The problem stated
“If the average person is allowed to read and interpret the Bible for himself, isn’t he likely to misinterpret the Bible, and to misinterpret the Bible may have serious eternal spiritual consequences. Therefore, he dare not be allowed to interpret the Bible for himself, lest he err in his interpretation.”
I readily acknowledge that whenever people read and study the Bible for themselves they are guaranteed to misinterpret, misunderstand and misapply at least some of what they read. That is inevitable. But of course, the same is true if the same people read the newspaper, a textbook on chemistry or a magazine article on backyard gardening. Do we, then, forbid them to read and interpret these?
Does the fact of this certainty of to some degree misunderstanding the Bible, therefore, mean that either (1) the masses should not be allowed to have direct personal access to the Bible and/or (2) only authorized, authoritative interpreters of the Bible should be allowed to interpret for the rest of us what it means?
Some, such as the Roman Catholic Church, have appealed to 2 Peter 1:20 as proof of both of the assertions above. “No prophecy of the Scripture is of any private interpretation,” (emphasis added) is explained to mean that only Church authorities have the right to interpret the Scriptures and that all must follow that authoritative interpretation. However, in context, this verse is not speaking about those who read Scripture, but those who wrote Scripture. Verse 21 continues, “but being carried along by the Spirit, men spoke from God.”
This passage demonstrates conclusively why delegating all Bible interpretation to “authoritative” interpreters is fraught with danger: they themselves can be very much in error in their Bible interpretation! There are no infallible Bible interpreters on earth, no matter what some individuals and organizations claim for themselves.
The person who receives “Bible doctrine” only second- or third-hand, after it has passed through the “sieve” of someone else’s theological perspective, is apt to receive a decidedly warped, incomplete and inaccurate view of the teaching of Scripture. Thomas Linacre (c. 1460-1524), personal physician of Henry the 8th, Oxford Professor of Greek and ordained Catholic priest, exclaimed in astonishment upon reading the Sermon on the Mount for himself for the first time at age 60, “Either this is not the gospel or we are not Christians.”
Of course, the far greater danger than the individual misunderstanding the Bible to a degree is his being completely ignorant or greatly misinformed of its contents. This ignorance is the guaranteed consequence of denying people’s right to personally read and interpret the Bible for themselves.
By both command and example the Bible itself teaches the importance, indeed the necessity, of the “average Joe” hearing (and by extension, reading) the Bible directly for himself.
Many biblical passages either command or commend the direct personal hearing or reading of the Scriptures by everyone, without distinctions of age, education, office or gender. Among the texts (all quotes from HCSB):
Deuteronomy 31:9-13—“Moses wrote down this law and gave it to the priests, the sons of Levi, who carried the ark of the LORD’s covenant, and to all the elders of Israel. Moses commanded them, ‘At the end of [every] seven years, at the appointed time in the year of debt cancellation, during the Festival of Booths, when all Israel assembles in the presence of the LORD your God at the place He chooses, you are to read this law aloud before all Israel. Gather the people—men, women, children, and the foreigners living within your gates—so that they may listen and learn to fear the LORD your God and be careful to follow all the words of this law. Then their children who do not know [the law] will listen and learn to fear the LORD your God as long as you live in the land you are crossing Jordan to possess.’”
Joshua 1:8—“This book of instruction must not depart from your mouth; you are to recite it day and night, so that you may carefully observe everything written in it. For then you will prosper and succeed in whatever you do.”
Joshua 23:6—“Be very strong, and continue obeying all that is written in the book of the law of Moses, so that you do not turn from it to the right or left.”
2 Kings 23:1-3—“So the king [Josiah] sent [messengers], and they gathered to him all the elders of Jerusalem and Judah. Then the king went to the LORD’s temple with all the men of Judah and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, as well as the priests and the prophets—all the people from the youngest to the oldest. As they listened, he read all the words of the book of the covenant that had been found in the LORD’s temple. Next, the king stood by the pillar and made a covenant in the presence of the LORD to follow the LORD and keep is commandments, His decrees, and His statutes with all his mind and with all his heart, and to carry out the words of this covenant that were written in this book; all the people agreed to the covenant.”
Nehemiah 7:73b-8:4, 8,18a—“When the seventh month came and the Israelites had settled in their towns, all the people gathered together at the square in front of the Water Gate. They asked Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses that the LORD had given Israel. On the first day of the seventh month, Ezra the priest brought the law before the assembly of men, women and all who could listen with understanding. While he was facing the square in front of the Water Gate, he read out of it from daybreak until noon before the men, the women, and those who could understand. All the people listened attentively to the book of the law…. They read the book of the law of God, translating and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was read. Ezra read out of the book of the law of God every day, from the first day to the last.”
Nehemiah 9:1, 3—“On the twenty-fourth day of this month the Israelites assembled; they were fasting, [wearing] sackcloth, [and had put] dust on their heads…. While they stood in their places, they read from the book of the law of the LORD their God for a fourth of the day and [spent] another fourth of the day in confession and worship of the LORD their God.”
