Do Lay People Have the Authority to Interpret Scripture Infallibly?

Visiting the Martyn-Lloyd Jones article about the supposed errors of the Catholic faith, we find this one about interpreting Scripture:

“Protestantism teaches the ‘universal priesthood of all believers’ and the right of every man to read the Scripture for himself and to interpret it under the illumination of the Holy Spirit.”

“Rome denies that completely and absolutely. She, and she alone, is able to understand and to interpret the Scripture and to tell us what to believe.”1

This is one of the celebrated differences between the numerous Christian denominations which have sprung up since the early 16th century and the Church which Christ established in the first century.

To  Whom  Did  Jesus  Give  the  Authority  to  Teach?

Jesus was clear about this at the end of the Gospel of Matthew: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you.  And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”2

The apostles were given the mission to teach and, importantly, “all that I have commanded you.”  He did not order them to write a New Testament.  While the Bible is divinely inspired, He did not say that teaching would have to wait until the Bible was completed and the canon ultimately defined at the Councils of Hippo and Carthage centuries later.3

Can  the  Laity  Interpret  Scripture?

Jesus established who the teachers are to be:  the apostles and their successors.4  Where does that leave the rest of us?

The teaching authority of the Church (“Magisterium”) has strictly defined just seven passages of the Bible.  The Church’s focus is to define doctrine.We, the laity, are encouraged to study Scripture and its myriad of finer points using all available and reliable sources.  The key thing to remember is that if we conclude something which is contrary to the Church’s teaching over the last two millennia, we would be wise to look for our error and not assume we are the final arbiter.  Failing to do this, we run the risk of adding our names to the confusion brought on by the 30,000+ who self-empowered themselves to start new denominations.6


1 — “Martyn Lloyd-Jones on Roman Catholicism,”

2 – Matthew 28: 19-20.  The New Catholic Answer Bible, Fireside Catholic Publishing; Wichita, KS, 2005.

3 – “It was not until the Councils of Hippo and Carthage that the Catholic Church defined which books made it into the New Testament and which didn’t. Probably the council fathers studied the (complete) Muratorian Fragment and other documents, including, of course, the books in question themselves, but it was not until these councils that the Church officially settled the issue.”

“The plain fact of the matter is that the canon of the Bible was not settled in the first years of the Church. It was settled only after repeated (and perhaps heated) discussions, and the final listing was determined by Catholic bishops.”  From “Was the Canon of Scripture determined before the Church councils decided it?,”

4 – “Our apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife for the office of bishop. For this reason, therefore, having received perfect foreknowledge, they appointed those who have already been mentioned and afterwards added the further provision that, if they should die, other approved men should succeed to their ministry.”  — Pope St. Clement of Rome, circa A.D. 80. From “Why is That in Tradition?, by Patrick Madrid, Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division; Huntington, Indiana, 2002.

5 – ▪ The reference to being “born of water and the Spirit” in John 3:5 includes the idea of   baptism.

▪ In telling the apostles, “Do this [the Eucharist] in memory of me” in Luke 22:19 and 1 Corinthians 11:24, Jesus appointed the apostles priests.

▪ In Matthew 18:18 and John 20:22–23, Jesus conferred on the apostles the power to forgive sins; everyone does not share this power.

▪ Romans 5:12 refers to the reality of original sin.

▪ The presbyters referred to in James 5:14 are ordained, not merely elder members of the Christian community.

From “Are Catholics free to interpret Bible verses without the Church’s approval?,” by Peggy Frye,

6 – The Bible was never intended to be our sole source of guidance.  “Therefore, brothers, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught, either by an oral statement or by a letter of ours.” (2 Thessalonians 2:15) and “Know this first of all, that there is no prophecy of scripture that is a matter of personal interpretation, for no prophecy ever came through human will; but rather human beings moved by the holy Spirit spoke under the influence of God.” (2 Peter 1:20-21) as found in The New Catholic Answer Bible, Fireside Catholic Publishing; Wichita, KS, 2005.  If everyone outside of apostolic succession claims to be guided by the Holy Spirit, then why is there so much confusion and contradictions in the non-Catholic Christian world?


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