Wrestling with Rome – On Private Interpretation

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states,

“‘The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living, teaching office of the Church alone…’ This means that the task of interpretation has been entrusted to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome.” (Part I, article II, 85).

Rome has long argued that Christians cannot hope to attain a right understanding of the Scriptures without her guidance.  Private interpretation, it is urged, is folly.  One must read the Scriptures while firmly holding hands with the Magisterium.

Here I am reminded of something Patrick Madrid, a Roman Catholic apologist, once wrote,

“Scripture alone, as the tragic history of Protestantism has shown, becomes the private play toy of any self-styled “exegete” who wishes to interpret God’s Word to suit his own views.  The history of Protestantism, laboring under Sola Scriptura, is an unending kaleidoscope of fragmentation and splintering.  It cannot provide any sort of doctrinal certitude for the Christian, because it is built on the shifting sand of mere human opinion – what the individual pastor <thinks> Scripture means.”  (Sola scriptura: A Blueprint for Anarchy)

There is a certain sting to his words, a touch of truth that can easily unsettle the Christian.  I well remember feeling overwhelmed by the claims of Rome at one point in my life.  I can remember looking at the Bible- the Bible in all its vastness- and asking whether or not I’m in a position to adequately handle its weighty material.  Who am I, after all?  I’m just one fallible believer far removed from the world of the first century.  And what about the halls of history?  Its walls are lined with scores upon scores of books; events and details far too numerous for one head to digest.  The writings of the church fathers alone could bury a person.

So who do we Protestants think we are?

Well, here’s the dirty little secret to all this:

Dirty Little Secret about Roman Catholicism: Oddly enough, Roman Catholic apologists assemble a wide assortment of arguments from a wide assortment of materials in order to argue their position, which means that in order for the Protestant to become convinced of Roman Catholic dogma, one must wade through a veritable gauntlet of information.  This of course requires the believer to properly interpret historical data, biblical data, traditions, and philosophical arguments.

Now on the one hand, we’re told that the Scriptures aren’t sufficiently clear.  Its perspicuity is often attacked or downplayed tremendously.  But on the other hand, if we are going to take their arguments seriously, it means that we must be able to sufficiently weigh the material in question.  We must be able to “check the math” of their arguments, which means that we’re going to have to dig into the Scriptures to see if what they are saying is so.  But wait!  Can we understand the Scriptures or not?

That’s not all.  Let’s amplify.

Dirty Little Secret amplified: But think about it further.  Let’s suppose you really want to look into the claims of Rome; you want to give the Roman apologist a fair shake.  Well, here are a few things you might need to do.  Read Thomas Aquinas.  Oh, but he’s debated, so you’re going to need to read some secondary literature.  Some knowledge of Aristotle will be helpful too.  Oh, but if you’re going to understand Aristotle, you’re going to need to take some courses on the history of philosophy.  Aristotle is better understood against the backdrop of Plato, after all.  After that, read the church fathers.  A bunch of them.  Dig into their understanding of the regula fidei, tradition, the role and authority of bishops, baptism, Scripture, and, well, pretty much everything.  Now we can’t forget about the split between the East and the West.  You need to get to the bottom of that small detail (ahem).  Oh, and don’t forget about all those Papal Encyclicals.  There’s a rather large bundle of those.  Now read The Catechism of the Catholic Church.  But wait!  How are we to understand that voluminous book?  Hmmm.  I guess we need to read up on Carl Rainer, Reymond Brown (oh, lots to read there) and the like.  But they upset some of the traditionalists, so you need to dig into that whole issue.

That will get us off to a really good start.

Now here’s the thing.  And maybe you already know what I’m going to say.  In order for you to do any of this with stability and discernment, you’re going to need to seriously dig into the Scriptures, the very thing in question.

So here’s the bottom line.  Private interpretation is unavoidable.  Each individual must examine the Scriptures to test truth claims.  And in order to examine those Scriptures, we must be able to sufficiently grasp the content; otherwise the entire endeavor is futile from the start.

But here I must be careful.  No Protestant worth his salt would argue that interpretation is purely private.  To name but one indispensable help (or Helper): The Holy Spirit must grant eyes to see and ears to hear.

“Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. Only let us hold true to what we have attained.” (Philippians 3:15-16)

And again,

“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.” (John 10:27)

For some helps in this area, I would heartily recommend two (non-audio) resources.

The Three volume work by David King and William Webster is good (Link).  It is entitled Holy Scripture: The Ground and Pillar of our Faith.

Keith Mathison’s work The Shape of Sola Scriptura (Link) is very good as well.


  1. Brad Johnston December 13, 2011 at 10:41 am #

    Thanks for the useful critique, Austin. A couple of Westminster Seminary professors recently addressed this same theme in an audio format here (http://wscal.edu/resource-center/resource/the-lure-of-rome).

