Private interpretation and subjectivism

by Mike Ratliff

When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. (John 16:13-14 ESV)

Even though it is discounted by many today, the Protestant Reformation was a wonderful work by God in that the Gospel was freed from the captivity of the apostate Roman Catholic Church. Over the centuries the Gospel had become obscured as the Bishop of Rome was declared perfect with authority over Scripture. Any resistance to his authority was dealt with through excommunication followed by being burned at the stake. The Reformation not only recovered the Gospel and Justification by Faith, the Bible became available to the common people whereas before this, no one was allowed to read it by the edicts of the Pope. At Luther’s trial at the Diet of Worms when pressed to recant of His teachings he proclaimed,

“Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason–I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other–my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.”

This declaration by Luther and his subsequent translation of the Bible into German did two things. First, it declared to the world that the Roman Catholic church did not have the sole right of Bible interpretation. Those who were able to live in areas outside of the rule of apostate Roman Church would no longer be at the mercy of its doctrine or have to accept tradition or church teaching as an authority equal to or even greater than God’s Word. Second, it put Bible interpretation into the hands of the people. This, in turn, has been problematic because it has led to many of the excesses about which the R.C.C. was concerned. Subjective interpretation of Bible has led many to depart from the historic Christian faith into various forms of heresy.

Subjectivism is the great danger of private interpretation. However, let us not throw the baby out with the bath water. The principle of private interpretation does not mean that Christians have the right to interpret the Bible in whatever manner they wish. The “right” to interpret Scripture includes the responsibility to interpret it properly. The Bible is a wonderful treasure house of God’s truths and Christians are free to discover them. However, they are not free to fabricate their own truth. We are called to understand sound principles of interpretation and to avoid the danger of subjectivism.

Proper Bible Study does not reduce Sacred Scripture to a cold set of facts with no spiritual life. No, when we have the right understanding of Scripture we find life and power because these flow from the Law of truth which is found in God’s Word. Read again the passage I placed at the top of this piece. What does the Holy Spirit do for us? He guides us into all truth. He declares to us God’s Word. Why? It is so we will know what is to come and to know God’s truth. What source do you think He uses for this? Isn’t it God’s Word, which is Sacred Scripture, which we refer to as the Bible?

When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you. (John 16:13-15 ESV)

But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him”– these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ. (1 Corinthians 2:9-16 ESV)

For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. (2 Peter 1:21 ESV)

When private interpretation become subjective then problems arise. People have created all sorts of heretical teachings that lead many astray into false forms of our faith. There is not enough space here to address all of these.   Private interpretation works only if we study our Bibles as we are led by the Spirit. If we seek only God’s glory and His wisdom and discernment then we are doing this in humility. However, if our motives are outside of that then we are operating in our pride and that means we are not listening to the Holy Spirit, but instead, we are listening to our own fleshly desires or even the voice of the enemy.

My brethren, do not let this frighten you away from studying your Bible. Just remember that our guide through the Word of God is the Holy Spirit who seeks only God’s glory and our submission to His will. I pray that you will seek the truth from God’s Word instead of falling for the snare of subjectivism.

Soli Deo Gloria!

4 thoughts on “Private interpretation and subjectivism

  1. The term “private interpretation” in Christian discussion arose from the KJV of II Peter 1:20 “Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation.”

    They translated “ginetai” in the verse as “is,” connecting verse 20 to verse 19. The RSV and NASB kept the same general thought, while more recent translators used “came from”, connecting verse 20 to verse 21. (The Greek could support either, but the ESV/NIV approach gives verse 20 a meaning rendered totally redundant by the following verse.)

    On its surface, the KJV/RSV/NASB translations appear to speak against individuals interpreting the Bible, but that is not true. The next verse explains: “For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.” Thus, it teaches there is only one meaning of Scripture, that which the Holy Spirit gave. Far from supporting the error that interpretation belongs to the RCC, the KJV/RSV/NASB translations refute it. Interpretation does not belong to humans or human institutions — it is God’s.

    This completely refutes subjectivism, as you’ve noted. The text says nothing about who (on a human level) interprets. Rather, it says none of us (individuals or churches) can invent our own interpretation, because the message is God’s, and has only His meaning. “What this verse means to me” is a pointless and actually heretical statement when applied to Scripture.

    The responsibility and privilege of individuals to study Scripture and learn it for themselves is attested, not only by the passages you’ve cited from John 16 and I Corinthians 2, but also by I John 2:20, 27. It is implicit particularly in II Corinthians 1:20, Luke’s commendation of the Bereans, and multiple other places in Scripture. The warnings against subjectivism can never override this responsibility.

    The very fact that individuals / individual groups (slaves, children, parents, etc) have specific instructions addressed directly to them indicates that they were expected to be able to read, understand, and apply those instructions. It in no way suggests subjectivism, whatever the RCC might say or modern so-called “evangelicals” (who seem to be champions of subjectivism these days) might do and think.

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