Do we need Church authority to properly interpret Scripture?

by Matt Slick

Roman Catholics routinely ask where we Protestants get our authority to interpret Scripture. I find this to be an interesting question because it presupposes that we need to have some sort of offical authority over us to be able to understand and expound God's word. Is such a requirement valid?  No.  But, it is something they assume is necessary.

If such authority is needed (which I do not grant that it is) then does that mean that we Protestants can't read Scripture and understand what it says? Does it mean that the Scriptures are so cryptically written that the plain reading of Scripture is not possible without the overarching guiding proclamations of the Roman Catholic Church?  That seems to be what Roman Catholics tell me all the time.

But, its the Roman Catholic Church's authority that added seven books to the Bible in the 1500s.  It routinely goes far beyond Scripture in its adoration of Mary.  It has added works to salvation and purgatory to purification.  It teaches that the Lord's supper is actually the body and blood of Christ and that the Mass is a continual re-sacrifice of Jesus. It maintains that grace is like a substance that can be infused into a person's soul through participation in the Roman Catholic ordained sacraments which makes a person more and more righteous. Unfortunately, none of this is found in Scripture.

Not only that, there are many things the Roman Catholic Church says that are highly questionable. Please consider the following.

  • Observe the Commandments to attain salvation: CCC 2068, "the mission of teaching all peoples, and of preaching the Gospel to every creature, so that all men may attain salvation through faith, Baptism and the observance of the Commandments."
  • No Better way than to look to Mary:  CCC 972 "After speaking of the Church, her origin, mission, and destiny, we can find no better way to conclude than by looking to Mary,"
  • Mary made atonement for the sins of man: "...Mary, by her spiritual entering into the sacrifice of her divine son for men, made atonement for the sins of man and (de congruon) merited the application of the redemptive grace of Christ.  In this manner she cooperates in the subjective redemption of mankind."  (Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, Ott, page 213).
  • Salvation:  In Roman Catholicism that which is necessary for salvation includes the church (CCC 846), baptism (CCC 1257), penance (CCC 980), sacraments (CCC 1129), service and witness to the faith (CCC 1816), keeping the ten commandments (CCC 2036 with 2070), and detachment from riches (CCC 2556).

The authority of the Roman Catholic Church has led millions astray. Instead of encouraging people to read the word of God for their own (Acts 17:11; Romans 4:5), the Roman Catholic Church urges its members and others, to submit to whatever interpretation it's church imposes upon its people.

"The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone. Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ," (CCC par. 85).

Fortunately, we don't need their approval or their authority to read the Bible and understand what it means.  In addition, their requirement is not found in Scripture.  It is extra-biblical.  The Bible never says you have to have some church's authority in order to understand it.  So, I reject their position that we must have their particular authority in order to interpret Scripture. If anything, the Bible speaks to the contrary. Please consider the following verses.

  • 1 John 2:27, "As for you, the anointing which you received from Him abides in you, and you have no need for anyone to teach you; but as His anointing teaches you about all things, and is true and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, you abide in Him."
  • Acts 17:11, "Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so."
  • Romans 14:5, "One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind."

1 John 2:27

This verse does not mean that we don't need teachers; otherwise, he would not have written the letter. The context is talking about knowing the truth (v. 21) the Holy Spirit is the Teacher who indwells every believer. Furthermore in the context of the Gnostic error that was prevalent at the time and place of the writing of this epistle, Christians knew the truth and they knew enough to reject the antichrists (v. 18).

If we are supposed to submit to the authority of an ecclesiastical body that represent the church, why does John speak to the contrary when he says to the Christians that they have the indwelling Holy Spirit "the anointing" who will teach them all things they need to know?

Acts 17:11

If we need authority in order to understand Scripture, then did those people in Acts 17:11 possess that authority? It doesn't seem so since nothing of the sort is stated. It doesn't make any sense to say that they had to have Church authority to check what Paul the apostle said against Scripture. After all, Paul had the authority of Christ himself yet, apparently ordinary believers checked what he said again Scripture and they are praised for it. Why can't we imitate the same procedure and examine all things with Scripture, too?  Of course we can.  This verse clearly speaks against the requirement of having Roman Catholic Church authority in order to interpret God's word.

Romans 14:5

In Romans 14, Paul speaks about dietary laws and worship days. In verse 5 he says that "...each person must be fully convinced in his own mind" regarding what day do worship on. If authority is needed to interpret Scripture, then why does Paul not state that here? In fact, Paul's admonition, is that different people must be convinced in their own minds.  That contradicts the notion of needing authority to interpretGod's word. In fact, this can lead to differences of opinion which Paul allows for.  Paul does not tell people to submit to an overarching ecclesiastical authority. He speaks to the contrary.  