    It’s been helpful to me to understand that the story of a monolithic testimony from the Roman Church is simply not true. Thanks for challenging me to think clearly about the SOLA of Sola Scriptura. One lesson for me as a pastor is that there is simply no substitution for PRACTICING daily Bible reading with my family, my friends and church members … oh, and, in my own devotions. Calvin’s Institutes are good, but a poor substitute for the Eternal Words Of The Eternal God!

    • Austin Brown December 13, 2011 at 8:34 pm #

      Thanks Brad! Ah, I’m glad you mentioned that audio piece. I meant to throw that in the mix.

      And how right you are about the Word and practicing daily Bible readings.

  2. shawnanderson December 13, 2011 at 7:00 pm #

    I wonder how the Son of Perdition would exegete this passage:

    Acts 17:10-13 And the brethren immediately sent away Paul and Silas by night unto Berea: who coming [thither] went into the synagogue of the Jews. 11 These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so. 12 Therefore many of them believed; also of honourable women which were Greeks, and of men, not a few. 13 But when the Jews of Thessalonica had knowledge that the word of God was preached of Paul at Berea, they came thither also, and stirred up the people.

    • Austin Brown December 13, 2011 at 8:36 pm #


      I’m suddenly reminded of something Luther once wrote in “The Bondage of the Will.”

      “I have noticed that all heresies and errors in handling the Scriptures have come, not from the simplicity of the words, (as almost all the world tells us), but from not regarding the simplicity of the words, and from hankering after figures and implications that come out of men’s own heads.”

  3. David Pulliam December 14, 2011 at 7:48 am #

    Austin, thank you for your post. I think you might want to clarify what exactly is the disagreement with Rome. Is it on the issue of sola scriptura or the issue of private interpretation that you’re talking about? I’m concerned with what you say is the bottom line. What do you mean by “Private interpretation?” I see two possible meanings: first, ultimately all experience is contained in the first-person, and it is not possible to make any meta claims. (We can’t be “objective.”) Second, ultimately all experience is contained in the first person, and all meta claims will stem from our first person experience.

    If you mean the former, I don’t know why you’re on Gentle Reformation. lol Assuming the latter, I don’t think that brings about a huge disagreement with Rome. Rome can agree that ultimately everything is a private interpretation. That’s not a problem for them.

    They disagree that it is okay for Christians to go about and interpret scripture in whatever way they like. They take this position to the extreme where they caught scripture off from the individual Christian.

    I hope you agree with Rome that Christians ought not interpret scripture in whatever way they want. We are not at liberty to say whatever we want about the Scriptures. We disagree with Rome that Christians are not allowed, not given the liberty or freedom, to read and interpret the Scriptures themselves.

    Those are my thoughts. We certainly have a lot to disagree with Rome, but let’s not go too far and create disagreements that don’t exist.

    • Austin Brown December 14, 2011 at 4:33 pm #

      The main thrust of my contention is this:

      It strikes me as strange and not a little ironic that RC apologists argue that believers aren’t in a position to adequately handle the Scriptures (and likewise bemoan the perspicuity and (formal) sufficiency of Scripture), while tacitly assuming, by their manner of argumentation, not only the competency of the believer to sift through the evidence, but the ability of that same believer to adequately handle the Scriptures, the very thing that isn’t supposed to be sufficiently clear.

      So when I speak of the inevitability of private interpretation, I’m putting my finger on the inescapable fact of our making personal judgments about what is true and what is not true. Everyone has to make a judgment call. It’s unavoidable.

      Now here is where you might want to say that Rome doesn’t have a problem with this. I would maintain that a number of apologists certainly sound like they have a problem with it. A great example would be Patrick Madrid’s chapter in “Not By Scripture Alone.” Try to get your hands on it. It’s truly astonishing. The guy sounds like a Postmodernist, as if the objective meaning of the text is hopelessly lost (for those who might try to “privately” understand the text).

      The irony here, and this is what I was hinting at in the “Dirty Little Secret Amplified,” is that the so called infallible teachings of Rome need an infallible interpretation. I mean do they really think all the encyclicals and what not are sufficiently clear, while the Scriptures are not?

      Does this help clarify?

  4. Phil Pockras March 22, 2012 at 10:36 am #

    Let’s remember, too, that Jesus has given His Church pastors and teachers (Eph 4.11) for certain ends (on down through v 16). Thus, we should honor that teaching and cling to that teaching *as long as it conforms to Scripture*. Here is where the Bereans are honored. They honored the teaching and the teacher — an apostle!! — and clung to the teaching by means of determining that the teaching was in accord with the written Word of God, using the copy there in the local synagogue.

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