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#27: No One in Scripture Interpreted it On Their Own

The “Becoming Catholic” series presents the biblical, philosophical, and historical evidence for why Eternal Christendom Founder, Joshua Charles, became and remains Catholic. The series table of contents is here.

Rembrandt, The Baptism of the Eunuch (c. 1626)

Now that I am Catholic, I recognize many steps along my journey that, at the time, I didn’t realize were leading me to the Catholic Church.

One of those steps was in my early college years (perhaps between the ages of 18-20) when I realized there was not a single example in Scripture of individual Christians presuming to interpret the Bible on their own apart from the Apostles, or those they had appointed as leaders.

This realization greatly disturbed me. While I had been part of various protestant sects, and ultimately ended up in a Reformed Presbyterian congregation a few years before beginning my exploration of the Church Fathers, the belief was roughly the same in all of them: we as individual believers may interpret the Scripture as best as we possibly can, with the “Holy Spirit’s” assistance.

This was not the view of many of the protestant “reformers” of the 16th century, some of whom had a high view of “church authority.” But they themselves had broken from ecclesial authority based on an alternative interpretation of Scripture. Thus, they were hardly in a position to claim others could not do the same.

That is precisely why protestantism has been endlessly dividing over differing interpretations of Scripture from the beginning. As many protestant confessions explicitly assert, Scripture alone has infallible authority. No office occupied by a human being can claim to speak with God’s authority on its meaning. Only Scripture can do that. Therefore, the natural conclusion is that if a Christian believes Scripture teaches X, while a human authority teaches Y, they are obligated to go with what “Scripture” says (which assumes they are correct in their interpretation—but that’s for another post). This logic is unavoidable—even for those sects that have a higher view of church authority.

Not all the congregations I attended had the exact same view. The presbyterian congregation, for example, had a higher view of church authority than, say, many of the non-denominational congregations (though I attended some of those that were run by dictatorial personality cults). But at the end of the day, even the very traditional presbyterian congregation would assert that if I differed in how I interpreted Scripture from them, I had every right, as a Christian, to go where I believed Scripture was being interpreted with the greatest fidelity. In principle, while believing their doctrine was “best,” they would not object to me or others founding our own “church” based on an alternative interpretation, so long as it generally fell within what they considered a broad range of “essentials.”

The problem I realized in college was that this model, which I was everywhere told was normative, “orthodox” Christianity, was nowhere to be seen in Scripture. This was ironic, because virtually all of us claimed to be “Bible Christians.”

Pursuing that realization to its logical conclusion over the ensuing decade led me to the Catholic Church.

What I realized was that Scripture showed an entirely different model: Scripture was never authoritatively interpreted by individual Christians, but only by apostolic authority—the Apostles, and those they appointed as leaders. Only they had authority to render judgment in doctrinal controversies. The only individuals who arrogated this authority to themselves were heretics and schismatics, who St. John identifies with the spirit of Antichrist (1 John 2:18-19):

18 Children, it is the last hour; and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come; therefore we know that it is the last hour. 19 They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out, that it might be plain that they all are not of us.

Let me unpack this a bit.

The Bereans

Protestants oftentimes appeal to the story of the Bereans to justify this approach.

But a careful reading of the story shows it is actually detrimental to the protestant position.

The account comes from the book of Acts (Acts 17:10-13):

10 The brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Beroea; and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue. 11 Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with all eagerness, examining the scriptures daily to see if these things were so. 12 Many of them therefore believed, with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men. 13 But when the Jews of Thessalonica learned that the word of God was proclaimed by Paul at Beroea also, they came there too, stirring up and inciting the crowds.

The key line often used by protestants is verse 11: “examining the scriptures daily to see if these things were so.” This, it is claimed, justifies individual believers in interpreting Scripture on their own.

But the Bereans did not interpret Scripture on their own. They understood it only after being taught to interpret it properly by the Apostle Paul (vv. 10, 13). They never arrived at the truth with just themselves and their Bible. In fact, prior to the Apostle’s appearance, they were Jews, and therefore cannot even be counted as believers. Once they heard the apostolic proclamation, and were taught directly by St. Paul how it made sense of Scripture, only then did they see the truth. Our Lord did the same thing multiple times with both the Pharisees and the Apostles (Luke 24:27): “And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.”

