On the Problems of Private Interpretation

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.

3 thoughts on “On the Problems of Private Interpretation

  1. Since Saint Hilary of Poitiers is a patron of mine, I’ll chip in what he said in the immediately post-Nicene period (about the time the NT canon was getting settled) concerning the holy mysteries:

    Now our Lord has not left the minds of His faithful followers in doubt, but has explained the manner in which His nature operates, saying, That they may be one, as We are one: I in them and Thou in Me, that they may be perfected in one [St. John xvii. 22-23]. Now I ask those who bring forward a unity
    of will between Father and Son, whether Christ is in us to-day through verity of nature or through agreement of will. For if in truth the Word has been made flesh and we in very truth receive the Word made flesh as food from the Lord, are we not bound to believe that He abides in us naturally, Who, born as a man, has assumed the nature of our flesh now inseparable from Himself, and has conjoined the nature of His own flesh to the nature of the eternal Godhead in the sacrament by which His flesh is communicated to us? For so are we all one, because the Father is in Christ and Christ in us. Whosoever then shall deny that the Father is in Christ naturally must first deny that either he is himself in Christ naturally, or Christ in him, because the Father in Christ and Christ in us make us one in Them.

    Hence, if indeed Christ has taken to Himself the flesh of our body, and that Man Who was born from Mary was indeed Christ, and we indeed receive in a mystery the flesh of His body—(and for this cause we shall be one, because the Father is in Him and He in us),—how can a unity of will be maintained, seeing that the special property of nature received through the sacrament is the sacrament of a perfect unity?

    The words in which we speak of the things of God must be used in no mere human and worldly sense, nor must the perverseness of an alien and impious interpretation be extorted from the soundness of heavenly words by any violent and headstrong preaching. Let us read what is
    written, let us understand what we read, and then fulfil the demands of a perfect faith. For as to what we say concerning the reality of Christ’s nature within us, unless we have been taught by Him, our words are foolish and impious.
    For He says Himself, My flesh is meat indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. He that eateth My flesh and drinketh My blood abideth in Me, and I in him [St. John vi. 55, 56].

    As to the verity of the flesh and blood there is no room left for doubt. For now both from the declaration of the Lord Himself and our own faith, it is verily flesh and verily blood. And these when eaten and drunk, bring it to pass that both we are in Christ and Christ in us. Is not this true?
    Yet they who affirm that Christ Jesus is not truly God are welcome to find it false. He therefore Himself is in us through the flesh and we in Him, whilst together with Him our own selves are in God.

    Now how it is that we are in Him through the sacrament of the flesh and blood bestowed upon us, He Himself testifies, saying, And the world will no longer see Me, but ye shall see Me; because I live ye shall live also; because I am in My Father, and ye in Me, and I in you [Ib. xiv. 19, 20]. If He wished to indicate a mere unity of will, why did He set forth a kind of gradation and sequence in the completion of the unity, unless it were that, since He was in the Father through the nature of Deity, and we on the contrary in Him through His birth in the body, He would have us believe that He is in us through the mystery of the sacraments? and thus there might be taught a perfect unity through a Mediator, whilst, we abiding in Him, He abode in the Father, and as abiding in the Father abode also in us; and so we might arrive at unity with the Father, since in Him Who dwells naturally in the Father by birth, we also dwell naturally, while He Himself abides naturally in us also.

    Again, how natural this unity is in us He has Himself testified on this wise,—He who eateth My flesh and drinketh My blood abideth in Me, and I in him [St. John vi. 56]. For no man shall dwell in Him, save him in whom He dwells Himself, for the only flesh which He has taken to Himself is the flesh of those who have taken His. Now He had already taught before the sacrament of this perfect unity, saying, As the living Father sent Me, and I live through the Father, so he that eateth My flesh shall himself also live through Me. So then He lives through the Father, and as He lives through the Father in like manner we live through His flesh. For all comparison is chosen to shape our understanding, so that we may grasp the subject of which we treat by help of the analogy set before
    us. This is the cause of our life that we have Christ dwelling within our carnal selves through the flesh, and we shall live through Him in the same manner as He lives through the Father. If, then, we live naturally through Him according to the flesh, that is, have partaken of the nature of His flesh, must He not naturally have the Father within Himself according to the Spirit since He Himself lives through the Father? And He lives through the Father because His birth has not implanted in
    Him an alien and different nature inasmuch as His very being is from Him yet is not divided from Him by any barrier of an unlikeness of nature, for within Himself He has the Father through the birth in the power of the nature.

    I have dwelt upon these facts because the heretics falsely maintain that the union between Father and Son is one of will only, and make use of the example of our own union with God, as though we were united to the Son and through the Son to the Father by mere obedience and a devout will, and none of the natural verity of communion were vouchsafed us through the sacrament of the Body and Blood; although the glory of the Son bestowed upon us through the Son abiding in
    us after the flesh, while we are united in Him corporeally and inseparably, bids us preach the mystery of the true and natural unity.

