Before I can present the position of the Catholic church on the topic of self interpreting the Bible, a couple of side issues must be addressed. The first, II Timothy 3: 15-17:
But continue thou in the things which thou hast learned and hast been assured of, knowing of whom thou hast learned them; And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.
Paul is not addressing Christians but Timothy as bishop. Timothy was to use the Old Testament to instruct in righteousness. Paul did not say to Timothy, “give the scriptures to the people and let them self-doctrinalize, self-reproof, self-correct and instruct themselves in righteousness.” No, Paul was telling Timothy to use the Old Testament to correct those under his charge. He, Timothy was to be the one to correct doctrine, to reprove his sheep, to correct and instruct in righteousness.
Point Two: Self-Interpretation negates the need of teachers.
Yet, God gives certain church members a special gift to teach scripture. What would be the point of that if the Bible were a do-it-yourself manual?
Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. ...But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit withal. For to one is given by the Spirit the word of wisdom ; to another the word of knowledge by the same Spirit... I Corinthians 12: 4-9.
And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: Ephesians 4: 11, 12
In I Timothy 1:6-9 and II Timothy 4:3, Hebrews 5: 12, the inspired writers explain there will be people who desire to be teachers who pervert the gospel. So some people will not be able to self-interpret correctly. They will have to be combated with the right interpretation by God-ordained teachers.
Point Three: The Holy Spirit brings us to all truth.
[The Holy Spirit] will guide you into all truth... he will shew you things to come. John 16:13
The context of this passage is Christ speaking to His Apostles. Can we definitively conclude from this that the Holy Spirit is supposed to show each individual the fullness or truth? Or can we interpret this as Christendom has for fifteen centuries and teach that God is sending the Spirit to bring the corporate church into the fullness of truth?
If the Father was sending the Spirit to each one of us individually, why would there be such a divergence of opinions of truth? Wouldn’t we all thing more alike, believe the same truths? The Spirit bringing us the truth individually presents a problem, because it makes the Holy Spirit look confused.
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Self-Interpreting Scripture leads to the Death of the Body of Christ.
Point One: A church cannot function with the “self-interpreting Bible” doctrine.
Everyone’s understanding of scripture differs by virtue of people’s intelligence, age, gender, culture, education and spiritual maturity. This is proven by the fact that there are over 30,000 Protestant denominations. The leader’s of these denominations severed the body of Christ for what they considered important issues, issues in which their conscience cannot allow for another interpretation. They amassed enough people whose reading is similar, broke from their church and started a new one. They mimicked Martin Luther’s, “Here I stand...”
Luther and each new denomination’s leader demand church doctrine come into conformity to their own personal interpretation of scripture--which they claim they learned from the Holy Spirit and the plain text. It did not occur to them that perhaps their interpretation could be fallible.
The Reformers’ cry that “my personal interpretation” is the ultimate authority birthed theological chaos and animosity. Luther despised Zwingli’s interpretation of the Lord’s Supper so much he desired Zwinglians dead, calling them worse than the papacy. Luther also disagreed with Calvin’s interpretations. Geneva’s citizens, based on Calvin’s “clear” interpretation of scripture, began drowning the Anabaptists. And so on...
Yet pragmatically, self-interpretation takes a secondary role. Christians usually conceal their personal understanding rather than splinter.
How many Adventists do you know that say they believe everything Adventists teach? Very few. They stay for unity’s sake, even when they believe their church to be wrong on some Biblical interpretations.
Same with Reformed Churches. You have five, four, three and two-point Calvinists who claim to be authentic Calvinists. They acquiesce to the church, even if they disagree. Lutherans have split into the Evangelical, Missouri Synod and the Wisconsin Synod. You have a multiplicity of Baptists churches. The only way a church can survive is if the people agree to disagree on some doctrines and cling to the ones they all believe. In all denominations you have to give up a bit of your beliefs, sacrifice your personal understanding of scripture to remain unified.
So in practical day to day living, no church actually survives the total self-interpreting position. Nor was it meant to.... The Spirit is sent to Christ’s Bride so that each of us will contribute to the wholeness of the church. The Spirit was sent to bind, not to break down. We are to rely upon others. We are not be a church of one--but of oneness.
For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body... But now hath God set the members every one of them in the body, as it hath pleased him. ...they many members, yet but one body. And the eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee: nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you. ...That there should be no schism in the body; but that the members should have the same care one for another. And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it ; or one member be honoured , all the members rejoice with it. Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular. And God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues. Are all apostles? are all prophets? are all teachers?...I Corinthians 12: 13-29.
[W]alk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called... Endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; One Lord, one faith, one baptism... And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ: That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive; But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ: From whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love. Ephesians 4: 2-16.
Point Two: The doctrine of Self-Interpreting is similar to positioning yourself God.
When Eve reached up and took the fruit, against God’s command, her faith in God’s authority of knowing good and evil was questioned. She said, “I want to know good from evil.... I want to be God!” For this we all suffer the punishment of death--disunity--disintegration. This is what self-interpreting says, “I get to decide good and evil, true and false.”
When we believe our personal illumination of scripture is the only correct and trustworthy one, it can isolate us. Isolation is death. Death is the separating of soul and spirit; the separating of bone from muscle, tissue from sinew, isolating cell from cell. Death is the disintegration of unity. That was the punishment for sin. Self-interpreting scripture acts upon the Body of Christ the way death acts upon our own anatomy. Why would we choose to believe a doctrine introduced for the first time in the 1,500 years of Christianity which produces results that mimic death--death, the consequence of sin?
When we decide we have the right, the duty, to live by our own interpretation of scripture often what follows is a detachment from any church group or religious authority. Christians slip into spiritual isolation and an island of Jesus and me. All because they cannot find anyone else who looks at scripture exactly like they do and it is way too much trouble, too many compromises to try and form a coalition of faith.
Self-interpreting the Bible, will eventually become the death of any Christian unity. This stands in stark contrast one of the last publicly recorded prayer of our Savior, Jesus Christ.
[F]or them also which shall believe on me through their word; That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me. John 17: 21-23