The Expository Files.

Not a Matter of “One's Own Interpretation”?

2 Peter 1:20

Have you ever had a discussion about some Biblical passage or topic in which the person with whom you were speaking abruptly ended the conversation with the words “That’s just your interpretation”? Or maybe they said “Well, that’s just your opinion” or “You’ve got your opinion on that, and I’ve got mine.” If you have talked to others about the Bible much at all, odds are good you have had such things said to you, perhaps often. The pluralistic religious landscape in our country is quite full of this concept.

Have you ever used 2 Peter 1:20 as a reply to that? Peter said “But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation.” Some people think this statement by Peter is the perfect retort to “that’s just your interpretation.” On the surface it appears that Peter is saying that there is no such thing as “your interpretation” or “my interpretation” of the Bible, there’s just what the Bible says and that’s that. No one, the passage says, is allowed the comfort of a private, personal interpretation of the Bible. The Bible is not to be read in such a way that it is made to conform to our opinions and assumptions; instead, we must conform to what it says.

But is that really what 2 Peter 1:20 is saying? Let’s take a closer look at this whole business.

Let’s begin with the more general matter of different interpretations. To some people, “interpretation” is actually a bad word because it has unnecessarily become associated with subjectivism and the pluralistic mentality which asserts that the Bible is basically unintelligible, that opinions (interpretations) are all we can hope to have when it comes to the Bible and religious matters, and that since the Bible is unintelligible in the first place, all opinions (interpretations) about what the Bible means are equally valid. Some interpretations of the Bible may have such an attitude behind them, but the fact is that we cannot escape the business of interpreting the Bible. Even those who claim that all they do is let the Bible speak for themselves engage in an interpretive process (although they are probably unaware of it themselves).

Is the Bible basically unintelligible? Not at all. The Bible is eminently understandable. It makes this very claim for itself (Eph 3:4). But the question everyone who picks up a Bible eventually faces (whether they address it explicitly or not) is: what does this mean? The moment we begin to inquire about the meaning of any part of the Bible, or even of the Bible as a whole, we have asked the first question in the process of interpretation. And when we begin to say “I think the Bible means this” or “I think this passage is saying that,” we have produced an interpretation, like it or not.

Engaging in the process of interpretation is not an evil thing. I will reassert that everyone who picks up a Bible and wonders to any degree what the text means is already involved in an interpretive process. Anyone who has any opinion about what the Bible teaches has arrived at an interpretation of the Bible. The real question is: is this the right interpretation? Is my interpretation correct? Is the interpretation at which I have arrived the one that makes the very best sense of what is written? Does the interpretation I have produced fit the Biblical data without distorting it in any way (that is, without twisting words, without leaving data out, without reading foreign ideas into it, etc.)?

Consider, if you will, that the interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures was one of the key issues upon which Christianity was founded. The early Christians, who had learned from Jesus himself, believed and taught that the Hebrew Scriptures spoke of the demise of the Levitical sacrificial system centered in the tabernacle and temple, that those Scriptures predicted the coming of Jesus of Nazareth into the world, that they predicted his death, burial and resurrection, and that they spoke of the resurrected Jesus as the king over God’s kingdom. Many of the Jews disagreed with that vehemently. That is, one of the greatest differences between Judaism and Christianity was their interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures. Christianity is itself an interpretation of those Scriptures, and it claims to be the right interpretation.

Interpretation is unavoidable when handling the Bible, and the early Christians themselves were interpreters (whose interpretation was viewed as radical by the Jews) of the Jewish Scriptures. Peter was not, therefore, condemning interpretation wholesale in 2 Peter 1:20. Read Peter’s letters and what you will see there is an interpretation of the life of Christ. Because Peter was an apostle guided by the Holy Spirit, we can be assured that his interpretation of the story of Jesus was correct. But it was an interpretation nonetheless.

So what does 2 Peter 1:20 mean (note that this is itself an interpretive question!)? Consider the context. Peter is there talking about the prophets of Old Testament times. This is clear from verse 19, in which Peter says “we have the prophetic word made more sure.” What Peter means is that Jesus was the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies, and Peter himself was an eyewitness to this very fact. It was not that Peter had heard that Jesus fulfilled prophecies, but that Peter knew it from his own experience with Jesus.

How were the prophets of old able to predict with such astonishing clarity and accuracy the things about Jesus? Peter tells us plainly in verse 21: “no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” The Spirit of God revealed these things to them. They were not making guesses about the Messiah. In fact, they were not even making educated guesses. What they predicted was not a matter of them arriving at some interpretation of events they saw in their own day. This is what Peter means when he says “no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation.”

For example, the prophet Isaiah predicted the Babylonian captivity of Judah at a time when Babylon was not a military or political threat to anyone, nor was their any indication they would be some time later. In Isaiah’s time the Assyrians were waging wars of conquest over all of the Ancient Near East. If Isaiah had been guessing, or interpreting, what would happen to Judah based on the things that were going on around him, he would have predicted that the Assyrians would take the kingdom of Judah into captivity. But he did not. He accurately predicted that the Babylonians would do that, and that is exactly how it unfolded in history. This is because Isaiah was not interpreting the events of his day, looking for patterns in current events, as he spoke about the future of Judah. What he said about Judah he said from the Holy Spirit of God.

2 Peter 1:20, then, is about the prophets and how they made their predictions. It is not about the more general issue of interpreting the Bible. 2 Peter 1:10 is not about whether anyone must or can interpret the Bible.

So the next time someone says “that’s just your interpretation,” instead of quoting 2 Peter 1:20 to them, invite them to investigate which interpretation (understanding, or reading) of the Bible is the right one.

Used by permission of the author

 By David McClister
 From Expository Files 11.10; October 2004