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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: Is the Bible the Ultimate Authority?

Don Stewart :: Do We Need an Infallible Interpreter to Properly Understand the Bible?

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Do We Need an Infallible Interpreter to Properly Understand the Bible?

Is the Bible the Ultimate Source of Authority – Question 6

We all realize that human beings are fallible creatures. None of us are perfect. Indeed, our knowledge is severely limited. If this is the case, then how can we be certain that our understanding of the Bible is correct? Don’t we need someone to infallibly interpret the Bible for us so that we will not go astray in our beliefs? Will not an infallible interpreter keep us from falling into error? Many people think that an infallible interpreter of Scripture is exactly what all believer’s need.

This is not merely an academic issue. Indeed, it is of vital importance. The decisions we make about God have eternal consequences. We do not want to make the wrong choices.

The Claim That an Infallible Interpreter Is Needed

It is often claimed that human beings need an infallible interpreter to correctly understand Scripture. The argument usually goes something like this: Because we human beings are fallible, none of us are able to trust our own private judgment when it comes to determining God’s truth. Therefore, how can any of us be certain that our beliefs about God are correct? How do we really know that our understanding of the Bible is the right one? Since there are so many different denominations which hold so many different beliefs, is it possible we are going to the wrong church or that we are members of the wrong denomination?

Questions like these assume the need for some type of infallible interpreter to tell us exactly what we should believe. Seemingly, the only way in which believers could know they are following God’s truth, as well as being united in the faith, is by obeying the teachings of an infallible interpreter of Scripture.

This basically sums up the claim of a number of different groups. They assume that we humans need an infallible interpreter to properly understand God’s Word. Is this claim true? Are we incapable of understanding God’s truth apart from some infallible interpreter?

Some Problems with the Infallible Interpreter Claim

There are a number of problems with the idea that we must have some type of infallible interpreter to be able to properly understand the Scripture. They include the following:

1. We Cannot Be Certain We Need an Infallible Interpreter

Our first problem concerns the need for an infallible interpreter. If our human judgments are always fallible, then how can we infallibly decide that we need such an interpreter? Why must there be someone who will infallibly interpret the Scripture for us? Why should we assume that we cannot understand the Bible on its own? If we really cannot trust our fallible judgment, then we can never be certain that we actually need an infallible interpreter.

2. How Can We Know We Have Chosen the Right Infallible Interpreter?

If we come to the conclusion that we do need an infallible interpreter to properly understand the Bible, this still does not solve our dilemma. We also need to know which infallible interpreter to use. Unfortunately, there are many organizations which claim that they are the only infallible interpreter of Holy Scripture. This includes such groups as the Roman Catholic Church, the Mormon Church and the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society; the Jehovah’s Witnesses. There are also countless others which we could add to this list.

To make matters worse, each of these groups is in direct conflict with the other groups with respect to their main teachings! Therefore, the wrong interpreter will lead to the wrong doctrine.

This puts us in a dilemma for which there is no solution. Since we are fallible, we can never be certain that we have chosen the correct infallible interpreter of Scripture. Our fallible judgment may lead us to choose the wrong one. Whether we choose Rome, the Mormon Church, the Watchtower, or any one of the thousands of other groups, we could never be confident that our choice is correct. We may be led astray by the wrong infallible interpreter. Furthermore, because we are fallible, we would never know we were being led astray!

This is a real problem. Indeed, Jesus warned about false prophets who will lead people astray. He said:

For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. (Matthew 24:24 ESV)

Consequently, even if we believed that an infallible interpreter is absolutely necessary for us to correctly understand Scripture, we, as fallible human beings, could never be assured that we have chosen that infallible interpreter! We could never be confident that our fallible judgment and logic led us to make the right decision. Unfortunately, there is no solution to this dilemma if we assume that we need some type of infallible interpreter.

3. There Is No Unity among Those Groups Who Have Infallible Interpreters

This next point demonstrates how the idea of an infallible interpreter does not work in the real world. Seemingly, those particular groups which do have an infallible interpreter to tell them what to believe should have a visible unity. They should be completely united in their belief system.

However, this is not the case. As one closely examines the various organizations which proclaim they have an infallible interpreter, we do not find the unity that is expected. Indeed, there is as much disunity, if not more, among these groups as there is among those who look to the Bible alone as the infallible standard of divine truth. These groups argue among themselves about every conceivable issue! There is no visible unity which is present.

