Amandus Polanus on the Church’s Role in Interpreting Scripture (2)

Mprevious post demonstrated Amandus Polanus’ teaching that the Scriptures are clear in themselves and that there is a difference between magisterial and ministerial interpretations of Scripture. Magisterial interpretation belongs to God himself speaking in Scripture while ministerial interpretation belongs to the church. Polanus argued, contra Roman Catholicism, that while the church never has magisterial authority in interpreting Scripture, it does have a ministerial role to play in helping believers understand and apply the Bible. The above-mentioned ideas led Polanus to outline a hierarchy related to interpreting Scripture in order of priority. Before doing so, he interjected some thoughts on private meditation upon Scripture ("Question six." Syntagma, Hanover, 1610, 684-696), which will be the subject of the next post.
Question seven treated exercising judgment regarding the proper interpretation of Scripture. Contra Bellarmine, he argued that the magisterium and the consent of the church fathers could not be an infallible rule of interpreting Scripture, since these authorities often contradicted each other (701-705). Christ is the only infallible teacher of the church through the Spirit’s work in conjunction with Scripture, since all of Christ’s teaching comes from the Father (706).
Yet question eight acknowledged the fact that diverse interpreters of Scripture possessed different levels of authority (711). The only divine magisterial authority resided in Scripture itself and never in the church (711). Under Scripture, however, the interpretations possessing the highest ministerial authority were:
  1. Ecumenical creeds ands councils (712-713). The interpretations of Scripture resulting from such creeds and councils should bear the greatest weight with believers, while remembering that they are secondary rules only (regula secondaria; 713).
  2. Non-ecumenical church councils came next in the pecking order of ministerial aids to interpreting Scripture. Proclamations of regional councils must agree, first, with Scripture and, second, with the interpretations proposed by ecumenical councils (713-714).
  3. The judgment of the church Fathers, pastors, and doctors of the church then came next as helps in interpreting Scripture (715). While such individual interpreters of Scripture carried less weight than ecumenical and regional councils and creeds did, they still retained ministerial authority under Christ. Such interpretations of Scripture, while necessary, possessed much less authority than public interpretations (715; multo inferioris sunt autoritatis, qua publica interpretationis). In this last case, only pastors and doctors of the church interpreted Scripture with ministerial authority.
  4. Private individuals had the right to interpret Scripture, but they should do so under and with the aid of ministerial interpretations of the church.
Polanus concluded his defense of ministerial authority in interpreting Scripture with a refutation of Bellarmine’s arguments for the magisterial authority of the church (717-748). Rather than examining the points of contention between these two authors in detail, it is useful to draw some conclusions concerning Polanus’ representative Reformed view of the interpretation of Scripture in light of its perspicuity:
  1. First, Christ is the only true pastor and teacher of the church (721). This means that the only infallible interpreter of Scripture is Scripture itself. All ministerial interpreters of Scripture are subject to correction by Scripture itself.
  2. Second, the church has no magisterial power to interpret Scripture (722-734). The Lord designed the church to have ministerial authority that all Christians should listen to and learn from without transferring his own divine authority to the church at any level. God alone is the supreme judge of all religious controversies and he administers his authority in the church through Scripture (746).
  3. Third, Polanus concluded that Bellarmine missed the point of debate between Protestants and Roman Catholics by attacking the private interpretation of Scripture (747-748). The real issue, in his view, was whether the church’s role in interpreting Scripture was magisterial or ministerial. Both assigned a necessary role to the church in interpreting Scripture while the disagreed over the nature of that role.
Polanus’ arguments illustrate that the Protestant doctrine, which is now known as sola Scriptura, was never designed to reject the God-given role of the church in interpreting Scripture. Private judgment is necessary in light of the absolute authority of Scripture and it is possible in light of the perspicuity of Scripture. If private Christians accept the ministerial interpretation of the church with implicit unquestioning faith, then they will be subjected to the tyranny of men rather than the authority of God. However, if they reject the ministerial authority that God committed to his church, then they will be led astray. His teaching in this regard reflected the Apostle Paul’s assertion that the ascended Christ gave pastors and teachers to his church (Eph. 4:12-16).
By assigning higher levels of ministerial authority to ecumenical councils and creeds than to regional ones, and to both over individual pastors and doctors of the church, he recognized that Christ works most clearly and powerfully through graded levels of church courts (which reflects an incipient Presbyterian view of those courts). Only the Triune God speaks with infallible authority and the church is always liable to error and subject to correction at every level. The debate between Protestants and Roman Catholics was not over the necessity of the church and her ministry in interpreting Scripture, but over the distinction between ministerial and magisterial authority. Because the Scriptures are clear, the church and the individual Christian can interpret them profitably to the end of salvation through faith in Christ. Yet Christians understand and apply the Bible most profitably in the context of the church and through the ministry that Christ committed to her.
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Ryan McGraw