For many non-Catholic Christians, the Christian faith is determined by the Bible alone through their own personal interpretation. But is the personal interpretation of Scripture biblical?
If you look at the second letter of Peter, you’ll find that he addresses the proper way to interpret Scripture in the first chapter. Apparently, there were some who believed that the manifestation of Christ’s glory during the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor didn’t literally happen, but that the episode was purely figurative. Peter responds:
“We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty … For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that unique declaration came to him … ‘This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased’” (2 Peter 1:16-17).
The Transfiguration is recorded in all three synoptic Gospels: Matthew, Mark and Luke. But how should Christians understand and interpret these texts? Was it symbolic or purely figurative, or is it a literal description? And how do we know which of the two interpretations is the correct one? Peter’s answer is that we can know the truth of this passage through the witness and teaching of the apostles. He continues:
“We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven while we were with him on the holy mountain. Moreover, we possess the prophetic message that is altogether reliable. You will do well to be attentive to it, as to a lamp shining in a dark place …” (2 Peter 1:18-19).
Apostolic teaching should be the norm for correctly understanding Scripture, for two reasons. First, the apostles were eyewitnesses of the events they recorded. Peter, James and John were with Jesus on Mount Tabor, so they, more than anybody, knew what truly happened. Second, the apostles possess the “prophetic message that is altogether reliable.” This is likely a reference to the special gift of the Holy Spirit that he gave the apostles. The Holy Spirit will “teach you everything and remind you of all that (I) told you” (John 14:26-27). Being consecrated in the truth (John 17:17), the apostolic teaching becomes the norm for correctly understanding Scripture. Peter continues:
“Know this first of all, that there is no prophecy of scripture that is a matter of personal interpretation, for no prophecy ever came through human will; but rather human beings moved by the holy Spirit spoke under the influence of God” (2 Peter 1:20-21).
The apostles, who were moved by the same Holy Spirit who inspired Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16, 1 Thessalonians 2:13), illuminate the correct way to understand Scripture.
Did Peter really mean that it was wrong for Christians to interpret Scripture without being guided by apostolic teaching? Peter takes the same subject up at end of the same letter. Speaking about Paul’s letters, he writes:
“In them [i.e., Paul’s letters] there are some things hard to understand that the ignorant and unstable distort to their own destruction, just as they do the other scriptures” (2 Peter 3:15).
The key point here is the word translated “ignorant.” This word is often misunderstood to mean that those who really haven’t studied the Bible or learned the ancient languages can distort the Scripture to our own destruction. But the word in Greek means something more than plain ignorance. It points to a certain kind of ignorance. The word is amatheis, which is the same root as the word “disciple” (mathētēs). The letter “a” before the root indicates the negative “not” or “no” just as the word “atheist” (a-theist) means “no God.” Peter is therefore saying that those who are “not discipled” — that is, not trained by apostolic teaching — twist the Scriptures to their own destruction.
The word “unstable” likewise indicates a person who changes or wavers in one’s views. It doesn’t necessarily mean someone who is mentally unstable, but one who has not remained in the teaching of the apostles (1 John 2:19, 24; 2 John 9).
Scripture isn’t a do-it-yourself kit to reconstruct Christian doctrine. Rather, the true and authentic meaning of Scripture is guaranteed by its conformity to the apostolic tradition as preserved and expounded by the Church.
Gary Michuta is an apologist, author and speaker and a member of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Livonia. Visit his website at www.handsonapologetics.com.