One prominent Christian faith explains it this way: "The Bible is clear in its message... The message is muddled only when the mind and the heart are muddled. When people hear the Bible with an open and believing heart, its message is clear... Second Peter 1:20 warns us of private interpretations. Some people construct their own theology by `cutting and pasting' verses of the Bible. This kind of slipshod study of the Word of God is nothing more than private interpretation. It is not correctly handling the Word of Truth but rather butchering the Bible, reconstructing it to suit our own fancies" (The Doctrines Baptists Believe, p17).
To further clarify this point the author adds "people need no mediator, whether a priest or someone with a great education, to teach them the Word of God. Only the Holy Spirit can make that Word come alive" (p19). According to their belief, the Holy Spirit illuminates our understanding as we study the Bible to learn about the doctrines of Christ.
Although this statement comes from an official publication of one prominent Christian denomination, it sums up the feelings of many churches who believe the Bible is the word of God. Since the apostle Peter did declare, "that no prophecy of the scriptures is of any private interpretation" (2 Peter 1:20), it would seem that such a belief is scripturally based. But is that what Peter really meant by his statement?
In Matthew 16:15-19 we read, "He sayeth unto them, But whom say ye that I am? And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou are the Christ, the Son of the living God. And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee but my Father which is in heaven. And I say also unto thee, Thou are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever that shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven."
In this scripture we learn of an event when Jesus asked His apostles who they thought He was. Peter quickly answered that He was the Christ - the Son of the living God. Jesus then told Peter that he received that knowledge, not through any human means, but through inspiration from His Father in heaven. In the very next sentence Jesus immediately told Peter what his name was - "Thou art Peter" - and that He (Christ) would build His church upon "this rock". Then Jesus informed Peter that He was going to give him some keys to heaven that would allow him to bind and loose whatsoever he wanted, both in heaven and on earth.
What exactly did Jesus mean by this statement?
It is said that the Greek word "Peter" is very similar to the Greek word "Petra" which means "a rock". Therefore, some say Jesus meant that Peter was the rock upon which Jesus was going to build His church. This argument is further strengthened by two other facts. First, why would Jesus say, "Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my church" if He wasn't referring to Peter as being the rock? Second, He told Peter that he would be receiving some keys to heavenly powers. That again seems to indicate Peter was the "rock" being referred to.
However, others say that Jesus was only using a play on words, and that the "rock" He was referring to was revelation or inspiration. After all, that was how Peter came to know who Jesus really was. Likewise, today people still come to know that Jesus is the Savior of the world through personal revelation from the Holy Ghost. Furthermore Paul told Timothy that all scripture is given by inspiration (2 Timothy 3:16). Therefore the "rock" is the inspired words of the Bible.
Then there is the view that Jesus was talking about Himself as the rock upon which He would build His church. The apostle Paul told the Ephesian Christians that they were "built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone" (Ephesians 2:20).
There are still others who claim that each individual believer is a living stone and that, all together, the believers make up the living church. Such a concept comes from the words of Peter when he wrote, "Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house" (1 Peter 2:5). The argument goes that if anyone understood what Jesus meant by building his church upon a "rock", surely Peter did.
In addition to these four interpretations, there are other denominations which have a completely different idea of what Jesus meant. For example, another explanation I've heard declares that the rock upon which Jesus built His church was on the reality of Christ's Sonship.
The first thing that comes to mind as we look at all of these opinions is that this scripture is anything but clear, even to biblical scholars who claim to have the Holy Spirit guiding their understanding. Although, in each of these interpretations, there are other scriptures that support the words of Jesus to Peter, not even the most faithful studiers of the Bible can agree on what this passage really means.
Some may ask, "What difference does it make to our salvation to know the exact meaning of these words? Isn't it enough to know that Christ died for our sins?" The reason this statement of Jesus is important for us to understand is because it's the basis upon which the church itself is to be established. The Catholics claim that their church is established on the belief that Peter was the successor to Christ and was therefore the first Pope. Other churches have been established on the basis of receiving revelation as the test of whether it is the true church of Christ. Still other denominations claim that the only true rock is the inspired words of the Bible. There are those who claim that Christ didn't have a formal church, and that all believers everywhere, as a whole, constitutes the "body" or church of Christ while others believe in having a very specific religious organization.
