No Private Interpretation

book-160876_1280William J. Stewart | Is That Really What It Means?

Many potentially enlightening Bible discussions have been avoided by fluffing off differences as merely a matter of opinion. “You believe it your way, I believe it my way,” is a sad but all too common Bible conversation closer. I recall one discussion when I had simply read a passage of Scripture, and before I could say anything about it, a hostile accusation was levied, “That’s your interpretation!” The person was not really interested in what the Bible said, let alone what I might have to say about it.

An interpretation is defined as “the action of explaining the meaning of something.”1 In the scenario described above, I gave no interpretation— I wasn’t given the opportunity to explain the text. There are many verses in the Bible that require no explanation; they are self-explanatory. And yet there is absolutely nothing wrong with discussing, explaining, and interpreting a text; that is the nature of Bible study. However, in doing so, we must be careful to not misrepresent or misuse the text, but “rightly divide” God’s word (2 Timothy 2:15).

Some semi-savvy Bible students have found a Bible-based retort when they are confronted with a “That’s your interpretation” copout. The apostle Peter is on our side, for he declared:

…knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation… (2 Peter 1:20)

Now, don’t stick that verse in your Bible study arsenal just yet. Let’s take a few moments to interpret the “no private interpretation” text, if you will.

Do you and I get to decide what the Bible means?

Of course not. The Bible is God’s word, not my word or your word. It is identified as truth (John 17:17). Most are able to grasp the nature of truth when it comes to mathematics (2+2 is 4, not 5) but for some reason, folks get a bit fuzzy when Bible truth is the topic. Truth is consistent, it does not change from place to place or from person to person. There is no such thing as “your truth” or “my truth.” The truth is the same for both of us, the question is whether we are willing to accept it or not.

It’s been said that close only counts in horseshoes & hand grenades. Maybe, maybe not; but one area where close is not enough is truth, be it math or Bible. There are an infinite number of ways to be wrong, but there is only one truth. We will either accept it or reject it, but we cannot change it.

So, the Bible is not open to private interpretation.  That’s what 2 Peter 1:20 says, right? No, that is NOT what the apostle was addressing. Though it is true that we’re not to have private interpretations of God’s word, to use this verse to answer those who say “That’s your interpretation” is a misuse of the text.

What was the apostle really saying?

In context, 2 Peter 1:20 is about the revelation and inspiration of Scripture. In 2 Peter 1:12-15, the apostle said he would leave a reminder for the saints. The book itself is that reminder. At verse 16, he contrasts false teachings with the truth. Peter did not write down humanly devised fables; he was an eyewitness of Jesus Christ and the things which happened to Him. In fact, he tells his readers of the time he was with Jesus at the mount of transfiguration (verse 18, Matthew 17:1-8). Peter, James and John heard directly from heaven that Jesus is the Son of God, and they should hear Him. These and others wrote down a message which was confirmed by God through miracles and signs  (Hebrews 2:1-4) and which calls upon us to obey it.

So, how does verse 20 fit into this discussion? Peter affirms that what he wrote (Scripture, the written word of God) did not come from him, but from God. Peter did not give us an interpretation of what God revealed to him; the very words he wrote came from God.

If those who misuse the verse would just read the next verse, they would see the text has nothing to do with how people understand the Bible, but deals with how we got the Bible. Notice:

…for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit. (2 Peter 1:21)

This is true, not just of the writing of Peter, but the entire Bible. It is not the word of men, but the word of God (2 Samuel 23:2; Luke 1:70; Acts 1:16; 1 Thessalonians 2:13; 2 Timothy 3:16; 1 Peter 1:11; etc.).

We need to be honest in how we use God’s word. Though it is true that we are not entitled to a personal interpretation of Scripture (truth is truth), let us not misuse 2 Peter 1:20 to make our point. Plenty of texts emphasize the need for us to be united in our understanding of God’s word (Romans 16:17; 1 Corinthians 1:10; 2 John 9-11; etc.).

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