Many biblical passages either command or commend the direct personal hearing or reading of the Scriptures by everyone, without distinctions of age, education, office or gender. In addition, the Christian reader has the indispensable assistance of the Divine Author, the Holy Spirit, in reading the Bible.
John 14:26—“But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit—the Father will send Him in My name—will teach you all things and remind you of everything I have told you.”
John 16:8—“When [the Counselor] comes, He will convict the world about sin, righteousness, and judgment.”
Acts 16:14—“A woman named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth from the city of Thyatira, who worshipped God, was listening. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention what was spoken by Paul.” Compare Luke 24:44-45—“Then He told them, ‘These are My words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about Me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.”
1 Corinthians 2:9-16—“But as it is written, ‘What no eye has seen and no ear has heard, and what has never come into a man’s heart, is what God has prepared for those who love Him.’ Now God has revealed them to us by the Spirit, for the Spirit searches everything, even the deep things of God. For who among men knows the concerns of a man except the spirit of the man that is in him? In the same way, no one knows the concerns of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have not received the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, in order to know what has been freely given to us by God. We also speak these things, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual things to spiritual people. For the natural man does not welcome what comes from God’s Spirit, because it is foolishness to him; he is not able to know it since it is evaluated spiritually. The spiritual person, however, can evaluate everything, yet he himself cannot be evaluated by anyone. For, ‘who has known the Lord’s mind, that he may instruct Him?’ But we have the mind of Christ.”
The reception of the Holy Spirit by every believer at the moment of salvation is in part so that the believer may be equipped to comprehend the meaning of the Scriptures for himself.
1 John 2:20, 27—“But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and you all have knowledge…. The anointing you received from Him remains in you, and you don’t need anyone to teach you. Instead, His anointing teaches you about all things, and is true and is not a lie; just as it taught you, remain in Him.”
John is not declaring that every believer is an infallible, autonomous Bible interpreter, nor is he denying here that there is a proper place for Bible teachers—of which he himself is one, instructing others in this very letter!
The role of teachers
Bible teachers are one of God’s gifts to the churches (Eph. 4:11, Acts 13:1, and many other passages). Well-trained, doctrinally-sound Bible teachers can and do facilitate a faster and more ready grasp of biblical truth by believers. Indeed, they are one of God’s appointed means for “disciplining all nations.” Philip the evangelist’s encounter with the royal Ethiopian treasurer is illustrative of this point (Acts 8:30-35):
When Philip ran up to [the chariot], he heard [the Ethiopian] reading the prophet Isaiah, and said, “Do you understand what you’re reading?” “How can I,” he said, “unless someone guides me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him…. The eunuch replied to Philip, “I ask you, who is the prophet saying this about—himself or another person?” So Philip proceeded to tell him the good news about Jesus, beginning from this Scripture.
What John is saying is that believers are not absolutely, abjectly dependent on mere men for their understanding of the Bible. Believers can look to the indwelling Holy Spirit to guide, enlighten and instruct them and must always look to the Holy Spirit to give them understanding. John elsewhere advises caution in listening to human teachers, who may be true or false (1 John 4:1, and repeatedly).
The “threat” of Bible-reading
Allowing people to read the Bible for themselves is a “threat” only to those whose doctrine or conduct is in conflict with Scripture!
“The Word of God is intended for the use of all classes of men. In the early ages of the Church its universal perusal was not only allowed, but urged by bishops and pastors. It was not until the general reading of the Bible was found to interfere with the claims of the papacy that its ‘perils for the common mind’ were discovered. As the use of Latin disappeared among the people, the Vulgate Bible became less and less intelligible to them, and this fact was early welcomed as an aid to the schemes of the Roman hierarchy. In the 11th century Gregory VII (Epist. vii, 11) thanks God for it, as tending to save the people from misunderstanding the Bible.
The reforming and heretical sects (Cathari, Albigenses, Waldenses, etc.) of the 12th and 13th centuries appealed to the Bible in all their disputes, thus furnishing the hierarchy an additional reason for shutting up the Word of God. In 1229, the Council of Toulouse, in its 14th canon, ‘forbids the laity to have in their possession any copy of the books of the Old and New Testament, except the Psalter, and such portions of them as are contained in the Breviary, or the Hours of the Virgin; and most strictly forbids these works in the vulgar tongue.’ The Council of Tarracone (1242) ordered all vernacular versions to be brought to the bishop to be burnt. Similar prohibitions were issued from time to time in the next two centuries by bishops and synods, especially in France and Germany, though with little direct effect.
