Americans hear about the Pope every day, but in Ukraine we mostly heard about the Patriarch. Exactly who or what is the Patriarch? When I moved to Ukraine I realized that he was a second pope, the pope for Eastern Orthodoxy. But who or what is a pope? Will there ever be a black one? Was there ever a black one? The answer is somewhat like your cell phone—earlier you’d never heard of them, now you can’t do without one. There was a black pope, there is a black pope, and you need the black pope.
The pope in Rome has three official hats: his bishop’s miter, his crown as head of state for Vatican City, and most importantly, as official interpreter of Scripture for Catholics. The Patriarch has only two hats: he wears a bishop’s miter, but he is also the official interpreter of Scripture for Orthodoxy. And sometimes these two men disagree with each other and/or with the black pope, who wears only one hat, that of interpreter.
Now, just what do we mean by the words “interpreter” and “interpret”?
Most of the time, it doesn’t mean to make something up out of your imagination, or figure something out like you do when you interpret a dream. It usually means “select one meaning out of the list of possibles.” Is “seed” or “sheep” or “fish” singular or plural? To interpret just means to choose one or the other. Some statements in Scripture are so clear that there is no question what they mean. Others are ambiguous—not obscure, but ambiguous. That is, they may mean one thing, or another, or another. The Pope, or the Patriarch, can say “singular” or “plural” on his own authority and bind it on the consciences of every Catholic or Orthodox. There are four Gospels because the Pope says there are four. If he said there were three, or five, there would be that number, and all of Catholic Christology would have to change. If he says there are seven Sacraments, then the definition of Sacrament must be changed to include all seven.
The Patriarch—the second pope—is even more significant to non-Catholics because of a principle that exists in our reality. Your humble scribe thrice read an excellent science fiction novel called “The Gods Themselves”. To my amazement, this led to a vitally important theological insight. In the novel the fate of the universe depended on understanding one simple principle: that the existence of one thing may mean it’s just a singularity, a unique phenomenon. But once you admit that there are two of something, there may be three, or five, or ten. (This is not true of the sexes, which are actually halves of a single whole. First God created higher forms of life, especially including mankind. Then He divided them in half by sex. Then He brought the halves together to form a greater whole, just as your two hands are the two halves of a designed union—separated, and then rejoined. Two right hands or two lefts would not form a union.)
Once you realize that there are two popes, there may be three, five, a dozen, a hundred. This simple principle explains, and can start reversing, the scandalous divisions in the One Holy Christian and Apostolic Church—if we proclaim it.
If there is one pope in Rome and another in Istanbul, if there is one pope for the Catholics and another for the Orthodox, there might be a third (John Calvin) for Presbyterians, another (John Wesley) for the Methodists, another (Henry VIII, Defender of the Faith) for the Anglicans and so on. In fact, almost every time a denomination splits, a new pope arises. And Dr. Siegbert Becker of Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary explained the process [from class notes; not verbatim]:
‘[These new popes] ignore the clear and unambiguous passages—those with only one possible meaning—and go immediately to unclear passages with several possible meanings. They choose the one they want, and with no proof but their own authority and confident-sounding voices declare it to be God’s intended meaning. Then they go back to the clear passages and twist them around to agree with their interpretation of the unclear passages.’ Such popes may sincerely think that they have the proper interpretation of Bible passages which are in question, but they’re still just “poping off”. Today there are thousands of popes, living and dead.
And now the obvious question: Is Luther the pope of Lutherans?
Nobody could propose or believe that. If you’d called Luther “His Holiness” he’d have flung his inkpot at you. And there are too many cases where we all disagree with Luther and always have. We quote him so often, not because he has special spiritual authority from God to interpret the Bible, nor because he was always right, but because he said so many fine things so well and said them first. That’s why people in all denominations quote Luther—but they also often disagree with him. So do Lutherans, but not so often of course.
Fortunately, Luther is nobody’s pope. In fact, Luther himself turned to a higher authority, the Black Pope, when he disagreed with the Roman pope. The Black Pope is the official interpreter of Holy Scripture. But who or what was this black pope? Do we need a black one?
Lutherans have a black pope, and so should you. That’s not my phrasing; it’s John Eck’s. After Luther overruled Pope Leo and St. Cyprian by quoting St. Paul, Eck charged the Lutherans with having a “black pope,” an ink-on-paper pope. “No!” he cried. “Give us a fine, a living pope!”
