Today the scriptures are so common place that we tend to forget that for thousands of years reading them was not an easy thing to do. In the days of Jesus the Old Testament scriptures were written by hand and, because of their sacred nature, were kept in the synagogues, guarded over and preserved by the rabbis. Back then it would have been extremely unusually for someone to have a personal copy of the scriptures in their home. Therefore, in order for someone back in that era to read them they would have to go to a synagogue and get permission from the Rabbi.
During the first century when the apostles wrote their letters, these were hand copied and eagerly passed out to others. Yet, even so, during that time no one had a copy of every letter the apostles had written which means no one had access to the complete New Testament we have today. However, beginning in the second century, the Church began to take steps to preserve and protect the writings of the apostles. By this time there were so many different copies of the same letter that it became almost impossible to determine which one was authentic and which ones had been altered, either deliberately or inadvertently. In addition to this, other books started being circulated among Christians, claiming they were newly discovered letters written by the apostles. Nearly all of them were fakes and most of them contained false doctrine. To counter this threat, the Church took further steps to protect the scriptures and keep them from becoming corrupted.
Since there was no way of mass producing the scriptures, it was the priests who later took charge of making copies by meticulously hand writing them and then storing them within the Church itself. As in the days of Jesus, by this time when anyone wanted to read the scriptures, they had to go to the priest and ask permission to do so. But more often than not, permission was not granted. Therefore, if someone wanted to know what the scriptures said, they had to go to church and listen to what their priest had to say about them. That means the only thing that the common people really knew about the word of God was from listening to the interpretation that their priests gave them.
As far as the Catholic Church was concerned, this made perfect sense because from the time of the apostles there were many people who had twisted the scriptures so as to make them say something different than what the apostles had originally taught. The word used to describe such teachers of false doctrine was "heretic" and the Church found that the best way to keep heresy out of the church was to restrict people's access to the scriptures. By limiting the reading of God's word to just the priests, who did so under the supervision and scrutiny of the Church authorities, they were able to limit the opportunity for heretics to spread their damnable teachings. To further prevent anyone from reading the scriptures, as Latin became a dead language, the scriptures were still copied in this ancient tongue so that no one but the priests could understand it.
Under this system, over the centuries only the few highly educated scholars and theologians of the Church, locked away in monasteries, were able to spend time studying the scriptures, analyzing every word, pondering great questions, and searching out every hidden meaning just as the ancient Rabbis had once done. And as they did this they began to find great treasures of hidden knowledge. On the other hand, the common person, who had little, if any, formal education, was too busy working from sunup to sundown, struggling just to barely stay alive, leaving them no time to study the scriptures even if they had wanted to. Therefore, since the scriptures were so rich in meaning, it was easy for everyone to rationalize that the word of God was meant only to be read by the highly educated authorities of the Church.
For anyone to think that a farmer, carpenter, or blacksmith could understand, let alone comprehend the intricacies and nuances of the things of God seemed like an absurd idea to everyone. As one person put it, that would be like a farmer going into an apothecary shop and trying to figure out on his own what kind of medicine he should take to cure his sickness. With little to no knowledge of what he was doing, there was the very real possibility that he could take something that would kill him rather than make him better. Therefore, it was only logical to conclude that if a farmer wanted to know what kind of medicine he should take, he needed to consult a doctor who has been trained in the art of medicine.
In the same way, since the Bible teaches us how to cure our sick soul from the deadly effects of sin, it was likewise believed that if the scriptures were read without any formal training in the ways of God it could actually lead a person to spend eternity in hell if they misapplied its teachings. Therefore, it was agreed by all that only those who were schooled in the ways of God should study the Bible and that everyone else should listen to what they had to say about it.
Martin Luther was both a theologian in the Catholic faith and a professor of religion at the University of Whittenburg, Germany and it was from his intensive study of the Bible that he concluded the Catholic Church had strayed from the original teachings of the apostles. The next great leader in the Protestant reformation was John Calvin, who learned Latin at the College of la Marche in Paris and later studied philosophy at the College of Montaigu, which was an educational monastery. Yet, there is nothing in the writings of these two great Protestant Reformers that suggests they believed the common person should study the scriptures for themselves. When King Henry the VIII of England broke with the Catholic Church, thereby forming the Church of England, it too kept strict control over the Bible.
