“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.”
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 This is true of all historical documents generally and is especially important regarding confessions of faith and the catechisms that so often go with them.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).