2 Peter 1:20

Peter was speaking of the prophetic word that was made sure (verse 19) which is the prophetic revelation of the Old Testament Scriptures. It's in that context that he says "no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation."  What prophecy?  Does it just mean "all Scirpture" or is it referring to specific propheices concerning Christ? The context is dealing with the "power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ," (v. 16) which was then known to them. This is why it says in the very next verse "for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God," (2 Pet. 1:21).  so it appears that second Peter 1:20 when it says "prophecy of Scripture," is speaking about literal prophecy.  This is consistent with what Peter said in his first epistle. 

"As to this salvation, the prophets who prophesied of the grace that would come to you made careful searches and inquiries, 11 seeking to know what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating as He predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow," (1 Peter 1:10-11).

The Greek word for prophecy is 'prophateia.'  It is the Strong's Greek number 4394.  It occurs 19 times in the New Testament and is used in different senses.

  1. Telling the future:  Matthew 13:14; 1 Tim. 1:18; 4:14; 2 Pet. 1:21;
  2. A spiritual gift: Romans 12:6; 1 Cor. 12:10; 13:2; 13:8; 14:6; 14:22; 1 Thess. 5:20;
  3. Book of Revelation: Rev. 1:3; 22:7, 10, 18, 19
  4. Possible future forthtelling as well as proclaiming, Rev. 11:6
  5. The spirit of prophecy, Rev. 19:10;



Following are a list of questions I've developed for Roman Catholics regarding the need for proper authority in order to interpret Scripture.

  1. Why do I need authority to interpret Scripture?
  2. Does having church authority mean those who possess that authority will always intepret Scripture properly?
  3. If having church authority does not guarantee proper interpretation of Scripture, then why is church authority needed at all?
  4. Can you show me in scripture where it says we need any authority to interpret it?
  5. If such a requirement is not found in Scripture, then why must I believe that I need authority to interpret Scripture?
  6. If such a requirement is not found in Scripture, then where does such a requirement come from?
  7. Are the Roman Catholics implying that only those who are properly designated by their particular church are qualified to interpret Scripture?
  8. Am I, as a Protestant, not able to read a verse and understand God's word without the alledged Roman Catholic Church authority guiding me?
  9. 1 Thess. 5:22 says to abstain from every form of evil (NASB). I interpret it to me that I should refrain from practicing every kind of evil. Am I right?
  10. If you say I am correct in my interpretation of 1 Thess. 5:22, then how did I interpret it properly without church authority?
  11. If I am wrong in my interpretation of 1 Thess. 5:22, then what does the verse really mean?
  12. If you can't tell me what 1 Thess. 5:22 really means in contradition to how I interpreted it, then how can you tell me I am wrong?
  13. If we must have authority to interpret Scripture, why does Paul the apostle tell all those in Rome (Rom. 1:7) to be fully persuaded in their own minds regarding worship days (Rom. 14:5)?
  14. Did each individual in the Roman church (Rom. 1:7) have their own authority to interpret Scripture since Paul did not tell them to submit to church authority in interpreting God's word in Rom. 14:5?
  15. In Acts 17:11 Luke praised the Jews in Thessolonica for examining what Paul and Silas were teaching against Scripture. Did each Jew who did this have authority to do so from the Roman Catholic Church?
  16. If each person in Acts 17:11 had Roman Catholic church authority to properly interpret Scripture, can you show that to be true from Scripture?
  17. If each person in Acts 17:11 did not have Roman Catholic church authority, then why were they praised for interpreting Scripture on their own and comparing what Paul the apostle said to it?
  18. Is proper interpretation of Scripture only possible if I have Church authority to interpret it?
  19. How do you know that the Roman Catholic Church has authority to interpret Scripture?
  20. If you say that the Roman Catholic Church teaches that only the Roman Catholic Church has the authority to interpret Scripture, how do you know that such a claim is correct?
  21. If you say that the Scriptures teach that the Roman Catholic Church alone has the authority to interpret Scripture, then how do you know your interpretation is correct?
  22. If you say your interpretation is correct because it agrees with the Roman Catholic Church, then did you exercise your own authority when interpreting the Scripture?
  23. If the Roman Catholic Church says I need authority to interpret Scripture, why should we trust what the church says when it appears to teach things not found in Scripture such as purgatory, indulgences, the sacred heart of mary, the rosary, the immaculate conception, etc.?
  24. Does 2 Peter 1:20 mean all Scripture or only prophecy of Scripture?
  25. If 2 Peter 1:20 is referring only to prophecy of Scripture, then why do Catholics routinely missapply it to mean all Scripture?




About The Author

Matt Slick is the President and Founder of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry.