In November, 2011, the Interprovincial Faith and Order Commission of the Moravian Church developed a statement of Guiding Principles of Biblical Interpretation. This statement, which includes an extensive historical review of how the Church has viewed biblical interpretation, “offers some guiding principles of scriptural interpretation” to guide clergy, lay members and agencies of the Church in North America.
The statement was amended and adopted by the Southern Province Provincial Elders’ Conference on March 5, 2012 and the Northern Province Provincial Elders’ Conference on April 12, 2012.
While we cannot fit the entire statement, including its in-depth historical review, in the Moravian Magazine, we have excerpted the key points to present a basic summary of these guidelines.
In opening the statement, the Faith and Order Commission writers affirmed the “God’s Word and Doctrine” section of the Ground of the Unity of the Unitas Fratrum: “The Triune God as revealed in the Holy Scripture of the Old and New Testaments is the only source of our life and salvation; and this Scripture is the sole standard of the doctrine and faith of the Unitas Fratrum and therefore shapes our life.
The Unitas Fratrum recognizes the Word of the Cross as the center of Holy Scripture and of all preaching of the Gospel, and it sees its primary mission, and its reason for being, to consist in bearing witness to this joyful message. We ask our Lord for power never to stray from this.
The Unitas Fratrum takes part in the continual search for sound doctrine. In interpreting Scripture and in the communication of doctrine in the Church, we look to two millennia of ecumenical Christian tradition and the wisdom of our Moravian forebears in the faith to guide us as we pray for fuller understanding and ever clearer proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But just as the Holy Scripture does not contain any doctrinal system, so the Unitas Fratrum also has not developed any of its own because it knows that the mystery of Jesus Christ, which is attested to in the Bible, cannot be comprehended completely by any human mind or expressed completely in any human statement. Also it is true that through the Holy Spirit the recognition of God’s will for salvation in the Bible is revealed completely and clearly.”
The Guiding Principles statement continues, “From the earliest days of our history, Moravians have held the Word of God in highest esteem. Yet we have always made it clear that the written word points and directs us not to itself, but to the Word made flesh, that is, Jesus Christ. A hymn of the Bohemian Brethren found in the Moravian Book of Worship, expresses that relationship beautifully:
The word of God which ne’er shall cease,
proclaims free pardon, grace and peace,
salvation shows in Christ alone,
the perfect will of God makes known.”
Guiding Principles of Biblical Interpretation then charts an extensive historical review of the development of the Church’s position on the role of Scripture. This review starts with John Hus and follows the Church through to the 1995 adoption of the position found in the Ground of the Unity featured above.
Following the historical review, Guiding Principles continues:
“In more recent years, many Moravians…have written articles, papers, letters and other documents that have addressed in one way or another the topic of Biblical Interpretation. All of these voices, while speaking from different contexts and with somewhat varying perspectives, seem to affirm what has been affirmed throughout our history: that as Moravians, proclaiming Christ and Him crucified as our confession of faith, and believing that the Triune God as revealed in the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments is the only source of our life and salvation, we do not believe that Jesus points us to Scripture so that we can find the answers there, but rather that Scripture points us to Jesus so that we can find the answers in him.
As a church we must be attentive to God’s Word (the word of the cross, the word of reconciliation, the word of personal union with the Savior, the word of love between one another), and our faith and order must be formulated under Scripture and the Holy Spirit. Yet, it is not Scripture and our conformity to a particular interpretation of it that unites us, but rather Christ, our Chief Elder, who holds us together by keeping us all close to Him.
With this narrative of the history of interpretation of Scripture in the Moravian Church in mind, we offer some guiding principles of scriptural interpretation. Before doing so, we share our hopes for this important task of the people of the Moravian Church in North America.
Our hopes for the Moravian Church as we interpret Holy Scripture:
- That our efforts be grounded in faithfulness to the centrality of Christ, the way of the cross, and obedience to the word of God.
- That we proceed with openness to the leading and grace of the Triune God, not presuming in advance the outcome of our study and discernment together.
- That understanding a Moravian way of interpreting Scripture is of value to our life and work and the Moravian church every day, in every situation. More specifically, understanding how we interpret Scripture is critical when disagreement arises among us.
- That such understanding and work strengthen our Christian fellowship with each other as Moravians (individuals, congregations, provinces), grounded in a recognition that, ultimately, our unity as Moravians is rooted in our affirmation of Christ, our crucified and risen Lord.
- That we have strength, patience, and love as we live, work, and worship together in community.
Guiding Principles for the interpretation of Scripture:
- As Moravians, we understand that Scripture:
- Points us to Christ so that we can find our answers in Him.
- Ministers (along with the Sacraments, preaching, etc.) to the divine and human essentials of our faith — that the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, creates, redeems and sanctifies us; and we respond in faith, love and hope.
- Scripture, as a whole, is the sum of many parts.
- Scripture includes the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament
- We affirm that not all texts are equally clear. With Zinzendorf, we affirm that scriptural passages have varying degrees of clarity:
- Basic truths about salvation (that are clear)
- Matters of knowledge that require historical understanding
- Mysteries that remain uncertain (even for those with the tools)
- We note considerations for interpretation:
- Given our human contexts and experiences, we affirm that every reading of Scripture is an act of interpretation.
- Scripture is interpreted in a variety of ways: literal, metaphorical, historical, contextual, rhetorical, etc. We affirm that no one way is the prescribed way.
- Given the diverse witness of Scripture, we believe that any particular scriptural text must be interpreted in light of all Scripture.
- Our interpretation of Scripture is guided by heart and mind, piety and rationality, doing and thinking.
- Faithful interpretation acknowledges:
- The historical context out of which the texts arose.
- The contemporary cultural and global contexts out of which questions of interpretation arise (including scientific, archeological, and other forms of knowledge).
- In this work, we affirm the importance to Moravians of relationships to each other and God, and assert that biblical interpretation happens most faithfully in conversation and fellowship with one another, not as individuals (or even as individual congregations or provinces).
As we interpret Scripture together, we acknowledge that:
- Given the mystery of God, we cannot predict in advance the final result of our search for truth. Refraining from starting with a specific end in mind is aided by acknowledging that we come to the text and task with presuppositions. By naming our presuppositions, we deepen our ability to discern meaning and truth in the Holy Scriptures.
- Even with shared principles of interpretation, we realize that individuals, congregations and provinces of the Moravian Church may draw different conclusions.”
For the complete Guiding Principles of Biblical Interpretation, including historical background and sources, click here (PDF).
Related Article: In Essentials, Unity: Understanding the Essential Things