Wednesday, June 27, 2018
30) And when Philip had run up, he heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and said, “Do you understand what you are reading?”
31) And he [the Ethiopian eunuch] said, “Well, how could I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.
This is the story of God using Philip, who was sent by an angel to a lonely desert area to providentially share the gospel with an Ethiopian man (Acts 8:26-40).
Catholics will often use this passage to try to prove that we need an “infallible magisterium” in order to understand Scripture. They don’t believe that Scripture, by iself, is sufficient as a Rule of Faith because there is not enough perspicuity in the Bible (i.e., it is not always clear enough), and they’ll point to Protestants and their divisions as “proof” that Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) “doesn’t work.” According to Catholics, it takes more to understand the Bible than just reading it. It demands an “independent visible teaching authority that is guided by the Holy Spirit.” In other words, the Catholic Magisterium.
The Catholic View
An official Catholic document presented by the Pontifical Biblical Commission to Pope John Paul II (April 23, 1993), The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, uses this same Bible passage in an attempt to point out the difficulty of Scripture interpretation:
“According to the Acts of the Apostles, an Ethiopian of the first century found himself in the same situation with respect to a passage from the Book of Isaiah (Is. 53:7-8) and recognized that he had need of an interpreter (Acts 8:30-35).”
But not just any interpreter. This document goes on to say that “responsibility for authentically interpreting the word of God… has been entrusted solely to the living magisterium of the church…”
And there are many Catholic apologists who use this passage in the same way.
Speaking Like a Pope
Now, every Scripture passage has a purpose for being there. And it almost seems that Catholics believe that this particular passage mentioned above (Acts 8:26-40) exists solely to demonstrate a “need” for an infallible magisterium and no other reason. One would think that the eunuch’s question, “How could I, unless someone guides me?” was some sort of infallible “ex-cathedra” papal pronouncement, seeing the way Catholics tend to interpret this!
But first of all, is Philip even considered part of the magisterium? According to the Catholic Church, the infallible magisterium is confined to the popes and / or bishops of the Church, to which Philip did not belong. Philip wasn’t an apostle or bishop and therefore not part of the “apostolic succession of bishops.” He was simply a deacon (Acts 6:5). So what was Philip doing interpreting Scripture for the eunuch? Apparently, it didn’t take the magisterium to interpret here. So this passage has nothing to do with a magisterium.
Again, in this story, the eunuch didn’t appeal to a magisterium, and Philip never told him that one was needed, nor did the author of the book of Acts suggest that he needed an “official interpreter.” Yet Catholics tend to focus more on, and give more weight to, the eunuch’s question rather than Philip’s message of the gospel.
The purpose of this passage was certainly not to prove that we need an “infallible magisterium” with special authority to decode the Bible for us. That is simply reading a Catholic idea back into the text.
“But It’s Hard!”
At this point, the Catholic may say, “Well, maybe so, but it still shows that Scripture is hard to understand.”
No, the eunuch was simply asking about the person to whom Isaiah was referring, that’s all (v. 34). The eunuch’s question came up, not because the text itself was hard to understand, but because he simply was not yet aware of the fulfillment of the prophecy he was reading. He had not yet been fully presented with the facts of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, the Messiah. Anyone who was not from this region (like the eunuch) had no idea yet of Isaiah’s recently fulfilled prophecy (Isaiah 53:7-8). So of course, unfulfilled prophecy that focuses on a particular person can sometimes be an issue, but this doesn’t demand an infallible interpreter, because even an infallible interpreter could not have identified the Messiah until He actually arrived. It is also like the antichrist – we can understand many of the prophecies about him, but no one will know his actual identity until he arrives.
Furthermore, what the eunuch had available to him was limited. The book of Isaiah may have been the only Bible book he had in his possession. He didn’t have the luxury of the gospels and epistles of the New Testament which we have today. So, this Catholic argument stressing the Ethiopian eunuch’s question cannot be used against the clarity / perspicuity of the Scriptures as a whole.
We agree that some passages are harder to understand than others. We all need help sometimes in Bible interpretation. We don’t deny that. But what about the difficult passages? Do we just give up our study of them because it’s easier to rely on a supposed infallible magisterium? Of course not. We continue studying, because the Bible never speaks of an infallible, independent, human teaching authority in the post-apostolic church. It just doesn’t exist.
Is It Even a Good Idea?
