Subjectivism is the great danger of private interpretation

by Mike Ratliff

13 But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come. 14 He will glorify Me, for He will take of Mine and will disclose it to you. John 16:13-14 (NASB) 

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. I write about and expose many of those excesses here even to this day.

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, the Bible?

13 But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come. 14 He will glorify Me, for He will take of Mine and will disclose it to you. 15 All things that the Father has are Mine; therefore I said that He takes of Mine and will disclose it to you. John 16:13-15 (NASB) 

6 Yet we do speak wisdom among those who are mature; a wisdom, however, not of this age nor of the rulers of this age, who are passing away; 7 but we speak God’s wisdom in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God predestined before the ages to our glory; 8 the wisdom which none of the rulers of this age has understood; for if they had understood it they would not have crucified the Lord of glory; 9 but just as it is written,
“Things which eye has not seen and ear has not heard,
And which have not entered the heart of man,
All that God has prepared for those who love Him.”
10 For to us God revealed them through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches all things, even the depths of God. 11 For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so the thoughts of God no one knows except the Spirit of God. 12 Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may know the things freely given to us by God, 13 which things we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words.
14 But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised. 15 But he who is spiritual appraises all things, yet he himself is appraised by no one. 16 For who has known the mind of the Lord, that he will instruct Him? But we have the mind of Christ. 1 Corinthians 2:6-16 (NASB) 

20 But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, 21 for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God. 2 Peter 1:20-21 (NASB) 

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 “Subjectivism is the great danger of private interpretation

  1. There is no “What does this verse mean to you?” approach to studying scripture. To seek for the truth that it reveals is to correctly understand what the original authors intended to say. Sometimes its plain. But sometimes it can require an in-depth study, for the meanings of certain words have changed over the centuries and reading them with today’s definitions can cause confusion or misunderstanding of the text. We must also keep in mind that a Jewish audience was the primary focus of the text. A different culture with a different understanding in a different time period must be kept in mind by Gentiles, who must sometimes delve into Jewish customs and Hebrew/Greek terminology to glean the appropriate meanings. And then there are the false teachers who distort and warp the scriptures purposefully with no regard to their proper context. Discernment is so vital to not be deceived, as Jesus warned.

    But when the Holy Spirit leads you away from the errors you’ve been taught and reveals the wonderful truth and hard doctrines of Christ to you, it is a priceless treasure! Then scripture becomes more clear and contradictions disappear and you are amazed at how awesome God truly is and how kind and gracious He was to you to elect you as one of His own, for He could have passed by you as He did so many others. That is something to contemplate and be eternally grateful for!

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  2. Some times, Sheryl, the dictionary for one language simply doesn’t have the equivalent word needed, so the ‘closest’ is chosen and is considered to be the final answer. In the case of the Old Testament, the translation from Hebrew to Koine Greek encountered a few ‘bumps’. Added to that, going from Koine Greek to Latin caused even more ‘errors’. When we consider going to English (or any other modern day language) the problem becomes even more serious. We need to get as close to the Hebrew source text as possible to get the ‘hidden’ truth. Since the New Testament was written in Judeao-Greek (Koine Greek), there is a bit more accuracy in the translated text.

    This is why the Dead Sea Scrolls discovery was, and is, so important. The scrolls were written in Babylonian Hebrew for the most part except for the very oldest scrolls which were in Ancient Hebrew and a few in Koine Greek. You can easily see the development of the Hebrew written language changing over time.

    It boggles the mind to think how much we miss of Scripture because of the changing of word definitions between languages. If you want an interesting word study, check out the third word in the Hebrew text. “Elohim’ is used 2,579 times in the Old Testament and the only word in English used for it is the word ‘God’. By the use of ‘Elohim’, there is a rather obscure hint about the Nature of God being a Plurality, the Trinity. Using the word ‘God’ doesn’t give us the same definition, even though ‘God’ means THE Supreme Being.

    Interestinger and interestinger!

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