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  • Writer's pictureJM Zabick

How Can I Understand Unless Someone Guides Me?

Let's Identify and Re-Evaluate Our Teaching Authorities in the Spirit of Acts 8

In reference to how believers approach the Bible from a contemporary American Christianity mindset, I am hard pressed to think of anything soaked with more potential trouble then the question/idea: “What does this passage mean to you?” ... or ... “This passage is saying to me …”


Couched in the notion that the Holy Spirit will speak perfectly to each of us, individually, when we open the Bible, we essentially (and mistakenly and inadvertently) become our own religious teaching authority.


This idea has been carried along to us in the DNA of American Protestantism since the post-Revolution years. There, was birthed a highly democratized approach to the Faith, acutely related to the assumption of absolute self-sovereignty (under the term "liberty") ushered in by a “Jeffersonian Spirit” and the ideal of rugged individualism at the turn of the century (eighteenth to nineteenth).


It was also an approach eager to spurn religious structure, trained clergy, or established authority for teaching the faith, Scripture, and doctrine. While there are many we could look to here as examples, Abner Jones (d. 1841) punctuates the sentiment of the period well.


In The Democratization of American Christianity (Yale Univ. 1989), historian Nathan Hatch writes:


“Unsatisfied with the views and creeds of those around him, Jones resolved to launch his own ‘serious investigation’” in the truths of Christianity. “’ … He took the Bible, and that alone, and without consulting any individual … commenced a prayerful and careful examination of the sacred pages’” (42).


The result was Jones literally saying, at his ordination, “I will never be subject to [the church’s] rules” (Hatch, 42).


He was among many similar figures and emerging voices of American Christianity into the populist revivalism decades of the 1880’s who, in effect, propped themselves up as their own Magisterium.


With their independently unique, yet divinely revealed understanding of Scripture in tow, scores of these ministers positioned themselves as transcendent to the “rules” of ecclesial systems, church history and its “great cloud of witnesses,” as well as the doctrines of religion.


It would take far too long recounting the traumas wrought upon the Faith in these years, such as the rise of several pseudo-"christianities" (Christian Science, Jehovah’s Witness, Mormonism, et al), or odd/maverick theological trends (e.g., dispensationalism) surfacing as prevailing modern dogmas.


Simply, the point can best be made with this statement: Two centuries and thousands of scattered denominations later, here we are.


Enter the Eunuch


With today’s first reading from the liturgical cycle (taken from Acts 8), I am reminded of what a contrast this all is from the earliest examples of the nascent Christian movement, left in the hands of Christ’s disciples.


"Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch ... He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go over to this chariot ... So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet. [Philip] asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ [The Ethiopian] replied, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him" (Acts 8:27-31).


Here, we don’t read Philip inquire of the eunuch, “How is this passage speaking to you?”


Rather, he asks, “Do you understand what you are reading?”


It’s a question I don’t think I’ve ever encountered at a Bible study, or small group, or whatever.


The question itself, in many respects, defies the mold we are so familiar with.


One of the important facts of this tale we may overlook is that the man had been in Jerusalem worshipping. Thus, we understand this to mean he was engaged in Temple worship. This African was of the Jewish faith. No surprise, as Jewish religious influence was noted in the region for centuries prior, probably linked to Ebed-melech (cf. Jer. 38:7 thru 39:18; see also Zeph. 13:10).


Additionally, he was reading the major prophet Isaiah, which then, he would have been likely well-familiar with in advance.


Why? Because if he was in possession of a scroll, he was scripturally literate, educated, and seasoned in his faith.


Yet, he didn’t put on airs. In fact, if you read the NASB account, his response is one of the “obviously not” variety. And considering he was reading from the Suffering Servant Songs; it was not a surprising reply for a first century believer in the Judaic tradition.


In contrast to now, that posture of humility is the posture of one who is truly qualified to claim they are a disciple. It is also a posture completely antithetical to the sensibilities of many Christians today, if not entire churches, if not entire denominations.


In other words, this passage presents an exchange much different from how Scripture is commonly approached in an era when we “are all theologians” and “just me and my Bible” will suffice. It shows a disciple content with finding and following the meaning, and not with a fixation on defining it.


To the contrary, the eunuch testified to the fact that an automatic revelation download is not the default of cracking open Scripture. That sense arrives to us in the genealogy of a second century heresy called Montanism, and past on in more recent religious forbearing approaches such as Abner Jones.


Lastly, consider how the traveler “invited Philip to come sit with him” (v. 31), so as to teach him.


This is vital. Because no where in this passage do we find support for not reading Scripture. Philip never replies, “Well that’s why you shouldn’t be reading this on your own,” when the man affirms, he doesn’t understand it.


We merely see a person content to read and study without demanding (or assuming) the ready-packaged interpretation will be arrived at. The eunuch was forging ahead in an obvious mystery of his faith.


He didn’t need to develop a personal hermeneutic, and Philip didn’t care to hear one. Both were only concerned with what the passage, in fact, meant.


By this, we understand the eunuch doing precisely the opposite of Abner Jones. By inviting Philip to sit with him, the African was opening himself to a transcendent authority—the Spirit of God speaking through the Apostle Philip (v. 29).


Know Your Teaching Authority


In summation then, this is all to encourage us to identify and re-evaluate our teaching authorities … and ask:


Who or what is my Magisterium? Who am I sitting with (or under) on this? What is their teaching authority based in? Who are they sitting under? Are they even sitting under anyone?


If your immediate answer is, “My teaching authority is the Holy Spirit!” then I’m curious how that squares with presumably the same Holy Spirit who is the authority over the person, church, or denomination across the road, with whom there is often no communion with?


Be reminded that same Spirit is who speaks through the Psalmist, “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!”


We need to take a lesson from that humble traveler. Let’s not concern ourselves with what a verse or passage means to me or to you. Let’s only concern ourselves with what it actually means.


And once that becomes our priority, we can turn our attention to finding the voice of the Spirit in the teaching authorities we should sit with ... for those are the ones we can be eager to do so.


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