Teaching and Learning the Word – Ministry Spot

Ministry Spot

The concept of teaching seems to have fallen on somewhat hard times in contemporary society. Frequently one hears this expressed in the mantra that “Expression leads to impression,” the statement implying that conventional understandings of teaching as the handover of material content from teacher to student is a dry and dusty relic of the past. The modern student instead learns by bringing out of themselves what is innately already there, the question which defeat all others being: “What do you think?”

Though many Christians may greet this development with some degree of suspicion, there might seem to be an implicit support for this idea in relation to the nature of God’s Word. One might well ask about the way we, as Protestants, confess that the Bible is essentially a clear book. In contrast to Roman Catholicism, the Reformers and their heirs championed the fact that the Word of God was for the people of God, and was essentially a book which believers could understand. This leads to statements like that of the Westminster Standards when it says of the Bible’s teaching that:

those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, . . . may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.” (WCF 1.7)

Scripture, then, is essentially clear, and this doctrine, sometimes termed the perspicuity of Scripture, was an important claim in opposition to those in the Reformers’ day, and in our own, who proposed that Scripture is obscure and requires a magisterial body to make an unclear Bible clear to believers.

Does the clarity of Scripture, though, perhaps mean that every believer can learn on their own and by themselves all that God has to say to us in His Word? Is an individualising tendency the result of this doctrine? The historic answer has been “No” and is related to the way that certain qualifications were made on the nature of Scripture’s essential clarity. Indeed the statement from the Westminster Confession above includes at least two caveats which suggest that this truth could be misapplied or misunderstood if affirmed flatly. Each of these two caveats, or qualifications, helps us to understand how we should think about the relationship of God’s clear voice in Scripture to the nature of Scripture, the teaching of it, and the relation of both to the Church.

First, the confessional statement above begins with a qualification which signals that the clarity of Scripture does not extend to every aspect of the Bible’s teaching in an equal way. Christians have recognised that, indeed, some parts of the Bible are difficult and require extended work and study. Even after such study we may still be left with questions about the meaning of certain passages, or their relation to other parts of Scripture. This recognition, that some things in Scripture are difficult to understand, is not merely a post hoc conclusion based on the Church’s encounter with Scripture, but is, in fact, the teaching of Scripture about itself. In reflecting on the letters of his fellow apostle, Peter could say of Paul’s writings that “There are some things in them that are hard to understand,” (2 Pe 3:16). Thus the clarity of Scripture is not a statement about every detail, but as the WCF notes, extends to “those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, “which are . . . clearly propounded and opened in someplace of Scripture or other”. When we speak or think of Scripture’s clarity, we are saying that in essence the nature of the Gospel, the saving message of the Scriptures, is fundamentally clear at the level of the whole canon, even if some sections of Scripture are difficult or, at times, opaque to our best understanding.

Second, a qualification is made on the clarity of Scripture in relation to the God-given context for its understanding. When the WCF speaks of Scripture’s clarity it assumes a context in which the Scriptures communicate clearly the central saving truths of its message, namely, in the Church. This can be seen both in the way that WCF I.7 understands that there are a diversity of gifts and capacities amongst believers, distinguishing, for example, between those with high levels of education and those with less, but particularly in the statement that the saving elements of Scripture are clear even to the simplest believer “by the due use of the ordinary means”. Here the WCF alludes to the ministry of the Word in the Church, whether in the reading and teaching of Scripture or the use of the sacraments as visible words.

In speaking of this “due use” the Westminster divines assumed that part of the way that God speaks clearly through his Word, is not in an abstract context in which believers learn as lone individuals, separated from the life and history of the Church, but as those deeply connected to it. As we read Scripture we find that, alongside the truth of the fundamental clarity of God’s living and powerful word, is the teaching that God has placed teachers of that Word in the midst of his Church. So Paul, in speaking of the triumphant gifts which Christ showers on his people through the Spirit, writes of the ascended Jesus giving certain teachers as gifts to his Church (Eph 4:11). God has throughout history given certain individuals to his people, who are gifted to understand God’s Word and explain, teach and apply it to others. One might think here both of those theologians of the past to whom we have access as witnesses who, though dead, yet still speak through their writings. But Paul surely has in mind particularly those whom God has given to Christians in their own local congregations those who, through the gifting of the Spirit, are especially equipped to teach and preach God’s Word to us in a way that opens up the Scriptures. This is why, as a key part of recognising appropriate elders for God’s church, Paul encourages Timothy both to model in his own practice the public reading and teaching of the Scriptures, but also to appoint elders in every church who are able to teach others, and will advance in the same ministry of the Word of God to which Timothy was called (1 Tim 3:2; 4:11; 2 Tim 3:24).

Grasping both the nature of Scripture’s clarity, and the way in which diverse gifts mean that there are God-given teachers in the Church, is some of the reason that Protestant Christians have had such a historic interest in the acts of teaching and learning. That the teaching of Scripture is a handing on of a deposit, that “faith once for all given to the saints” (Jude 3) which “one generation commends . . . to another” (Ps 145:4), means that Christians must teach and learn that deposit. We will not affirm, with those cultural developments mentioned above, a view of teaching that is, in essence, a learning by oneself, for each of us needs that connection with other Christians, with those teachers God has given, and the context of the Church within which God the Spirit grants understanding by “the due use of the ordinary means.” At the same time, because faith comes by hearing with understanding, we do believe that every Christian must learn the wonderful truths of God’s Word for themself, so that each one from the heart may understand, give their Amen to, and trust in the saving knowledge of God, which God himself has unveiled in Holy Scripture and continues to illumine by His Spirit.