Vol. 2 - No. 4

April, 1983

No Picture


Private Interpretation

by Steve Bobbit

Are you hesitant to study the Bible? A lot of people are. Irving L. Jensen wrote, "Men reject or neglect the challenge of Bible study either because the Bible is too small, or because it is too big." (Independent Bible Study, pg. 19). The skeptic sees the Bible as too small because to him it is outdated. For him it is replaced by the revelations of philosophy and psychology. On the other hand, many who revere the Bible as the word of God feel "the bible looms too big for a serious undertaking in the study of its thousand-plus pages" (ibid.). False teachers are quick to exploit this hesitancy. Many church leaders encourage followers not to study the Bible on their own. Sound incredible? It is true.

Using the cloak of "private interpretation is wrong," these persons may approach the Bible from either of two different angles. They take the Bible, if not from the hands, surely from the hearts of their people.

A Single Interpreter

One such approach denies the Bible can be understood by readers. The point is that God must provide a single infallible interpreter to whom all must listen. The approach is basic to Catholicism. "Gentlemen, your 'Bible only and private interpretation' theory is certainly weak and a creator of dissensions; you had better weigh the 'Hear the Church, divinely protected from error' theory, and see if it is not safer" (Father Smith Instructs Jackson, pg. 54). "Thus, in 1525 he (Martin Luther) sadly deplored the religious anarchy to which his own principle of the private interpretation of Scripture had given rise…The hundreds of sects…offer grim evidence of the ceaseless dissension and havoc which the principle of the private interpretation of the Scripture has wrought in our own day" (The Faith of Millions, pg. 153).

The same idea controls today's Jehovah's Witnesses. Trained not to study the Bible for themselves, they must accept what their governing body tells them to believe. "Departing Leaders Reveal Cracks in the Watchtower" in Christianity Today (December 12, 1980) reports that several have been disfellowshipped because they engaged in personal Bible study without organizational oversight. "Witnesses spokesman Balzer said, 'The Bible says Scripture is not for private interpretation'." (page 71).

Personal Illumination

 Another common idea is that there is a particular flaw in the person reading the Bible. Some call it depravity. The notion is that you, because you were born in sin, cannot understand the Bible simply by reading it. The Holy Spirit must work directly upon you.

One Baptist preacher expressed it this way: "And I believe that man is so depraved that he cannot render acceptable obedience to the Gospel unless aided by this divine power in addition to the Word" (Moody-Harding Debate, pg. 415). Several Pentecostals have told me, "You need the Holy Ghost to understand the meaning behind the word of the Bible…The Holy Spirit will make the Bible real to you."

Thoughtful readers will see quickly that the conclusions are the same: no one is able to understand the Bible. The one group says the trouble lies in the Bible itself and calls for a divine interpreter. The other argues that the trouble is inherited total depravity and insists upon a divine illumination.

Which of the many competing voices is the real divine interpreter? The Catholic pope? The Mormon prophet? The Watchtower's new light? And how do you decide which religious experience is genuine illumination and which is deception? These are difficult questions for those who teach that "private interpretation is wrong" and thus discourage personal Bible study.

The Passage Itself

As on any subject we must locate and examine the passage in question. Here it is: "And so we have the prophetic word made more sure, to which you do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star arises in your hearts. But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God" (2 Peter 1:19-21).

Immediately we learn Peter's attitude toward the Bible. It is a word "made more sure" and compares to "a lamp shining in a dark place." The apostle had confidence in the Bible. A book impossible to read with understanding could hardly be thought of as a lamp giving light.

In the context of the letter Peter is stressing the value of knowledge. Through it grace and peace are multiplied (1:2). By it everything which pertains to life and godliness is granted (1:3). This knowledge is valuable if it is the basis for personal growth. For one who fails to grow his knowledge is both useless and unfruitful (1:5-8). Those who do not grow have forgotten their blessings.

They need to be reminded. Peter is an insistent reminder. They know the truth. They need now to be reminded (1:12). He wants "to stir them up by way of reminder," since his days are limited (1:13, 14). What they need to remember is not merely a clever tale. Peter himself was an eyewitness of the majesty of Jesus. Others believed, Peter knew (1:15-18).

Peter's testimony confirms ("made more sure") the prophetic word. He uses his testimony to turn their attention to the Scriptures. This is the very thing those who say "private interpretation is wrong" do not do. They turn attention away from the bible itself.

The reason, Peter says, you do well to pay such attention is this. No prophecy, not a single one, "is of any private interpretation" (KJV), "is a matter of one's own interpretation" (NASV), "came about by the prophet's own interpretation" (NIV). And this is because no prophecy, not a single one, "was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God."

 Peter is speaking of how Scripture was written, not of how it is read. His point is that no prophecy in Scripture is just a prophet's own interpretation of things to be. No prophet spoke by an act of human will, but rather as he was moved by the Holy Spirit. The passage is a clear confirmation of confidence in the Bible. It is a book to which we do well to pay attention. It is as useful as a lamp shining in a dark room. Here is a ringing refutation of the claim that the Bible cannot be understood. The lamp shines without either divine interpretation or divine illumination. This passage puts the Bible into our hands, while the false teachers want to take it out of our hands.

When everything looks dark remember this passage. The Bible is a lamp shining in a dark place. Open your Bible, turn on the light and dispel the dark.