If these words of Jesus form the very foundation of Christ's church, then it become extremely important for us to correctly understand what He meant.
However, there is no other way to understand the meaning of what Jesus said to Peter except by interpreting it, because nowhere in the Bible does it clearly explain these important verses of scripture. Therefore, what all churches end up doing is "cutting and pasting" scriptures together in an effort to bolster their own interpretation.
But what about the Holy Spirit? Since He's the real teacher of the Bible, shouldn't He reveal the true meaning of this message through inspiration to those whose minds and hearts are not muddled? Since all Christians claim they have received the Holy Ghost in their lives (in whatever manner their church teaches) then why don't they all agree on the meaning of Christ's words to Peter? The answer is either because they don't really have the Holy Ghost, or that's not the way we truly understand the scriptures.
Closely associated with the idea of not interpreting the Bible, is the strong belief by most Christian churches that every word in the Bible is exactly the word which God intended to use. As such, they argue that we must follow the exact wording as it appears in the Holy scriptures. For example, in the book of Acts we read where the jailer came to Paul and Silas "and brought them out [of the prison], and said, Sirs, what must I do to be saved? And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved, and thy house" (Acts 16:30-31).
Since there is nothing mentioned about being baptized, or doing good works to receive salvation, a strict reading of these verses must mean that the only condition for salvation is believing on Jesus Christ. With such a means for understanding the words of God, it would seem impossible and unnecessary for anyone to interpret the scriptures differently than the way they were written. Since each denomination claims that their understanding of the scriptures is the correct one, then anyone who disagrees with their viewpoint must be "interpreting" the words of God, rather than accepting the Bible as it's recorded.
However, on the day of Pentecost, when Peter was asked by a large gathering of Jews what they must do to be saved, "Peter said unto them, Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Christ for the remission of your sins and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost" (Act 2:38). Peter said nothing about believing in Jesus (although it is strongly implied) yet he also mentioned repentance and being baptized as part of what was needed to receive the Holy Ghost. (Unsaved people don't receive the Holy Ghost.)
In Mark 16:16 Jesus said, "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved." A strict reading of this clearly indicates that a person must both believe and be baptized in order to become saved. One without the other makes salvation incomplete. This seems to be in harmony with what Peter said, except there is no mention of the need to repent.
To Nicodemus Jesus said, "Except a man be born of the water and the Spirit, he cannot inherit the kingdom of God (i.e. be saved). But what does it mean to be born of the water and the Spirit? Some think it means being baptized (born of the water) and receiving the Holy Ghost (born of the Spirit), while others interpret being "born of the water" to mean being born of a woman from a watery womb. Therefore, from a strict reading of this verse, it is not clear what Jesus actually meant.
However, on two other occasions when someone asked Jesus what they must do to inherit eternal life (i.e. being saved), Jesus referred them to the Ten Commandments and then answered, "This do and thou shall live" (Luke 10:25-28). When one person said he had kept the commandments from his youth, the Lord said there was still one thing he lacked doing, and that was to give away all of his money and come follow Jesus (Luke 18:18-23). Notice there is no mention of repentance, baptism or even believing in Christ. A strict reading of these verses clearly states that we inherit eternal live (receive salvation) by not only keeping the Ten Commandments, but by performing certain tasks.
Indeed, this seems to be the same message Jesus gave in the sermon on the mount when He said, "Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity" (Matthew 7:21-23).
In this sermon, Jesus explained that only those who do the will of the Father will make it into heaven. Although the implied meaning of "doeth the will of my Father" may refer to the Ten Commandments, we can't assume that from a strict reading of these verses. However, what is very clear is that Jesus specifically states that simply professing a belief in Him is not enough to be accepted into heaven. Still, in another place Jesus said that only "he that endureth to the end shall be saved" (Matthew 10:22).
