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20. The Folly of Private Interpretation*

No nation ever had a greater veneration for the Bible than the Jewish people. The Holy Scripture was their pride and their glory. It was their national song in time of peace; it was their meditation and solace in time of tribulation and exile. And yet the Jews never dreamed of settling their religious controversies by a private appeal to the Word of God.

Whenever any religious dispute arose among the people it was decided by the High Priest and the Sanhedrim, which was a council consisting of seventy-two civil and ecclesiastical judges. The sentence of the High Priest and of his associate judges was to be obeyed under penalty of death. “If thou perceive,” says the Book of Deuteronomy, “that there be among you a hard and doubtful matter in judgment … thou shalt come to the Priests of the Levitical race and to the judge … and they shall show thee the truth of the judgment . . . and thou shalt follow their sentence.”…

Hence, the Priests were required to be intimately acquainted with the Sacred Scripture, because they were the depositaries of God’s law, and were its expounders to the people…

In fact, very few of the children of Israel, except the Priests, were in possession of the Divine Books. The holy manuscript was rare and precious. And what provision did God make that all the people might have an opportunity of hearing the Scriptures? Did He command the sacred volume to be multiplied? No; but He ordered the Priests and the Levites to be distributed through the different tribes, that they might always be at hand to instruct the people in the knowledge of the law. The Jews were even forbidden to read certain portions of the Scripture till they had reached the age of thirty years.

Does our Savior reverse this state of things when He comes on earth? Does He tell the Jews to be their own guides in the study of the Scriptures’? By no means; but He commands them to obey their constituted teachers, no matter how disedifying might be their private lives. “Then Said Jesus to the multitudes and to His disciples: The Scribes and Pharisees sit upon the chair of Moses. All things therefore whatsoever they shall say to you, observe and do” (Matt. XXIII. 23).

It is true our Lord said on one occasion: “Search the Scriptures, for you think in them to have life everlasting, and the same are they that give testimony to Me” (John v. 39). This passage is triumphantly quoted as an argument in favor of private interpretation. But it proves nothing of the kind. Many learned commentators, ancient and modern, express the verb in the indicative mood: “Ye search the Scriptures.” At all events, our Savior speaks here only of the Old Testament because the New Testament was not yet written. He addresses not the multitude, but the Pharisees, who were the teachers of the law, and reproaches them for not admitting His Divinity. “You have,” He says, “the Scriptures in your hands; why then do you not recognize Me as the Messiah, since they give testimony that I am the Son of God?” He refers them to the Scriptures for a proof of His Divinity, not as to a source from which they were to derive all knowledge in regard to the truths of revelation…

In this very passage our Lord is explaining the sense of Holy Writ; therefore, its true meaning is not left to the private interpretation of every chance reader. It is, therefore, a grave perversion of the sacred text to adduce these words in vindication of private interpretation of the Scriptures.

But when our Redeemer abolished (1) the Old Law and established His Church, did He intend that His Gospel should be disseminated by the circulation of the Bible, or by the living voice of His disciples? This is a vital question. I answer most emphatically, that it was by preaching alone that He intended to convert the nations, and by preaching alone they were converted. No nation has ever yet been converted by the agency of Bible Associations.

Jesus Himself never wrote a line of Scripture. He never once commanded His Apostles to write a word, or even to circulate the Scriptures already existing. When He sends them on their Apostolic errand, He says: “Go teach all nations.” “Preach the Gospel to every creature.” “He that heareth you heareth Me.” And we find the Apostles acting in strict accordance with these instructions.

Of the twelve Apostles, the seventy-two disciples, and early followers of our Lord only eight have left us any of their sacred writings. And the Gospels and Epistles were addressed to particular persons or particular churches. They were written on the occasion of some emergency, just as Bishops issue Pastoral letters to correct abuses which may spring up in the Church, or to lay down some rules of conduct for the faithful. The Apostles are never reported to have circulated a single volume of the Holy Scripture, but “they going forth preached everywhere, the Lord co-operating with them.”

Thus we see that in the Old and New Dispensation the people were to be guided by a living authority, and not by their private interpretation of the Scriptures…

A competent religious guide must be clear and intelligible to all, so that everyone may fully understand the true meaning of the instruction it contains. Is the Bible a book intelligible to all? Far from it; it is full of obscurities and difficulties, not only for the illiterate, but even for the learned…

The Fathers of the Church, though many of them spent their whole lives in the study of the Scriptures, are unanimous in pronouncing the Bible a book full of knotty difficulties. And yet we find in our day pedants, with a mere smattering of Biblical knowledge, who see no obscurity at all in the Word of God, and who presume to expound it from Genesis to Revelation. “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.”

Does not the conduct of the Reformers (2) conclusively show the utter folly of interpreting the Scriptures by private judgment? As soon as they rejected the oracle of the Church, and set up their own private judgment as the highest standard of authority, they could hardly agree among themselves on the meaning of a single important text. The Bible became in their hands a complete Babel. The sons of Noe attempted in their pride to ascend to heaven by building the tower of Babel, and their scheme ended in the confusion and multiplication of tongues. The children of the Reformation endeavored in their conceit to lead men to heaven by the private interpretation of the Bible, and their efforts led to the confusion and the multiplication of religions. Let me give you one example out of a thousand. These words of the Gospel, “This is My Body,” were understood only in one sense before the Reformation. The new lights of the sixteenth century gave no fewer than eighty different meanings to these four simple words, and since their time the number of interpretations has increased to over a hundred…

One body of Christians will prove from the Bible that there is but one Person in God, while the rest will prove from the same source that a Trinity of Persons is a clear article of Divine Revelation. One will prove from the Holy Book that Jesus Christ is not God. Others will appeal to the same text to attest His Divinity. One denomination will assert on the authority of Scripture that infant baptism is not necessary for salvation, while others will hold that it is. Some Christians, with Bible in hand, will teach that there are no sacraments. Others will say that there are only two. Some will declare that the inspired Word does not preach the eternity of punishments. Others will say that the Bible distinctly vindicates that dogma. Do not clergymen appear every day in the pulpit, and on the authority of the Book of Revelation point out to us with painful accuracy the year and the day on which this world is to come to an end? And when their prophecy fails of execution they cooly put off our destruction to another time.

* Text in original American spelling

JAMES CARDINAL GIBBONS (1876)

(1) Pope Pius XI and all succeeding Popes have increasingly emphasised the continuity of revelation and salvation history through both what are frequently referred to as the Old and New Testaments. This position was strongly endorsed by the bishops of the second Vatican Council in the documents they approved. The use of the word “abolished” here may be best understood as referring to our Lord’s action subsuming the authority of the Word of God into Himself and giving it total fulfilment in His perfect sacrifice to the Father for the redemtion of mankind.

(2) The author here talks of the majority of the Reformers. It should be noted that Luther and Calvin denied the right of personal interpretatiuon or private judgment.