Far from being an example of Christians interpreting Scripture on their own as a means of arriving at the truth, the case of the Bereans exemplifies the exact opposite: the necessity of apostolic authority to properly interpret Scripture. In addition to this, since the Bereans appealed to by protestants were actually Jews, not Christians, then, as a friend of mine observed, “You can’t use the example of people outside the Church to demonstrate how authority works within the Church.”

Thus, the Berean example so often appealed to by protestants simply doesn’t work.

So I went searching for others. Surely, if Christians may interpret Scripture on their own, and if Scripture is the sole infallible (i.e. without error, and thus binding) rule of Faith, then surely there must be examples in Scripture of what we “Bible Christians” did, right?

I discovered the exact opposite was true.

In short, there is not a single example of individual believers ever interpreting Scripture on their own. On the contrary, they always and everywhere did so—like the Bereans—under the guidance of an Apostle, or one appointed by an Apostle (i.e. apostolic authority).

Here are some examples.

The Ethiopian Eunuch

In the book of Acts, an Ethiopian eunuch is returning home from worshipping in Jerusalem. Along the way, he reads the book of Isaiah. God sends him Philip, who asks him, “Do you understand what you are reading?” (Acts 8:30) With great humility, the eunuch responds, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” and then invited Philip to sit with him. (v. 31) They read Isaiah 53:7-8, which speaks of a sheep being led to slaughter. The eunuch asks Philip, “‘About whom, pray, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?’ Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this scripture he told him the good news of Jesus.” (vv. 34-35) The eunuch was convinced, and decided to be baptized.

Of particular note is that this eunuch is not an intellectual simpleton. Scripture informs us that he was “a minister of the Candace, the queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of all her treasure.” (v. 27) That, and the fact that he could read in an age of widespread illiteracy, tell us he was likely a man of education. And yet even this man, who was returning from worshipping in the Temple in Jerusalem (and thus likely somewhat knowledgeable of the Torah), acknowledges his need for a teacher to understand Scripture. God provided it, and his sins were cleansed in baptism.

Doctrinal Authority Exercised by the Apostles

From the earliest days of the Church, it was clear to new converts that becoming a Christian entailed submitting to apostolic authority. The book of Acts, for example, says the following of the very first converts (Acts 2:42):

42 And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

This is everywhere the norm in the New Testament, many of the books of which were authoritative precisely because they were authored by Apostles.

But the authority of the Apostles with respect to teaching doctrine was not restricted to the Apostles alone. While the Apostles are the foundation of the Church, and had unique authority, Scripture shows us multiple examples of their teaching authority being passed down to successors who individual believers were commanded to obey.

The Ephesian Elders

For example, St. Paul addresses the leaders of the church in Ephesus this way (Acts 20:28):

28 Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you guardians, to feed the church of the Lord which he obtained with his own blood.

Thus, while an Apostle appointed these elders, he equates this appointment with being appointed directly by God.

St. Timothy

St. Paul’s letters to St. Timothy are particularly revealing. In his first letter, for example, he says the following (1 Tim. 1:3, 18-19):

3 As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine18 This charge I commit to you, Timothy, my son, in accordance with the prophetic utterances which pointed to you, that inspired by them you may wage the good warfare, 19 holding faith and a good conscience.

As St. Paul had appointed leaders with authority to teach and govern in the churches himself (Acts 14:23), he now lays this responsibility on Timothy.

The Apostle then provides a series of instructions on doctrine, and the qualifications of bishops and deacons. “If you put these instructions before the brethren, you will be a good minister of Christ Jesus, nourished on the words of the faith and of the good doctrine which you have followed” (1 Tim. 4:6), he says to Timothy. The Apostles is clear that Timothy possesses authority to teach (1 Tim. 4:11-16):

11 Command and teach these things. 12 Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. 13 Till I come, attend to the public reading of scripture, to preaching, to teaching. 14 Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophetic utterance when the elders laid their hands upon you. 15 Practice these duties, devote yourself to them, so that all may see your progress. 16 Take heed to yourself and to your teaching; hold to that, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.

Likewise, Timothy has authority over the other elders (1 Tim. 5:17):

17 Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching

As for those who would contradict this doctrine and Timothy’s authority, the Apostle is likewise clear (1 Tim. 6:2-5, 20):

Teach and urge these duties. 3 If anyone teaches otherwise and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching which accords with godliness, 4 he is puffed up with conceit, he knows nothing; he has a morbid craving for controversy and for disputes about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, base suspicions, 5 and wrangling among men who are depraved in mind and bereft of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain…20 O Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to you. Avoid the godless chatter and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge, 21 for by professing it some have missed the mark as regards the faith.