Therefore, those people who advocate the need for some type of infallible interpreter cannot point to visible unity among their own particular group. To sum up: an infallible interpreter does not bring about a unified belief system.

4. The New Testament Illustrates How an Infallible Standard Will Not Bring about Complete Unity

The fact that an infallible interpreter will not bring about visible unity is illustrated in the New Testament. Indeed, we find that there were divisions among the earliest believers in Jesus. Paul wrote the following to the Corinthians:

My dear friends, as a follower of our Lord Jesus Christ, I beg you to get along with each other. Don’t take sides. Always try to agree in what you think. Several people from Chloe’s family have already reported to me that you keep arguing with each other. They have said that some of you claim to follow me, while others claim to follow Apollos or Peter or Christ. Has Christ been divided up? Was I nailed to a cross for you? Were you baptized in my name? I thank God that I didn’t baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius. Not one of you can say that you were baptized in my name. I did baptize the family of Stephanas, but I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else. Christ did not send me to baptize. He sent me to tell the good news without using big words that would make the cross of Christ lose its power. (1 Corinthians 1:10-17 CEV)

There was certainly no visible unity at the church in Corinth. To the contrary, the church was divided into certain groups or factions which claimed to have Paul, Apollos, Peter or Christ as their leader. Yet these people had been taught by the handpicked disciples of Jesus Himself. They had the opportunity to learn from those who were taught directly by Jesus. However, there was still disunity among them.

This, therefore, answers the objection by those who say we need an infallible interpreter of the Bible in order to produce unity among the believers. Unity is not produced by having a perfect standard. They had a perfect standard; the teachings of Jesus infallibly delivered through His apostles. Yet, they were in disunity. If the first Christians, who had direct contact with Jesus’ apostles, could not show complete, visible unity to the world, then why should we expect visible unity among all Christians some two thousand years removed from the time of Christ?

There is something else we should notice. The Apostle Paul did not attempt to solve these divisions in Corinth by appealing to some infallible interpreter who would once and for all settle the divisions. Instead, he emphasized the unity which we have in Jesus Christ; a unity which is based upon the gospel message. This is what unites all believers.

Therefore, it is not necessary for each Christian to have an infallible interpreter of Scripture to know what he or she should believe. Indeed, the idea of an infallible interpreter is neither biblical nor is it workable.

The Biblical Response:

We now consider what the Bible has to say on this issue of personal responsibility or private judgment. The following points needs to be made:

1. The Bible Commands Us to Use Our Private Judgment to Decide Spiritual Matters

To begin with, after Jesus ascended into heaven, believers were never commanded to follow the teachings of some infallible interpreter. To the contrary, the New Testament says that Christians are to exercise their own private judgment in spiritual matters. We are to use our minds to weigh and evaluate the truth.

The Bible assumes that we have the capability of properly doing this. Furthermore, Scripture also assumes we have the responsibility of doing this. We find this idea of personal responsibility taught in both testaments.

2. The Old Testament Assumes Humans Must Make Their Own Decisions

In the Old Testament, we find Joshua, the leader of Israel, giving his people this challenge:

Now therefore fear the Lord and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness. Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord. (Joshua 24:14-15 ESV)

They were to choose whom they were to serve; the Lord or the false gods. They were not told that someone had to make the choice for them. They were to use their own judgment and they would be held responsible for the judgment which they made.

On another occasion, Elijah the prophet told the people that they had to make a decision as to whom to follow; the Lord or Baal. The Bible says:

Elijah stood up in front of all the people and asked them, “How long will you try to have it both ways? If the LORD is God, follow him; if Baal is God, follow him.” The people didn’t say a word. (1 Kings 18:21 God’s Word)

Again, the people were given a choice of whom to serve. They had to make the decision.

3. Jesus Assumed We Were to Search the Scriptures on Our Own

In the New Testament, we find that Jesus recognized that the religious leaders in His day “searched the Scripture.” John records Him saying:

You search the Scriptures, because you think you will find eternal life in them. The Scriptures tell about me. (John 5:39 CEV)

Jesus did not discourage this practice. In fact, He told them that a searching of the Scripture would cause the people to believe in Him. He said:

If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote of me. (John 5:46 RSV)

Searching the Scripture would cause people to believe in Jesus.

In another place, Jesus emphasized that people are to love the Lord with their mind. Matthew records Him saying:

You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind. (Matthew 22:37 NLT)

This assumes that people are able to weigh and evaluate spiritual truth. We are to think about things and then reach definite conclusions.

