Who has the right to test interpretations of Scripture?

James Spinti has drawn my attention to what is called in German the Sitzerrecht and in Latin the lex sedentium. In the title of Alan Knox’s post which James quotes this is translated into English as “the rights of the one seated”, but in James’ post title it aptly becomes “The What?”

The point however is a simple one. The idea comes from 1 Corinthians 14:29-31, in which Paul effectively directs that in a church meeting someone who is sitting down, if they have a prophetic revelation, can stop the person who is standing and speaking and take over from them. By the time of the Reformation this was certainly not taken as a licence to interrupt a preacher, but it was understood by the early Reformers as, in Alan’s words,

a principle that teaches that all believers have the ability to understand Scripture and to weigh what another says concerning Scripture, even if that “other” is a teacher or preacher.

However, in Alan’s words as quoted by James,

Sometime during the 1500’s the magisterial reformers abandoned the idea of Sitzerrecht – that all believers have the right and duty to test teachers and determine the meaning of Scripture together – and embraced the principle that only a “technically qualified theological expert” could properly interpret Scripture for a gathered group of believers.

Here “the magisterial reformers” is a deliberate contrast with the early Anabaptists, who in general maintained “the idea of Sitzerrecht“.

Jim West was spurred to respond by James’ suggestion that Zwingli was wrong to abandon this principle. Perhaps Jim can clarify whether Zwingli abandoned it in response to persistent questioning by his Anabaptist opponents, replacing it by an appeal to his own authority. (No, Jim, I won’t say that he persecuted the Anabaptists, as doubtless you know better on this point than Wikipedia and the Catholic Encyclopedia.) Jim writes:

The ’spiritualists’ [i.e. the Anabaptists] were in need of refutation so Zwingli and the other Reformers rightly pointed out that interpretation of Scripture REQUIRED training- and based it on the well known verse which states: ‘Study to show yourself approved…’ That one verse broke the back of the ‘enthusiasts’ then, and I must say, does now too. Individual ‘interpretation’ without valid expertise leads to nothing but the most ridiculous heresy, such as we find in the likes of Todd Bentley …

The fallacy here is the assumption that Zwingli and the other “magisterial” Reformers had training which the Anabaptists lacked. This is probably not true of early Anabaptist leaders like Conrad Grebel, who had six years of university education followed by several years of private study with Zwingli, George Blaurock who studied at the University of Leipzig, and Felix Manz who was also an educated man. Zwingli, older than these three, was also educated, but nevertheless it is written of him that

Like many of his contemporaries, Zwingli went to work for the Church having studied little theology.

So, when Zwingli fell out with Grebel and Manz, his position became the official policy in Zurich surely not because of any greater theological education, but because of his seniority and his official position as pastor of the Grossmünster, and perhaps because his views were more acceptable to the political authorities in Zurich. In other words, he prevailed because of ecclesiastical and political power, not because of academic theological arguments. And the political authorities enforced Zwingli’s victory by drowning Manz and expelling the other Anabaptists.

So how do we apply this principle today, to cases like that of Todd Bentley who Jim brings into this? As I do support “the rights of the one seated”, I accept that any believer has the right to express their opinion about Todd and to judge his teachings and practices according to Scripture. But I do also see some limits to this, as I previously wrote about here. First, if it actually comes to making accusations of wrongdoing, Paul lays down the principle

Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses.

1 Timothy 5:19 (TNIV)

So proper evidence is needed to support any accusation. Paul also gives this instruction:

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.

Ephesians 4:29 (TNIV)

These principles of course apply equally to those with theological education and to those without it, and should perhaps rule out condemnations based on ignorance like this one.

Now I accept the importance of a properly nuanced theological study and discussion of the teachings and practices of a new Christian movement like Todd’s. The only one I have seen of this particular movement is the one by Dr Gary Greig which I discussed yesterday, which James Spinti has endorsed. So, Jim West, should I accept this at face value because it was written by someone with a PhD in theology? Somehow I don’t think you would say that I should. Well, I will give Jim the benefit of the doubt by assuming that his condemnation of “Lakeland-ianity” was based not on prejudice and third hand reports as it might appear but on his own proper theological study which he has chosen not to publish. Now I, as a mere MA in theology, am no doubt quite unqualified to evaluate the studies which the learned Dr West and Dr Greig have produced. But their conclusions are apparently diametrically opposite: one concludes

I wholeheartedly encourage you to support what God is obviously doing through the Lakeland outpouring.

and the other

Now it’s up to the adherents of Lakeland-ism to abandon the heresy and return to the truth.

They can’t both be right. So it is clear that possession of a doctorate in theology is no guarantee of knowing the truth in such matters.

So how do I decide which position to follow? I could of course look to those in ecclesiastical authority over me – in my case a vicar who has been to Lakeland and supports it with some reservations, as summarised by his friend Dave Faulkner. And indeed I do greatly respect my vicar’s views and would not go against them in public. But I don’t follow his authority uncritically, and reserve the option to confront him privately if I ever think he goes seriously wrong, and in an extreme case to leave his congregation.

For when it comes down to it I believe that this is an issue between me and God. As I wrote in a comment on Jim’s blog,

it is not the human brain but the divine Holy Spirit who leads us into all truth.

Jim is of course right that this does not solve the problem in any objective way, for

the One Spirit can’t lead to Two Truths. So being ‘led by the spirit’ isn’t determinative either, since anyone can make that claim.