Psalm 1:1-2—“How happy is the man who does not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path of sinners, or join a group of mockers! Instead, his delight is in the LORD’s instruction, and he meditates on it day and night.”
Psalm 19:7-11—“The instruction of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the LORD is trustworthy, making the inexperienced wise. The precepts of the LORD are right, making the heart glad; the commandment of the LORD is radiant, making the eyes light up. The fear of the LORD is pure enduring forever; the ordinances of the LORD are reliable and altogether righteous. They are more desirable than gold—than an abundance of pure gold; and sweeter than honey—than honey dripping from the comb. In addition, Your servant is warned by them; there is great reward in keeping them.”
(Psalm 119—every verse but three in this longest of Psalms commends the knowledge and study of God’s word.)
Jeremiah 36:1-2, 4-6, 8—“In the fourth year of Jehoiakim, son of Josiah, king in Jerusalem, this word came to Jeremiah from the LORD: ‘Take a scroll, and write on it all the words I have spoken to you concerning Israel, Judah, and all the nations from the time I [first] spoke to you during Josiah’s reign until today…. So Jeremiah summoned Baruch son of Neriah. At Jeremiah’s dictation, Baruch wrote on a scroll all the words the LORD had spoken to Jeremiah. Then Jeremiah commanded Baruch, ‘I am restricted; I cannot enter the temple of the LORD, so you must go and read from the scroll—which you wrote at my dictation—the words of the LORD in the hearing of the people at the temple of the LORD on a day of fasting. You must read them in the hearing of all the Judeans who are coming from their cities…. So Baruch son of Neriah did everything Jeremiah the prophet had commanded him. At the LORD’s temple he read the LORD’s words from the scroll.”
Luke 4:16-19—Jesus publicly read from Isaiah to the synagogue attendees. This was the universal practice of the ancient synagogues. Sections of the Pentateuch were read consecutively, week by week, so that following either a one-year or a three-year schedule, the whole was read through publicly to the people. Each week, a selection from the former prophets (“history”) or the latter prophets (the prophets proper) was also read. And on set feast days, the scrolls of Esther, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, and Ruth respectively were read in the synagogue.
Luke 16:27-29—” “Father,’ he said,’ then I beg you to send him to my father’s house—because I have five brothers—to warn them, so they won’t come also to this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’”
[As indeed they would do week by week, if they attended the synagogue.]
Acts 13:14b-15a, 27b; 15:21—“On the Sabbath day they went into the synagogue. After the reading of the Law and the Prophets…. the prophets that are read every Sabbath,…. For since ancient times, Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, and he is read aloud in the synagogues every Sabbath day.”
Acts 17:11—“The people here were more open-minded than those in Thessalonica, since they welcomed the message with eagerness and examined the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.”
Colossians 4:16—“And when this letter has been read among you, have it read also in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you read the letter from Laodicea.”
[The “letter from Laodicea” is probably our Ephesians.]
1 Timothy 4:13—“Until I come, give attention to public reading,” which the NIV correctly renders as “Devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture.”
It is clear that the early churches continued the practice of the synagogues of reading extensively and publicly from the written Scriptures each week.
2 Timothy 3:14-17—“But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing those from whom you learned, and that from childhood you have know the sacred Scriptures, which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”
Note that Timothy, even in earliest childhood, was capable of being directly taught the Scriptures, which are not only not “dangerous” for the layman to know, but to the contrary, they are essential for him to know, if he is to be a complete, fully prepared and equipped believer.
James 1:22-25—“But be doers of the word and not hearers, deceiving yourselves. Because if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man looking at his own face in a mirror; for he looks at himself, goes away, and right away forgets what kind of man he was. But the one who looks intently into the perfect law of freedom and perseveres in it, and is not a forgetful hearer, but a doer who acts—this person will be blessed in what he does.”
Revelation 1:3, 11a—“Blessed is the one who reads [i.e. publicly] and blessed are those who hear the words of this prophecy and keep what is written in it, because the time is near…. Write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches,…. “
Revelation 2: 7a (11a, etc.)—“Anyone who has an ear should listen to what the Spirit says to the churches.”
Revelation 22:7—“Look, I am coming quickly! Blessed is the one who keeps the prophetic words of this book.”
The writings of Christian leaders from the first three centuries (and beyond) contain many descriptions of the public reading of Scripture, and admonitions for all believers to regularly hear or read the Bible for themselves.
And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then when the reader has ceased, the president [i.e. pastor] verbally instructs and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. (Justin Martyr [d. ca. A.D. 165] First Apology, chapter 67.)
Additional examples appear in A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, edited by David W. Bercot (Hendrickson, 1998, pp. 598-599).
In addition, the Christian reader has the indispensable assistance of the Divine Author, the Holy Spirit, in reading the Bible.