It is both the privilege and responsibility of every Christian to interpret the Bible for himself/herself. This principle of private interpretation, based on the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, was articulated by Martin Luther in the 16th century. The response of the Roman Catholic Church was as follows:
“To check unbridled spirits it [the Council of Trent] decrees that no one, relying on his own judgment shall in matters of faith and morals pertaining to the edification of Christian doctrine, distorting the Holy Scriptures in accordance with his own conceptions presume to interpret them contrary to that sense which Holy Mother Church to whom it belongs to judge of their true sense and interpretation has held or holds or even contrary to the unanimous teaching of the Fathers, even though such interpretations should never at any time be published.”
According to the RCC, it is neither the right nor the responsibility of any individual Christian to interpret the Bible and declare its meaning. That right ultimately rests with the teaching office (the Magisterium) of the RCC.
The above quotation, however, reflects several misconceptions concerning the Protestant principle of private interpretation:
- Private interpretation does not mean that we should rely solely on our own judgments, ignoring the insights and research of others;
- Private interpretation does not mean that we have the right to “distort” the Bible in accordance with our own conceptions;
- Private interpretation does not mean that we can ignore the history of interpretation in the church.
At the same time as we exercise our God-given responsibility to interpret the Scriptures, we must be aware of the element of subjectivity that influences all interpretation. Interpreting the Bible is not to be compared to a man looking into a fishbowl, but to a fish in his own fishbowl looking at another fish in his! Some of the factors that affect our objectivity in studying the Bible are:
a. personal prejudice
b. hidden agendas (personal and theological)
c. cultural conditioning
d. historical circumstances
e. socio-economic factors
f. unconscious expectations
g. educational background (the “wet cement” syndrome)
h. personality distinctives
i. occupational pressures
k. interpersonal relational background
As we seek to interpret the Scriptures, we must also keep in mind the contributions of the past. Fee and Stuart remind us that,
“Interpretation that aims at, or thrives on, uniqueness, can usually be attributed to pride (an attempt to ‘out clever’ the rest of the world), a false understanding of spirituality (wherein the Bible is full of deep truths waiting to be mined by the spiritually sensitive person with special insight), or vested interests (the need to support a theological bias, especially in dealing with texts that seem to go against that bias). Unique interpretations are usually wrong. This is not to say that the correct understanding of a text may not often seem unique to someone who hears it for the first time. But it is to say that uniqueness is not the aim of our task.”
Our approach to interpretation is called the Grammatical-Historical method. According to the G-H method, the student seeks to ascertain the meaning of a text by an analysis of the simple, direct, ordinary sense of grammatical constructions, with special attention paid to the facts of history, cultural milieu, and literary context.
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