It wasn't until after the advent of the printing press that in 1522 a man named William Tyndale decided to publish the Bible in English so that everyone could read it. Like Luther, he felt it was the Church itself who was teaching false doctrines. So that everyone could easily see this for themselves, he declared, "I will cause the boy that drives the plow in England to know more of the Scriptures than the Pope himself!" But this decision was viewed as a threat to both the Catholic Church and the Church of England and they did everything in their power to prevent the publication of this Bible. So fierce was the persecution that Tyndale was forced into hiding for years just to remain alive. But, he was eventually betrayed and, after his capture, in 1536 he was condemned to death by the Church and died by strangulation, then his body was burned at the stake for his crime of making the scriptures available to the average person.
However, his Bible did make it into the hands of the common people and for the first time in centuries they were able to read it for themselves. From that time forth the Bible was no longer the exclusive property of the Church but was available for everyone to possess. Yet, despite this fact, in some ways things are not much different today than they were during the Middle Ages.
Today, ministers of religion still go to colleges, known as seminaries, to be taught, educated, and instructed on what the Bible says. For the most part, it is the pastor, not the common person, who spends a lot of time reading, studying, searching, analyzing, and pondering the scriptures. As a result, each Sunday it is the highly educated pastor that tells the people in their congregation what the scriptures say. For their part, the average person goes to church each Sunday, not to read the scriptures but to sit quietly listening to and learning from what their pastor has to say about the Bible.
In the major Protestant denominations, what pastors tell their congregation is what they themselves were taught in seminary. And what they were taught is the teachings of their founder. For example, the Lutherans teach their ministers to understand the Bible according to what the theologian Martin Luther taught. The Reformed Presbyterians teach what the theologian John Calvin taught and the regular Presbyterians teach what the theologian John Knox taught. The Methodists teach what the theologian John Wesley taught. And in order to preach in one of these churches a person must subscribe to, or agree with the teachings of its highly educated, scholarly founder. Thus, we see that, when it comes to the teaching of the scriptures, not much has changed.
But there is one thing that has changed and it is the very thing that the original Church feared most. Now that everyone has access to the Bible, there are literally tens of thousands of different interpretations of what it says. In the past, when someone taught a doctrine that didn't agree with the Catholic Church, they were called a heretic but today we simply refer to them as being a different church. No longer is there one way to be saved, but instead, there is a department store full of options to chose from. Instead of being forced to attend one church, people are now free to pick and choose the church of their choice. Instead of the priests deciding what the word of God says, now everyone makes up their own mind what they want to believe. If a person doesn't like the strictness of the fundamentalist, evangelical church they can go attend a church that teaches a more liberal and less demanding interpretation of the scriptures. Thus, everyone is free to join a church that suits their own personal beliefs. And if they can't find one, then they are free to start their own church.
As mentioned earlier, most people don't have the time to study the scriptures, so, from a purely logical standpoint, it makes perfect sense to have those who have been well trained in the doctrines of their faith, who have devoted their life to studying the gospel, and who have gained a deep understanding of the scriptures to teach the gospel to those who are willing to listen and be instructed in the ways of God. In this way, once or twice a week the ordinary person can be spoon fed the knowledge of God's word by someone who has done all the work of studying for them.
The notable exception to this rule is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints whose local pastors have no formal training and who are not paid to perform their duties. Instead of having a special class of people who have been well educated in the doctrines of their faith, LDS bishops and stake presidents serve for a limited number of years on a voluntary basis and are chosen from among the general membership over those whom they preside, not because of any special qualification or degrees they have from within the Church but based on their faithfulness. And often times the person who is chosen to be a bishop or stake president is not THE most knowledgeable scriptorium of his congregation.
