Editor’s Note: This is part 3 of a 10 part series on Westminster Larger Catechism Question and Answers 154-160.
One of the surest ways to misinterpret a document is to disregard the historical background in which it was written. Where it can be known, the historical situation surrounding any writing can only give insight and guidance as to the meaning of that text. This is true of all historical documents generally and is especially important regarding confessions of faith and the catechisms that so often go with them. As we begin to look at Westminster Larger Catechism Question 156, the historical situation enables us to discern not just what the Divines were saying, but also why they said it.
Like their Roman Catholic opponents, the Westminster Divines held to the importance and divine institution of church office. Their disagreements were not over the existence of church offices, but their nature and function. Thus, a high view of the office of pastor or teacher is evident in the opening phrase of the answer the Divines gave – that not all persons are permitted to read Scripture publicly in worship.
When we look to the Scripture references (not to mention the Directory for the Publick Worship of God), we see that the Westminster Divines regarded the public reading of Scripture to be the duty of pastors or teachers. In Deuteronomy 31, Moses instructs the Levites in the public reading of the Law every seven years as part of the Feast of Booths. Nehemiah 8 gives us an example of this sort of public reading as Ezra reads and expounds Scripture before the gathered assembly. These texts establish a principle that will be spelled out further in the New Testament: it is God who calls those who will are responsible for building up the congregation with the Word.
As such, we see that not all are permitted to perform this important function of reading Scripture publicly, but only those who are called by God – and therefore (at least under our polity) are recognized by the Presbytery and called by a congregation for that purpose. In the PCA’s Directory for Worship, Chapter 50 “The Public Reading of the Holy Scriptures” begins with this understanding. 50-2 does add to who may read the Word publicly the relatively unhelpful phrase “or some other person.” This addition, however, must be read with BCO 12-5 in mind: that it is the duty of the Session to exercise authority over public worship. That is, as all parts of worship are under the authority of the local Session, it is their responsibility to determine who may (i.e., are permitted to) read Scripture publicly in worship.
Yet the main thrust of WLC 156 is not the limitation on who can read Scripture publicly, but the duty of all to read Scripture privately and with their family. Here, again, we see that the historical background to the Westminster Assembly provides insight into why this portion of the answer is given such prominence (the previous phrase may come before this matter, but the limitation on who should read Scripture publicly is relegated a dependent clause – this is the primary answer to the question!). Prior to the Reformation, the major barrier to the wide dissemination of God’s Word to his people was the position of the Roman Catholic Church.
In 1199, Pope Innocent III wrote a letter to the Bishop of Metz in which he declared, “The mysteries of the sacraments of faith should not be explained everywhere to everyone, since they cannot be understood everywhere by everyone, but only to those who can conceive of them by their faithful intellect.”At the Council of Trent, assembled to respond to many of the positions of the Protestant Reformers, the Roman Catholic Church pronounced anathema against any who would publish or read any but the Vulgate (or, to be fair, any other Bible or spiritual book not approved by the church).
In these positions, the Protestant Reformers – and the Westminster Divines – saw a divergence from the teaching and example of Scripture. In the Old Testament, kings (i.e., not just Levitical priests) were to read the Law. By the time of the earthly ministry of Jesus, all sorts of Jews “searched the Scriptures” (John 5:39). By writing letters (in the common Greek dialect of the day, no less), the Apostles demonstrated the importance of reading the Word of God – so much so that John declares, “blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near” (Revelation 1:3).
Prior to the “printing revolution” of the 15thCentury, it certainly would have been rare for the average member of a congregation to have a personal copy of Scripture. Yet by the time of the Westminster Assembly, personal access to Scripture would have been assumed. Therefore, given the importance of the Scriptures as that which is alone able to make us wise unto salvation, the general exhortation of the Larger Catechism is that everyone should read Scripture. While not all are permitted to read Scripture publicly in worship, all are exhorted to read the Bible for themselves as a normal and regular part of their Christian life.
We should read Scripture alone by ourselves and with our families. “Alone,” because this is the base line for all our personal devotions. Not all will be married or have families, but everyone can read Scripture by themselves (assuming, of course, they can indeed read – which is why the Directory for the Publick Worship of God encourages everyone able to learn to read to do so). “With their families,” because Scripture itself teaches that it is the duty of a father and husband to “command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice” (Genesis 18:19) and therefore parents should teach these things diligently to their children and “talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (Deuteronomy 6:7). This further reflects the conviction of the Assembly that the visible church is made up of believers and their children (WCF 25.2). Therefore, believers should individually study the Scriptures in order to grow in grace and knowledge and should also instruct their families – particularly their children – in our most holy religion.
Now, as helpful as the historical background is to understand WLC 156, we should also note that our present circumstances are not at all like those of Reformation England. Rather than have just one treasured and well used copy of the Scriptures per household, most of us have many copies in multiple translations – many, perhaps, that we never even refer to! Truly the providence of God has blessed Western Christians such that none of us can say we do not have his Word near at hand.
But the perennial danger of such easy access is that we can become complacent in the use of so great a blessing. It seems that as it has become easier for us to fulfill this duty, we are often less diligent to actually do it. As I reflect upon this phenomenon in my own life, I see that I read Scripture less as my desire for the things of this world grows. We all want security, peace, joy, purpose – things this world promises through any of a myriad of means. Yet it is only Scripture that leads me to eternal security, genuine peace, authentic joy, and my true purpose. It leads not only me there, but as I fulfil my duties as father and husband it leads my family there as well.
Too often we become like the fool in Luke 12, building more and larger storehouses (we call them garages and self-storage) to hold the things of this world we have accumulated. How much better – how much wiser – to be as Jesus directs us: laying up treasures in heaven – where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. Our Covenant God in his most gracious love has condescended to speak to us in his Word. Should we not, therefore, commit ourselves to the study – both privately and as families – of his sacred Scriptures? To the degree we treasure his Covenant love and faithfulness above all else, we will.
Pope Innocent III, Cum ex injucto, 1199, “https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Translation:Cum_ex_injuncto”.
The proclamations of the Council of Trent can be found at http://www.counciloftrent.com.