So what does the Bible teach about how to become saved, and thereby inherit eternal life in the kingdom of God? Are we saved simply by believing in Christ? Is it by baptism alone or in conjunction with repenting? Is it keeping the Ten Commandments or other commandments? Is it enduring to the end? Is it all the above or none of the above? From a strict, literal reading of the Bible, there is no way to really know. In order to explain what each of these verses mean and how they relate to one another, we have to interject thoughts, comments, clarification, opinions, and ideas that are not specifically stated in each of these individual verses. That means we have no other choice than to "cut and paste" one verse with another in a way that presents a view of salvation which suits our individual assumptions. And that's the definition of "interpreting."
Consider another example. Many churches call the leader of their congregation a "pastor"; some refer to him as a "minister" or "preacher". However, the Bible refer to such leaders by the term "bishop". The Greek word for "bishop" is Episkopos, which means overseer. The question then arises: If the very words of the Bible are inspired, and are to be followed without interpretation, then why do today's churches call their congregational leader "pastor" or "reverend" instead of "bishop", or "overseer" as the Bible says?
The most common reason I've heard given is that Paul refers to the position "pastor" as being very important in the early Christian church when he stated, "And He gave some apostles; and some prophets; and some evangelists; and some pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ" (Ephesians 4:11-12). Although the word "pastor" is used in this scripture, it's the only time it appears in the entire New Testament. To assume from this one verse that a "pastor" is the same as a "bishop" is completely without scriptural support.
And what about the office of an "elder"? In the early church, this was a position of authority ranked next to the apostles. Many times in the Book of Acts we read of the "apostles and elders" meeting together to resolve many important doctrinal issues. In the Jewish religion, elders occupied a very important and prominent position, and we find in all four gospels that elders are always mentioned along with the chief priests of the temple.
Paul ordained elders in every city where he went (Acts 14:23) and instructed Titus (who was a bishop) to do the same (Titus 1:5). It would seem, therefore, that the office of an apostle or bishop must be greater than that of an elder, or was it? Peter declared that he too was an elder (1 Peter 5:1) as did the apostle John (2 John 1:1, 3 John 1:1).
Apparently elders were important people in the local Christian congregation (1 Timothy 5:17-19). But what exactly was their responsibility within the church? The Bible isn't very clear about this. Paul told Timothy, "Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honor" (1 Timothy 5:17; italics added). Peter instructed the elders to feed the flock of God (1 Peter 5:2).
The scriptures only tells us that the office of an elder was a ruling position and that they were to feed the flock of God, but gives us very little more information. That's a pretty vague description. Therefore, all churches which have "elders" as part of their organization must interpret the Bible when it comes to defining their duties. And what about the office of a "deacon"? Deacons are also mentioned in the New Testament as being important positions, but even less is said about them than about elders.
However, if the positions of bishops, elders and deacons were so important in the church, why did Paul omit them from his list of necessary positions on which the church is built? Again, the scriptures say nothing that would clearly answer this question. Therefore, any explanation for this omission can only be speculation, which is another word for interpreting.
And also notice what is on the list: Apostles, prophets, and teachers. By implication, the term "teacher" does not seem to mean a Sunday School teacher, or some other type of local instructor, although some might interpret it that way. Be that as it may, there clearly were apostles and prophets in the earliest Christian church. If these positions are what the Christian community is built upon, why aren't there such offices in today's Churches, especially if we are to believe every word in the Bible?
The often stated reason given is that the church is built upon the writings of the apostles and prophets - referring to the scriptures. However, that is not what Paul said. He didn't say, "And he gave us the writings of a few apostles to guide us after they've died, and the writings of some ancient dead prophets; and he also gave us some living evangelists; and some living pastors and living teachers for the perfecting of the work of the ministry."
In the earliest church, all of these positions were held by living men. At the time Paul wrote these words, there were living apostles, and living prophets in the Christian church. If these are the first positions mentioned by Paul as being necessary to build the church and carry on the work of the ministry, why aren't there such people in today's churches, and where is the scriptural justification for not having them?
