Who has the right to interpret the Bible?

Written by Ángel Manuel Rodríguez, Biblical Research Institute

This question has been answered in different ways in the history of Christianity. The most common answer argues that the interpretation of the Bible is determined by the religious leaders of the church, under the influence of their religious traditions. Against this position the Reformers correctly identified the Holy Spirit as the only reliable interpreter of the Scriptures. The Spirit’s particular role is defined by His direct connection with Christ.

1. Jesus and the Spirit as the interpreters of the Bible

Jesus was the true interpreter of the Scriptures. He not only provided a reliable interpretation, He also rejected human interpretations based on Jewish traditions. He accused Jewish leaders of knowing neither the Scriptures nor the power of God (Matthew 22:29). He made it clear that only through Him could they truly understand the Scriptures (John 5:39).

The two disciples going to Emmaus found in Christ the true interpretation of the Scriptures after He opened to them the Scripture, and “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained [interpreted] to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:27, NIV).

Shortly before He went to the cross, Jesus promised to send the Spirit to His disciples (John 14:26; 16:13). The Holy Spirit’s teaching ministry is a continuation of Jesus’ teaching ministry. Through Him we hear again the voice of our Lord Jesus explaining the Bible to us.

2. Two ways of reading the Scriptures

One way is oriented to the spirit of the world and the other is oriented to the Spirit of God.

The spirit of the world interprets the biblical message through “human wisdom” (1 Corinthians 2:12,13). It applies the criteria of human wisdom to the divine message and defines it as “foolishness,” leading humans to conclude that the Bible is like any other book.

Only through the Spirit of God can the mind be illuminated, enlightened, and prepared to find in the Scriptures the revelation of God’s will (cf. John 1:9).

3. Proper rules of interpretation

How does the Spirit interpret the Scriptures for us?

First, the interpretation of the Scriptures is a religious experience, not simply an intellectual one. When confronted with the Scriptures we must be willing to surrender our preconceived ideas and submit to its message.

Second, interpreting the Scriptures is also an intellectually enriching experience. The Spirit does not bypass our rationality. The Lord expects us to use our sanctified reason to study the Bible. Wisdom from God is grounded on the fear of the Lord, on a complete commitment to Him as Savior and Lord. This wisdom listens to the Scriptures and is willing to follow them wherever they take us in our search for truth.

Third, in that search we should use a proper method of interpretation. It is at this point that we can be tempted to use human wisdom, separated from the Spirit, and arrive at interpretations that are incompatible with the nature and purpose of the Scriptures. We must allow the Spirit, through the meditation of the Scriptures, to identify for us the principles of interpretation that are to be used in the Bible. The Spirit, through the Scriptures, should judge any methodology that attempts to uncover the meaning of the text.

Our only security in the interpretation of Scripture is found in the principle of sola scriptura (the Bible only), unmixed with scientific theories or philosophical systems. We must develop a Bible-based way of interpreting the Bible.

4. The Spirit and the church

Interpretation of the Scriptures is also a collective experience. The Spirit does not bypass the community of believers who are faithful servants of the Scriptures.

An individual who considers himself the voice of God in the formulation of biblical doctrine or teachings, trying to press on the church their own views, presents a major risk to the community of believers. Usually the results of that pressure are divisiveness and disruption in the church.

The Spirit leads the collective body of Christ to a better and correct understanding of the Scriptures (John 14:26; cf. Acts 15:28; Ephesians 3:17-19). This requires a willingness on our parts to seek advice and set aside our personal opinions under the proper counsel of the community of believers.

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