Similar affirmations are made in St. Paul’s second letter to Timothy, who is charged with appointing leaders who will have the authority to teach (2 Tim. 2:1-2):

You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus, 2 and what you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.

Timothy is tasked with rightly handling the truth, not individual non-appointed believers (2 Tim. 2:15):

15 Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.

In the next several verses, St. Paul specifies the names of two heretics who are contradicting the Faith on the resurrection (vv. 16-18). With respect to these and other dissenters, the Apostle once again makes Timothy’s authority clear, and ascribes such dissent to the devil (2 Tim. 2:24-26):

24 And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kindly to everyone, an apt teacher, forbearing, 25 correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant that they will repent and come to know the truth, 26 and they may escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.

With these considerations in mind, the Apostle lays a solemn charge on Timothy (2 Tim. 4:1-4):

I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: 2 preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season, convince, rebuke, and exhort, be unfailing in patience and in teaching. 3 For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, 4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths.

Once again, this authority belongs to Timothy, not to every believer. It is he who has the authority to teach doctrine, appoint leaders, etc. in the church of Ephesus. No one else.

St. Titus

St. Paul’s letter to St. Titus is very similar. At the beginning, as he had done with Timothy in Ephesus, he charges Titus with appointing leaders in Crete (Tit. 1:5):

5 This is why I left you in Crete, that you might amend what was defective, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you

The Apostle is clear that only those leaders appointed by Titus will have the authority to teach, and must therefore “hold firm to the sure word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to confute those who contradict it.” (Tit. 1:9) Note that this authority to teach includes the authority to silence dissenters. St. Paul is clear that those who have not been appointed by Titus do not have authority to teach, and in fact must be silenced (Tit. 1:10-11):

10 For there are many insubordinate men, empty talkers and deceivers, especially the circumcision party; 11 they must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for base gain what they have no right to teach.

“But as for you,” he says, “teach what befits sound doctrine” (Tit. 2:1). He leaves no room for doubt (Tit. 2:15):

15 Declare these things; exhort and reprove with all authority. Let no one disregard you.

This authority must be exercised against heretics who would contradict Titus (Tit. 3:10-11):

10 As for a man who is factious [hairetikos], after admonishing him once or twice, have nothing more to do with him, 11 knowing that such a person is perverted and sinful; he is self-condemned.

Clearly Titus is being invested with an authority similar to St. Paul’s—an authority from God.

Apostolic Co-Authorship of Scripture

Another interesting angle to consider is the fact that several letters of Scripture, while written primarily by an Apostle, nonetheless includes non-Apostles in their salutations, i.e. the section where the author of the letter is identified. In doing such, it is as if the Apostle’s words are also those of such leaders, and they are identified with the Apostle in their authority.

For example, St. Paul opens his first letter to the Corinthians as follows (1 Cor. 1:1-2):

Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, and our brother Sosthenes, 2 To the church of God which is at Corinth

This Sosthenes is quite possibly the Sosthenes mentioned in the book of Acts as being the former leader of the Corinthian synagogue (Acts 18:17):

17 And they all seized Sosthenes, the ruler of the synagogue, and beat him in front of the tribunal.

Thus, Sosthenes could very well have been an early convert through hearing St. Paul’s preaching. In any event, the fact that the Apostle includes him as an apparent “co-author” implies that he is being identified with the Apostle, and his authority.

St. Paul writes a similar salutation in his second letter to the Corinthians, but this time includes Timothy (2 Cor. 1:1):

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother. To the church of God which is at Corinth, with all the saints who are in the whole of Achaia

A more generalized salutation is given in the letter to the Galatians (Gal. 1:1-2):

Paul an apostle—not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead—2 and all the brethren who are with me, To the churches of Galatia

The letter to the Philippians includes Timothy as a “co-author” (Phil. 1:1):

Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons…

Likewise, in the letter to the Colossians (Col. 1:1-2):

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, 2 To the saints and faithful brethren in Christ at Colossae

The first letter to the Thessalonians includes two “co-authors” along with Paul (1 Thess. 1:1):

Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians

The same “co-authors” are identified in the second letter to the Thessalonians (2 Thess. 1:1).

