"Your Interpretation of" – a Common Objection Debunked

The Called to Communion clique is fond of replacing “Scripture” with “your interpretation of Scripture.” This has the rhetorical effect of making the appeal to Scripture sound less authoritative. After all, “that’s just your interpretation” is idiomatic of something that has little value. It’s part of the culture of relativism, in which your interpretation is just as good as my interpretation is just as good as anyone else’s interpretation.

Of course, Called to Communion uses this bait to try to plant the hook of “The Church’s Interpretation” as a non-relativistic alternative to the sea of relativism. The sea of relativism, though, is not a true alternative. Not all interpretations are equally valid, and the fact that something is one’s interpretation doesn’t mean it has no validity or that it has equal validity with the interpretation of someone else.

In the case of a document, like Scripture, that has an intended meaning, the meaning is what the author intended, which is generally a single meaning – or in the case of certain genres a pair of meanings (the technique of double entendre is an example of the latter). And, of course, certain texts which employ figures of speech have multiple layers of meaning (depending on how one analyzes meaning – a topic really beyond this short article).

What makes an interpretation correct is it’s correspondence to authorial intent. Things like majority vote of the people, or endorsement by the right number of credentialed and certified scholars, do not matter in this sphere. Instead, all that matters is alignment with what the author actually intended.

There are a variety of hypotheses about how we can determine what an author meant. If we assume that the book is incoherent or corrupted, so that it cannot convey its actual meaning itself, then we need to go to another source. This is what the Gnostics alleged, and what – in essence – each of Rome, Islam, and Mormonism have had to allege.

On the other hand, if we believe the book to be preserved and coherent, then the best way to determine the meaning of the book is from the book itself. If we want to know what some phrase or word means, we look to the context. When we read the Scriptures as a whole, we read them harmoniously – not discordantly. Paul’s teaching of justification by faith apart from works doesn’t contradict James’ teaching on justification – even if the solution does not immediately smack everyone in the face with a two-by-four.

If we adopt the former hypothesis, we undermine Scriptural authority, if we adopt the latter hypothesis, we affirm Scriptural authority.

In a previous post, I made a comparison between the religion of Roman Catholicism and Islam (as well as Mormonism). The one particular comparison I made, which is significant, has to do with whether the Scriptures are themselves the rule of faith. Catholicism, like Islam and Mormonism, rejects this – along, I might add, with Gnosticism (see this more detailed discussion of Gnosticism’s hermeneutic).

Islam makes the Qur’an (and the teachings and example of Mohammed) their rule, Mormonism makes the Book of Mormon, the Doctrines and Covenants, the Pearl of Great Price (and the teachings of Joseph Smith and subsequent alleged apostles) their rule, while Catholicism makes the teachings of the Magisterium (the “universal and ordinary magisterium” but also and chiefly the teachings of the allegedly ecumenical councils and the allegedly ex cathedra statements of the bishops of Rome) their rule.

The analogy is very precise: these religions offer an authority that supersedes Scripture’s authority. Rome doesn’t call the decrees of their allegedly ecumenical councils and “ex cathedra” papal statements “scripture,” but they give them superior authority to Scripture. (I should point out that the teachings of the “universal and ordinary magisterium” are also given authoritative weight. The only problem here is that it is far from clear what exactly that body of teachings is. While the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faithful sometimes appeals to the UOM on certain points, they themselves are not considered infallible.)

One objection that I received in response from “Ryan” is the sort of objection promoted at the “Called to Communion” blog. The objection is as follows: “I give statements of the Magisterium and ex cathedra papal statements superior authority to MY OWN interpretation, not to Scripture itself.”

It may sound nice to those in the Roman communion to say “interpretation” but what they are really saying is that it doesn’t matter to them how clearly Scripture contradicts the allegedly ecumenical councils and ex cathedra papal statements, they are going to believe the magisterium. That’s just saying that Scripture has no authority to them – or at least no authority in matters on which the magisterium has also spoken.

The objection continued: “What you are really saying is YOUR INTERPRETATION of Scripture is more authoritative than the Catholic Magisterium.”

I answer:

a) “The Catholic Magisterium” has very rarely actually interpreted Scripture. Try to find me any whole chapter for which there is an allegedly infallible interpretation (and this supposedly after almost 2000 years of existence).

b) What I’m really saying is that Scripture itself has more authority than the Roman magisterium. After all, you have to “interpret” the magisterium just as you have to “interpret” the Scriptures. So, compare apples to apples.

c) In other words, if you insist on pedantically inserting “interpretation of” into the discussion (as the Called to Communion crowd encourages folks to do), then the comparison is between “your interpretation of Scripture” and “your interpretation of the magisterium.” But really, the comparison is between the Scripture and the magisterium. The “your interpretation of” or “my interpretation of” is just a needless insertion.

d) In some cases, the insertion of “your interpretation of” next to “Scripture” but not next to “magisterium” is part of the overall campaign of trying to supersede Scripture’s authority. I don’t assume that was Ryan’s intent. Nevertheless, the result of adding “your interpretation of” next to “X” is rhetorically speaking to make the “X” sound less authoritative. “Scripture” sounds more authoritative than “your interpretation of Scripture,” as well it should!

e) In some cases, the insertion of “your interpretation of” next to “Scripture” is just wrong. For example, our rule of faith in Christianity is not “my interpretation of Scripture” (which is something changeable) but Scripture itself (which is unchangeable). Scripture (like everything else, including the magisterium’s writings) must be understood to be applied. Nevertheless, it is Scripture itself that is our rule of faith.

The objection continued: “Because you believe the Bible teaches monergism, and the Catholic Church does not believe the Bible teaches monergism, you are really comparing your interpretation to the Church’s interpretation, whereas I submit my own interpretive authority to the Church.”

I answer:

a) As I noted above, that’s just another way of saying “no matter how clearly the Scripture teaches monergism, I will follow what the magisterium says to the contrary.” It’s not “submitting [your] own interpretive authority to [Rome]” it’s failing to do your duty of discernment, for Scripture warns you that false teachers will arise, and it warns you about this eventuality quite clearly.

b) Your church may well insist by dogma that the Bible does not teach monergism, but she does not do so by interpretation of Scripture. Look at Trent, for example. There cooperation is defined dogma, but where is any interpretation of any particular scriptures provided? So you should see that she is not so much interpreting as just insisting.

The objection continued: “You might not think baptism regenerates us, but the Church has interpreted the Bible to mean we are indeed regenerated by baptism.”

I answer: I think as you look more closely, you will find that this too is a matter of insistence, not interpretation, per se.

The objection continued: “The difference is not that the Church has superseded Scripture by daring to interpret it authoritatively; the difference is that you think your interpretation is better.”

I answer:

a) Actually, I think that Scripture’s meaning is truth and it is objective. So, in questions of interpretation, the question is who is right, not who is “better.”

b) Your church has attempted to supersede Scripture by demanding that you understand Scripture only in ways that do not contradict what you understand your church to be saying is true. In other words, your interpretation of Scripture must be submitted to your interpretation of the magisterium, or to speak normally – Scripture’s authority must be submitted to that of the magisterium.

The objection concluded: “If your analogy holds, YOUR own authority has also superseded Scripture.”

I answer: Unlike your church, I don’t purport to be infallible. What I insist is true is always open to correction from the authority of Scripture. What your church insists is true is not open to similar correction. She feigns to speak infallibly, I do not.

-Turretinfan

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