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)
“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.