Paul also includes Timothy in his letter to Philemon (Philem. 1:1):

Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our beloved fellow worker…

Thus, the self-evident authority of the Apostles, alongside those they have appointed as leaders in the churches, is supported by the fact that on multiple occasions, St. Paul includes others as apparent “co-authors” of his letters.

Commands to Obey

Scripture also contains several blanket admonitions to obey not only Apostolic teaching, but the leaders they had appointed. For example, St. Paul writes as follows in his first letter to the Thessalonians (1 Thess. 5:12-13):

12 But we beseech you, brethren, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, 13 and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves.

Likewise, in his second letter to the same church (2 Thess. 2:15):

15 So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.

And again (2 Thess. 3:14):

If anyone refuses to obey what we say in this letter, note that man, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed.

Similarly, the author of the book of Hebrews gives the same command (Heb. 13:17):

17 Obey your leaders and submit to them; for they are keeping watch over your souls, as men who will have to give account. Let them do this joyfully, and not sadly, for that would be of no advantage to you.

A Warning

Far from encouraging believers to simply interpret the Bible on their own, Scripture explicitly warns against it.

St. Peter, for example, says the following (2 Pet. 1:20-21):

20 First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, 21 because no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.

He also warns that Scripture can be difficult to understand, and that this has caused those who interpret it apart from apostolic authority to fall into error (2 Pet. 3:15-17):

So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, 16 speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures. 17 You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, beware lest you be carried away with the error of lawless men and lose your own stability.

Likewise, Jude specifically warns believers to not disobey apostolic authority (Jude 1:8-11):

8 Yet in like manner these men in their dreamings defile the flesh, reject authority, and revile the glorious ones…10 But these men revile whatever they do not understand, and by those things that they know by instinct as irrational animals do, they are destroyed. 11 Woe to them! For they walk in the way of Cain, and abandon themselves for the sake of gain to Balaam’s error, and perish in Korah’s rebellion.

Jude cites a specific example in his warning, “Korah’s rebellion.” This refers to a rebellion against Moses and the Levitical priesthood (Num. 16), who were entrusted with the law and its interpretation. The rebels—Korah, Dathan, and Abiram—were ultimately swallowed up by the earth as punishment. Jude thus applies this same paradigm to New Covenant Christians.

The Council of Jerusalem

Finally, perhaps the preeminent example in the New Testament of apostolic authority on doctrine comes from the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15. I have written at great length about this event, and how it played an important role in my becoming Catholic. (See Becoming Catholic #12: Why Acts 15 Led Me to the Catholic Church)

Three brief points will suffice here.

First, the Council consisted of not only Apostles, but elders appointed by them (Acts. 15:6). Judgment belonged to them, not laymen, not ordinary believers, and not local churches. This is an important point, for when the Council renders a decision, it is rendered by both Apostles and non-Apostles, showing that there is an authority that is being both passed down, and jointly exercised.

Second, the Council spoke with God’s authority and its own: “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…” (Acts 15:28) St. James quoted Amos 9:11-12 in support of their decision. A divine judgment was rendered through the agency of men—not believers attempting to read Scripture on their own.

Third, the Council’s decision was binding on the entire Church, as Scripture explicitly states:  “As they [Paul, Barnabas, etc.] went on their way through the cities, they delivered to them for observance the decisions which had been reached by the apostles and elders who were at Jerusalem” (Acts 16:4).

Thus, when a controversy arose in the Church, the biblical Church rendered a judgment with the authority of God by the agency of apostolic authority: the Apostles, and those they had appointed. It was these men—not ordinary believers—who had authority to teach doctrine and interpret Scripture.

Conclusion

The Catholic Church encourages Her children to read the Scriptures, and gives many inducements to do just that—but always and everywhere under the very same guidance given to the Bereans, the Ethiopian Eunuch, and all the early Christians: apostolic authority. While protestants often claim in one form or another that individual believers are empowered by the Holy Spirit to interpret Scripture, not only is this model not seen in Scripture, but a very different model is everywhere exemplified: interpreting Scripture and teaching doctrine only under the guidance of apostolic authority.

This is how the biblical Church operated. This is how the Catholic Church has operated for 2,000 years, up to this very day.

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