Friday, July 11, 2014


The issue of “private interpretation” of Scripture (also called “private judgment”) comes up quite often in Catholic / Protestant debates.  This article is mainly directed toward Catholics, but it is not just for Catholics, since there are many others who also misunderstand the concept.  The only time the term is actually mentioned in the Bible is in 2 Peter 1:20:

“Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the Scripture is of any private interpretation.”

Many will say that this verse “warns us against private interpretation.”  No, the Apostle Peter was not warning against anything in this verse.  So, let’s put this false teaching to rest, once and for all.  This was not a warning of any kind.  On the contrary, if read in context, one will see that this passage is actually an encouragement about the truthfulness and reliability of Scripture.  Many miss the whole point of this verse and twist it to say what it doesn’t mean.  Note that:

  • It is not telling us that we can’t interpret Scripture

  • It is not telling us that interpretation is “dangerous”

  • It’s not telling us that only a certain organization or “magisterium” can interpret for us

  • It is not telling us that only church leaders can interpret for us

  • It mentions nothing of a need for “infallibility” when reading the Bible

Many people just assume these things are true from the start.  But let’s look at this passage IN CONTEXT:

2 Peter 1:

v. 18) “And this voice which came from Heaven we heard, when we were with Him in the holy mount.”

v. 19) “We have also a more sure Word of prophecy; whereunto you do well that you take heed, as unto a light that shines in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the Day Star arise in your hearts:”

v. 20) “Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the Scripture is of any private interpretation.”

v. 21) “For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.” 

How can one “take heed” to prophecy (verse 19) if he can’t interpret that prophecy?  Also, why does the apostle compare Scripture to a light (verse 19) if Scripture interpretation keeps us in the dark (as many believe)?  The comparison of Scripture to “light” is meaningless if we can’t interpret its contents.

As any honest Bible reader can see, this passage is speaking of the ORIGIN of the message that God gave to the apostles and prophets and is NOT speaking of the READING of the Bible.  It is speaking of the SOURCE of prophetic Scripture, not the STUDY of it.  The prophets heard from God and, with God’s help, infallibly interpreted that message and infallibly related it to their audience.  The meaning of this passage is simply that Scripture did not originate in the mind of mere men.  It came directly from the mind of God, not from human impulse.

Also, notice (v. 18) that Peter is referring to the time he had personally seen the Lord Jesus transfigured.  (Matthew 17:1-9) This was a very real and personal experience for Peter, yet he speaks of Scripture as an even “more sure word”! (v. 19)

Concerning the definition of “private interpretation,” the Greek words for it simply mean “one’s own interpretation.”  A private interpretation is one that is fallible.  The prophets were not affected by fallibility when they received God’s words.  But all the rest of us today are when it comes to reading Scripture.  So how does the one reading the Bible really know that he is being led by the Holy Spirit?  How does he know that he is arriving at God’s interpretation, as opposed to his own?  Answer:  Your interpretation will be correct if it lines up with the rest of Scripture, with the immediate context and the overall context taken into account.  Yes, and God allows (even demands) common sense be used as well, when interpreting His Word.  Furthermore, history, genre, grammar, etc., also help us to understand.

But according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, a private interpretation is only right when it agrees with (or, at least doesn’t contradict) the Catholic Church (CCC #119).  Interestingly, this would mean that the Catholic can trust his own fallible interpretation of Scripture as long as that interpretation does not contradict his own fallible interpretation of the Church’s dogmatic teachings.  And this is supposed to produce the “infallible certainty” of which they boast?

The Catholic believes that his church’s magisterium has the final word.  But it is Scripture that is the Ultimate Standard for Christians, not any church, denomination, or organization.  (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

According to the online New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia (under “Protestantism”) we read:

“Again, it is illogical to base faith upon the private interpretation of a book [i.e., the Bible].  For faith consists in submitting; private interpretation consists in judging. In faith by hearing, the last word rests with the teacher; in private judgment it rests with the reader, who submits the dead text of Scripture to a kind of post-mortem examination and delivers a verdict without appeal: he believes in himself rather than in any higher authority.”

