Private Interpretation-- Catholicism And The Bible
It is strenuously held by Catholics that individuals, however sane and sensible, cannot interpret the scriptures. They affirm that their infallible hierarchy alone can do that. Consequently, when someone endeavors to persuade them in matters of religion, they will, with an air of triumph, refer to 2 Peter 1:20 which reads: "Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation." Therefore, the Romanist believes it is not only impossible for him or any individual to interpret the Bible, but seriously wrong to even attempt it. He may have a copy of the Bible and may read, e.g., John 3:16, "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life," but to the peril of his soul, he must not put any meaning to it. He can read it but the church must do his thinking for him. If he attaches any sense to the scriptures he is guilty of the crime of private interpretation. He must accept the interpretation of the so-called church fathers, "from Barnabas to Bernard." Albeit, an investigation of the fathers will show that unanimity of interpretation is conspicuously lacking — e.g., in reference to Matthew 16:18, the "rock" is understood by sixteen as meaning Christ himself; the faith or confession by Peter by forty-four; Peter professing the faith by seventeen; and all the apostles by eight. (Philip Schaff, The Vatican Decrees, N. Y., Harper and Brothers, 1875, pp. 105, 106).
We here submit our objections to the Romanist's handling of 2 Peter 1:20:
First, even if the right of private judgment and interpretation is taken away, it is from only a small portion of the Bible, namely, the prophecy. Peter does not say "no scripture," but "no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation." The historical, instructive, and hortatory parts are not included in this statement. Peter's statement is admittedly limited to prophecy.
Secondly, whatever the apostle had reference to, a further reading will show that such is not in accord with the Catholic's claim. After Peter says that "no scripture is of private interpretation," he then gives the reason for whatever he means: "for the prophecy came not in old time (marg. at any time) by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost." No prophecy has come by the will of man. (i.e., was not a product of man's conjecture, impulse, impetus, or calculation, for so the word is rendered) but by the influence of the Holy Ghost. Now, does the fact that the Bible is inspired of God (2 Tim. 3:16, 17), make for any reason why men cannot understand it? Does the circumstance that God gave the writers the thoughts and words make the Bible so involved and ambiguous that it is beyond our comprehension? Can we understand the writings of men and not understand God's revelation to men? That would be to charge that God cannot make himself as easily understood as men can! The Romanist position in reference to this verse must consequently be: the Bible is an inspired book, therefore it is too obscure and equivocal to be understood by private interpretation! Inspired, therefore unintelligible! To whom will ye liken God, Catholic friends?
Thirdly, the ineptitude of the Romish position relative to private interpretation can be seen further from this fact: Jesus said the words he spoke were spirit and life. (John 6:63) I think it not presumptive to say that the "common people" who "heard him gladly" understood what Christ meant when he said, "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God." Or again, "...whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them." Apparently no one thought of setting aside these precepts because they were afraid to interpret them. Now, if Christ's spoken words were intelligible, who would affirm that those same words mysteriously became unintelligible when written? Who will affirm it? Catholics.
Fourthly, a literal translation of verse 20 will reveal that Peter, instead of prohibiting reading the Bible to understand it, was affirming the divine origin of the same. Macknight translates epilusis as invention instead of interpretation. It would read thus: "no prophecy of the scriptures is of the prophet's own invention." If Peter were discountenancing Bible study and denying the right of private judgment, why would he in verse 19 admonish the Christians to "take heed" to a "more sure word of prophecy"? Why should they be called upon to take heed if they could not privately interpret it? He even called it a "light that shineth in a dark place." Peter encouraged study; his pretended successors ingeniously discourage it. Paul said "study...rightly dividing the word of truth," 2 Tim. 2:15; Romanists say "read, but take care not to attach any meaning to it lest you be guilty of private interpretation."
Finally, if it be maintained that no scripture is of private interpretation, then the very passage at hand, 2 Peter 1:20, is ruled out also because it is scripture. Yet, the Romanist will inconsistently place his private interpretation upon the very scripture which he says denies such interpretation. He scruples not to privately interpret that which he affirms rules out private interpretation. "Out of thy own mouth I will judge thee." Romanist friend, "thou are weighed in the balances and found" inconsistent.
One of the favorite expressions of our Catholic friends is: "Christ did not give us a book and say, 'Here, read this and find salvation'." This cunning statement finds reception among the uninformed and unstable. Of course, Christ did not make such a statement but he did promise the apostles they would be guided by the Spirit into all truth (John 16:13), and that who hears them hears him. (Luke 10:15) Today, the apostles are heard through their writings. (1 Cor. 14:37) Their writings are part of the scriptures. (2 Peter 3:16) Paul commanded study. (2 Tim. 2:15) Therefore, in hearing the apostles who command us to study the scriptures, we are hearing Christ likewise. The conclusion is: Christ, by his apostles, commands us to "study"; "rightly divide the word of truth"; "prove all things"; "try the spirits, whether they be of God"; work out our "own salvation"; and keep his commandments. The Bible, if studied prayerfully, individually or in a group, will prove itself to be, not a mysterious volume, but God's revelation to man.