Thursday, December 17, 2009

DIALOGUE ON BIBLE INTERPRETATION

[Catholics who deny the doctrine of Sola Scriptura (“Bible alone”) will often do so because they believe that we can’t interpret the Scriptures apart from the authority of the Catholic Church. The following is a fictional dialogue, but it is based on numerous real encounters (personal, internet, and otherwise) between Catholics and Protestants. Catholic comments will be in blue, while the Sola Scriptura believer’s comments will be in black.]


That’s just YOUR interpretation. You Protestants only have your subjective (personal) interpretation of the Bible. But we need to be CERTAIN about Scripture interpretation, because the correct meaning is vitally important. Therefore, we need someone who is INFALLIBLE to interpret for us.

And who might that be?


The Church, of course.


Meaning…the Catholic Church, right?


That’s correct.


But how does one who is searching for the truth, first determine that the Catholic Church is really the true Church, the (supposedly) infallible source of truth?

Matthew 16:18-19 tells us that Peter is the Rock upon which Jesus builds His Church, and Peter is the visible head of that Church, and it will never let the gates of hell prevail. Also, the Catholic Church has power to bind and loose, and no other church does.


So, you’re telling me that my interpretation of Scripture is “subjective” and therefore, insufficient, so I must look to the Catholic Church to interpret for me, right? Yet, in order to recognize the Catholic Church as the “true” Church, I must go to Matthew 16 to find out… but (according to you) I can’t really be sure of my interpretation in the first place. You tell me that I can’t really understand it, yet you point me to that same Bible to verify your assertion. Am I understanding you correctly?


You Protestants misread Matthew 16. But it is obvious that Jesus established His Church here.


So, the meaning of Matthew 16 should be “obvious” to an outsider (non-Catholic) who is searching for truth?


We believe an honest person would see the same truth that we see when reading Matthew 16. It is very clear to anyone seeking the truth.

Again, that seems to be a contradiction. First, you say we CAN’T trust our interpretation of the Bible, but then you say that if we read a particular passage in the Bible (Matthew 16), it is obviously telling us who CAN interpret it. In other words, we need to interpret the Bible in order to understand that our interpretation of the Bible will be wrong? Is this what you are saying?


I’m saying that we need to be absolutely SURE that our interpretation is correct.


But, would you agree that it is POSSIBLE for a seeker, apart from the Catholic Church, to correctly interpret a particular passage?


Yes, it is possible, but we need CERTAINTY, not just “possibility”.


And the Catholic has that certainty?


Yes, because he depends on the infallible Church as the authentic interpreter.


So, when a person seeking the truth chooses to join the Catholic Church, is that a fallible choice?


Yes, we, as individuals, are fallible, but we know the Church is infallible.


And you determined this (the Church’s infallibility) by your FALLIBLE reading of Matthew 16? If your original decision to join that church was a FALLIBLE one, how can you boast of having infallible certainty now? Suppose you find out later that the Catholic Church is wrong?

We can be infallibly certain because the Catholic Church IS infallible, and she tells us that we are right – that we made the right choice.


Of course she tells you that you made the right choice! Would you expect her to tell you that you were WRONG to join her? In the same way, certain cults will tell you that their leaders are also infallible, and you made the right choice in joining THEM. So how do you test them? How do you know whether THEIR church is right or wrong?


Because we Catholics not only have Scripture, but we also have Sacred Tradition to help us in deciding these things.


And exactly what IS this Tradition?


In a nutshell, it is simply the teachings of the Church.


So, let me recap… you know that the Catholic Church has infallibility based on your fallible interpretation of Matthew 16, “supported” by the Church’s Sacred Tradition, which is simply based on its OWN teachings? In other words, you are saying, “The Church is infallible because that’s what it teaches!” Sounds pretty weak and circular to me. But suppose some Catholics disagree on the interpretation of Matthew 16. What then?


We have an ultimate human leader (the pope) who can settle all disputes, unlike Protestants with their many divisions. If an interpretation is needed, he can give an official and infallible one.


Then who “infallibly interprets” HIS interpretation if there are any misunderstandings / disagreements / divisions on what HE said? At some point, the “fallible” must meet the “Infallible,” and it is still the fallible individual who must ultimately determine what the “Infallible” has said, whether it is God, the Pope, the Council of Trent, or whoever.

We believe that once the Pope has spoken, it is understandable and clear enough for the individual who exercises humble obedience and common sense.


But that is exactly how the Protestant sees the interpretation of SCRIPTURE…using humility and common sense (along with basic hermeneutical principles, of course). If interpretation by humble obedience and common sense works in understanding the Pope, then why would it not work for Scripture?


But there are things in the Bible that are hard to understand. The Bible, itself, admits this (2 Peter 3:16). When people privately interpret, they end up twisting the Scriptures to their own destruction!