In the ‘Ten Rules concerning Prohibited Books,’ drawn up by order of the Council of Trent, and approved by Pius IV (Buckley, Canons and Decrees of Trent, p. 284) we find the following: In Rule III versions of the O.T. may be ‘allowed only to pious and learned men at the discretion of the bishop’; in Rule IV it is stated that ‘if the sacred books be permitted in the vulgar tongue indiscriminately, more harm than utility arises therefrom by reason of the temerity of men.’ The bishop or inquisitor may grant permission to safe persons to read them; all booksellers selling to unauthorized persons are to be punished. The Jansenist movement in the 17th century, and especially the publication of Quesnel’s N.T. in French (Paris, 1699), gave rise to new stringency, of which the bull Unigenitus was the organ. In the 18th century there was a reaction, and the publication and reading of vernacular version was even encouraged by the better class of Roman bishops. The establishment of the Bible Societies in the beginning of [the 19th] century gave new alarm to the Roman hierarchy. Ordinances or encyclicals forbidding the diffusion of Protestant Bibles were issued by Pius VII (1816), Leo XII (1824), and Gregory XVI (1832).
Though the animus of these encyclicals is hostile to the free use of the Bible, they yet do not, in terms, prohibit it. At this day, it is well understood and admitted by all intelligent Romanists themselves, that the laity are not only not required, but also not expected to read the Word of God for themselves by the Roman Church. (“Bible, Use of by the Laity.” M’Clintock-Strong Cyclopedia of Biblical,Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature, vol. 1, p. 808. See also the similar but considerably more detailed article “Bible Reading by the Laity, Restrictions On,” by Georg Rietschel, in The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, edited by Samuel M. Jackson. [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1963 reprint] vol. 2, pp. 85-88.)
“Martin Luther said that the Papists burned the Bible because it was not on their side” (Augustus Hopkins Strong, Systematic Theology. 1907, p. 308).
In contrast, consider the words of Baptist pastor Charles Spurgeon:
Therefore, search all questions, try all by the Word of God. I am not afraid to have what I preach tried by this book. Only give me a fair field and no favour, and this book; if I say anything contrary to it, I will withdraw it the next Sabbath-day. By this I stand, by this I fall. (The New Park Street Pulpit, 1855, vol. 1, p. 113).
It is indeed true that misinterpreting some of the Bible is a common occurrence among its readers, yet in its major teachings and doctrines, it is within the intellectual grasp of the ordinary sort of people. The famous Westminster Confession of Faith of the 1640s addressed this very issue:
All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them. (Westminster Confession, I. 7)
Those “ordinary means” include reading cross-referenced passages in the Bible relating to the same or similar topics, reading more than one Bible translation, consulting reference works such as language and Bible dictionaries, commentaries and topical and theological books, as well as conferring with those more learned in the Scriptures such as pastors, teachers and the like.
The evidence of history
Christian History repeatedly testifies of the happy result of widespread personal Bible reading. The Waldensian movement of the 12th and following centuries was begun and sustained by the translation of the Vulgate NT into the vernacular Provençal dialect. The Waldensians were great memorizers of this version. Some reportedly committed the whole of the NT to memory.
The Lollard movement in 14th and 15th century England was made possible by the readily accessible Scriptures in the vernacular contemporary English version of Wycliffe and his associates.
The Reformation of the 16th century was begun by personal Bible reading (Luther’s reading of the Latin Vulgate) and was characterized everywhere by the translation and publication of the Scriptures into the various languages of Europe (German, English, French, Dutch, Italian, Spanish, etc.)
The great missionary movements of the 18th and 19th century (Carey, Judson, others) were characterized by the translation of the Bible into the languages of the people in India, Burma, China and many other lands.
The individual believer, then, is both responsible and competent (in dependence on the Holy Spirit) to read and interpret the Bible for himself. Indeed, he dare not neglect to read it for himself—for the sake of his eternal soul.