Apologetics for the Masses #410: Private Interpretation of the Bible vs. Church Teaching

Bible Christian Society


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Private Fallible Interpretation vs. Believing Church Teaching


     Continuing my conversation with Cary L., who is a fan of Dr. James White and who took me to task for ripping apart some of Dr. White's arguments on the papacy and Peter as the first pope as found in White's book: The Roman Catholic Controversy.  Cary answered, sort of, my questions and I gave my response to those answers in my last newsletter: 


     This week, Cary had a question to ask of me.  It is, in fact, the only remotely logical and rational question he, or any Protestant, can ask of a Catholic who is using the line of argumentation that I have been using with him - pointing out that since everything he believes regarding faith and morals is based on his private, non-authoritative, fallible interpretation of the Bible; then anything or everything he believes could be wrong.  Cary cannot attack my line of argumentation from Scripture, nor can he attack it head on using logic.  The only way he can try to respond is by asking the question he has asked here.  But, the question itself shows the weakness of his position.  As I shalll demonstrate.


Cary L.

My turn to ask you a question. Why is your potentially fallible decision to trust the claims of the Roman Catholic Church for your salvation correct?

     Cary L.


My Response

Dear Cary,

     Excellent question!  In fact, it is the only reasonable question on this topic that you have available to you. And, I am all too happy to give you an answer.

     Essentially, what you are getting at here (and please correct me if I have misunderstood) is that I keep asking how can you - or any Protestant for that matter - know that what you believe is true, when what you believe depends entirely on your, or someone else's, private, fallible interpretations of Scripture; yet, here I am, also a fallible human being, trusting my decisions about the "claims of the Roman Catholic Church" with pretty much 100% certainty.  Is that not a contradiction since we are both fallible human beings trusting in our individual decisions for what we believe?  Why can't you use the same argument on me regarding my beliefs that I use on you regarding your beliefs?  In other words, as you see it, your fallible interpretations of Scripture are essentially in the same category as my fallible "decisions" in trusting the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. 

     Well, not so fast.  First, the mere fact that you have asked me this question tells me that you have no response to the argument I have been making about your fallibility and what that means vis-a-vis your interpretations of Scripture and thus your entire belief system.  You first tried to dismiss my argument by calling it a "red herring," but when that response was exposed as lacking any credibility or intellectual honesty whatsoever, you changed your tack and are now trying to use my own argument against me.  So, you still haven't attempted any legitimate response to my argument, rather, you now try to ignore and deflect.  Answer the question: If you are not infallible in your interpretation of Scripture, then how do you have any sure way of knowing what is and is not authentic Christian doctrine and practice? 

     Now, regarding you trying to turn the question around on me, you have made a fundamental error in equating what you do with what I do.  But, before I get into my direct argument for why you basing your beliefs on your private, non-authoritative, fallible interpretations of Scripture does not at all equate with my accepting the teachings of the Catholic Church as being authoritative and infallible, let me first build the foundation for my answer with a few statements of fact:

     1) We are living in the "real" world.  In other words, what the average person is able to know through their five senses is indeed reality.  We are not imagining the world around us.  We are not part of someone's dream.  Our universe is not wholly contained in some giant's closet a la the aliens in the airport locker in Men in Black.  We are not hooked up to a giant computer that regulates our thoughts a la The Matrix.  Our world is the real world and our senses take in information about that real world (assuming one is not on LSD or some other such hallucinogenic drug). 

     2) Given #1, there are things that we can know with certainty.  So, even though I am a fallible man, I can, however, state infallibly - i.e., with no fear of any error - that I am married to my wife.  I can state - infallibly - that I am typing these words on my computer.  I can state - infallibly - that I live in Birmingham, AL and I can definitely state infallibly that I love pecan pie.  And there are any number of other things about myself that I can state infallibly.  So, being fallible does not mean one can never speak infallibly.  You seem to believe otherwise, so that is a fundamental flaw in your argument.

     3) I can also speak infallibly on matters related to the realms of math and science, for example.  I can state - infallibly - that 2+2=4.  I can state - infallibly - that the derivative of 2x³ + 9x - 7 is 6x2 + 9.  I can state - infallibly - that a human being needs oxygen to live.  I can state - infallibly - that if you mix charcoal, salt peter, and sulfur together you get a crude gunpowder that, when lit, can cause a metal mailbox to burn.  I know all of these things from firsthand knowledge.

     4) I can, however, also speak infallibly on matters of which I do not have firsthand knowledge.  For example, I can state - infallibly - that the speed of light in a vacuum is approximately 186,000 miles/second.  I can state - infallibly - that the primary fuel for our sun is hydrogen.  I can state - infallibly - that George Washington died in 1799.  I can state - infallibly - that a water molecule is two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen.  I can state all these things, and more, infallibly because of the nature of the authority of those who tell me these things. 

