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Should a Christian interpret the Bible on their own?

By Joseph D. Meador

religion, articles, christianity


Question: While visiting in Tennessee, I attended a congregation where I was taught that the individual Christian should not try to interpret the Bible on his own. Instead I was urged to rely on the research of select Bible professors in our "Christian" universities for the proper interpretation of God's Word. Is this approach common among us now?

Answer: Sadly, it is becoming more and more common. Such pseudo­egotism on the part of its adherents serves to illustrate how much like Catholicism the "New Hermeneutic" movement is. Along with the trappings of Gnosticism (secret knowledge, or intellectualism) which adorn this modernistic mess, the young vanguards of this movement have not only set themselves apart (through their yearly "Christian Scholars" convocation) as possessing the only method of proper Bible interpretation, but they are now asserting themselves (sometimes subtly but always sanctimoniously) as being the only "qualified" guides to this holy knowledge ("qualified" by having earned a Ph.D. from Vanderbilt, St. Andrews, Princeton, Yale, Harvard, or Oxford).

What does the Bible teach about this? The term hermeneutics is a transliteration of the classical Greek word Hermeneutike, a cognate of the verb form Hermeneuo. It is interesting to note that Plato was evidently the first to have used Hermeneutike as a technical word denoting the interpretation of literature. The word hermeneutics was used for the first time to describe the study of Bible interpretation in J. C. Danhauer's pivotal text, Hermeneutica Sacra, published in Strasburg in 1654. In fact, the very title of Danhauer's book became the descriptive phrase which early Latin scholars used to characterize the science of Bible interpretation.

According to the Scripture, an Individual Can Interpret the Bible

The Bible teaches that an individual who is desirous of interpreting (knowing the correct meaning of) the will of God can do so by personal study and investigation (2 Tim. 2:15) without the aid of any other person or "class" of persons (John 7:17; 8:32). Although reading the works of men, such as commentaries and sermons, may at times prove helpful, God has never authorized a "special professor/preacher class" to act as the rightful interpreters of his will to the church at large.

That the Bible was written in a propositional style is a fact revealed by the internal testimony of Scripture (John 8:32; 14:15, 23; Gal. 1:6­12; 1 Thess. 5:21). By the word propositional we mean that the substantive doctrinal content of God's Word is set forth in a provable and knowable manner. Thus, it can be fully interpreted. A proposition is "a statement which says that something either is or is not the case." In describing the various kinds of propositional statements possible, it has been observed that:

A proposition may be categorized in that it asserts that something either is or is not the case, without stating any sort of conditions. Or, a proposition may be hypothetical in that it may state that if one thing is the case, then another thing will be the case. Or, a proposition may be disjunctive in that it may state that either one thing is the case or another thing is the case. A proposition may be conjunctive in that it may state that both of two propositions (or more) are true. In order for an individual to interpret the Word of God correctly, there are several necessary requisites. First, the one desiring to understand God's will must be honest of heart (Luke 8:15; Acts 13:48). Second, one must strive for purity of heart and mind (Matt. 5:8; 13:14,15; John 5:14; Acts 7:51­53; 8:21; Phil. 4:8; II Tim. 4:3, 4). Third, one must have a firm belief in the facts of the Bible, and the evidence for this belief (faith) is produced by revelational proclamation (Rom. 10:11­17; 1 Cor. 15:1­4; Heb. 11:1).

Romanism forbids Individual Interpretation

D. R. Dungan has well stated, regarding official sanctions forbidding the individual interpretation of the Bible, that "this has been one of the great faults of the Catholic Church." He continues by stressing:

In the decision of their councils, that the laity of the church should not read that book, lest they should reach wrong views; they have left it entirely to the control of those whose special business it has been to furnish the people with a knowledge of heaven's will. This enables them to establish a monopoly of interpretation. So that, to the people, the Bible is not the book itself; but the meaning of the book, as interpreted by the priesthood, is to them the Bible.

Finally, Dungan concludes by stating:

This kind of power is always dangerous, as well in this respect, as in any other. Due chiefly to the gains made by Protestants during the Reformation Movement, the Council of Trent (convened by the pope and meeting eighteen years from 1545 to 1563) made the following epoch decree in respect to Bible interpretation: 'The interpretation of Scripture is to be given authoritatively by the church and not the individual.'

Historian F. W. Mattox accurately recognized the logical consequence of this decision by concluding that: "an individual had the right to interpret the Scripture only if his interpretation was not contrary to that of the [Catholic] church."

Commenting further on the evolution of the authoritarian nature of the apostate Roman Church, Mattox traces its development as follows:

From the scriptural position of the priesthood of all believers there grew up a distinct priestly class.... The early leaders warned against falling for this idea, but soon a priestly class was developed and the priests began to do things for the common Christians that, they were told, they could not do for themselves.
By 150 A.D. there is evidence of a distinction between those who served as ministers and the rest of the congregation. As the distinction grew the 'clergy' patterned itself after the Jewish priesthood. Such a priesthood developed out of a prior separation of Christians into two levels, the spirituals and the carnals.
If the ministers were to be priests they had to interpret the items of worship in such a way as to give themselves special functions and to justify their position. The priestly idea grew up with the episcopacy.... From this point on the full priesthood required only a little time to develop. The theory that produced Medieval Romanism is centered in the idea that Christ left with the church officials all of the powers and privileges that He had exercised while on earth. Because Jesus taught with infallible authority while on earth it was assumed that the church officials had the same authority. This theory made it unnecessary for the church membership at large to study the Bible as it was the priesthood's responsibility to tell them what to do. It also became unnecessary for the priest to study, because his instruction came from his superiors.

The notion of a clergy/laity system resulted in many diversions from the truth, as history will testify. This false concept was so broadly applied by the Catholic Church, and so strongly enforced, that it inevitably resulted in yielding the right of Bible interpretation exclusively to the papacy and the "messengers of Rome," the ordained priests.

Today, those among us who are advocating the notion that one cannot interpret the Bible on his own are falling into the same gross error.

(Once again brother Meador has favored us with a well­researched answer to an important question. The winds of change are gusting strong and threaten to accelerate to hurricane strength. We must be careful that we are not "blown about by every wind of doctrine." Joseph Meador is doing a much needed work in helping to train men to preach the Word. Other schools of preaching are, in like manner, producing faithful teachers of everlasting truth. Such valuable institutions will help the church to weather the storm - H. A. (Buster) Dobbs.)

Published May 1997