This is typical Catholic rhetoric.  Catholics say that Scripture can’t be the final authority because it requires interpretation, so we need an infallible teacher to be certain.  They accuse the Protestant of making himself the final interpretive authority, and accuse him of being his own pope.  He is now a judge of the Scriptures, rather than an interpreter.  Accusations abound - but we will soon see the double standard they use.

In all fairness, some Catholics will admit that private interpretation is acceptable and necessary, but many Catholics will say no and create a false dilemma here.  In this case, either:

1) One must have an infallible interpretation by a teacher, or 

2) He will have a wrong interpretation.

But these are not the only two options.  Someone can give a fallible interpretation and still be right.  Catholics will often point out that Protestants are “limited” to fallible interpretations, and therefore, have little or no certainty.  But this is a clear double standard, since the Catholic cannot escape this same “dilemma” of using his fallible mind to interpret his sources, whether that source is Scripture, the magisterium, the church fathers, Tradition, or whatever.  It is unavoidable.  All forms of communication must be interpreted.  And all of us have fallible minds and make fallible interpretations.  The truth is, the Catholic has no more certainty in interpreting Scripture than anyone else does. 

One way that the Catholic thinks that he can get around the “problems” of fallible interpretations and lack of certainty is by first finding the “True Church” (which, of course, he’ll say is the Catholic Church).  But how do we determine that they are the true church?  He’ll tell us that we must first find it through a study of Scripture, church history, Sacred Tradition, and the church fathers, and this will lead us to an infallible Church who will then be able to tell us correctly what Scripture means.  At this point, we can then rest and never have to worry about our certainty in interpretation any more.

But if you can understand Scripture well enough to “verify” a papal office and its claims of infallibility, and if you can interpret this never-clearly-defined “Sacred Tradition”, and if you can interpret the multi-faceted history of the church, and if you can interpret the teachings of the church fathers (whose language is often harder to understand than the Bible), and if you can piece all of this together to find the “One True Church”… then why couldn’t you just simply interpret the Bible outright?  Ironically, the Catholic Church can’t seem to trust you to interpret the Bible by itself, yet it expects you to be able to go through the long and complicated process above.  But where is the certainty that they so desperately desire in all of this process?  The fact is, in this case the level of certainty is lowered!

The Catholic Church is using very circular reasoning:  They are infallible because that’s what they interpret Scripture to mean.  How do we know that this is the correct interpretation?  Because they are infallible!  Should faithful Catholics believe the Church’s interpretations because they make good sense and because they line up with biblical principles?  No, they want them to believe it because they say so.


Even though we all need help interpreting now and then, there is no “special authority” required to interpret the Bible.  Every Christian should be growing in his personal study of God’s Word.  However, it’s not an overnight process; and you don’t have to have a perfect understanding or perfect interpretations of every Bible verse to be pleasing to God.  But God does expect us to interpret His Word when He speaks of “rightly dividing the Word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).  We may not have infallible certainty, but we can have sufficient certainty.  Like it or not, when reading Scripture, all interpretations are private interpretations – there may be a lot of people who interpret a passage the same way that you do, but each one of them must still fallibly interpret what they read.

No matter how you slice it, it is always ultimately you who will stand before God… and you (and your interpretations) will be judged accordingly, whether you followed your own ideas or whether you chose to be subject to an authority of some type.  No one will be able to fully blame anyone else on Judgment Day.  If you, as a responsible adult, don’t test all things (1 Thessalonians 5:21) by God’s Word, it will be no one’s fault but your own.

The Bible is inspired by God and it therefore has enough consistency in its texts and in its principles to help us discern what God is telling us.  Otherwise, why would He bother to give it to us?