Finally, the people in Jesus day were held responsible to act upon what the Scripture said. Indeed, Jesus pronounced judgment upon the nation for not accepting Him as the promised Messiah. We read the following in Luke’s gospel:

When he came closer and saw the city, he began to cry. He said, “If you had only known today what would bring you peace! But now it is hidden, so you cannot see it. The time will come when enemy armies will build a wall to surround you and close you in on every side. They will level you to the ground and kill your people. One stone will not be left on top of another, because you didn’t recognize the time when God came to help you. (Luke 19:41-44 God’s Word)

Judgment came upon the nation of Israel for their rejection of Jesus. Why did they reject Him? It is because they did not believe what the Scripture said.

On the day of His resurrection, Jesus again emphasized the necessity of knowing the Scripture:

Then Jesus said to them, “How foolish you are! You’re so slow to believe everything the prophets said! Didn’t the Messiah have to suffer these things and enter into his glory?” Then he began with Moses’ Teachings and the Prophets to explain to them what was said about him throughout the Scriptures. (Luke 24:25-27 God’s Word)

If they had paid attention to what Moses and the Prophets had written, they would have understood that the Messiah had to die. Again, they were held personally responsible for knowing the truth of Scripture.

4. Jesus’ Apostles Urged Believers to Evaluate the Truth

Not only did Jesus hold the people personally responsible for obeying the Scripture, we also find that the apostles of Jesus urged the believers to do their own evaluation of spiritual truth. Paul wrote to the Thessalonians:

But test everything; hold fast what is good. (1 Thessalonians 5:21 ESV)

We have to test things by using our private judgment; not blindly following some infallible interpreter.

The Apostle John wrote about the need of testing the spirits. He said:

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are of God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world. (1 John 4:1 RSV)

There is nothing in his command that suggests we are to merely follow the teaching of some infallible interpreter. We are to test the spirits; we are to make the judgment.

In another place, Paul commanded Timothy to teach the truth of Scripture in a correct manner. He said:

Do your best to present yourself to God as a tried-and-true worker who isn’t ashamed to teach the word of truth correctly. (2 Timothy 2:15 God’s Word)

How would he accomplish this? How would he become a student of the Scripture? He would have to work at it by personally studying the Scripture; not by relying on some infallible interpreter.

Finally, in a passage which speaks directly to this issue, Paul wrote the following to the Galatians:

But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned! (Galatians 1:8-9 NIV)

In this passage, Paul assumes that his readers were able to evaluate the different messages they were hearing. In fact, they were held responsible to make the right choice as to what the true gospel consisted of. They were to use their own private judgment to determine what the genuine gospel of Jesus Christ was, and what the genuine gospel was not. There is no appeal made to some type of authoritative source to discover what it says on the matter. Each believer is responsible to make his or her own decision.

5. The Holy Spirit Is the Infallible Guide for Believers

The reason that we do not need any infallible human interpreter of Scripture is because it is the Holy Spirit of God who guides and teaches believers. Paul wrote:

That is what the Scriptures mean when they say, “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined what God has prepared for those who love him.” But we know these things because God has revealed them to us by his Spirit, and his Spirit searches out everything and shows us even God’s deep secrets. No one can know what anyone else is really thinking except that person alone, and no one can know God’s thoughts except God’s own Spirit. And God has actually given us his Spirit (not the world’s spirit) so we can know the wonderful things God has freely given us. When we tell you this, we do not use words of human wisdom. We speak words given to us by the Spirit, using the Spirit’s words to explain spiritual truths. But people who aren’t Christians can’t understand these truths from God’s Spirit. It all sounds foolish to them because only those who have the Spirit can understand what the Spirit means. We who have the Spirit understand these things, but others can’t understand us at all. (1 Corinthians 2:9-15 NLT)

The proper understanding of God’s Word comes from the teaching ministry of the Holy Spirit. He indwells all those who believe in Jesus and He is the One who teaches us and guides us into all truth.

6. The Human Heart Will Not Permit Complete Unity on All Spiritual Matters

There is one last thing we should mention. If we do not need an infallible interpreter, and the Holy Spirit is teaching all believers, then why don’t we find complete unity concerning all spiritual matters among Bible believers? Why do Bible believers, who have the Holy Spirit of God dwelling inside of them, have so many differences of opinion among themselves? Why doesn’t the Holy Spirit bring about this desired unity among all believers?

The answer to this question is found in the pages of Scripture. The Bible says that the problem that plagues all of humanity is a sinful heart. The prophet Jeremiah put it this way:

The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9 NIV)

Our sinful natures will not allow us to have complete unity on every spiritual issue. Each and every believer, though a new creation in Jesus Christ, is still shackled with a sin nature.

Add to this, each of us comes from a different background with different experiences, and different amounts of training. These factors have contributed to the biases as well as the limitations which we now have. When we couple our biases with our sinful human nature, it is not surprising that we do not have unanimous agreement on every spiritual matter. The problem, therefore, is not with the perfect standard, the Bible, or with the teaching ministry of the Holy Spirit. The problem is with us.

Thus, visible unity on all spiritual matters is not brought about by having an infallible standard of truth or an infallible teacher; the sinfulness of our human heart will not allow us to have this visible unity on all matters. Therefore, we should not be surprised when Bible-believers have different views on such subjects as baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and the eternal security of the believer. This does not mean that there are no biblical answers to these issues, it merely means that some people, for whatever reason, presently do not have the correct answer.

However, while not all Bible-believers agree on every single issue, there certainly is agreement on the main teachings of the faith. Christians are united on their view of the nature of the Bible, the Person and work of Jesus Christ, and the division of humanity into two groups; saved and lost. It is not the essentials where the disagreements are found. Therefore, pointing out differences among Bible-believers does not strengthen the case for the need of some type of infallible interpreter.

Consequently, it is clear from the teachings of Scripture that we believers do not need any type of infallible interpreter to properly understand the truth of God. Each of us, through the teaching work of the Holy Spirit, has the capability, as well as the responsibility, to comprehend His Holy Word. While our understanding will never be perfect, there are many things which we will clearly understand.

Summary – Question 6
Do We Need an Infallible Interpreter to Properly Understand the Bible?

There are a number of organizations who claim that we human beings are unable to correctly understand the Bible on our own. Consequently, we need some type of infallible authority to properly interpret God’s Word. Otherwise, we might be led into spiritual darkness. Furthermore, each of these organizations claims that they are this infallible authority.

There are a number of problems with this viewpoint. Even if we accept the idea that we need an infallible interpreter to properly understand God’s truth, it still does not solve the problem of possibly being led astray. To begin with, we could never infallibly know that we need an infallible interpreter! By definition, any decision as to whether or not we need such an infallible source would be fallibly made. We could never be certain we actually need such an interpreter.

Furthermore, even if an infallible interpreter is necessary, as fallible humans we could never be certain that we have made the correct choice of the right infallible interpreter. As we mentioned, there are many groups who claim that they are the infallible interpreter of the Bible. Which one of them do we listen to? How can we infallibly decide? To make matters worse, each of these groups, which claim that an infallible interpreter is needed, contradict all of the other groups in their main teachings! This leaves us in a hopeless dilemma.

There is still an additional problem. Even if we did find the right infallible interpreter among all of the potential candidates, we still have to interpret what was said. It is possible that we will misunderstand what the infallible interpreter is telling us.

Finally, the idea that an infallible interpreter will bring about visible unity among God’s people is simply not true. Not only is there disunity among organizations which claim they are the sole infallible interpreter of Scripture, we also find disunity among members of the early church. While they had a perfect standard, the teachings of Jesus’ handpicked apostles, they still were divided over a number of issues. Why should we think that we will do any better?

Fortunately, we do not have to search for some type of infallible interpreter. The Bible assumes that we can and should make our own private judgments about spiritual matters. In fact, we are responsible for making such choices. Nowhere in the Bible do we find the slightest hint that we need some type of infallible interpreter to properly understand Scripture. To the contrary, God has given each believer the necessary equipment, through the Holy Spirit, to properly understand the truths of God.

Even with the infallible standard of Scripture and the teaching ministry of the Holy Spirit, we will still not have complete unity among Bible-believers. The reason lies not with the problem of an infallible standard or something lacking in the ministry of the Holy Spirit, it lies with the sinful human heart. The sinfulness of our hearts will not allow us to come to complete unity on all spiritual matters.

While Bible-believing Christians will always be in disagreement on a number of issues pertaining to Scripture, there is agreement on the main issue; the gospel of Jesus Christ. As far as the other issues are concerned, it is our responsibility to continue to personally study the Scriptures to discover what the Bible actually does say about these issues. Therefore, no such infallible interpreter exists or is even necessary.

Did Jesus Give Peter the Unique Authority to Speak for Him? (Papal Authority) ← Prior Section
What Is the Jewish View of the Authority of Scripture? Next Section →
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