But that doesn't matter because, rather than the bishop giving a sermon each week, the talks given each Sunday in the LDS worship service are given by the members themselves as invited to speak by the bishop or someone he has designated to carry out this responsibility. More than that, it is the members who teach the various instructional classes each Sunday, including the adult Sunday School class. Under this system, the duties of a bishop and stake president are more administrative in nature than they are for preaching the gospel. Because of this, the LDS Church places great emphasis on each member taking time every day to read, study, and ponder the scriptures for themselves. As a result of this emphasis, with exceptions, members of the LDS Church tend to have a far greater understanding of the Bible than most members of other churches.
However, if understanding the scriptures was left entirely up to the individual, the LDS Church would have fractured into hundreds of denominations within a very short time, just as the other Protestant churches have done. But, instead what we find is that the LDS Church teaches the same doctrines in each of its worldwide congregations. No matter where in the world someone attends an LDS meeting they will hear the same, exact, identical doctrines being taught. This is even more amazing when we consider that other churches, who use trained ministers to teach their doctrines, don't necessarily teach the same message from one congregation to another.
This same situation existed in the days of Jesus. There were many sects of Judaism at that time, the most prominent being the Pharisidic and Sadducean sects. Yet, despite the great study and learning that their priests had of the scriptures, we read of many instances where Jesus had to correct their understanding of God's word, because they erred in what they thought the scriptures taught. And the reason why Jesus knew the correct interpretation was not because He had been properly tutored and schooled by a renowned rabbi but because it was HIS words that the ancient prophets had written and which the Jews were studying. Therefore, if anyone truly understood what the word of God meant it was the Son of God who caused it to be written.
After Jesus died and ascended to heaven, He continued to provide direction, instruction, and inspiration to those whom He had personally chosen to watch over and guide the Church that He had established. These men were known by the title of apostles but, in reality, they acted more like prophets, giving to the world God's word as God had given it to them. As the apostles wrote letters to the early saints they quite frequently quoted Old Testament scriptures and it was through the teachings of these divinely called and divinely inspired men that guided the saints in their understanding of God's word. It was by steadfastly following the apostle's doctrine that the Church of Christ was kept in the unity of the faith (Acts 2:42).
As with Jesus, these men were not great scholars, theologians, or even highly educated. Four of them had been fishermen, one used to be a tax collector, while another was a tent maker. Although they had all learned the scriptures from their youth, what gave them the right and authority to correctly interpret the scriptures was that they had been taught by the Supreme Rabbi Himself, the Son of God.
Although today we have the words of these ancient apostles, just as the Jews in the days of Jesus had the words of the Old Testament prophets, what very few churches today claim to have is men who have been divinely sent and divinely inspired who can, with authority, give us the correct understanding of the scriptures. Although there are many men who possess great learning about the Bible, yet they contend in their opinions with one another with no one with any real authority being able to settle their differences as did the ancient prophets and apostles.
Two thousand years ago, the learned rabbis didn't accept the teachings of Jesus, contending with Him over scriptural interpretation as though their opinions were equal to His. And after Jesus had left the Church in the hands of the apostles, they too experienced the same fate of having people reject their message and interpretation of the scriptures but, that didn't diminish the fact that their understanding came from the same inspiration that had guided the Old Testament prophets.
For centuries the way the Catholic Church sought to preserve the true teachings of the Bible from being corrupted was by keeping the scriptures out of the hands of the common man and having only the priests teach the people. However, the way Jesus set up His Church was to let the Saints read the scriptures for themselves but He gave them living apostles and prophets to guide them in their understanding of God's word.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints solemnly declares that they are led by prophets and apostles who have been called by God just as the prophets and apostles of old were. While today, nearly all Christians unquestionably accept the divine calling of the New Testament apostles just as the Jews unquestionably accepted the divine calling of the Old Testament prophets, many of today's learned biblical scholars don't accept God's living prophets and apostles. But, it is only when people are taught the word of God by someone who has the divine authority to give us the correct understanding that we are kept from error in knowing the scriptures.