We encourage everyone to read the Scriptures, both Old and New Testament.  Read them in context and read them slowly, carefully, and prayerfully.  Read them with a humble attitude because they are God’s words to us.  They are words of life, eternal life.

See also:



  1. I'm not aware that the Church teaches what you suggest she teaches. The Church knows that what the verse means (she wrote it!).

    I am curious why you would think 2 Tim 3:16 somehow supports your theory that the Scriptures are the ultimate authority. Where does 2 Tim teach that? In every version I've read, 2 Tim 3:16 (in context) teaches that the [OT] Scriptures have equal authority as the Sacred Tradition (teaching authority).

    Also, there is nothing "circular" about the Church's beliefs. The Church pre-dates the Bible; her authority pre-dates NT Scripture. With her authority, she not only gave us the Bible, but is the body that interprets it. What is circular, however, is Protestantism's attempt to swipe an already-created canon, ignore the authority that matter-of-factly created it, then use it to somehow establish a religion that, essentially teaches that "the Bible is what the Bible says it is."

    So, if you are really trying to "answer Catholics" then perhaps you should actually present Catholicism instead of a straw man. That is, after all, how good apologetics is done.


    1. How could you not know? Russell has documentation from the Catholic Catechisms directly proving his points. obviously then, you are just in the state of denial. The Catholic Church never wrote a particle of the New Testament!

      I am curious to why you would think that 2 Timothy 3:16 supports the Catholic myth of "sacred tradition". As a matter of fact, tradition is not even implied in the context. There is not even the slightest implication of "the equal authority of Church tradition to Scripture." That belief arose long after the New Testament was written.

      There is a lot of circular reasoning with Catholic beliefs. Like I have said before, the Catholic Church never wrote the New Testament and will never get credit for lying about it. If "the church pre-dates the Bible, her authority pre-dates NT Scripture, and is the body that interprets Scripture", why is the Bible completely silent about such a claim? Why is there no proof to such an arrogant claim? Why does the Bible always imply that it is the highest authority of the Church? For instance, we are told not to exceed what is written(1 Corinthian 4:6) or no one can add to scripture (Revelation 22:19) Since the Catholic Church lacks so much proof to the extraordinary claims it makes, it is forced to argue in a circle. Look, you cannot prove your claims! "A=B because I say that B=A. I know that B=A because A=B." "The pope is infallible in teaching because he says he is!"

      So, if YOU are really trying to prove that the Catholic religion is correct, then YOU should present evidence that you are correct rather than ranting about true information posted on someone's webpage. One has to wonder, why do you Catholics strive so hard to defend such unbiblical practices?


  2. Hello Patrick,

    Thank you for your comments.

    Concerning the Catholic Church writing the Bible, see here:

    You asked how 2 Timothy 3:16 supports the idea of Scripture as the Ultimate Authority. In a nutshell, in 2 Timothy 3, the Apostle Paul is describing a time coming when men will not listen to the truth, and deception will be widespread. Paul knows that he is about to be martyred, so he is making sure that he is passing on to Timothy what is most important. He is pointing to the ONE infallible source that will keep Timothy (and everyone else) on the right track… he is pointing to Scripture. And he describes it as able to equip us for “every good work,” therefore sufficient as a Rule of Faith. Contrary to your statement, Paul doesn’t mention anything here about some Catholic concept of “Sacred Tradition” having equal authority with Scripture.

    And there are many other passages throughout the Bible that support the concept of Scripture as the ultimate authority.

    You mentioned several times the “authority” of the Catholic Church, and you said that because the Catholic Church “pre-dates” the New Testament, she therefore has authority; authority to “give” us the Bible, and she has the sole authority to infallibly interpret it. In essence, she always has the final word. I would certainly disagree.

    By the way, a “straw man” argument implies misrepresentation on my part. Patrick, tell me where exactly have I misrepresented the Catholic Church anywhere in the above article? What I said about the Catholic Church using circular reasoning is absolutely true.

