Saturday, June 07, 2008

The Church's Guardianship of the Oracles of God

The Westminster Confession, in its opening chapter emphasises that the Scriptures have been entrusted to the Church by the Lord, in order to ‘declare that his will unto his church; and afterwards, for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the Church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world’. Although the ‘authority of the holy scripture, for which it ought to believed and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man or church, but wholly upon God’, ‘We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the church to an high and reverend esteem of the holy scripture, and the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style’ etc.

Chapter 25 speaks of the ‘catholick visible church’, unto which ‘Christ hath given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God’. This connection suggests that the guardianship of the Scriptures within the Church rests especially with the ministry, one may assume that the order is significant: to the Church the ministry is given, to the ministry the oracles and ordinances are specially entrusted. One of the proof texts here is a covenant promise in Isaiah 59:21 that seems to tie these elements together in saying ‘My spirit that is upon thee, and my words which I have put in thy mouth shall not depart out of thy mouth of thy seed, nor out of the mouth of thy seed’s seed , saith the LORD from henceforth and for ever’. The Confession does not explicitly draw our attention there but in speaking of the oracles of God we are reminded of I Peter 4:11, ‘If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God’, which seems to indicate the principle that preaching should echo the Scripture. Another passage that is quite clear, moreover, is Acts 7:38, which speaks of ‘the church in the wilderness’ ‘who received the lively oracles to give unto us’.

The Larger Catechism (Q156) together with the Directory of Publick Worship and the FPCG restrict the public reading of Scriptures to ministers. This is defended by proving that ‘the priests and Levites in the Jewish church were trusted with the publick reading of the word’ (Deut 31:9-11, Neh. 8:1-3, 13 & 9:3-5). The Divines concluded that the New Testament ministers correspond to the Priests and Levites (an interpretation that went back at least to the Second Book of Discipline in Scotland) ‘the ministers of the gospel have as ample a charge and commission to dispense the word, as well as other ordinances, as the priests and Levites had under the Law’. The basis for this was in Isaiah 66:21 and Matthew 23:34, where this identification is made, ‘under the names of Priests and Levites to be continued under the gospel are meant evangelical pastors’.

The Divines were clearly against any idea of a sacrificing priesthood and did not wish ministers to be known by the title of priest, but they recognised a typical correspondence which may be supplemented by texts such as II Chronicles 15:3& 17:7-9, Malachi 2:4&7, Micah 3:1, 1 Leviticus 10:11, Isaiah 30:20 and Malachi 3:3, since these texts emphasise the teaching responsibility of the priest and Levite and its future restoration under Christ. The Priests and Levites were the scribes of Scripture and received the deposit of the law in the Tabernacle (Deut 31:25-26, 1 Sam. 10:25, Deut 17:18, I Chron 2:55 ), during days of persecution, the priests kept the written word safely in the Temple (II Kings 22:8). ‘The priests lips should keep knowledge’ (Mal. 2:7), the very word of God should be stored upon his tongue: surely this is something of what ‘holding fast the faithful word’ means (Titus 1:9). The idea of the preacher as steward and guardian of the truth is of course well developed in the Pastoral Epistles (ITim. 1:3-5 &18-20, ch.4:7&14, ch.5:21, ch.6:12-14, II Tim. 1:13&14, ch.2:15, ch.3:14-16, ch.4:15).

This inference of guardianship has tremendous significance for the responsibilities of the minister as well as that of the role of bible translation. The Church has handed over its deposit in the present age when profiteering publishers can hijack the work of translation to ensure their own market niche. The Old Testament Church was extremely careful with the deposit of Scripture and its transmission. In the present era the Scriptures are patently being rewritten through the philosophy of dynamic equivalence.

The Church cannot be careless with the Scriptures. As Answer 54 of the Shorter Catechism reminds us, the third commandment requires of us ‘the holy and reverent use of God’s...Word’. If the Church and the ministry have been given a particular stewardship of the oracles of God then we must recall the principle in which the Head of the Church has instructed us. …unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more (Luke 11:48).