Wednesday, January 31, 2018
“BY WHAT AUTHORITY...?”
…and they spoke, saying to Him, “Tell us by what authority You are doing these things, or who is the one who gave You this authority?” (Luke 20:2)
After observing the many miraculous signs that Jesus had done in public, the chief priests, scribes, and elders of Jerusalem approached Him while He was teaching in the temple. They then asked Him by what authority He was doing all these things. But Jesus detected their trickery, and He masterfully thwarted their question and asked one of His own. The end result is that they could not answer His question (without either causing a riot or humiliating themselves), so they backed off (Luke 20:1-8).
You see, these people were working closely with the Pharisees, and Nicodemus, the Pharisee, had previously revealed their dirty little secret – that they already knew that Jesus was from God (John 3:1-2), and therefore, had God’s authority. But their purpose here was to trick Him and to turn the crowd against Him. But of course, they failed to do so.
A Loaded Question
But we want to point out in this article that Catholics often use this same phrase, “By what authority…”, when confronting Protestants. Taking their cue from the enemies of Jesus, they use this same question on us concerning Bible interpretation, thinking that this is an effective argument.
Aside from the fact that the priests, scribes and elders were questioning the very authority of God, the Son, and aside from the fact that they were corrupt in their hearts and only wanted to start trouble… at least they applied the question (“By what authority…”) to a more proper object, i.e., Jesus’ miracles and His great wisdom. But Catholics wrongly apply this same question to Bible interpretation. That is to say, they are wrong to ask, “By what authority do you Protestants interpret Scripture?”
You see, this is a loaded question. It’s sort of like asking, “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?” With this question, whether you answer “yes” or “no,” you are implying guilt even if you are not guilty. This is because of the way the question is phrased. It forces you to buy into the false assumption built into it. So it cannot be answered directly without incriminating yourself. Asking “by what authority do you interpret…” is similar in that way.
This is because Catholics start off with a false premise, a wrong assumption, and that assumption is that one needs some kind of “special authority” to be able to interpret Scripture. But that’s not true at all.
No one in the Old or New Testament was ever rebuked for (or discouraged from) attempting to interpret Scripture. While it is certainly possible for someone to misinterpret a particular passage, no one in the Bible is ever told that they should not interpret – even when they got it wrong (John 5:39-40)! While Jesus and the apostles often pointed the people to the Scriptures, they never tried to ban anyone from interpreting them because of possible abuse, misunderstanding, or “lack of authority.” They never said, “No, you need the church’s authority to interpret this!” This seems to be a Catholic concept, and it is a false one.
Only the Leaders?
So, being able to interpret Scripture has nothing to do with AUTHORITY on our part. It’s simply something that God expects us to do. He tells us to interpret (rightly divide) His Word in 2 Timothy 2:15:
“Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.”
But someone may try to argue that in 2 Timothy 2:15, the apostle Paul’s command to “rightly divide” was not to the “laity,” but only to Timothy, who was a pastor / bishop. But notice that in this same chapter from which we first quoted under the title of this article (Luke 20), Jesus tells a parable to “the people” (Luke 20:9), that is, “the laity,” and He expects them, if their hearts are right, to understand (rightly divide) what He is saying. And it is absolutely clear that this group of people is separate and distinct from the leaders, i.e., the elders, scribes and priests (v. 1, 6, 19). So, yes, God does expect the common man, who comes to Him humbly and trusting, to be able to interpret the Scriptures. So, no special “gift” or “authority” is required for that. And there are many other passages that confirm this truth. See a few of them here:
Caught in Their Own Trap
Many Catholics believe that any interpretation apart from the Catholic Church’s Magisterium is “private interpretation,” and that this is somehow a bad thing. But they misunderstand the meaning of the term. We all have to use our private judgment to interpret and understand Scripture. NO ONE can avoid private interpretation. See this link:
Catholics are setting a trap for themselves that they can’t escape. At no point in this process do we stop using private interpretation. Either, everyone must interpret any and all communication that we encounter, or we can’t make any determinations or conclusions about anything. Are we devolving into solipsism (the belief that we can’t really know anything except that our minds exist)? But if that’s the case, then no one at all can use Scripture!
It seems that the problem stems from an unhealthy Catholic concept that says that unless you have a sufficient authority, you cannot be sure what you really believe. But here is what it all boils down to: Catholics want “infallible certainty” concerning Scripture reading and interpretation, but that is an impossible request for the post-apostolic church. See this link:
Although we deny that we can have infallible certainty in our interpretations, this is not an excuse for anyone to interpret the Bible sloppily or carelessly. Interpretation of Scripture should be done prayerfully, and with reverence and humility toward God (James 1:21). We all have to start with the right attitude, and use basic hermeneutics (principles of Bible interpretation), context, etc., but the question is this: Is the resulting interpretation a reasonable and consistent one? Note that God has not abandoned common sense.
The “by what authority” argument is simply a diversion. And unfortunately, many times unsuspecting Protestants have unnecessarily fallen victim to this, not knowing how to answer. But rest assured, we need not be shaken by this false argument. Trust God’s Word and incline your heart to understand it, and God will not let you down (Psalms 111:10; 119:99-100, 130).