Catholics do not believe that the Bible can be properly understood apart from the Magisterium, that is, the guidance of the Pope and the Bishops of the Catholic Church. Catechism of the Catholic Church (second edition) states, “The task of interpreting the word of God authentically has been entrusted solely to the Magisterium of the Church, that is to the Pope and to the Bishops in communion with him” (Paragraph 100; see also, Paragraph 85).
Let us ask…
1. Can man understand the message of God without a Magisterium?
I find no evidence that under the Old Testament system one needed a Magisterium to interpret the Scriptures. I do find the word of God being read both privately, and publicly (Exodus 24:7; Deuteronomy 17:19; 31:19; Joshua 8:34-35; 2 Kings 22:8, 10-11, 16-17; 23:2-3; 2 Chronicles 34:18-19, 24-25, 30-33; Nehemiah 8:1-8; 9:1-3; 13:1-3). I do find it said, “The entrance of Your words give light; it gives understanding to the simple” (Palm 119:130). I do find Jesus saying things like: “have you not read” (Matthew 12:3; 12:5; 19:4; 21:16; 21:42; 22:31; 24:15), and “it is written” (Matthew 4:4; 4:7; 4:10; 11:10; 21:13; 26:24; 26:31), and “you are mistaken, not knowing the Scriptures” (Matthew 22:29). If there were a Magisterium under the Old Testament system, who were they? “Were they: Elders of Israel? No – Matthew 15:1-2; Scribes and Pharisees? No – Matthew 15:13-14; Sadducees? No -Matthew 22:23-32; Lawyers? No – Luke 11:45-52; Chief Priests? No – Matthew 27:20 (Kerry Duke, Debate Charts on Roman Catholicism, page 119).
I find no evidence that Jesus pointed anyone to a Magisterium. He taught that individuals could rightly discern (Luke 7:43). He said, “If anyone wills to do His will, he shall know concerning the doctrine, whether it is from God, or whether I speak from My own authority” (John 7:17). The common people heard Him gladly (Mark 12:37). They were not pointed to the Magisterium.
I find no evidence that under the New Testament system one needs a Magisterium to interpret the Scriptures. The Bereans, we are told, “Searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so” (Acts 17:11). Paul, at a synagogue in Thessalonica, “reasoned with them from the Scriptures” (Acts 17:2). He told Christians, “Test all things; hold fast what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21). He wrote, “When you read, you may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ (Ephesians 3:4). Three times Paul asked, “What does the Scriptures say” (Romans 4:3; 11:2; Galatians 4:30). He expected the reader to know. The writer of Hebrews said that was possible for one to discern good and evil (Hebrews 5:14), and also to know the scriptures well enough to teach others (Hebrews 5:12). John warned, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). I do not read of a Magisterium of official interpretation, but I do read that the individual is to “be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing (handling accurately – ESV) the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).
2. Why should we believe their claim over the claims of others?
The Roman Catholics say that you need them to understand the Bible. However, the Jehovah Witnesses say the same. They have written, “Not only do we find that people cannot see the divine plan in studying the Bible by itself, but we see, also, that if anyone lays the ‘Scripture studies’ aside even after he has use them, after he has used them, after he has become familiar with them, after he has read them for ten years – if he then lays them aside and ignores them and goes to the Bible alone, although he has understood his Bible for ten years, our experience shows that within two years he goes into darkness. On the other hand, if he had merely read the ‘Scripture Studies’ with references and had not read a page of the Bible as such, he would be in the light at the end of two years…” (Charles Taze Russel, The Watchtower, September 15, 1910, page 298 – quoted in McDowell and Stewart’s Handbook of Today’s Religions, page 45). Again, they have written, “The Bible is an organizational book and belongs to the Christian congregation as an organization, not to individuals, regardless of how sincerely they may believe that they can interpret the Bible… The Bible cannot be properly understood without Jehovah’s visible organization in mind” (The Watchtower, October 1, 1967, page 587- quoted by Kerry Duke in Debate Charts on Roman Catholicism, page 28). Furthermore, the Mormons have similar claims of special guidance. They have said, “No one in this church will ever go astray who ties himself securely to the church authorities” (In Conference Report, April 1951, page 104 – quoted by Kerry Duke in Debate Chart on Roman Catholicism, page 32). The common thread is do not interpret things, trust us.
3. What about 2 Peter 1:20-21?
Catholics sometimes cite this passage in an effort to get us to understand that one cannot understand the Bible without the Magisterium. It is a self-contradictory argument. When they cite the passage, they expect us to understand it to teach we cannot understand the Bible by ourselves. Well then, how do they expect us to understand the passage to which they appeal?
If one would take time to read verse 21, and compare it with verse 20, the context should become clear. The passage is not discussing how to understand revelation; but, instead, the passage is discussing how revelation was received. McCord’s translation renders it “know this first, that no prophecy of the Scripture is of anyone’s own release, for no prophecy was ever borne by the will of man; but men, being borne by the Holy Spirit, spoke from God.” The point is this: men of old did not examine the world around them, and from that draw predictions about the future. No, prophecy is of a different nature. These men of old saw things that they could never have known by the current events of their day. They received their information by the inspiration of God.
4. What about division?
The major objection served up is division. How can man be left to himself to interpret the Scriptures? One man reads a passage and understands it one way; another reads the same passage and understands it another way. One man reads the Bible and sees from it the necessity of baptism for salvation; another reads the Bible and does not conclude such.
Please understand that I am not claiming that all who read the Bible will understand the Bible alike, but I am saying it’s possible to read and properly understand. In Jesus’ day the Sadducees and Pharisees differed over the afterlife, and other matters (Acts 23:8; Matthew 22:23-24). They were divided, and no Magisterium settled the matter. Another example: think of what Peter wrote of Paul’s writings. He said, “…as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, has written to you, as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which they that are untaught (unlearned KJV, ignorant ASV) and unstable people twist (wrest KJV) to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:15-16). Please note the following: a) Paul’s writings are called Scripture [Note: The term appears 52 times in the New Covenant and is invariably used of the inspired scriptures cf. 2 Timothy 3:16-17]. b) Peter claims that he and Paul wrote of the same point. c) Peter acknowledges that some of Paul’s writings were very challenging. He did not say that all that Paul wrote was hard to understand, but some of the things he wrote were hard to understand. Notice also, Peter did not say impossible, but he said hard. God has given to us a challenging book. It requires mental exercise and effort to understand (cf. Proverbs 2:1-5). I personally believe this is part of the spiritual test He has placed before us. d) The reason that men do not understand: 1) some are unlearned (ignorant ASV). They simply do not spend enough time in study of the word of God. 2) Others are unstable (2 Peter 3:16 cf. 2:14). They are not well grounded enough to withstand false teaching. One of the methods of a false teacher is to appeal through what the people want to hear – that is, appeal through the hearers’ lustful appetites, and egos (Isaiah 30:10; Jeremiah 6:14, 8:11; John 3:19; Romans 16:18; 2 Timothy 3:6; 4:3; Jude 4, 16). Many want to be religious; they want to think they are serving God, but in reality, they more want to serve their own selves. e) They twist (wrest KJV) the Bible from its intended meaning. Notice, this is done not only with the difficult, hard to understand portions; but also, it is done even with the simple passages.
Each of us are left to interpret the scriptures for ourselves. We should do so with great care (2 Timothy 2:15; Philippians 2:12), for one day we will stand before the Great Judge and give account.
The attitude we should have in our studies is a “will to do His will” (John 7:17). We truly need a good and honest heart to succeed spiritually (Luke 8:15).