Thursday, March 17, 2011

Does Scripture Require an Interpreter?

Some claim we cannot rely on Scripture alone, but need some other authority to interpret it. It is argued that the diversity of opinions among those who hold to Scripture alone proves it cannot be interpreted correctly without help. But there are serious problems with this logic.

How, other than by circular reasoning, do we decide that a specific authority is the right authority? Do we find it from Scripture? But this requires us to interpret Scripture. Even if the authority is willing to allow that we can interpret Scripture for ourselves, if we must start from Scripture, Scripture is still the ultimate authority. What about from history? But you cannot interpret history without first principles, which you cannot get from history. We can use subjective experience, but people from all different theological perspectives claim subjective experiences. How do we determine which are valid? Or we can go by tradition, but how do we decide what is a valid tradition? We can go by the church fathers, but without any standard to inform us, how do we decide who constitutes a church father? Also, all of these sources have serious problems, if not actual contradictions. They therefore require us to decide without the help of an authority which of them is reliable and to interpret them to find the correct authority in the face of these difficulties.  

Also, once we have arrived at an authority, it still must be interpreted to be understood. If the pope is the authority, we must assemble the decrees of the pope and interpret them. If tradition is the authority, I must study to determine the valid tradition and interpret what it means. It is my contention that all of these authorities have serious problems if not outright contradictions. Even if it is possible to reconcile these, it will require our interpretation to do so. If anyone thinks this is easier than trying to interpret Scripture, he does not understand the magnitude of the task involved. Also, it is simply a fact that every group has divisions, no matter what authority they claim to follow.

But what I suspect people really want is to be able to trust what is said by their immediate leaders, without having to test it as Scripture requires (Galatians 1:8,9; 1 John 4:1-3; Acts 17:11). But the irony is that no system can guarantee the infallibility of every minor official. Therefore, the local leader is fallible and must be checked by higher authorities. Could the issue here be that many people are unwilling to put in the effort to properly interpret Scripture? I am not saying there are no problems involved in interpreting Scripture, and I do not want to minimize the help of good teachers who help us to understand Scripture, rather then trying to replace it. But I do believe there is an obligation to study it for ourselves and not try to get someone else to do our thinking for us. And dragging in another authority complicates, rather than simplifies, the matter. 


  1. Interesting thoughts about circular reasoning Mike. The letters from Paul to the churches in different regions all seem to be addressed simply to the church in that place. As in Romans:

    "to all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints"

    Luke's gospel is addressed to one person who doesn't seem to be a church leader.

    My take from this is that the scriptures are inspired by the Holy Spirit and should be interpreted by the Holy Spirit. Sometimes He uses others to interpret them and sometimes He interprets them directly Himself.

    In my thinking the interpretation for our daily walk is many times more important than the interpretation used to develop doctrine.

  2. Bob, I would agree. The Scripture seems to have been originally written to the ordinary Christian not to some designated authorities. As for doctrine I am convinced doctrine rightly understand is practical,it is when we try to make it a complicated thing that has nothing to do with life, that we get into trouble.