John Eck was half right—not about the living pope, of course, but about the black one. The Lutherans did not realize that they should have embraced Eck’s metaphor as a synonym for Sola Scriptura. We DO have a black pope, an ink-on-paper pope, an unchanging pope, a superhuman pope, a CERTAIN pope that doesn’t contradict himself, a pope that is immortal, eternal, indispensable, divine, holy, infallible, pure, consistent, sinless, and incapable of error. And how does this Black Pope operate? Well, you take any ambiguous word like “seed.” Singular or plural? When Jesus said “a mustard seed” it’s singular—the immediate context makes the unclear clear, and that’s what “interpret” means. But the seed that fell on the path must be plural, because “birds”—plural—ate it up. That’s wider context, and sometimes it’s several verses or chapters away. In any unclear passage you won’t know what it means unless the Black Pope—Bible context or a parallel passage in the Bible itself—spells it out.
That the Bible should interpret itself in this way is so obviously true that every denomination believes and practices it at least some of the time, usually most of the time. Lutherans try to believe and practice it all of the time. We have no pope in Rome, Constantinople, Canterbury, Salt Lake City or the Watchtower. The Bible is its own pope. Context is king, and the entire Bible is context for every part. Someone has counted over 63,000 cross-references in the Bible, and concluded that “The Bible is hyperlinked.” Pastor Gioacchino Cascione has found thousands more (see “Repetition in the Bible,” either on Youtube or softcover at RedeemerPress.org). The Bible Is a closed system; no human pope is needed. Unfortunately, many who call themselves Lutheran no longer believe historic Lutheranism, but that’s true of liberals in every denomination. I’ll get to the popes of religious liberalism in a later article.
When you have a question about something in the Bible, you may ask your pastor, not because of his superior authority, but because of greater familiarity with the black pope. Your pastor may then consult with other pastors, books, professors or bishops, but not because they have a divine right to interpret anything. All they have the right to do is point out other passages where the black pope clarifies ambiguous statements, or bring in other information they may have from deeper study of the black pope, in the original languages for instance.
We are not to teach our opinions or deductions. We might deduce that St. Paul was a widower, but can’t teach it. You may think secular history shows there was a small gate in Jerusalem’s large gate called “the needle’s eye” but can’t teach it as doctrine. We can’t base doctrines on deductions from passages, but only on the passages themselves—from clear and straightforward Bible statements in passages that were meant to teach those doctrines. We can’t make doctrines from verses that may have several meanings, but only from direct and unambiguous statements in the Bible. For example, Jesus said “This do” about bread and wine, so we may not commune with pretzels and beer or pizza and Coke.
The Lutheran Reformation began when Luther started getting his answers only from the Black Pope—the Bible, its context and parallel passages—and not from any human pope. After long and hard searching of the Scriptures, our black pope answers those questions that are answerable. After half a century of diligent study, research, publication, correspondence, conferences and disputation, they published their results in the Lutheran Confessions. You may say that other denominations have their confessional books too, like Calvin’s Institutes. However, ever since the Marburg Colloquy in 1529, the conclusions of all other Protestants are admittedly and explicitly based on interpretation by human reason—by a human pope.
(“Human reason” is different from “logic.” Logic is a discipline like mathematics. Human reason is logic plus the presupposition that “Anybody can see that ….”) Interpretation by human reason is practiced by all non-Lutheran Protestants and by all liberals as well, which is why they have so many popes. But the Lutheran Book of Concord only interprets Scripture with Scripture. It could be called “Decretals of the Black Pope.” It’s not based on reason, nor a potpourri of popery, like the papal bulls. It is logical that God is His own pope, and it should be self-evident that the Word of God therefore is its own pope. If you read it you’ll see that no man has been given this authority. God retains it to Himself. “Lord, to whom shall we go? THOU hast the words…!”
For 500 years, then, the church has been divided like Gaul into three categories relative to popes: Catholics and Orthodox have one pope, Protestants and sectarians have many, and Bible-believing Lutherans have none. Everyone but us says that there is some MAN who has the authority to improve on God’s deplorable lack of clarity and tell us what He must have had in mind. Lutherans, by contrast, have the only closed system of theology in existence. This is what makes us unique. (Now we still must try to be better.)
You should incorporate this lesson into your adult instruction classes. It will help you to speak with authority, and not like the scribes.
Roger Kovaciny is a retired missionary to Ukraine, now living in DeForest, WI. He helped the Ukrainian Bible Society translate the Bible. For free printable, sharable copies of this article send an e-mail to email@example.com, and you will also receive an updated version of “The Ten Commandments of Bible Interpretation,” published earlier in Christian News.