This passage only says that SOME things are hard to understand. But does that mean that we give up? Stop studying? Do we neglect our responsibility to “rightly divide the Word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15) and turn the whole thing over to some (supposedly) infallible leader just because a certain passage is hard to understand? Of course not. We continue to prayerfully study and learn. Now, this doesn’t mean that we can’t learn from others, because we certainly can. We all need help interpreting now and then. But we have no biblical reason to believe in a single human leader (or organization) who MUST arbitrate for us. And by the way, 2 Peter 3:16 says nothing about an infallible human interpreter, although this would be an excellent place to mention it. Also, that passage in 2 Peter is speaking of the error of the “wicked” and unbelieving (verse 17), not the humble and prayerful person who is truly trying to find the will of God.


But the Protestant puts too much emphasis on the individual. There is too much risk here of private interpretation. The Bible also warns us against that (2 Peter 1:20).


But 2 Peter 1:20-21 is not speaking of one’s READING of Scripture, but rather, the ORIGIN of Scripture. This passage is often taken out of context by Catholics, as you just did. It is saying that no prophecy was given to the prophet by HIS OWN interpretation, but was directly from God. It is NOT telling us that the common man can’t (or shouldn’t) interpret, nor is it saying that a particular organization (like the Catholic Church) must be the only authentic interpreter.


But the Bible also tells us that we must obey our leaders (Hebrews 13:17). THEY have the truth, and THEY have the correct interpretation of Scripture. That’s why God put them there.


Does the person who happens to be in a church that teaches serious heresy have the responsibility to obey HIS leaders, too? It is true that we should obey our leaders WHO ARE BIBLICALLY SOUND, but how is one to know, if we cannot rightly divide the Word? God expects Church leaders to be “tested” and “evaluated” by their congregation to be sure that they are in line with Scripture, just as the Bereans tested the message of the Apostle Paul (Acts 17:11).


As I said before, the Catholic Church is infallible, as Matthew 16 and other passages clearly indicate. There is no need for the individual to strain and travail with his private interpretations, because he may let his prejudice and presuppositions cloud the true interpretation. God established the Catholic Church and its leaders to take care of all that.


That is the problem with many Catholics. They operate on a false assumption. That is: Either 1) One must have an INFALLIBLE interpretation of Scripture, or 2) he will inevitably have a WRONG interpretation. To these Catholics, there seems to be no middle ground… but “infallible” and “wrong” are not the only possibilities. It is certainly possible to be fallible (as all of us are) and yet be RIGHT in one’s Bible interpretation.


CONCLUDING THOUGHTS


Catholics often ask, “What use is an infallible book (the Bible), without an infallible interpreter (the Catholic Church)?” But this is like asking, “What use is an infallible God without an infallible human mind to understand Him?” But that’s ridiculous. He doesn’t expect us to understand Him infallibly. Infallibility is GOD’S domain. Only HE can have infallible certainty, but we humans can have sufficient certainty. So, all these Catholics who insist on “infallible certainty” are simply engaging in futility and unnecessary hype.


And one has to wonder, if infallible interpretations are so critical, then why are there only a tiny handful of Bible verses “infallibly interpreted” by the Catholic Church?


When we encourage each person to interpret Scripture, we do not mean that one can interpret it recklessly or just any way he feels like it. As mentioned above, there are basic hermeneutical principles involved, along with common sense. And it is important that one’s heart should be right, also (Luke 8:11-15). Many times, the problem is not hard Scripture, but hard hearts.


Catholics will often ask Protestants, “By what authority do you interpret Scripture?” But why should we need some special “authority” or “permission” to do something that God has already told us to do? He has already told us to “rightly divide” (interpret) His Word. This question is like asking, “By what authority do you obey the Commandments?” It has nothing to do with authority on our part. It’s simply something that God EXPECTS us to do.


Instead of telling me, “That’s just YOUR interpretation,” let’s look at the Scriptures together and exegete the relevant passages, and perhaps you can SHOW me where I am wrong in my interpretation. Let’s see which interpretation is most reasonable.


I just can’t see how a loving God would give us inspired revelation and not give the ability to understand it to those who need it most, the ones who Jesus favored…the common folk, the poor, the uneducated, and the lost… those who cried out to God. The doctrine of Sola Scriptura (“Bible alone”) does not mean that all Scripture is perfectly clear to everyone, or even equally clear to everyone, but we are ALL expected to interpret, at least to some degree. More than a dozen times in the New Testament we see the call, “WHOSOEVER has an ear, let him hear.” Anyone who “has an ear” is someone who is able to hear, interpret, and understand God’s message. The word “whosoever” is not restricted to church leaders.


Remember, Jesus, at a most critical time in His ministry, showed us how Scripture interprets Scripture. When He was tempted in the wilderness and the devil quoted Scripture to Him, Jesus didn’t say, “Oh, well, I guess I’ll have to appeal to Tradition now!” No, He went deeper into Scripture and said, “It is written AGAIN…” (Matthew 4:5-7)


Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. The Catholic Church boasts that she is the sole authentic interpreter of the Word of God (Catechism of the Catholic Church #100), yet she has provided us with many teachings that contradict the Bible. Therefore, saying that we need the Catholic Church to interpret the Bible for us is like saying that we need the fox to guard the henhouse. Eternal souls are too precious to be put into the hands of, and be dependent upon, an organization who makes such sweeping claims, but cannot deliver the goods.