    – St. Hilary of Poitiers, On The Trinity, Book VIII


    For there have risen many who have given to the plain words of Holy Writ some arbitrary interpretation of their own, instead of its true and only sense, and this in defiance of the clear meaning of words. Heresy lies in the sense assigned, not in the word written; the guilt is that of the expositor, not of the text.Is not truth indestructible? When we hear the name Father, is not sonship involved in that Name? The Holy Ghost is mentioned by name; must He not exist? We can no more separate fatherhood from the Father or sonship from the Son than we can deny the existence in the Holy Ghost of that gift which we receive. Yet men of distorted mind plunge the whole matter in doubt and difficulty, fatuously reversing the clear meaning of words, and depriving the Father of
    His fatherhood because they wish to strip the Son of His sonship. They take away the fatherhood by asserting that the Son is not a Son by nature; for a son is not of the nature of his father when begetter and begotten have not the same properties, and he is no son whose being is different from
    that of the father, and unlike it. Yet in what sense is God a Father (as He is), if He have not begotten in His Son that same substance and nature which are His own?

    – St. Hilary of Poitiers, On The Trinity, Book II

    [bolded emphases mine]

  2. This “20,000 denominations” thing seems to be turning into one of those factoids that everyone repeats without knowing where it came from or whether it’s even true.

  3. Kyralessa:

    from Wikipedia:

    Protestants often refer to specific Protestant churches and groups as denominations to imply that they are differently named parts of the whole church. This “invisible unity” is assumed to be imperfectly displayed, visibly: some denominations are less accepting of others, and the basic orthodoxy of some is questioned by most of the others. Individual denominations also have formed over very subtle theological differences. Other denominations are simply regional or ethnic expressions of the same beliefs. The actual number of distinct denominations is hard to calculate, but has been estimated to be over thirty thousand. Various ecumenical movements have attempted cooperation or reorganization of Protestant churches, according to various models of union, but divisions continue to outpace unions. Most denominations share common beliefs in the major aspects of the Christian faith, while differing in many secondary doctrines. There are “over 33,000 denominations in 238 countries” and every year there is a net increase of around 270 to 300 denominations.[4] According to David Barrett’s study (1970), there are 8,196 denominations within Protestantism.

    FN[4] World Christian Encyclopedia (2nd edition). David Barrett, George Kurian and Todd Johnson. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001

    One can take issue with how Barrett defines denomination, but even if the number is two orders of magnitude lower (330 denoms) that’s a rather astounding number.

    But Clifton and I could attest that even within the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement there are several (at least 5 or 6) major ‘denominational’ splits – the non-instrumental Churches of Christ, the Church of Christ/Christian Churches, the Disciples of Christ, the non-institutionalists, and the various splits between amillenial and premillenial Church of Christ congregations. And that’s only since the 1800’s! That doesn’t even account for individual congregational views on things like women elders, etc.

    Interestingly, Alexander Campbell, in the late 1830’s, wrote:

    ‘I pray——for those who shall believe on me through their teaching, that all may be one; that as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, they also may be in us, that the world may believe that thou hast sent me, and that thou gavest me the glory, which I have given them, that they may be one, as we are one; I in them, and thou in me, that their union may be perfected: and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and that thou lovest them as thou lovest me.’ Thus Messiah prayed; and well might he pray thus, seeing he was wise enough to teach that, ‘If a kingdom be torn by factions, that kingdom cannot subsist. And if a family be torn by factions, that family cannot subsist. By civil dissensions, any kingdom can be desolated; and no city or family, where such dissensions are, can subsist.’

    If this be true–and true it is; if Jesus be the Messiah–in what moral desolation is the kingdom of Jesus Christ!–Was there at any time, or is there now, in all the earth, a kingdom more convulsed by internal broils and dissensions, than what is commonly called the church of Jesus Christ! Should any one think it lawful to paganize both the Greek and Latin churches–to eject one hundred millions of members of the Greek and Roman communions, from the visible and invisible precincts of the Christian family or kingdom of Jesus Christ; and regard the Protestant faith and people as the only true faith and the only true citizens of the kingdom of Jesus;–what then shall we say of them, contemplated as the visible kingdom, over which Jesus presides as Prophet, Priest, and King! Of forty millions of Protestants, shall we constitute the visible kingdom of the Prince of Peace? Be it so, for the sake of argument; and what then? The Christian army is forty millions strong. But how do they muster? Under forty ensigns?–Under forty antagonist leaders? Would to God there were but forty! In the Geneva detachment alone, there is almost the numbers of petty chiefs. My soul sickens at the details!

    – Foundation of Christian Union, 1839

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