     Okay, that's the foundation upon which I am going to build my answer to your question: 1) Our world is real and our senses help us to discern and understand reality; and, since our world is real, I can infallibly state things to be true in regard to matters that I know 2) about myself, 3) about math and science and other such disciplines (i.e., the world around us) that I know firsthand, and 4) things about the world that I know only secondhand.  Do you disagree with any of my foundational points?  Assuming that you do not, I will move on.  If you do, we can go down that road in the future.

     Now, given these 4 points, I will answer your question.  Yes, I am a fallible human being.  I.e., I am capable of making mistakes.  However, even though I am a fallible human being, I can, and do, speak infallibly on certain matters - as discussed above.  And when I say I can speak infallibly on certain matters, just to be absolutely clear, I am simply saying that I can speak on those particular matters without fear of error; I am not saying that I am infallible in all things.  So, a fallible human being, in general; yet, infallible when it comes to particular subject matter.

     And all of that is why I say that you deciding on doctrine and dogma yourself, based solely on your admittedly fallible interpretations of Scripture, is not the same thing as my believing the doctrine and dogma that I believe, based on the authority of the Catholic Church. 

     Fact: There is no evidence, whatsoever, that you have the ability to infallibly interpret Scripture - that you have the ability to interpret Scripture in a way that is absolutely free from error.  You, yourself, have admitted such.  You have stated clearly, and unequivocally, that you are not infallible in your interpretations of Scripture. 

     Conclusion: Since you are indeed fallible in your interpretations of Scripture, then, by definition, your interpretations of Scripture - which are the sole basis of your theological system - could be wrong.  They could be a little wrong, or they could be a lot wrong.  They could be wrong on minor points and they could be wrong on major points.  That is the necessary conclusion regarding your fallibility in interpreting the Scriptures.  Which means, necessarily, that your theological system could have error in one or more parts of it.

     So, why is my methodology of belief different from your methodology of belief?  You are a fallible human being who has the ability, as do all human beings, to infallibly state truth in certain areas.  You have, however, admitted that you do not have that ability when it comes to interpreting Scripture.  Which, again, means that your theological system, built solely on your fallible interpretations of Scripture, could have, and undoubtedly does have, errors in it.

     Fact: My theological system, however, is not at all based on my private, non-authoritative, fallible interpretations of Scripture.  In fact, my beliefs are not based on anyone's interpretation of Scripture.  The Christian faith - Christian belief - existed before a single book of the New Testament was ever written.  The Scriptures reflect the tradition of the Christian faith, they are not the source of the Christian faith, as you make them out to be.  So that is another fundamental flaw in your argument.  My theological system is based on the teachings of the 2000-year old Catholic Church which I believe, after careful consideration of the available evidence, and there is a lot of evidence - historical, scriptural, logical, etc. - was founded by Jesus Christ and is guided by the Holy Spirit and operates with the authority of Jesus Christ which He Himself gave to it.  When I read and interpret the Bible, I do so within the parameters of the teaching as laid down by this Church founded by Jesus Christ, not within the parameters of my own imagination and understanding.  

     Conclusion: If the Catholic Church was indeed founded by Jesus Christ, and is indeed guided by the Holy Spirit, then my theological system is indeed without error, unless you wish to posit that Jesus founded a Church that can teach error in faith and morals and also posit that the Holy Spirit either takes occasional breaks from guiding the Church, or the Holy Spirit actually guides the Church into error.  Please let me know if you believe one or more of those possibilities to be true.

     Basically, it's as if we are both taking a course on the Bible.  Your course is one that is, essentially, a self-study course.  Yes, you will read the Church Fathers.  But, you filter everything they say through the prism of your private, non-authoritative, fallible interpretations of Scripture.  Yes, you read and listen to various pastors, teachers, theologians, etc., but, you filter everything they say through the prism of your private, non-authoritative, fallible interpretations of Scripture.  So, again, YOU are the sole authority in your theological system.  YOU are Pope, pastor, and theologian in the Church of Cary.

     The course I am taking on the Bible, however, is one that is being taught by the author of the book.  When I read Scripture, I have a guide to help me understand it - which is scriptural (Acts 8:30-31; Nehemiah 8:1-8).  I am not - in any way, shape, or form - relying on my private, non-authoritative, fallible interpretations of Scripture as the basis of my theological system.  The foundation of my theological system is not built on my ability, or lack therof, to interpret Scripture.  You rely on you.  I rely on the Church. 

