A private interpretation of Scripture
Updated: May 30, 2021
By Luke Lancaster
Catholics are encouraged to read Scripture on their own, however, we have a limited right to it. Privately interpreting Scripture has to be within the Apostolic Tradition. What does that mean, though? Consider this analogy by Dr. Peter Kreeft: We are like kids in a playground, using anything we want, even throwing sand in each other’s faces if desired, but there’s an atmosphere of obedience to mother. Mother told us not to go outside of the fence.
This means that I can give a personal interpretation to practically any Scripture verse, and disagree with my brother or priest or bishop about it. However, I cannot arrive at an interpretation which contradicts any part of the Creed. I cannot disagree with Church teaching. The Catechism needs to be read alongside the Bible, and that is the difference between the total freedom Protestants have and us.
Imagine for a moment that in one of St. Paul's communities which he founded, the people rose up and said that they disagreed with Paul's teaching on the Resurrection. What would happen? Well... We read in Paul's letters to Timothy that a man named "Hymenaeus" had "swerved from the truth by holding that the resurrection is past already" (2 Tim. 2:17-18). His fate? Paul "delivered to Satan," meaning excommunicated (2 Tim. 1:20). This is what happens when you go beyond mother's directive. You end up separated from the Church.
Unfortunately, our Protestant brothers and sisters will say that we can go wherever we want when interpreting Scripture. They say that we do not have to listen to mother - who said not to go past the fence. Without mother, the authority, then we can arrive at heretical understandings of Scripture.
What if I personally interpret Christ's words, "The Father is greater than I" (John 14:28) to mean that Jesus is not God? That would be a heretical understanding of the passage, which Protestantism can arrive at, but a Catholic would not. For if I read that passage alongside my Catechism, then I would not arrive at such an interpretation. I would instead consult the Church Fathers, who said that that passage was referring to the fact that the Father was unbegotten, and not that Jesus was not God.
As we have seen, Catholics have a limited private interpretation, whereas Protestants have an absolute private interpretation.