Can the individual Christian interpret the Bible?
Many religious traditions say no, at least not apart from the teachings and traditions of those deemed to be authoritative (meaning if your interpretation differs, you are "privately interpreting" and therefore falsely interpreting). Roman Catholicism is one culprit here using a well known passage:
2 Peter 1:19-21 We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts: knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.
The bold section above is often quoted by well meaning Catholics as if teaching us that an individual cannot himself (privately) interpret and understand (and therefore teach truth nor refute Catholic dogma) because he doesn't have "authority" to do so. In other words it would be a "private interpretation" and therefore not valid nor authoritative. The implications of this are astounding and an ingenious (though diabolical) way to inoculate the Catholic laity against easily considering another position regarding truth.
But is this really what the passage before us even means? A look at the context will prove that this is an incorrect use of the verse. What is being said here is that the prophets of old did not use their own imagination and ideas as they revealed the thoughts of God, instead these holy men were moved by the Holy Ghost. There is nothing here about an individual interpreting scripture for himself.
Tradition and ritual can cause sincere people to be so entrenched that they have difficulties in hearing God. Many will cite this passage to validate the notion that an individual cannot interpret the Word of God. This has become a fixed (though false) understanding of the meaning of this passage, making it difficult to get such a person to listen to the truth, lest they fear they leave an orthodox bearing for a potentially heterodox one, and commit a mortal sin.
Again, the context of 2 Peter 1:19-21 is the divine origin of the message of the prophets, We insist that is its context, it is saying that the prophets of God did not use their own imagination nor ideas as they revealed the mind of God. In no way is the background here even indirectly stating that an individual Christian cannot understand truth and interpret the Word of God. As a matter of fact, in 2 Timothy 2:15 an individual is urged to
"study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth."
What is in view in 2 Peter is not the interpretation of scripture but its ORIGIN.
A good example of this is found in Ezekiel 13:2, where his words agree with Peter's:
"Son of man, prophesy against the prophets of Israel that prophesy, and say thou unto them that prophesy out of their own hearts..."
Let us also look at another translation of 2 Peter where the NIV says: "above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things."
Notice, "no scripture came about"? This captures the essence. The prophet's own imagination did not bring about what he prophesied, the Holy Ghost moved him, and he spoke and wrote scripture. Its ORIGIN was not a product of his own mind.
Dear reader, study your bible, learn of Christ, the indwelling Spirit will guide you into all truth if you are obedient.
written by WBC