Last year I had a civil exchange with one of my fellow seminarians over Biblical interpretation. My friend correctly laments the individualism that pervades the Protestant Church regarding obedience to Biblical commands. He blames this current state of affairs on the Protestant concept of "every man (or woman) a priest." Ignoring the historical background out of which this Protestant distinctive arose, he agrees with an Emergent Church concept of the entire community replacing the individual in determining what scripture means.
My explanation for today's situation of doing what is right in our own eyes is to be blamed on the culture making inroads into Church life. Although Catholics pledge allegiance to the Pope, today's Catholics decide for themselves what they will and will not obey concerning Catholic teaching. They are just as individualistic as today's Protestants. In Central and South America, long dominated by the Catholic Church, society is disintegrating and the authority of the Catholic Church, along with other institutional authorities, are losing influence over the citizens' behavior and beliefs.
To blame disobedience to scripture on the Protestant Reformation is to ignore the historical background from which it arose. This charge against Protestantism is not new. The Catholic Church has repeated it for centuries, and now, ironically, the Emergents, who are suspicious of traditional authority, repeat the charge and would remedy the situation by interpretation by the Church Community. (How would they deal with a Church community divided by different cultures? Who would determine which cultural lenses are to be ignored when determining truth? If Africa, Central and South America and China are to be the power centers of The Church during this century, and if many from this region immigrate here and to Europe, than this question is not off the beam.)
I thought John Wesley can better counter this Emergent understanding of scriptural interpretation better than I. The following is from Wesley's "A Roman Catechism Faithfully Drawn Out of the Allowed of the Church of Rome with a Reply Thereto." paraphrased into modern language by myself. ( I have added references to the Emergent Church in bold type. )
"...Under the Law, the people had the Scriptures in the common language of the people; and they were required to read the law, and to be conversant in it: "These words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart," &c. (Deut. vi. 6;) and accordingly our Savior sends his hearers to search the scriptures for they shall find in them a testimony concerning Him (John 5:39). Paul required his letter to be read to "all the bretheren;" (I Thess. 5:27) and, if so, it was written in the language they understood. And it was so in the primitive Church; therfore John Chrysostom exhorts his hearers, though secular men, to provide themselves Bibles, the medicines of their souls, to be their perpetual instructers..."
This is Wesley's response to the Catholic/Emergent arguement that individual interpretation of Scripture would produce personal perjudices rather than truthful intepretation: "In the Apostles" times there were some that "wrested the Scriptures to their own destruction;" and yet the Apostle thought of no other expedient than to give the Christian a caution, that they were "not also led away with the error of the wicked" (IIPet 3:16-17). The way to prevent this, therefore, is, not to keep the Scriptures from the people, which "were written for our learning" (Rom. 15:4), but to exhort them to a diligent perusal of them.: "ye err, not knowing the Scriptures" (Matt. 22:29).
How would Wesley answer the question as to who should be the interpreters of Scripture since Scripture can be misunderstood? "The Catholic Church would say that the Church of Rome is the only correct interpreter of Scripture. The Emergents would contend that interpretation belongs to the community of believers, not to the individual. While the Apostles were alive, the Churches of Christ, in matters of dispute, applied themselves to Scripture, as in the point of circumcision (Acts 15:2), but since they of the Church of Rome can never prove the like infallibility in their Church, nor can Emergents claim Community infallibility, nor can either direct us where infallibility lies, we think ourselves as well in our Church as they can be in theirs; and that as long as we have the Scripture, the Church is to be referred to the Scripture, and not the Scripture to the Church; and that, as the Scripture is the best expounder of itself, so the best way to know whether anything be of divine authority, is to apply ourselves to the Scripture." Wesley ends his comments with a quote from a Church Father: "The way for understanding the Scriptures, is to demonstrate out of themselves, concerning themselves." Wesley quotes Augustine on this issue: "If I would have the Church demonstrated, it is not by human teachings, but by the divine oracles."
Wesley would make use of these quotes if he could speak to Emergents. And while we are on the subject, he would argue the same with today's Evangelicals who are contemplating leaving their Evangelical Church tradition for a more sacramental one. Wesley would be the first to point out the current powerlessness of today's Protestant Evangelicals, yet he would not condone the abandonment of this branch of the Church which emphasizes the supremacy of God's Word read and preached.