The answer usually offered is that apostles were only those men chosen by the living Christ to be an eye witness of His resurrection. After their death, there were no more living eye witnesses, therefore, there couldn't be any more apostles. Although this may sound very reasonable, it isn't based on anything found in the Bible. In that case, it must be based on someone's own interpretation.
And how did people obtain these positions? The Bible declares that these men were "ordained" to these offices, which appears may have been accomplished by the laying on of hands. Since that is the same way the ancient Jewish priests were ordained, were these "priesthood" offices? The Bible doesn't clearly say. There is only one mention of a Christian priesthood in the New Testament. It reads: "Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood... ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood" (1 Peter 2:5,9).
What did Peter mean by this? There are Christian churches who believe that the manner in which apostles, prophets, evangelists, bishops and elders were "ordained" by the laying on of hands clearly shows that these were priestly positions. However, many other Christians don't acknowledge that a priesthood even existed in the early church. Again, we see that the Bible isn't clear on this subject which is evidenced by the fact that there is no standard answer given among biblical scholars.
Since the scriptures are not clear on yet another important part of the church organization, we are left with no choice but to interpret its meaning according to our own private understanding, of which there are many.
And what about the priesthood of Christ? Hebrews 5:10 states that Jesus was "Called of God an high priest after the order of Melchisedec." We know quite a bit about the priesthood of Aaron and the Levites, but what is the priesthood of Melchisedec? The Bible only makes a passing mention of Melchisedec in Genesis 14:18-20, but tells us nothing about his priesthood. Paul, on the other hand, seems to know quite a lot about this man and the function of his priesthood (see Hebrews 7:1-7). The question is, if the Old Testament we use today has nothing in it about this subject, how did the ancient Jews know so much if the Bible we have today is supposedly clear and complete?
Obviously, this priesthood played a very significant part in the atonement of Jesus. Paul explains that it is greater than the priesthood which the Levites had, and apparently has the power to truly save, which is something the Levitical priesthood couldn't do (Hebrews 7:11). Yet the Bible tells us next to nothing about this superior priesthood. In fact, if it wasn't for Paul's words to the Hebrews, we wouldn't even know that such a priesthood existed. As such, any explanation of what this priesthood is or why it was important for Jesus to have it cannot be based on anything found in the Bible. Therefore, men are left with no other choice than to interpret for themselves what the role and meaning of this priesthood is.
Many churches claim they are following the words of Peter when he said, "No prophecy of the scriptures is of any private interpretation", but all churches interpret the scriptures, whether they acknowledge this fact or not. As we have seen, there is no way we can understand the words of the Bible unless we do interpret them. The question isn't whether we should interpret the scriptures or not, it's how do we interpret them?
Ironically, Peter gave the answer in the very next verse. Peter said, "For the prophesy came not in old time by the will of man, but holy men of God spake as they were moved upon by the Holy Ghost" (2 Peter 1:21). Paul told the Corinthians, "And the spirit of the prophets are subject to the prophets" (1 Corinthians 14:32).
If scriptures came in olden time through holy men of God - or prophets - who were inspired by the Holy Ghost, then their writings can only be properly interpreted by other holy men of God who are being moved upon by the Holy Ghost. In that way the scriptures do not become anyone's private interpretation, but their correct meaning is revealed to man by God through His appointed spokesmen.
Paul clearly stated that the church of Christ is built upon apostles and prophets. Furthermore, the New Testament clearly indicates that there were living apostles and living prophets in the early Christian church. Today, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is perhaps the only Christian denomination which has living apostles and prophets as part of its organization. We believe that these individuals are the spokesmen for God. As such, they can interpret the scriptures, not according to their own private interpretation, but according to the illumination of the Holy Ghost which moves upon them.
Without true holy men of God, churches have no choice but to understand the Bible according to their own private interpretation. Only in the true Church of Christ, with living prophets of God to guide our understanding, can we be certain that our study of the scriptures will yield us the correct interpretation thereof.