Private Interpretation is a concept that is closely connected with Sola Scriptura. Private Interpretation means that as we all are priests (1 Pet. 2:9, Rev. 5:9-10), so we all have the privilege of reading and discerning the Scriptures. In addition to this unfettered access being a privilege, it is also a grave responsibility.
This is a very important point: while we have the right to interpret scripture, we have the responsibility to avoid the pitfall of subjectivism. We are not free to invent our own truths from scripture. We are to apply sound principles in our interpretations. That includes giving due respect (without elevating to the level of inspired) commentaries of theologians and scholars who have studied the scriptures. Private interpretation does not mean you lock yourself in a room with nothing but a bible and, when you emerge, whatever you have discerned is good enough simply because you believe it sincerely.
The principle of Private Interpretation, along with the advent of scripture in the vernacular, are two of the great practical results of the Reformation. Both of these offshoots of the Reformation greatly damaged the Catholics Church’s desire to retain for herself the sole right to interpret scripture.
No wonder, then, that Catholics are not too keen on Private Interpretation. A common charge leveled against Protestants is that strict adherence to Sola Scriptura and affirmation of Private Interpretation results in a cacophony of opinions because some aspects of the scripture are simply not clear.
Sometimes Catholics use 2 Pet. 1:20 “knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation” to argue against private interpretation—in other words we should privately interpret this passage to tell ourselves that we cannot privately interpret. In truth, this verse refers to the fact that the prophets were messengers who gave prophecy—even as at times they misunderstood it. The “private interpretation” here refers to the prophet, not the reader. This is a recurring theme in Peter’s writings, where we also find:
Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things. (1 Pet 1:10-12)Another example of Rome's teaching against Private Interpretation is found in the Catholic Catechism:
The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone. Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ." This means that the task of interpretation has been entrusted to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome. (Catholic Catechism, Part I, Section I, Chapter 2, Article 2, paragraph 85)
The Catholic Encyclopedia, in the “Protestantism” section, states:
Again, it is illogical to base faith upon the private interpretation of a book. For faith consists in submitting; private interpretation consists in judging. In faith by hearing the last word rests with the teacher; in private judgment it rests with the reader, who submits the dead text of Scripture to a kind of post-mortem examination and delivers a verdict without appeal.... Private judgment is fatal to the theological virtue of faith.... The open Bible and the open mind on its interpretation are rather a lure to entice the masses... The first limitation imposed on the application of private judgment is the incapacity of most men to judge for themselves on matters above their physical needs.And the Council of Trent (1546) declared:
Furthermore, in order to restrain petulant spirits, it (Trent) decrees, that no one, relying on his own skill, shall - in all matters of faith, and of morals pertaining to the edification of Christian doctrine - wresting the sacred Scripture to his own senses, presume to interpret the said sacred Scripture contrary to that sense which Holy mother Church - whose it is to judge of the true sense and interpretation of the holy Scriptures - hath held and doth hold; or even contrary to the unanimous consent of the Fathers; even though such interpretations were never (intended) to be at any time published. Contraveners shall be made known by their Ordinaries, and be punished with the penalties by law established.Now, at first glance, Rome’s criticism has some merit. We have Calvinists and Arminians. Infant Baptism and Adult (Believer’s) Baptism. Baptism by sprinkling, baptism by immersion. Some churches come to the Lord's Supper weekly, some monthly, some at other intervals. Not to mention at least four millennial views with sizable numbers of adherents.
This diversity, some would say, is the inevitable result of Sola Scriptura. On those issues in which scripture is not clear, people will interpret scripture differently.
Our Catholic critics are, of course, absolutely correct. When scripture is not completely clear, then a concept, no matter how important it may be to its champions, is downgraded from an essential to a liberty issue, or at least there is a implicit recognition that: I believe this but I might be wrong; I can have Christian fellowship with those of an opposing view.
The problem with this criticism is that it doesn’t criticize an actual fault. It is one group saying to another that "your house is not as tidy as my house, so you must be doing something wrong."
Protestants, of course, deny that either sacred tradition or church councils (or any church official) has any authority to bind the conscience. We would say that the uniformity enjoyed by the Roman Catholic Church is unlawfully imposed and, while it achieves uniformity, there is no guarantee that, on any given issue, it is not uniformly wrong.
We agree on the essentials, the essentials that we can discerned unambiguously from scripture. The essentials include things like the divinity of Christ, the Incarnation, the Atonement, the Resurrection, and the Trinity. Disagree with an essential, and you have slid into apostasy.
The rest, we say, will be sorted out later.
The fact that we can agree to disagree (by no means, to our shame, always peacefully) on interpretation is utterly un-Catholic. This is perfectly illustrated by an anecdote from James Kennedy (Coral Ridge Ministries) during a panel discussion entitled “Irreconcilable Differences” that examined the differences that persist between Rome and evangelicals. Kennedy said:
[A] few weeks ago, I was out on visitation, and I ended up in a home where there were seventeen people present. There was a family that were in our new member class. There was a visiting family that were a part of our sponsors that happened to be there. There were a bunch of kids, and there was a mother of one of the adults there, an elderly woman from Brooklyn and she was a Roman Catholic. Now there were some other relatives there—they came from five or six, maybe different churches and backgrounds. I went around and asked them these questions: I asked each of them, one by one, "In what were they trusting for their hope of eternal life. Why should God admit them into heaven?" This woman, before, had said, with a little bit of hostility, that she thought it was terrible that there was all these different religions. Everybody had their own religion, there own views, they are all different, and she didn't like this idea that everybody had a different religion—they all ought to be one. It was fascinating to see that one, after another, after another—the person said the reason God should let me into heaven is:
"Christ died for my sins."
"Jesus paid for my sins."
"I have no hope but Christ."
"By the grace of God, through faith in Christ alone"
"It was through Christ who died for me."
"I put my trust in Jesus Christ."
"Christ paid for my sins."
"I am trusting in Jesus Christ."
"Christ is my Savior."
"I have no hope but Jesus."
And on and on it went, and this woman said, "Because I'm good!" But she was stunned by the fact that what she thought were all of these different churches, in disunity, were all in perfect unity when it came to the essence of the gospel. I think as John has said, there is a unity of Christians, of true believers. You can go anywhere in the world, as many of you have, and you will find a person is a true Christian and you have discovered a brother or a sister in Christ, regardless of what denomination he's in—if he really trusts in Christ. You have been joined together in one, and you are one in Him.