Indeed. In the end I can only say that subjectively, as a matter between myself and God if I have allowed him to guide me, I believe that I can be sure of my own position. I cannot prove it to others, I can only leave it in their hands as a matter between them and God.

And on this particular issue I have to say that I am sure that, in general terms if not necessarily in every detail, Dr West is wrong and Dr Greig is right.

0 thoughts on “Who has the right to test interpretations of Scripture?

  1. well peter when ya cite wiki and the (obviously unbiased) catholic encyclopedia for your info about Zwingli, who can argue with ya…

  2. Peter,

    Is Todd Bentley an elder as defined in Timothy? I’m not being sarcastic here I’m really asking. Doesn’t he just run his own “ministry” or parachurch?

  3. Actually I don’t think Peter was citing wiki or the Catholic encyclopedia to prove anything against Jim but was in fact saying they were wrong and Jim was right on that particular point (unless Peter was being sarcastic).

    Just thought I’d mention that.


  4. Bryan, I was being a little sarcastic in response to Jim’s sarcasm. I don’t know which source is right. My point is simply that authorities differ because interpretations of Zwingli’s part in the persecution of the Anabaptists differ. He doesn’t seem to have been directly involved, but nor does he seem to have objected to what was being done under his nose and effectively in his name. Beyond that I will not try to judge.

    Kyle, I’m not sure whether Todd is technically an elder. He is not in the leadership of a local church. I just found this summary of how his ministry began, with no mention of a specific ordination. However, he is clearly someone who has been set aside for the full time work of the gospel. As such he should surely be given the respect due to an elder at least in matters like not being wrongly accused. Anyway in Matthew 18:16 and 2 Corinthians 13:1 the same principle, originally from Deuteronomy 19:15, is applied apparently to any believer.

  5. Peter

    I think you’ve written an eminently sensible post here. Much as I believe that as a minister of the gospel I have a certain gift and calling to teach and preach, I believe I am fallible. It therefore ought to be tested. That is one reason I have changed my theology at times, because someone has shown me a better interpretation of Scripture. If we’re not careful, those of us in ‘authority’ positions in the church can hide behind it, and cause abuse. If we’re not willing to be tested, what does that say about our hearts? Besides, how can ‘Study to show yourself approved’ be used to invoke a modern university or college education? Furthermore, whatever the verse about accusations against an elder says, the same standards apply surely for accusations against anyone, don’t they? So Todd Bentley’s rank is, to my mind, immaterial.

    Every blessing,


  6. Pingback: Pacesetters Bible School Newsletter » Blog Archive » Danger, Will Robinson!

  7. Peter, I’m not sure whether it is you or Jim who is using the word spiritualist’ to mean ‘Anabaptist’ but it is not correct.

    ‘Spiritualists’ were those who went further than most Anabaptists. They said that only the inner spirit was important, so outward rites like baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and church attendance were insignificant. Some Anabaptists of the South German/Austrian group tendedi n this direction – Hans Denck actually left Anabaptism and ended up a spiritualist – but the majority did not. And there was no trace of spiritualism in the Swiss Brethren at the time of the first baptisms and the persecutions of which you speak. On the contrary, they held very strongly to the significance of a correct understanding and practice of baptism, church membership, and the Lord’s Supper.

    By the way, you might also have added Balthasar Hubmaier and Michael Sattler to your list of highly educated early Anabaptists. Hubmaier wrote the first theological defence of believers’ baptism, and Sattle rwas the principal author of the Schleitheim Confession.

  8. Tim, thanks for asking. I added “[i.e. the Anabaptists]” because I understood that in the context Jim was referring to Grebel, Manz, Blaurock and company, the early Zurich Anabaptists. Maybe his reference was intended to be a bit broader. But as it was to those Zwingli refuted I don’t think it was really to those you call “spiritualists”. Thanks for educating me about them.

  9. Dear Sir,
    New to using the Internet, I happened upon Blaurock’s name and this article: I was (an am) confused by the constant refrence to qualifications of … men. I had – years ago – earned a theological degree whose value, to me, is not worth the paper it is printed on. I merely completed the degree (18 months, due to academic consideration being granted for pastoral work up to that time) because a benefactor paid one third of the tuition. If anything could have made me lose my faith, it would be the academic “instruction” taught in that theological institution.

    Any text of scripture is explained by scripture elsewhere. I am at a loss to fathom how the academics of a man (“scholars” casting doubt and confusion upon the Word of God for over 120 years, particularly) can be of any consideration. It frightens me to think that people are swayed by the “honorifics” and “academics” of Men. Error ALWAYS elevates man; Error ALWAYS denigrates God. Scripture will explain itself. It is up to one to search the scriptures, to have any text of scripture clarified aright, surely?

    I spend effectively “no” time on the Internet, and am contentedly ignorant of modern thought; and, whilst I am saddened by the premise of the article, I do thank you for waking me to this aspect of modern society.
    I remain,
    Yours truly,
    P Livingstone, (An Anabaptist) [philiplivingstone.org]

  10. Thank you, Mr Livingstone. I agree with you that paper qualifications are of little value in this field, and are in fact harmful if it leads to the qualified person being put on a pedestal, or worse still putting themselves there. Academic study, of the right sort, is good, but not for self-exaltation, only for getting to know God’s ways better.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

To prove you're a person (not a spam script), type the security word shown in the picture. Click on the picture to hear an audio file of the word.
Anti-spam image