     "But," you will say, "since you are a fallible human being, John, your decisions regarding the teaching of the Catholic Church could be wrong.  Your assessment of the Catholic Church as the church founded by Jesus, since you are fallible, could be wrong."  This goes back to the 4 points I made earlier.  Even though I am a fallible human being, it does not necessarily mean that every decision I make, or every conclusion I arrive at, is indeed fallible.  Being fallible, in a general sense, does not preclude being infallible in a particular sense.  As I demonstrated above, I can, and have, spoken infallibly, for example, on matters pertaining to myself, to matters of math and science that I have firsthand knowledge of, and to matters of math and science and history (and other categories, as well) that I have no firsthand knowledge of. 

     The question becomes, though, while one can infallibly state the truth on matters pertaining to self, to science, to history, to math, to physics, to all sorts of other areas of knowledge and endeavor, can one infallibly state the truth on matters pertaining to theology?  Can one infallibly state the truth in the areas of faith and morals?  Your answer, based on your past statements, is: "No."  I find that an incredibly scary theology in which to believe. There is no way that God gave us by which we can, without any fear of error, know for certain what is true and what is false when it comes to faith and morals?!  Really?!  Everything...our eternal salvation...depends solely on our ability to hopefully, maybe, possibly get it right when it comes to interpreting Scripture.  Really?!  That's the situation God left us with?

     "Not so!" you protest.  Scripture tells us that the Holy Spirit will guide "true Christians" into all the truth.  First of all, nowhere does the Bible say the Holy Spirit will guide "true Christians" into all the truth.  Jesus was talking to the Apostles when He said the Holy Spirit will guide "you" into all the truth (John 16:13).  Secondly, if the Holy Spirit does indeed guide all "true Christians" into all the truth, then that means all "true Christians" should be infallible in their interpretations of Scripture.  Yet, you have claimed no one is infallible in interpreting Scripture because man's sinful nature often makes it difficult for the Holy Spirit to break through with all the truth.  You want it both ways.  True Christians have all truth.  True Christians don't have all truth.  The Holy Spirit guides "true Christians" into all truth...unless, of course, they are sinners, which all true Christians are...in that case the Holy Spirit can't teach them all truth.  The edifice of illogic that your theological system has built is so huge that you are unable to see it right in front of you. 

     Are not, however, the questions regarding faith and morals - the questions pertaining to our eternal salvation - way more important than questions regarding science, math, history, etc.? So, if God gave us the intellect to be able to infallibly know the truth on certain matters in all of these other areas, why would He not give us a way to infallibly know the truth in the most important of areas...matters pertaining to salvation...faith and morals?  Why do you believe that God gave us a book and then told us, essentially, "Hey guys, there's the book - each one of you can figure it out for yourselves?"

     Here are the reasons why I believe the teachings of the Catholic Church to be absolutely true and without error and why I believe the Catholic Church is our infallible guide in all things to do with faith and morals, and why these beliefs are not equivalent to your personal, fallible interpretations of Scripture:

     1) I have studied the historical record.  Through the historical record I have come to believe that Jesus Christ was a real person Who walked the planet around 2000 years ago.

     2) Also through that historical record, I have come to believe in the historicity - the historical accuracy - of the Scriptures. 

     3) Through the historical record, in general, and the historicity of the Scriptures, in particular, and throwing in some simple logic and common sense (for example: Would the Apostles all be willing to suffer poverty, beatings, jail, whippings, stonings, and ultimately death for something - Jesus being God - if they knew it to be a lie?), I have come to believe that Jesus Christ is indeed God. 

     4) Through the Scriptures, I see that Jesus founded a church and promised the Holy Spirit to guide that church. 

     Is there the possibility I be wrong on one or more of these 4 points?  Absolutely.  However, I think you would agree with me on all 4 of these points (if not, please let me know).  So, we can take those points as a given.  Where you will begin to disagree with me is with my next point:

     5) I believe the church founded by Jesus Christ was, and is, the Roman Catholic Church.  Why do I believe that? 

     a) Because the Catholic Church claims to be the church founded by Jesus Christ 2000 years ago in Israel.  Well, just because it claims that doesn't make it so.  True.  But, there are a lot of churches out there that don't even make the claim, so they can all be eliminated as possibilities for the church Jesus founded, because the church Jesus founded would certainly know that it was the church Jesus founded. 

     b) Because we have historical records that can trace the line of authority in the Catholic Church, and thus the existence of the Catholic Church, all the way back to Peter and the other Apostles, particularly through the Bishop of Rome...the Pope.  We have archaeological evidence that the Catholic Church dates back to the 1st century.  No Protestant faith tradition can offer such historical or archaeological evidence.  The oldest Protestant church in existence dates back, essentially, to 1517.  So, we can eliminate all Protestant churches as possibilities for being the church Jesus Christ founded 2000 years ago in Israel.

     c) Because of the miracles, the healings, the Incorruptibles, the Eucharistic miracles, the Shroud of Turin, the tilma of Juan Diego, the raisings of the dead, and so much more that have occurred in the Catholic Church over the last 2000 years, and which continue to this day.

