Does 2 Peter 1:20 mean we can't interpret scripture on our own?

Catholic Church Authority

by Matt Slick
1/31/2018

Roman Catholics routinely appeal to 2 Peter 1:20 for justification of their position that Protestants are not allowed to properly interpret Scripture because they don't have authority. Their approach is interesting because they are appealing to Scripture to justify why we Protestants can't do the same thing; namely, appeal to Scripture for our position. Interesting.

Let's take a look at the verse.  I'll quote the verse from several versions, including one from the vatican website.

  • "Know this first of all, that there is no prophecy of scripture that is a matter of personal interpretation," (2 Pet. 1:20, NAB, Vatican Website, vatican.va/archive/ENG0839/__P127.HTM)
  • "But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation," 2 Pet. 1:20, NASB)
  • "Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation," (2 Pet. 1:20, KJV)

Notice that the verse says "prophecy OF scripture." It does not say, "no scripture" is of any personal interpretation. Prophecy is a subset of Scripture. It is not Scripture as a whole. So, what is prophecy of Scripture? Well, its prophecy.  Let's look at the context.

Prophecy of Scripture

Peter was speaking of the prophetic word that was "made sure" (verse 19) which is, most probably, 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."  The context is dealing with the "power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ," (v. 16) which was then known to them.  To who?  Either to the Old Testament saints or those to whom Peter is writing.  I believe that it is referring to prophecy (forthtelling) is confirmed by Peter's earlier 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).

This makes sense, especially when consider what Peter says next in 2 Peter 1:21.

"for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God."

Certainly people can interpret Scripture of their own will. It's not difficult. But prophecy, the predicting of future events, is not done by a person's own will. Instead, it's done by the work of the Holy Spirit.

The Greek word for prophecy is προφητείας, 'prophateias.'  It is the Strong's Greek number 4394 and occurs 19 times in the New Testament.  We find it used in different ways.

  1. Telling the future:  Matthew 13:14; 1 Tim. 1:18; 4:14; 2 Pet. 1:20-21;
  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; 2 Pet. 1:20-21
  5. The spirit of prophecy, Rev. 19:10
  6. Possibly Scripture as a whole, 2 Pet. 1:20-21

2 Peter 1:20 does not say that we cannot interpret the word of God without church authority. But that is what the Catholics want to make it say.  Furthermore, the Greek word for "interpretation" is ἑρμηνεία, hermeneia.  It occurs twice in the New Testament. 

  • 1 Corinthians 12:10, "and to another the effecting of miracles, and to another prophecy, and to another the distinguishing of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, and to another the interpretation of tongues."
  • 1 Corinthians 14:26, "What is the outcome then, brethren? When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification."

So, the word "interpretation" exists in Greek, but it is not used in 2 Pet. 1:20.  The Roman Catholics are not getting it right.

Scripture speaks of individual's ability to interpret Scripture

  • 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."
  • RoRomans 14:5, "One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind."

As you can see from the three verses above, we are told that the anointing we have received, the Holy Spirit, will teach us what we need to know (1 John 2:27). We see that people compared even what Paul the Apostle said to Scripture and they were commended for it (Acts 17:11). We also see that Paul said "each person must be fully convinced in his own mind" regarding worship days (Romans 14:5). If ecclesiastical authority is necessary in order to interpret Scripture, then why is it these three verses speak to the contrary?  There is no necessity given to submit to an ecclesiastical authority that will tell people what the Scriptures "really mean."

Conclusion

Though the Roman Catholics want to insist that 2 Peter 1:20 justifies their position that we Protestants cannot interpret Scripture by ourselves, the verse does not support that. As is evident from reading it, the verse is speaking of the subset of Scripture; namely, prophecy. Prophecy is something that occurs within Scripture, just as narration, poetry, imprecation, songs, etc., also occur in Scripture.  But, it is only prophecy that is singled out regarding interpretation. 

Table of usage

The following table is the listing of every occurrence of the Greek word προφητείας, propheteias, Strong's #4394 that occurs in the New Testament. You can read each verse and see if you agree with the classification I have assigned it. I see five major senses in which the word is used. In some instances, the possible sense of the word could fit into more than one category. Such is the case with 2 Peter 1:20, 21; Revelation 11:6; 22:7, 10, 18, 19. Check it out. 

 

An examination of every occurance of the word προφητείας, prophateias, that occurs in the New Testament
  Telling the Future A Spiritual Gift Book of Revelation Proclam-ation Spirit of Prophecy Possible Scripture
as a whole
Matt. 13:14, “In their case the prophecy of Isaiah is being fulfilled, which says, ‘YOU WILL KEEP ON HEARING, BUT WILL NOT UNDERSTAND; YOU WILL KEEP ON SEEING, BUT WILL NOT PERCEIVE." X          
Rom. 12:6, "Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, each of us is to exercise them accordingly: if prophecy, according to the proportion of his faith."   X        
1 Cor. 12:10, "and to another the effecting of miracles, and to another prophecy, and to another the distinguishing of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, and to another the interpretation of tongues."   X        
1 Cor. 13:2, "If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing."   X        
1 Cor. 13:8, "Love never fails; but if there are gifts of prophecy, they will be done away; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be done away."   X        
1 Cor. 14:6, "But now, brethren, if I come to you speaking in tongues, what will I profit you unless I speak to you either by way of revelation or of knowledge or of prophecy or of teaching?"   X        
1 Cor. 14:22, "So then tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe but to unbelievers; but prophecy is for a sign, not to unbelievers but to those who believe."   X        
1 Thess. 5:20, "do not despise prophetic utterances."   X        
1 Tim. 1:18, "This command I entrust to you, Timothy, my son, in accordance with the prophecies previously made concerning you, that by them you fight the good fight." X     X    
1 Tim.4:14, "Do not neglect the spiritual gift within you, which was bestowed on you through prophetic utterance with the laying on of hands by the presbytery." X     X    
  Telling the Future A Spiritual Gift Book of Revelation Proclam-ation Spirit of Prophecy Possible Scripture
as a whole
2 Pet. 1:20, "But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation." X     X    
2 Pet. 1:21, "for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God." X     X    
Rev. 1:3, "Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of the prophecy, and heed the things which are written in it; for the time is near."     X      
Rev. 11:6, "These have the power to shut up the sky, so that rain will not fall during the days of their prophesying; and they have power over the waters to turn them into blood, and to strike the earth with every plague, as often as they desire." X     X    
Rev. 19:10, "Then I fell at his feet to worship him. But he said to me, “Do not do that; I am a fellow servant of yours and your brethren who hold the testimony of Jesus; worship God. For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.”         X  
Rev. 22:7, “And behold, I am coming quickly. Blessed is he who heeds the words of the prophecy of this book.” X   X      
Rev. 22:10, "And he said to me, “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near." X   X      
Rev. 22:18, "I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues which are written in this book." X   X      
Rev. 22:19, "and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his part from the tree of life and from the holy city, which are written in this book." X   X      

 

 

 
 

About The Author

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