and I’m not really sure where to start. I have spoken before and often about my journey into what I called the historic Church. I was raised Protestant, graduated from a Protestant seminary, was ordained in the Protestant tradition and even pastored a Protestant church. The last two to three years of my pastoral ministry, things began to change for me. I discovered something that was a bit jarring for me. I discovered that there were Christians before Martin Luther and after the Apostles.
I know, shocking, right?
I say this with, of course, a touch of sarcasm. I say it sarcastically because, growing up the way I did and being educated by the people I was educated by, one would have thought that Christianity had somehow been lost after St. John the Apostle died and Martin Luther nailed up his famous 95 Theses. Now, in fairness, not all Protestants think that there were no Christians between St. John and Luther…but most of them act like it. The attitude seems to be one of “Well, Christianity kinda got lost during all those dark years and then Luther came along and read the Bible and voila!” Again, I know I’m using caricature, but you get the point.
What happened, for me, was that I began to go back. I was reading Scripture and preparing sermons. Anyone who preaches regularly will know exactly what I mean when I say that I was wrestling with some of these texts. There are some things in Holy Scripture that are difficult to understand. So, I did what I was trained to do; I consulted commentaries. One day I realized that almost all the commentaries I had consulted were written within the last 100 years and all were written by Protestants. So I did something dangerous. I decided that I wanted to know what the earliest Christians thought about what Holy Scripture said.
Like, when Jesus, at the Last Supper, said, “This is My body…This is My blood..” What did He mean by that exactly and how did the earliest Christians view those statements? So I began to read and consult with the earliest Christian writings I could get my hands on.
You guessed it…the Church Fathers.
Some of this I’ve said before but, the point is worth re-stating. As I read the earliest Christian writers, thinkers, theologians, pastors etc, I was astounded. They were Catholic. For example (my brother and I talked a bit about this last weekend), did you know that you could not find a Christian for the first 1500 years or so of the Church that did not believe in baptismal regeneration? Let me say that a little more clearly. Baptismal regeneration was believed by all orthodox Christians for the first 1500 years of the Church.
Sure, there were people who didn’t believe that, but those people were considered to be heretical. For my Protestant friends, read that again. Baptismal regeneration was believed by all orthodox Christians for the first 1500 years of the Church. To say that I was shocked when I discovered this is a huge understatement. This flew in the face of everything I had been taught about baptism as a Protestant.
Another example for you. The unanimous belief of all orthodox Christians before the Protestant “Reformation” was in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. All orthodox Christians believed that Jesus was present body, soul and divinity in the Eucharist. Those who did not believe that were considered heretical. I can’t even begin to describe to you how much this shook me.
I wondered, ‘What else was I taught that doesn’t align with traditional Christianity?’
You must understand. I was, and am, wanting to align myself with and practice the faith “once for all delivered to the saints.” How can I claim to be Christian if I am not practicing the faith once for all delivered to the saints? How can I claim to be Christian if I don’t believe the faith once for all delivered to the saints?
We cannot claim that we are practicing the faith once for all delivered to the saints if we don’t follow the practice of the faith once for all delivered to the saints and we cannot claim that we believe the faith once for all delivered to the saints if we don’t believe what Christians have always believed.
I found myself in a really awkward position. Indeed, I found that I could not claim to be a Christian if I did not do and believe what Christians have always done and believed. As we progress, I will lay out my personal journey back to Mother Church.
I pray that this journey will be as wonderful for you as it has been for me.