     d) Because in the Bible, it tells us that Jesus viewed this church He founded - whichever church that is - as having authority.  Authority to bind and loose on earth what would be bound and loosed in heaven (Matt 16:18-19 and 18:18).  Authority to definitively decide disputes between Christians (Matt 18:15-17).  The authority to teach all nations (Matt 28:18-20).  The authority to forgive sins (Matt 9:6-8; John 20:21-23).  The authority to teach infallibly with His authority (Luke 10:16).  The authority to call councils that can infallibly declare on matters as having been declared by the Holy Spirit Himself (Acts 15:28).  The authority to lay on hands (1 Tim 4:15).  The authority to command (1 Tim 4:11).  The authority to exhort and reprove (Titus 1:15).  And, this church is identified as the pillar and ground of the truth (1 Tim 3:15).  And, this church Jesus founded and that the Holy Spirit guides, must have the necessary authority to infallibly decide which books should and should not be considered the inspired, inerrant, Word of God.  No Protestant church I know of even claims to have the kind of authority that we see the church of the New Testament to have, and that it must have, if Christianity is true. 

     This, then, is how I will conclude: My beliefs are based not on my own authority, not on my own fallible interpretation of Scripture, not on how well I can read and understand ancient Greek and Hebrew, not on how versed I am in Theology, and not on how well I am able to understand what someone writing 2000 years ago was actually trying to say.  Rather, my beliefs are based on the teaching of the Catholic Church.  A church which I believe is the church founded by Jesus Christ and guided by the Holy Spirit based on the evidence of the historical records, the evidence of geography, the evidence of archaeology, the evidence of the Church Fathers, the testimony of numerous saints and martyrs, the testimony of miracles and healings, the evidence of Apostolic succession, the mere existence of this institution we call the papacy, the absolute necessity of an authoritative church, the testimony of Scripture, and, yes, the claims of the Catholic Church herself and her ability to back up those claims.  

     I will admit that all the evidence from all these different sources and disciplines that point to the Catholic Church being THE church founded by Jesus Christ, does not prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Catholic Church is what she claims.  Just as I will admit the possibility that Jesus is not God.  Just as I will admit the possibility that the Trinity is a lie.  But, if the Roman Catholic Church is not the church founded by Jesus Christ, then the church founded by Jesus Christ no longer exists on this earth and I have no sure witness that Jesus is indeed God and that the Trinity is 3 divine persons yet one God and that the Scriptures are the inspired and inerrant Word of God. 

     Here's the thing, Cary...without the church - the Roman Catholic Church - we would know nothing of the Trinitarian God.  We would not have this book we call the Bible. We would have no knowledge of this faith we call Christian.  So, your belief in the inerrancy of your fallible interpretations of Scripture (which is, on its face, a contradiction), based on no evidence other than your own feeling that what you believe is indeed true; is not equivalent to my belief, based on evidence from many different sources - Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, pagan, atheist, etc. - and disciplines - history, archaeology, geography, theology, philosophy, etc. - that the Roman Catholic Church is indeed the church founded by Jesus Christ.  And, as such, the Catholic Church teaches - as the pillar and ground of the truth guided by the Holy Spirit - infallibly in the areas of faith and morals.

     Now, I will close by asking you three questions that should prove very easy for you to answer:

     1) You believe that the writer of the Gospel of Mark was inspired by the Holy Spirit and infallibly wrote the book we now call the Gospel of Mark.  Can you give me book, chapter, and verse - from the Bible - that says someone named Mark wrote that Gospel and that he was inspired by the Holy Spirit and was, therefore, infallible when he wrote it?  If you can't give me a verse from the Bible that says that, then why do you believe it?

     2) On whose authority do you believe the Bible to be the inspired, inerrant, Word of God?  I.e., who is the witness who has the authority to infallibly pronounce that the books of the Bible are indeed the Word of God?  And, if you say, "the Holy Spirit," then please let me know exactly how the Holy Spirit informed you of the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible.  Inner locution?  Burning bush?  Email?  A vision? 

     3) Let's say, for the sake of argument, that I am wrong about the Catholic Church, and that we are, as Christians, left with no authority that can definitively and authoritatively decide what is true and what is false about Christian doctrine and morality when disputes arise between Christians on such matters.  The best we can do is one person's fallible interpretation of Scripture vs. another person's fallible interpretation of Scripture.  If that is the case, then how do you have the audacity to tell me that my interpretations of Scripture are wrong?  By what authority do you make that claim?

Closing Comments

Wanted to get this out this past Friday, but some things kept popping up all that day that precluded me from sitting down and getting it done.  Same thing happened yesterday.  So, finally, here it is.  Anyway, I hope all is well with you and with your families.  Please keep the Bible Christian Society in your prayers, and please know that I pray for all of you and your loved ones every day. 


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Apologetics for the Masses