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Private Interpretation

“For Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the Lord, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel” (v. 10).

- Ezra 7:10

Yesterday we saw that the medieval church was afraid to allow people the privilege of having the Word of God in their own languages because it was afraid many competing interpretations would arise and sow discord and heresy. Private Bible reading and interpretation was forbidden, and to this day Roman Catholicism does not want anyone to interpret the Word of God apart from the magisterium or teaching officers of the church, though the translation of the Scripture into the vernacular language is no longer prohibited.

As the Reformers noted, however, the solution to keeping the church free from the heresies that can arise from private biblical interpretation is not to keep the Bible out of the hands of the laity or to say that no one may interpret the Word of God apart from the official sanction of the church. Instead, the Reformers stressed that with the privilege of private interpretation comes the responsibility to learn how to interpret the Bible accurately — to learn how to get the meaning from the text instead of reading agendas back into Scripture.

There are many fine resources that go into the rules for proper biblical interpretation more fully, but two general principles will help us steer clear of error as we read the Bible. The first of these is to remember that “God is not a God of confusion” (1 Cor. 14:33). He does not reveal Himself in a contradictory manner so as to perplex us; consequently, no text of Scripture can have two meanings that are irreconcilable. If I believe a passage means one thing and you deduce a contradictory meaning, one of us (or both) are wrong — but we cannot both be right. Otherwise, we are saying the Lord speaks out of both sides of His mouth, making Him the author of confusion.

The second principle is closely related to the first — we always interpret the unclear portions according to the clear ones. A few passages in the Bible, because of our ignorance and sin, are difficult to understand (2 Peter 3:15–16). Seeking to read them in light of the plain teachings of Scripture will not guarantee that we will understand these difficult texts, but it will keep us from twisting the Word of God to make it mean whatever we want.

Coram Deo

It is common for people to say things like, “That may be what the text means to you, but what it means to me is….” We are not allowed, however, to find all sorts of contradictory meanings in a given text but must instead work to discover the single meaning intended by the author. The best way to do this is not to study the Scriptures by ourselves only but also in concert with other mature Christians who have great understanding of the Word of God.

Passages for Further Study

Psalm 111:10
Proverbs 28:7
Romans 16:25–27
Romans 16:25–27

First published in Tabletalk Magazine, an outreach of Ligonier. For permissions, view our Copyright Policy.