The gospel message that God has given us is not complex or hard to interpret. It is simply this: To enter Heaven, we need to believe / trust in the work of Jesus Christ on the cross, and not in a Church, organization, pope, good works, or anything else. Let’s not complicate something so simple, yet so important. To be sure, we don’t need the Catholic Church to interpret this for us.

11 comments:

  1. You know, if I was the Catholic you were talking to, I'd respond to your question of

    "But how does one who is searching for the truth, first determine that the Catholic Church is really the true Church, the (supposedly) infallible source of truth?"

    with the answer,

    "Well, what Church determined which books to put into the Bible in the first place?"

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    1. Hello nuntym . Were the men in the council og Hippo and Cartage infallible or fallible? Why? How do you know the list of books was an infallible list and not a fallible list?

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  2. Hi nuntym,

    Thanks for your response.

    But your response here is simply begging the question. You're assuming that the Catholic Church "determined" the canon (list of inspired books) of Scripture. But this opens up a whole lotta other questions. I do intend to address the "canon issue" in the very near future. Hope you'll stay with us to see it.

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  3. If one believes the church is "institutional" ,that "the Church is the way ,the truth and the life", then for sure this church "gave" us the bible. If one believes the church is spiritual,universal (catholic-but NOT Roman),with no head but Jesus, then this church "passed" on the bible, as it was given by God.....One will have no problem to see in history that NO institution "gave" us the bible. Catholics can quote a council that "approved " of full new testaments ALREADY in existence. Even if they did approve of the 27 books for the first time (which they did not) ,was that council really "Roman Catholic" ? Did not Eusubios(?) whip up 50 bibles (27 n.t.books) for Constantine BEFORE this council ? For ANY denomination to claim "giving " us the bible is piracy ,the "gold" being false self- justification or legitimization. Anyways , did not Rome finally canonize scripture in 1500,s ? Thank you Russel , you prove the Holy Spirit is alive and well, for you and I are miles apart but one in bearing the same testimony.

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  4. Hi Dave,

    Thanks for your response and your encouragement. You raise a good point about the Scripture being "canonized" in the 1500's (that is, at the Council of Trent). If it was so important to have infallible certainty on the canon, why did the Catholic Church wait more than 1500 years before "infallibly" declaring it?

    For more on this, you can check out my article, "The Canon and Infallible Certainty" elsewhere on this blog.

    Thanks again, Dave, for your concern in these important issues. I pray that God blesses you as you continue to contend for the faith that was once delivered to the saints.

    Russell

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  5. Hi Russell,

    Ultimate Gohan.....

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  6. Hello Russell,

    I believe that passages such as Psalm 119:97-105 and Luke 1:1-4 make a great case for the perspicuity of Scripture.

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  7. Hi Anonymous,

    I absolutely agree.

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  8. Hi Russell,

    Thanks for your input. You have been very beneficial to me and many others.

    God bless,
    Jesse

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  9. Thank you for the encouragement, Jesse. And thank you for defending the faith!

    Peace and Grace

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  10. If the Catholic Church ‘s claims of infallibility are based on interpreting fallibly and your claim that they are wrong are coming from interpreting the bible fallibly then you have no case there since you and the Catholic Church are both fallible, we have no way of knowing who is interpreting correctly. We cannot rely on reason (trying to be consistence) because we are humans and our minds cannot be always consistent and we make errors and we are biased and also we interpret things based on our background. So from your way of seeing, there is no need of a infallible interpreter this means the Catholic Church is not wrong at all, its just that its interpretation of scripture led it to think that they should be a infallible interpreter and your interpretation led you to think that they should not be a infallible interpreter and from your logic since there is no infallible interpreter all these conclusions are permissible, and you should not expect the Catholic Church to accept your view which is fallible anyway and we should not as Catholics expect you to accept our views since they are fallible anyway.
    Having noted that we should agree on one more thing that all the Teachings of the Catholic Church are Biblical. The reason is that they are there in the Scriptures but what we disagree on is the difference in interpretation. An example will be fitting here. You cannot say the Catholic Church‘s teaching on the Eucharist is not in the Bible because Jesus said This is my Body and This is blood, and this is there in the bible. What we do not agree on is what did Jesus mean, did he mean literal flesh or symbols. So our position is biblical meaning it can be found in the bible, but since no infallible interpreter is needed or can be found here on Earth it means the Catholic Position is acceptable as well as the opposition position. If Protestants really believe that there is no need for an infallible interpreter (which I doubt they do), why do they make noise about the Catholic Church having interpretations different/opposite from theirs? They are not being consistent in their logic at all. If I was protestant according to you logic, and if I hear the Catholics claiming Infallibility, I will simply just say it’s their fallible interpretation that has made them reach that conclusion. That’s a double standard by Protestants.

    NB……I would agree with this logic if the Catholic Church was started the way Protestant Churches were started by picking up the bible and then making conclusions however the CC existed before things were written down, teachings were passed on including how certain passages had always been interpreted and believed from the Apostles.

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