    The Protestant concept of “The Bible is what the Bible says it is” is also very true. Look, we both agree that the Bible is infallible. But God has proven the reliability of Scripture over and over, and has created the Bible in a way that it is consistent with itself. We are certain that we can trust it.

    On the other hand, we cannot say that the Catholic Church is consistent with itself, since its doctrines and its “Sacred Tradition” often contradict Scripture. So, the Catholic Church cannot be an infallible entity. The Bible always has the final word because it is God-breathed and can be totally trusted; it (in a sense) has “proven itself.” The Catholic Church can’t say this of herself. Your Church’s “authority” is self-proclaimed and unbiblical.

    1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    2. In Genesis 2:7, Adam was God-breathed. But no prophet ever invented a dogma of 'Adam Alone' or 'Man Alone'. Neither patriarch nor prophets invented such a heresy as you are embracing.

      In John 20:21-23, Jesus breathed the Apostles. So the Apostles are God-breathed. Yet, they never invented a doctrine of 'Soli Apostoli' or 'The Apostles Alone'. The Apostles didn't invent a heresy as you are upholding.

      You see, proving Sola Scriptura on a passage saying that the Scriptures are God-breathed is a pathetic effort to prove the obvious point that it is unbiblical and un-apostolic and not taught by God at all.

      Your God-breathed argument is very pathetic. The Scripture is God-breathed but your Sola Scriptura is bad breath.

    3. Kaizen,

      You can mock all you want, but you are simply showing your true colors concerning your attitude toward God’s Word.

      All Catholics seem to CLAIM to love God’s Word, but many of them often approach 2 Timothy 3:16-17 not realizing the magnitude of what the apostle Paul is actually saying there. They will often emphasize the word “profitable” in verse 16, yet seem to totally ignore the impact of the word “inspired” (God-breathed) in verse 17 in this context.

      Catholics make a very big deal out of John 20:22-23, where Jesus breathes on the apostles, yet strangely, they seem to ignore or downplay the fact that He calls His Scripture “God-breathed,” as well.

      And if the Scriptures are indeed God-breathed (and by extension, infallible), and if no other source in the post-apostolic church is given the same status, and if the Scriptures equip us for EVERY GOOD WORK… then Sola Scriptura follows: it is the only infallible source for the post-apostolic church.

    4. Russell, have you noticed that right before your favorite verses, 2 Timothy 3:16-17, Paul appeals to apostolic tradition?

      Verse 14 "... continue in what you have learned..."

      Verse 15 "... from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures..." -- This verse refers to the Old Testament Scriptures which Timothy was raised.

      2Timothy 3:16-17 cannot mean "all of scriptures" because there was no New Testament canon during the time of the Apostles and if those verses mean that Paul was teaching Sola Scriptura, then he contradicted himself in 1 Thess. 2:13:

      1 Thess. 2:13 "And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which YOU HEARD FROM US, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe." -- That's an oral tradition, not Sola Scriptura.

      Verse 17 says "man of God" which refers to a clergyman.. to a Bishop of the Church.. It is not relevant to the layman.

      The Catholic Church came first before the Bible and this Church is God-given authority.

      The oracle of God was entrusted to the Church and not to a book. When Jesus said "Preach the gospel to all nations.... I am with you always until the end of the world", Jesus referred to concrete human beings comprising the Church. The one entrusted of preaching and teaching the gospel is the Church. "YOU" [i.e., personal pronoun] and not a book.

    5. Kaizen,

      I am well aware of Paul’s reference to Timothy to “continue in the things you have learned” in verse 14. You insist that this refers to “apostolic tradition,” but can you tell me EXACTLY what it was that Timothy had learned from Paul, in full detail? Do you have this precise information? Did you find some sort of ancient tape recording device in which you can hear all the private lessons, word for word, that Timothy learned from Paul? Or perhaps some infallible writings that Paul wrote to Timothy, that are not part of Scripture? Please share it with us, Kaizen. If you can’t, then please stop pretending that you know what it was.

