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Private Interpretation of the Bible

Question: How can you interpret the Bible for yourself? I must warn you that the Bible cautions against that: "Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation" - 2 Peter 1:20 (KJV).

Answer: You probably don't realize the inconsistency of your argument. You try to persuade me not to interpret the Bible for myself by showing me a Bible verse that supposedly proves your point. But if I cannot interpret the Bible for myself, how can I understand the meaning of the verse you quoted? Moreover you don't even abide by your own rule. For you read the Scriptures and use your mind to understand the meaning of the text.

What you really want to say is this: Read the Bible as much as you like, as long as you don't question any doctrine taught by the Roman Catholic magisterium. And if you find any variation between the teaching of the Bible and the teaching of the Vatican, then surely you must be misunderstanding the Bible. The Roman magisterium refuses to be held accountable and to be examined in the light of God's Word!

The Roman Church has had a long history of withholding the Bible from the common people. One effective way was to give the Bible in Latin, an unknown tongue to the great majority. For centuries it was a sin to possess and read the Bible in one's own native language. The Council of Toulouse (1229) forbade the laity to read the vernacular translations of the Bible. Various Bible translations were included in the Index of Forbidden Books (Index Librorum Prohibitorum), first published in 1559. Pope Pius IV instructed bishops to refuse permission to lay persons to read even Catholic versions of Scripture unless their confessors or parish priests judged that such reading was likely to prove beneficial. [See Bible Forbidden to the Laity]

It was the Protestants - men like Wycliff, Tyndale and Luther - who first gave the Bible in the common language of the people, at the time when the Roman authorities were busy burning every copy of the Bible they could lay their hands on.

History forced the Roman Church to change tactics. Today many Catholics have their personal copy of the Bible at home and many are reading the Bible for themselves. However, the Word of God is rendered void and ineffective by the presuppositions in the Catholic mind. For example, the Catholic is not bothered by the fact that the dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption, auricular confession, purgatory and the veneration of statues are absent from the pages of the Bible. They have been convinced from infancy that God's revelation does not come in the Bible alone, but also in Sacred Tradition; and since no-one can check the contents of oral Tradition, they have no way to verify whether a particular doctrine is really based on the Word of God or not. They simply have to trust the magisterium.

Another method that Rome employs is to persuade the people that the Bible is too difficult to understand by oneself. Interpretation is not for the common people but for the wise and intelligent leaders of the Church alone. "The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God...has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone...This means that the task of interpretation has been entrusted to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome" (Catechism, paragraph 85). Why then should the ordinary Catholic bother to open the book? Thus with one hand Rome gives the Bible to the people, while it takes it away with the other hand.

Now let us see what the apostle Peter meant by saying that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. To do so, we must open our Bible and read that verse in its context and employ the familiar rules of language to discover its meaning. In other words, we must interpret the Bible for ourselves! The apostle Peter writes:

Knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation, for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:20-21).

The verb "is" in verse 20 is the translation of the word 'ginomai' which according to Strong's Lexicon means, "to cause to be, to become, come into being." Hence the sense of this verse is this: "no prophecy of Scripture 'came into being' by any private interpretation." The apostle Peter is here speaking about the process by which the Scriptures came into being, namely, their origin, and not about the understanding of Scripture already given.

Peter says that no scripture came into being by 'private interpretation' - that is by one's own explanation. Whom does he have in mind? Is it the reader, or the men who penned the Scriptures? Since Peter is speaking about the origin of Scripture, it seems likely that he is talking about the prophets themselves. In other words, Peter is saying that the Scriptures did not originate in the prophets' own understanding. This could be confirmed if we read the following verse since the apostle Peter gives the reason why scripture did not come into being of the prophets' own understanding, "for" he continues, "prophecy never came by the will of man." The prophets did not invent the scriptures. Rather, they were God's instruments to write his Word: "...holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit."

So, this verse does not discourage us from reading and understanding the Bible for ourselves, but it give us full confidence why we should trust the Scriptures. Though written by men, the Scriptures do not have their origin in the human mind but in the mind of God the Holy Spirit. The Bible is the Word of God!

I need to make some final comments, especially to my Evangelical brethren. We need to reiterate to our Catholic friends the elementary truth that the Bible was written in such a way that it can be understood. In the meantime, we must continually remind ourselves of the equally basic fact that the Bible can be misunderstood! The apostle Peter later on in his epistle warns us that in the Scriptures "are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction" (2 Peter 3:16). Therefore we must be diligent in our studies, and make use of all the God-given means, especially listening to godly teachers.

Let us read and study the Bible, both privately and publicly, and exercise our minds to understand it correctly. Let us listen attentively to biblical sermons, and read books that expound the Word. "As newborn babes, desire the pure milk of the word, that you may grow thereby, if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is gracious." (1 Peter 2:2,3).

Dr Joseph Mizzi