Private Interpretation

Private Interpretation
J. R. Ensey

The confidence of the Apostle Peter in the inspiration of the Holy Scriptures is boldly expressed in II Peter 1:19-21.

“We have also a more sure word of prophecy; where unto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hears: Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy en of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.”

What Peter is saying here is that we have the Word spoken by God and His spokesmen to guide us until Jesus Himself returns. It is a trustworthy Word, a sure word. He added that it was not the word for the prophets themselves but the words that were inspired by the Spirit of God. Then he makes it clear that the prophecy which was spoken by the Hebrew prophet was not subject to the prophet’s own interpretation or explanation. The Greek word translated interpretation (epilusis), suggests a loosing or an untying of the meaning. As Vine explains, the prophets did not put their own constructions upon the God-breathed words they wrote. That principle would become a glaring difference between the true and false prophet. The false prophets tended to loose and untie put their personal interpretation or spin on their pronouncements.

The Catholic Position

Over the centuries Roman Catholics appealed to this passage to rein in any free thinkers who might want to use the Scriptures to project their own ideas or experiences in the effort to break free from the menacing tyranny of the ecclesiastical establishment. For a millennium the only Bible allowed was the Latin Vulgate which the educated alone could read and understand, and the only interpreter of the Scriptures was the pope and priesthood. Anyone who disagreed with the official interpretation was punished severely. This is how they maintained control of many nations through the centuries.

The Catholic Encyclopedia shares their perspective: “Catholics accept the voice of the Church as the supreme authority, and therefore reject outright the principle of religious individualism…The open Bible and the open mind on its interpretation are rather a lure to entice the masses, by flattering their pride and deceiving their ignorance, than a workable principle of faith.” They give three reasons why they traditionally wanted to limit distribution of the Scriptures and maintain tight control over how they were to be interpreted:

1) How many Christians are made by the tons of Testaments distributed by missionaries to the heathen? What religion could even a well-schooled man extract from the Bible if he had nothing but his brain and his book to guide him?

2) The second limitation arises from environment and prejudices. The assumed right of private judgment is not exercised until the mind is already stocked with ideas and notions supplied by family and community, foremost among these being the current conceptions of religious dogmas and duties. In other words, one’s background and influences may keep him away from Catholic “dogmas and duties.”

3) A third limitation put on the exercise of private judgment is the authority of church and State. Secular rulers were guided by political and material considerations in their adherence to particular forms of faith, and they usurped the right of imposing their own choice on their subjects, regardless of private opinions. (This is true but how justified can the Catholics be in complaining about this?)

The Protestant Position

The Protestant Reformation challenged the Catholic position, but did not take the idea of private interpretation as far as some may think. Although the Reformers made personal interpretation a pillar of the movement, they themselves forced their own interpretation on their adherents. They wanted to be free from the pope’s “infallible” pontificates, and that was a good thing, but the Reformers were only a little more tolerant than the Roman Catholics on this matter. As the Catholic Encyclopedia states, “By its proclamation of the right of private interpretation of the Sacred Scriptures [the Protestant movement] swept away with one stroke all living authority and constituted the individual supreme judge in doctrinal matters. Its divisions are therefore but natural, and its heresy trials in disagreement with one of its fundamental principles. The Reformers took full advantage of their emancipation from papal authority, but they showed no inclination to allow their followers the same freedom. Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and Knox were as intolerant of private judgment when it went against their own conceits as any pope in Rome was ever intolerant of heresy. Confessions of faith, symbols, and catechism were set up everywhere, and were invariably backed by the secular power.”

We have to recognize the truth of that observation. A well-known case in point is that of John Calvin and Michael Servetus. Servetus embraced a Oneness view of the Godhead distinct from the Trinitarian position held by Calvin, reflecting an interpretation of particular verses that varied from the Presbyterian position. It cost him his very life. In other words, “private interpretation” was basically limited to leaders. They wanted their liberties but were reticent in extending them to the people

The truth is that there are very few religious movements or denominations
even today that allow their members, particularly the ministry, unlimited personal interpretation of the Scriptures. The reasoning, of course, is seen in the many sects that are created by individuals who think they have had a special revelation of certain passages. While might does not make right, and quantity does not always equal quality, there is a measure of safety in numbers. It is much more likely that one person can be out of bounds theologically than for a group. Jesus did no choose one disciple but twelve. The threefold cord and bundle of sticks principle applies here. There is comfort and strength in knowing that others are standing with you and share your views. Balance and truth are more likely to be achieved. Much harm and division has resulted from someone getting an idea perhaps from an obscure passage or obsolete translation terminology and, before submitting it to the counsel of brethren, taking off across the country preaching it as law and gospel.

The Apostolic Position

While no one speaks for all Apostolics, it is observable that they are as capable of individualism as anyone when it comes to interpretation of Scripture. By and large, Apostolics give ministers substantial leeway for personal interpretation 1pf scriptural topics other than salvation issues. However, the Word is so plain on the new birth and fundamental holiness issues that lines establishing close fellowship are drawn out of necessity. “Can two walk together except they be agreed” (Amos 3:3)? There has to be agreement on the basics for there to be a foundation on which to build a relationship. A movement where everyone believ6s and teaches whatever they want is equivalent to standing for nothing. And unless they stand for something, they will ultimately fall for anything.

This “private interpretation” issue goes deeper than just how someone speculates about obscure prophetic passages. A church that has no doctrinal requirements or lifestyle standards would be at home squarely in the middle of the modern charismatic community where “membership” requirements consist mostly of stewardship commitments, if any at all. Loyalties are virtually non-existent, and the next preacher who comes to town with a glitzy show, publicized as a Simon-like “great power of God,” there they go. There must be a stated position, a doctrinal distinctive, a “sure word” of truth, and Bible-based leadership to justify loyalty. Loyalty should be first given personally to Jesus, then to the clear, fundamental doctrines of the Bible, and only then to a local church and its pastor. Loyal demands beyond that are not easy to find in the Bible. Any further commitment is should be entirely based on the worthiness of the entity and its steadfastness in truth. One has no obligation beyond love to a church or pastor that don’t teach apostolic doctrine and promote the apostolic lifestyle.

Private judgment can ripen into free thinking, compromise and heresy. This is why Paul pled with the first century church to be steadfast (I Corinthians 15:58) to teach the same things (I Corinthians 1:10; Philippians 3:16), and hold fast to sound words (II Timothy 1:13). The reason was expressed in the next verse: ‘there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them bringing swift destruction on themselves. Many will follow their shameful ways and will bring the way of truth into disrepute. In their greed these teachers will exploit you with stories they have made up” (II Peter 2:1-3 NIV). Such teachers may consider ministers or laymen who are without attachment or accountability as easy prey. Binding together in some fashion with those of like precious faith, who are in agreement on the fundamentals of the faith, we are stronger. We owe each other love, faithfulness, and dedication to truth.

The motto of one secular group is: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” That has a nice ring; if…there is agreement on how to categorize essentials and non-essentials. In applying that slogan to “private interpretation” of Scripture, let enough liberty prevail that we can breathe intellectually, but enough unity that the false teachers Paul and Peter warned about will be quickly identified and dealt with before they can divide us.

This article Private Interpretation written by J. R. Ensey was excerpted from Advance Ministries  The Apostolic Christian’s Library Builder and Inspiration Journal; Spring 200

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