But perhaps we should question whether a single human authority / institution / magisterium to answer all questions is even a healthy idea to start with. Not only is it not scriptural, but it is a bad idea, in general. Why? Because knowing the nature of man and the propensity for such a group to become proud and corrupt when given such absolute power over all questions, it may not be such a great idea, after all. Compounding that problem would be the tendency of those asking the questions to idolize the “magisterium,” practically guaranteeing the latter’s corruption. Furthermore, the dependence of “the laity” on this magisterium would certainly cause the laity to be less responsible in their studies, with far too much dependence on the magisterium. That’s just the nature of man.
So, it is better to have some divisions within the church of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 11:19) than to have a corrupt “magisterium” with a weak and dependent “laity.”
So, how do we handle hard Bible passages? Remember, a necessary component of Scripture reading and understanding is our relationship with our spiritual Father. Growth in this relationship is usually gradual and the child must be ever learning. But it is indeed a growth process. He won’t learn everything overnight – not even the most important lessons. It takes time to piece it all together. God does not demand that we know the answers to all the hard questions immediately.
Scripture Interprets Scripture
Interestingly, those claiming that Scripture is hard to understand are actually relying on the clarity of certain Scriptures (like Acts 8) to try and prove their point. But why not use this same principle in a positive way, i.e., use the simpler and clearer teachings of the Bible as a foundation, as a basis to help us understand the more difficult passages. Surely, God’s Word is consistent with itself, so if studied diligently, it will eventually lead to an understanding of the whole.
And just as in an earthly parent-child relationship, the parent teaches the child by building on basics, from the simpler things to the more complex, to learn and grow in the principles of life, and then to learn to apply those to the harder things in life. In the same way, hard-to-understand Bible passages are interpreted in the light of the more easily understood passages on the same topic. In this way, God gradually helps us to see how the Bible message unfolds. Remember, Scripture is called divine revelation (Romans 16:25-26) for a reason: because it is something that is intended to be revealed. Even if it sometimes seems hidden, it is meant to be understood.
Catholics claim the Bible is an “insufficient” source because some of it is misunderstood, but why is it that no one jumps to the same conclusion when people didn’t understand the things that Jesus Christ, Himself, sometimes spoke when He was here? Would anyone dare to say that He, too, is an insufficient source?
This is a subtle attack on the role of Scripture as a sufficiently clear Rule of Faith. It is also an attack on the ability of God to make His will known to men of all walks of life. Sure, teachers in the church have their place, but the Protestant position has never been (or at least, should never be) that we don’t need teachers in the church. It is that we don’t need a single infallible magisterium to answer all questions.
The Bottom Line for Catholics
After reading this wonderful story of God’s love and providence (Acts 8:26-40), where He sends a willing vessel (Philip) out of his way to miraculously meet and share the gospel with a hungry soul (the Ethiopian eunuch), opens his heart to prophecy, and gets him saved and baptized, and then sends the eunuch off rejoicing to share this same gospel message with his own people in his own land – and this message is further verified by a miracle that transports Philip away to another city called Azotus (Ashdod), some thirty miles away… and yet, after reading all of this, many Catholics can only seem to summarize this passage with the idea that Scripture is not sufficient.
Really? Does any sane person think that THAT’S what this story is all about? This is exactly the type of thing that the scribes and Pharisees (Jesus’ enemies) would have done. Instead of rejoicing when the man with the withered hand was healed, they got angry that Jesus worked on the Sabbath (Mark 3:1-6; Luke 6:6-11). They worried about the ritual washing of hands, pots and pans, but rejected the commandments of God (Matthew 15:1-6; Mark 7:1-9). They would strain out a gnat, yet swallow a camel (Matthew 23:24). They neglected the important things while focusing on the trivial. Catholics are doing the same thing with the Ethiopian eunuch story. Like the Pharisees, Catholics miss the point of the passage in order to focus on something that the passage is not even teaching. This is twisting the Scriptures.
Although this may not apply to all Catholics, but many of them seem to be more excited about weakening the authority of Scripture than they are about the eternal salvation of the eunuch, or the spread of the gospel to his people. It’s almost as if they feel like they have an obligation to weaken the role of God-inspired Sacred Scripture at every turn.
There is something seriously wrong with this picture. It is an abuse of the simple and encouraging story of an Ethiopian eunuch, and it is an attack on Scripture, itself.
See these links for more information on Scripture and its interpretation: