One of the frustrations I often have in dialoguing with Christians from the Restoration Movement churches of my upbringing is their unreflective use–and thus inherently asserted authority–of private interpretation. They will rail against, for example, the sacramental view of the Lord’s Supper, but in so doing will cobble together a proof-texted “argument” from the Old Testament prohibition against consuming blood, added to the letter in Acts 15:29 which enjoins upon the Gentiles the prohibition against consuming blood, and then use that idiosyncratic interpretation to “disprove” the historic Church’s understanding of the Lord’s Supper. (Hey, that’s at least one level better than Zwingli who rejected it on the basis of his own somnolent imagination.) And, of course, since the interpretation is, after all, nothing more than Scripture, then it must be authoritative.
Of course, such interpretations fail to recall Jesus’ own demand that we consume his flesh and blood (cf. John 6), and that St. Paul reaffirms, in Colossians 2, St. Mark’s declaration that Jesus himself declared all foods clean. But never mind that. After all, if the parts of my argument are nothing more nor less than Scripture, then, well, it must be a “scriptural” argument, right?
St. Irenaeus, however, not only disabuses us of this notion, but also illustrates the dangers of such interpretaion. From Irenaeus’ Against Heresies I.8.1:
Such, then, is their [i.e., the Valentinians’] system, which neither the prophets announced, nor the Lord taught, nor the apostles delivered, but of which they boast that beyond all others they have a perfect knowledge. They gather their views from other sources than the Scriptures; and, to use a common proverb, they strive to weave ropes of sand, while they endeavour to adapt with an air of probability to their own peculiar assertions the parables of the Lord, the sayings of the prophets, and the words of the apostles, in order that their scheme may not seem altogether without support. In doing so, however, they disregard the order and the connection of the Scriptures, and so far as in them lies, dismember and destroy the truth. By transferring passages, and dressing them up anew, and making one thing out of another, they succeed in deluding many through their wicked art in adapting the oracles of the Lord to their opinions. Their manner of acting is just as if one, when a beautiful image of a king has been constructed by some skilful artist out of precious jewels, should then take this likeness of the man all to pieces, should rearrange the gems, and so fit them together as to make them into the form of a dog or of a fox, and even that but poorly executed; and should then maintain and declare that this was the beautiful image of the king which the skilful artist constructed, pointing to the jewels which had been admirably fitted together by the first artist to form the image of the king, but have been with bad effect transferred by the latter one to the shape of a dog, and by thus exhibiting the jewels, should deceive the ignorant who had no conception what a king’s form was like, and persuade them that that miserable likeness of the fox was, in fact, the beautiful image of the king. In like manner do these persons patch together old wives’ fables, and then endeavour, by violently drawing away from their proper connection, words, expressions, and parables whenever found, to adapt the oracles of God to their baseless fictions.
Note the two highlighted portions. The bold notes how the heretical Valentinians cobbled stuff together without any rhyme or reason to attempt to build a “biblical” case for their unChristian doctrines. Looks quite a bit private interpretation.
But notice also the metaphor the saint uses, which I have underlined. By taking only portions of the Scriptures, out of their context, which includes their ecclesial and liturgical contexts, and then refashioning them according to their own understanding, they miss not only the true meaning of the Scriptures used, they also miss the true beauty.
But private interpretation has another inherent problem, too: it is necessarily schismatic. This is illustrated quite readily by the more than twenty thousand Protestant denominations in the world, which offer competing and contradictory doctrines based on the “right” of private interpretation.
By asserting that one’s personal (or even one’s own group’s) interpretation ought be preferred over the antiquity and consensus of the historic Church, one loses the true meaning and beauty of the Scriptures. Only by keeping the jewel of Scripture set in its context of the life and work and worship of the historic Church can one read it aright, and live it.