Catholics + Bible + Personal Interpretation

Q – What if an individual interprets something from the Bible, but the Church says it is something else? does that make you wrong or what kind of room is their for personal interpretation?

A – Thanks for the question. The issues you address center on how we define freedom in personal interpretation and authority of interpretation. I would like to commend you first of all. Apparently you are reading your Bible and thinking deeply about it. This is a good thing. The Bible is the written revelation of God to humanity. We are able to know about God, about ourselves, our destiny, our salvation, and how to live because of it.

I believe every word written in Scripture is true, but this does not give us the authority to interpret the Bible however we like. We must have an infallible guide (who is led by the Holy Spirit), otherwise we cannot be certain that we have the truth.

The Bible itself says that interpretation is not to come from within alone:

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

It also says we need an authority to help us interpret the Bible correctly:

Philip ran up and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and said, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He replied, “How can I, unless someone instructs me?” So he invited Philip to get in and sit with him. – Acts 8:30-31

The Bible also says that some parts are hard to understand, as Peter says when writing about Paul’s epistles:

And consider the patience of our Lord as salvation, as our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, also wrote to you, speaking of these things as he does in all his letters. In them 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 3:15-16

The Bible is a collection of ancient texts with different audiences, authors, messages, literary styles, objectives, and styles. Led by the Holy Spirit, we have to study it intently and have a proper hermeneutic, that is, a proper way of interpreting the Bible. If we don’t have this, then we can easily find ourselves committing interpretive errors and believing our own opinion in place of the truth of Scripture. While the Bible might be inerrant, we are not. If we were all inerrant in our individual interpretation of the Bible, then we wouldn’t have any differences in doctrine within Christianity. As it is, God set up way to give His Church a guide (the Holy Spirit) so we can reliably interpret Scripture.

Therefore, while individuals can be in error – we can also be assured of being able to find the truth, where the Church teaches authoritatively on a particular Scripture passage. The authority of the Church is not over Scripture, but rather is the protector of it. It protects us from error and gives us the assurance of knowing the truth. Without this protection, the Church would be in doctrinal chaos.

Now, we all have freedom in applying the text to our own lives, within certain limits. If we are in direct opposition with the Church in interpretation of a text from Scripture, then we have to humbly ask who has the authority to correctly interpret the Bible? But, the Catholic Church doesn’t have an official interpretation of every Biblical passage. That is because Biblical studies is a field that continues to develop and Scripture can have many layers of meaning (personal, communal, spiritual, literal, etc). Also, there is a freedom to interpret much of the Bible for ourselves, when not in opposition to doctrine.

So, the Church puts up minimal guidelines, as a path for us during our time in the Bible, and as long as we don’t get outside of those we are okay.

Here is a Vatican document on interpretation of the bible. It says:

The Spirit is, assuredly, also given to so that their hearts can “burn within them” (Lk. 24:32) as they pray and prayerfully study the Scripture within the context of their own personal lives. This is why the Second Vatican Council insisted that access to Scripture be facilitated in every possible way ( 22; 25). This kind of reading, it should be noted, is never completely private, for the believer always reads and interprets Scripture within the faith of the church and then brings back to the community the fruit of that reading for the enrichment of the common faith.

In other words, we cannot read the Bible as if it is just “our own”. It does not belong to us, but God. Therefore, we must be obedient to the way God intends us to read it. It continues:

If, as noted above, the Scriptures belong to the entire church and are part of “the heritage of the faith,” which all, pastors and faithful, “preserve, profess and put into practice in a communal effort,” it nevertheless remains true that “responsibility for authentically interpreting the word of God, as transmitted by Scripture and tradition, has been entrusted solely to the living magisterium of the church, which exercises its authority in the name of Jesus Christ” (“Dei Verbum,” 10).

I think we ought to see the Church as a guide to interpreting Scripture, not a hindrance. If you look at Acts 15-16 you will see Paul and Barnabas going to the Church to solve a difference over interpretation and this is the way it should be. Not in conflict, but in humble dialogue with the Church.

For more on this, I recommend this article by Jimmy Akin. A sample:

The liberty of the Scripture interpreter remains extensive. Taking due consideration of the factors that influence proper exegesis, the Catholic Bible interpreter has the liberty to adopt any interpretation of a passage that is not excluded with certainty by other passages of Scripture, by the judgment of the magisterium, by the Church Fathers, or by the analogy of faith. That is a great deal of liberty, as only a few interpretations will be excluded with certainty by any of the four factors circumscribing the interpreter’s liberty.


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Marcel (679 Posts)

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