Martin Luther is often identified as one who argued for the right of individual Christians to interpret the Bible for themselves. In large measure, this is correct. After all, Luther himself stood firm on the doctrine of justification by faith alone because he was convinced by his reading of Scripture that the doctrine was true even when much of the medieval church disagreed. Luther is also famous for translating the Bible into German so that laypeople could read it or at least understand it when it was read to them. He and the other Reformers did not believe the Bible was a closed book available only to the scholarly elite and the clergy but was rather the possession of all Christians.
Luther and the other Protestant Reformers, however, did not believe that Christians had the right in their private interpretation of Scripture to interpret it incorrectly. The doctrine of sola Scriptura does not mean that Christians are to pay attention only to their personal understanding of the Bible or that we can make the Scriptures mean whatever we want them to mean. After all, Martin Luther is often quoted as saying, “The Holy Spirit is no skeptic.” The meaning of Scripture is not so uncertain that we can all come up with our own views and never know the truth. That would be a skeptical view of divine truth that says it is wholly subjective and objectively unknowable. Scripture is the only infallible authority for the church, but it is not the only authority. There are other authorities that may command us insofar as they agree with Scripture. Church tradition, including the teaching of councils and individual theologians, as well as ordained teachers are lesser authorities that help us understand God’s Word and provide a measuring stick against which we can check our personal interpretations of Scripture. As a good rule of thumb, if we think we have come up with something new, it is likely that we have read Scripture wrongly. The Reformers, after all, did not claim to teach any new doctrines, and they regularly appealed to church fathers and others in support of their views.
With the right of private interpretation comes the obligation to interpret Scripture correctly. We must work diligently with the text in order to rightly handle “the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15), as Paul tells us in today’s passage. Let us follow sound interpretative principles and read the Bible within the community of God’s people—the church—so that we do not go astray.