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Claims about Individual Interpretation of the Bible

That'sYourInterpretationIt is held by some that “The doctrine of Sola Scriptura originated with Martin Luther, the 16th-century German monk who broke away from the Roman Catholic Church and started the Protestant ‘Reformation.’[1]  Part of this is true.  Dr. Luther was a 16th-century German monk (of the Augustinian order).  However, the Roman Catholic Church excommunicated Luther for his teachings.

Claims about Individual Interpretation of the Bible

In referencing an understanding of the Bible at the time of the Reformation, Peters states, “As the confrontations between Lutheran the Church’s hierarchy ensued and tensions mounted, Luther accused the Catholic Church of having corrupted Christian doctrine and having distorted Biblical truths, and he more and more came to believe that the Bible, as interpreted by the individual believer, was the only true religious authority for a Christian.  He eventually rejected Tradition as well as the teaching authority of the Catholic Church (with the Pope at its head) as having legitimate religious authority.”[2]

Luther did, of course, accuse the Catholic Church of having corrupted Christian doctrine and having distorted Biblical truths.  Luther also did reject Tradition and the teaching authority of the Catholic Church (and Lutherans still do) as having legitimate religious authority (as such authority usurps the authority of God’s Word).  However, Peters is incorrect to say that Luther claimed the only true religious authority for a Christian is the Bible, “as interpreted by the individual believer.”

Luther did believe that God’s Word is the final authority (the formal principle) for faith and life, and that no church and no pope has authority over this authority.  Yet this claim that the Bible is the final authority did not derive from his own personal interpretation of Scripture.  Rather, this interpretation came from Scripture itself.[3]  In other words, Luther claimed that his preaching and teaching did not come from his own interpretation, but from what Scripture said itself.

For Luther, claiming a personal interpretation as authoritative was the same thing as placing oneself as the final authority over Scripture (the very same thing the Catholic Church, in fact, does).  Instead of placing himself as the master of the text (magisterial use of reason), Luther submitted himself to the text of Scripture (ministerial use of reason) as servant.  He himself was not the final say of what Scripture meant or did not mean.  The Bible itself was (and is) such a judge.[4]

For the Catholic Church to claim that tradition or the teaching authority of the Catholic Church has legitimate religious authority over Scripture, or is the only one who can rightly interpret it, really, is to apply the erroneous accusation against Luther to itself.  Whether it be an individual (i.e. the personal believer or the pope), the Catholic Church, or another church that claims exclusive rights to correctly interpreting Scripture, each of these places themselves above Scripture, and therefore, against Scripture.  To make the claim, “That’s your interpretation,” where the other simply states what Scripture states, is to do the same thing.


[1] Peters, 2.

[2] Peters, 2-3.

[3] 2 Timothy 3:15-17; 2 Peter 1:21.

[4] The hermeneutical principle here described is, “Scriptura Sacra Sui Ipsuis Interpres” (Scripture interprets itself).

 

 

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5 Responses

  1. If Luther believed in personal interpretation of the Bible he wouldn’t have vetted his understanding of the Scripture with others such as Melanchthon, nor would he have been so upset at the reformers who didn’t agree with him like Zwingli.

    I think “sola scriptura” is a bit misunderstood. Luther used the phrase “sola gratia, fide, scriptura” as a statement of Justification, not as a statement of how one should interpret text.

    • In my post, I was trying to begin a response to the Roman Catholic understanding (and the understanding of others) that Sola Scriptura is really about private interpretation, not Scripture interpreting Scripture. I would agree with you that Sola Scriptura is misunderstood, and the claim of private interpretation demonstrates one of these misunderstandings.

  2. […] Claims about Individual Interpretation of the Bible (pastorreeder.wordpress.com) […]

  3. “In my post, I was trying to begin a response to the Roman Catholic understanding (and the understanding of others) that Sola Scriptura is really about private interpretation, not Scripture interpreting Scripture”

    Is there really any significant difference to the distinction?

    It seems to me that nobody truly interprets scripture with scripture. Ones own theological framework serves as guideposts and it colors EVERYTHING you read. A Catholic or Orthodox believer looks at John 3:5 and sees baptismal regeneration, but a Calvinist and many protestants see something totally different. Why? It is clearly in the text. But wait, it is all in the matter of how you interpret it.

    The way we arrive at our conclusions about what Scripture teaches is not by simply reading the Bible. We have vast volumes of theological works that shape our views, so that when we come to the text, we are already wired to see things a certain way.

    Now, you can choose your theological reference point: Calvin, Arminius, Luther, Sacred Tradition or any other option. But you do choose one, and when you do, you see things the way your “tradition” tells you to.

    • Such a description as you offer seems to suggest that no one is able to “read” Scripture “as is,” without having some type of influences upon them. To some extent, I would agree. However, with John 3:5 as the example, though it is certainly true that different interpretations exist, such interpretations are not identical with Scripture itself.

      When Lutherans, for example, speak of “Scripture interpreting Scripture,” we sre confessing not “our own” interpretation, but that of the Bible itself. I do understand what this sounds like, because, don’t all other denominations do the same thing, that is, claim that the Bible supports their own respective view/teaching? But, here’s the question, does the Bible defend “our” doctrine OR does the Bible reveal what is to be believed? Granted, most, if not all, will claim the latter. However, do they? As one studies the text (and the respective denominational understanding/teaching about the text), it may become clearer that not all who claim to teach the Bible according to the Bible actually do.

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