      Concerning the rest of your post, I would give you some related links to read, but recent experience with you has suggested that you will not bother to read them, and / or will misrepresent what I wrote, anyway. So, until you can give me a precise and MEANINGFUL definition of “Sacred Tradition” and tell me its exact contents, then don’t offer it as an “infallible” source.

  3. Hi Russell,

    Good to hear from you.

    You said:

    Paul knows that he is about to be martyred, so he is making sure that he is passing on to Timothy what is most important. He is pointing to the ONE infallible source that will keep Timothy (and everyone else) on the right track… he is pointing to Scripture.

    In so saying, you disprove Scripture alone. Note how St. Timothy needs to be taught about Scripture by St. Paul. Note also, how St. Paul teaches St. Timothy that Scripture may be used for TEACHING (i.e. teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness,).

    Who is doing the teaching? St. Paul doesn't say, "Pass the Scriptures out that they might read them." No. He says, "they are useful for teaching...." He doesn't say they are "necessary" for teaching.

    And note that he acknowledges that St. Timothy already knows the Scriptures which he was taught from his youth:

    2 Timothy 3:14 But you, remain faithful to what you have learned and believed, because you know from whom you learned it, 15 and that from infancy you have known [the] sacred scriptures, which are capable of giving you wisdom for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.

    Unless St. Timothy could read from infancy, he learned the contents of Scripture from his mom and grandma. That is why St. Paul doesn't say, "that which you read from infancy".

    Therefore, Russell, you are merely using the verse, out of context. The context is Teaching of the Word of God. And St. Paul says Scripture is useful for this purpose.

    One more thing, Russell. The letter of 2 Tim is 99.9% about St. Timothy passing on the Word of God by teaching. Protestants focus on this one verse and try to say that St. Paul was teaching Scripture alone. But the context of the entire letter, does not bear that out.

    2 Tim 1: 11 for which I was appointed preacher and apostle and teacher. 12 On this account I am suffering these things; but I am not ashamed, for I know him in whom I have believed and am confident that he is able to guard what has been entrusted to me until that day. 13 Take as your norm the sound words that you heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 14 Guard this rich trust with the help of the holy Spirit that dwells within us.

    2 Tim 2:Timothy’s Conduct. 1 [a]So you, my child, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. 2 And what you heard from me through many witnesses entrust to faithful people who will have the ability to teach others as well.

    2 Tim 4:1 I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingly power: 2 proclaim the word; be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient; convince, reprimand, encourage through all patience and teaching.

    Therefore, when you read these words,

    2 Tim 3:16 All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness,[d] 17 so that one who belongs to God may be competent, equipped for every good work.

    Why do Protestants pretend that it is about Scripture alone, when it is clearly about passing on the Word of God by Teaching? This is the Teaching of the entire New Testament. Learn the Word of God from your Teachers in the Faith. Not from Scripture alone.

    Hebrews 13:7 Remember your leaders who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.


    De Maria

  4. Hello De Maria,

    You went to great lengths to tell us that Scripture may be used for teaching, and that it must be taught to us. Ok. No one is denying that.

    But you act as though this somehow voids the concept of Scripture Alone (Sola Scriptura). You should know better than that, since you and I have already debated this at length. And you know the definition of Sola Scriptura that I used:

    “Scripture is the only infallible Rule of Faith for the church today.”

    There is absolutely nothing in this definition to suggest that Scripture is not to be “taught.” Once again, in 2 Timothy 3, the apostle Paul is pointing to the ONE infallible source that will keep us on the right track… he is pointing to Scripture.

  5. Hi Russell,

    See this article:

  6. Nice job, Jessie.

    I went ahead and made a comment on the article.

    I also began reading some of your articles on your blog and I like what I see!

    Keep up the good work!