"The Dangers of Private Interpretation"

"We must fight vigorously against people who read the Bible on their own. If we allow people to interpret the text without correct guidance they may come to all sorts of strange conclusions such as; justification by faith, the Lord’s Supper as a memorial rather than the actual blood and body of Christ, or even that we are now in that kingdom Christ and the disciples constantly spoke of as coming soon."

Obviously the opening paragraph was written to make a point that most of the “doctrines” that non-Roman Catholic Christians hold dear are the very teachings that were arrived at via so-called private interpretation.
We are often told we must have “the Church” tell us what the Bible says – well at least that is what the Roman Catholic Church has said in centuries past. But along came such men as John Wycliffe, John Huss, Martin Luther, and Ulrich Zwingli – by what authority did these men presume to interpret the Bible?
Now, an ecclesiastical tyrant or Inquisition may take delight in this situation, because they could say it is all this private interpretation that has led to error. For certainly there is the warning in the Bible:
2 Peter 1:20-21
20 Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation.
21 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.
But the text is wrested from its context to be used as a squelch against any person that supposes they can understand anything of the Bible outside Church leadership or denomination headquarters, or indeed outside the guidance of some sort of church official such as priest or pastor. If the entire text of 2 Peter 1 is read it is clear that Peter is communicating that the ancient prophets did not invent their prophecies from their personal interpretation of the times, but rather, the prophecies came forth as the Holy Spirit moved them, (the ancient prophets themselves often not understanding the meaning their own prophecies). So, there is no injunction here against reading the Scriptures on your own and coming to a conclusion without the aid of some intermediary, but rather, it was simply an affirmation of the Divine Source of the ancient prophecies upon which Jesus, Peter and the Apostles based the New Testament. See how the great language scholars of our day render this passage:
2 Peter 1:20-21
Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet's own interpretation. 21 For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.
Further, we see Christ Himself asking a person what the person's “interpretation” of a passage was.
Luke 10:26
26 He said unto him, What is written in the law? how readest thou?
All through the gospels Jesus appeals to peoples' understanding or knowledge of the Scriptures. (See the Bible “have you not read…?” and “have you never read…?”)
So when we look at the Bible (that Jesus expected people to know the Scriptures), and history (how most theological truths have been expounded by individuals) we must conclude that so-called private interpretation is not wrong but rather expected so as to come to a right conclusion. I mean, how many interpretations can there be?
It seems we chiefly get convoluted interpretations by one of several avenues:
  1. The person doesn’t know enough of the Scriptures to see the overall picture.
  2. The person wrestles the text into something its not trying to say, (such as the aforementioned abuse of 2 Peter 1:20-21).
  3. The person poorly comprehends the translation he is using, (old English).
The first error often happens when a person is too quick to endorse some interpretation. The second error happens when a person is trying so hard to force an interpretation (and often occurs with people who claim to have a leg up on interpretative skills such as knowledge of Hebrew or Greek). The third when he neglects the details of the actual text of Scripture. All three have this in common: the person neglects attention to detail and trusts too much in his initial observation. "But in the multitude of counselors there is safety," Proverbs 11:14.
Now, having said all of this do people ever come to wrong conclusions or interpretations? Yes, indeed, they do. Then how shall we measure what is the proper interpretation of Scripture? We could take a few approaches:
1. Majority Rules? Does it agree with the current majority opinion?
By majority do we mean the current majority of Christian teachers? The majority often changes in time. For instance, Calvinists were once in the majority. I would hope that no one thinks this measurement by itself qualifies an interpretation to be correct or incorrect.
2. Orthodox vs. Unorthodox? Does it agree with traditional ideas of orthodoxy, "historic Christianity," and various creeds?
The term “orthodox” is thrown around a lot. This is not much different than interpretation by majority except that orthodoxy either appeals to a certain time period of interpretation or tries to find a continuous thread of supporting interpretation throughout history. This continuous thread often needs to be pieced together. Take for example baptism by immersion (dunking). There is hardly any continuous example of this method of baptism in Christian history yet the majority of congregations today teach it as if it’s fully orthodox. (I’m not trying to build the case for sprinkling, but merely trying to point out how things are often pieced together)
So, the “orthodoxy” test is not always reliable either.
3. Direct Revelation? Does it claim to be an anointed, prophetic direct revelation from God Himself?
Direct revelation is also offered as an option. That is, people will claim “God told them this or that” or showed them this or that. Certainly God can and has operated in this manner but such a method would negate the need for a completed Bible, not to mention there would be no way to refute or confirm a person’s private revelation. And what are we to do when one person’s private revelation contradicts another person’s private revelation?
It seems like we’ve done nothing but build an argument for anarchy – but have we really? We must come back again to the Scriptures. All of us are looking at the same text but yet some people are coming to different conclusions. Why is that? It is obvious that we all come to the Scriptures with different biases and presuppositions. What must be done is to remove as much of that from ourselves as possible and let the Scriptures interpret themselves, in a common and, yes, logical manner. This ability is granted by God as we obey the teachings that are clearly understood and earnestly study the Scriptures, ever renewing our minds thereby. The Bible isn’t this mystical codebook that can only be cracked with some secret mathematical formula. Nor is it some inscrutable book that only can be understood by experts within the inner circle, ever quoting ancient extra-biblical traditions. Indeed, before Christ came the Scriptures contained many mysterious things, but now that Christ has come and the Holy Spirit granted to those who obey Him, the mysteries are opened to Christians willing to read unhindered by their biases and presuppositions. In this way, we will eventually all be the “majority” and we will all be the “traditionally orthodox”, as we all grow up into a full knowledge of the Son of God, for the Scriptures are clear if we allow them to speak for themselves. "You shall love the Lord your God with all of your mind," (not just the part that likes to quote other people). Study for God's approval.