Thursday, December 20, 2018
Attacks on the doctrine of Sola Scriptura (“Bible Alone”) are frequent and most of them come from members of the Catholic Church. These attacks come in many forms and we’ve addressed many of them here on this blog.
But yet another subtle attack on Sola Scriptura comes from some Catholics’ interpretation of Nehemiah 8:1-8. This passage is about the return of some of the Jews from Babylon to Jerusalem who had been exiled to Babylon seventy years earlier.
In Nehemiah 8, the wall had been rebuilt and a special solemn gathering of the Jews was called to read the Book of the Law to the people. At this time, several leaders were called on to help with this endeavor. Today’s enemies of Sola Scriptura focus on this verse:
“So they read in the book in the Law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading.” (Nehemiah 8:8)
They’ll say, “You see! The common people needed a ‘magisterium’ here, an authoritative interpreter. They needed leaders and teachers who could infallibly tell them what the Scriptures said. They couldn’t interpret the holy Scriptures on their own and they didn’t dare use ‘private interpretation’!”
Now, we don’t discourage the role of teachers in the church today, since they are certainly a biblical concept. Anyone saying that we don’t need teachers would be misrepresenting Sola Scriptura. But there is not a hint of the need for an “infallible magisterium” in this chapter in Nehemiah, and it is not at all the purpose of this passage to condemn private interpretation.
So, what’s the point of this passage in saying that the leaders gave the people the “sense” of the meaning, “causing them to understand” (v. 8)? Does this mean that the common people were not allowed to interpret Scripture, but could only understand it from God-inspired interpreters? No, it doesn’t. Does this disprove the doctrine of Sola Scriptura? Not at all.
Many years earlier, in Deuteronomy 31:9-13 Moses commanded a similar solemn reading of the same Law every seventh year. But there was nothing mentioned here about interpreting God’s Word at that time. So why was there no need to interpret for the people in Moses’ time? By contrast, why did Ezra have to interpret the Scriptures for them in the book of Nehemiah?
We have to remember that for Nehemiah and his people, it had been 70 years since the Jews had been in the temple of God in Jerusalem, and the use of the Hebrew language by the Jews was not as common in Babylon. No doubt, many Jews had died within that time and a new group of young Jews existed which had been raised in Babylon. The Jews had assimilated into the Babylonian culture and language, and most of the Jews were now speaking the Chaldean (Babylonian) language and/or Aramaic. But Ezra’s reading of the Law (in Nehemiah 8:8) was probably in pure Hebrew, to which many of the Jews were not accustomed. Thus, the need for interpretation.
So, no, Sola Scriptura is not refuted in Nehemiah 8:1-8 in the least. This passage does not demonstrate that an infallible magisterium (as the Catholic Church claims to have) is necessary.