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: