Can only priests interpret the bible?


In my history text books, when it compared Protestantism and Catholicism it said in Catholicism priests interpret the bible and under Protestantism believers interpret the bible for themselves


Wow. Bad history book – or, at least, sloppy writing. :shrug:

In Catholicism, we believe that God has given the ‘teaching authority’ (that is, the ‘magisterium’) to the leaders of the Church in order to teach faith and morals infallibly. Protestants tend to believe that this grant of correct interpretation is given to all, through the Holy Spirit.

Given that the Bible itself says that no Scripture is a matter of private interpretation, I would hope that no Christian would say that they “interpret the Bible for themselves.” Even so, there’s a fine line between what Protestants (in general, since it’s tough to generalize like that) say they’re doing and what the Bible says we’re not supposed to do…


Oh thanks. And I realized some time ago American History books are biased towards liberalism.And what do the liberals hate most? Catholicism


Opinions other than their own…:wink:


…And it’s very evident on these forums.


Well, it isn’t the priests, but rather we believe that the Holy Spirit guides the Church in interpretation. The Church has a teaching Magisterium that is authoritative. As far as I know, the Catholic Church only definitively defined seven different passages of Scripture ( at the Council of Trent). However, there is the whole body of teaching of the Church and when we read Scripture we keep that teaching in mind. So, each Catholic is free to interpret the Scriptures-- within the light of the teaching of the Church. For example, the Church teaches the Jesus becomes present in the Eucharist. We cannot let a private interpretation of John 6 go against that and say that the Eucharist is symbolic. On the other hand, we can read the Genesis account of creation and we can take it quite literally or more metaphorically. But there are essential truths within the Genesis account that we must adhere to in our interpretation. God created the world, we had two parents, they fell to temptation, etc. We cannot allow a private interpretation to lead us astray from core teachings of the Church.

In protestantism, everyone seems to believe they have the authority given by the Holy Spirit to decide how to interpret the Scripture. If they attend a Church where the pastor gives an interpretation they don’t like, they can simply go to another church or start their own. There is no unity, in my opinion, and that is not coming from the Holy Spirit.

The Catechism says:

The Second Vatican Council indicates three criteria for interpreting Scripture in accordance with the Spirit who inspired it.

112 Be especially attentive “to the content and unity of the whole Scripture”. Different as the books which compose it may be, Scripture is a unity by reason of the unity of God’s plan, of which Christ Jesus is the center and heart, open since his Passover….

113 Read the Scripture** within “the living Tradition of the whole Church”**. According to a saying of the Fathers, Sacred Scripture is written principally in the Church’s heart rather than in documents and records, for the Church carries in her Tradition the living memorial of God’s Word, and it is the Holy Spirit who gives her the spiritual interpretation of the Scripture (". . . according to the spiritual meaning which the Spirit grants to the Church"81).

114 Be attentive to the analogy of faith. By “analogy of faith” we mean the coherence of the truths of faith among themselves and within the whole plan of Revelation.


Individual Catholics are welcome to read and interpret the Bible for themselves, as long as their interpretation doesn’t somehow contradict the teachings of Catholic faith.


I think that bible verses can be interpreted individually as long as it is something that touches you and helps you become a better follower of Christ. It isn’t up to the individual to interpret to others and bind them by their interpretations, that is left to the Pope and bishops in unison.

Many protestants think the individual can make interpretations that are binding on others. I think I read somewhere that Methodist have meetings every four years and vote on what is held bound and what isn’t.



It’s a good point; but I don’t think that the issue is the interpretive bindings of ‘individuals’ or ‘others’.

Instead, I think where you’ve hit on something valuable is the point that, if we read the Bible and a verse speaks to us, in our lives, then that’s something good. However, that doesn’t give us the right to say, “this is what the proper interpretation of this verse means.” That kind of interpretation belongs to the magisterium.

So, if I read John 6 and say to myself, “what this chapter is speaking to my heart, right now, is that I need to be on guard against doubting Jesus’ words, since He has the words of eternal life,” then that’s a good ‘personal interpretation.’ Or, taking the lead from the magisterium, I can say, “we interpret this chapter to be talking about the need to seek Jesus’ flesh and blood, especially in the Eucharist!”, then I’m still fine. But, what I can’t do is say, “this chapter means that I should avoid the Eucharist, but seek out Jesus spiritually in His words, since the flesh does not avail anything,” since that ‘private interpretation’ runs counter to the interpretation of Scripture of the Church…


There are hundreds, if not thousands, of different variations in what Protestant churches teach about interpretation. Hows that working out for them?


… which makes them so very different from conservatives, who are entirely willing to consider the merits of viewpoints which differ from their own. Oh no, wait, I meant the other thing.

Humans in general, regardless of social or political bent, are engineered to prefer their own presumptions to dissenting views, even in the face of clear logic (q.v. Motivated Cognition).


The comment about Catholicism makes it sound like individual priests are supposed to interpret for themselves, which is inaccurate, and the comment about Protestantism makes it sound like individual believers do interpret for themselves, which is also generally inaccurate: a great many Protestants displace the responsibility for such interpretation onto their pastors, “classic” (usually mid-C20th) Bible commentaries, the latest Great Evangelical Author™, or even ranting websites.


This is exactly the correct answer.

Catholics interpret the Bible within the framework of the Church. The Church has the final word but there is no prohibition against an individual Catholic reading, meditating upon, interpreting, praying, savoring and living God’s written word.

Some of the greatest theologians, saints and lovers of Scripture were never priests. St. Francis comes to mind - he was never a priest.

There are at least four female doctors of the Church and these were never priests.



Just to “dot the i”, here, so that the wrong idea isn’t taken from Timothy’s post:

Yes, there have been a wide range of Catholics whose ideas and writings have become part of our understanding of God’s self-revelation. Yet, the fact that their ideas have become part of the Church’s teaching tradition doesn’t proceed from the question of who they were – male or female, priest or layperson. Rather, it proceeds from the fact that the Church’s teaching authority – the ‘magisterium’ – saw God’s truth in their ideas and asserted that it was true. It’s the fact that our magisterium endorsed their ideas (in whole or in part) and lent their authority to them that makes them part of our faith tradition.


Private interpretations in the Bible refers to Joe saying a passage means A, Bill says it means B, and Chuck down the street says it means C. It doesn’t mean that individuals are incapable of correctly interpreting the Bible by themselves with help from the Holy Spirit.


People often, even Catholics, misunderstand the Magisterium’s teaching authority. The Magesterium is not the interpreter of the Bible but rather the authoritative interpreter of the Faith. It takes no ordained authority to be an interpreter of Sacred Scripture. Is Scott Hahn a priest or a part of the Magesterium? No, he is an excellent theologian and very qualified. Scott Hahn by no means has the teaching authority like the Magesterium to teach infallible, he is a theologian. Sometimes Catholics get caught in the Protestant error of the Bible being the sole authority of the Faith, whereas the Church is our authority to provide us with the correct and infallible teachings of the Christian faith, not exegesis of the Bible.


Well put. Thank you.



This also is well put, but is it not more correct to say that the Magesterium is the protector of the faith against error?

I don’t mean that as a challenge but only to draw out the conversation a little. What do you think?



In most ways you are probably more accurate. But for times when the faithful need Christian interpretation of modern issues, the Church has to articulate teachings in ways that have never been articulated before. As the Church faces new challenges and new questions, it has the authority to define specifically where the Christian faith stands, something that theologians, who interpret the Bible, have no authority whatsoever. Basically this is development of Doctrine, that is, development of doctrine that has already been established but in need of further articulation. The Magisterium has the authority to interpret doctrine based upon Tradition. So basically, where the OP’s topic is concerned, what specific Bible passages mean is a theologian’s job to harmonize Scripture interpretation with Church doctrine. As long as correct doctrine is not compromised, there is a specific amount of liberty a lay Catholic or theologian has when reading and interpreting Scripture. Even an interpretation of a Protestant or heretic can be useful as long as it does not in any way compromise Catholic doctrine. One can find commentaries by Pelagius to be very helpful. You can find Medieval Catholic glossed Bibles and even Church Fathers who have gleaned from certain heretics. I don’t recommend using Protestant and heretic resources unless one is advanced and grounded in Catholic teachings. I usually try to stay away from those things, but I do make use of established Catholic theologians that has gleaned from them because I trust their judgment much more than mine. If the Glossa Ordinaria and great theologians like Aquinas and Hugh of St. Cher make use of a heretic or schismatic comment, then I feel more than comfortable to accept it.


And that’s a beautiful approach… until Joe, Bill, and Chuck each say that their mutually exclusive interpretations are all the product of the the help of the Holy Spirit.

At that point, how in the world do you hope to assert whose interpretation is correct, if individuals are considered to be capable of individually interpreting the Bible as long as they claim that they’ve had the “help of the Holy Spirit”? :hmmm:

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