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I need a better understanding of Protestant teaching on who has the authority to interpret Sacred Scripture.

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This is far too broad. "Protestant" covers a very wide range of denominations and beliefs. This really needs to be arrowed down. Also, When you get a chance, I'd recommend reading the help page and How we are different than other sites? –  David Stratton Jul 4 '13 at 6:05
I would rather interpret this as a question about the roots of Protestantism: Universal Priesthood, Sola Scriptura and Justification by faith alone. The fact that the seed planted by Luther has blossomed in a diverse family of beliefs is secondary (but is an important lesson about what happens when you liberate believers from a central authority). So some rewording may be useful, but this could be answered as it is. –  justbelieve Jul 4 '13 at 6:15
The fact remains that while many Protestants approach Scripture from a "personal priesthood" perspective, other Protestants value the role of teachers and/or elders in the church. It is not possible to draw such a sweeping conclusion about "all Protestants." Independent Bible study was not the focus of the Reformation, and is not a core doctrine of Protestant theology. –  Jas 3.1 Jul 4 '13 at 20:32
Regarding roots Martin Luther's 95 theses would help clarify spurgeon.org/~phil/history/95theses.htm –  r3s3arch3r777 Dec 26 '13 at 23:27
In Protestantism, an interpretation stands on its own merits and is accepted based on how convincing it is. It does not depend on who gives the interpretation. –  Narnian Dec 27 '13 at 12:57

5 Answers 5

Protestants believe in the Priesthood of all Believers, which is to say that protestants believe that all Christians have a direct connection with God--there is no need to go through a Priest. That's not to say that they don't have Priests or Pastors or other figures of leadership, but they don't fulfill the role of mediator between man and God, that they do in the Catholic tradition.

As such, every protestant believer is essentially expected to read scripture directly--not simply listen to teachings from scripture, presented by priests (as I know many Catholics choose to do).

This leads to two distinct phenomenon:

  1. Some protestants try for a sort of "Lone Ranger Christian" approach, interpreting scripture on their own, sometimes cherry-picking the interpretations they like, discarding others.

    This phenomenon is a point of great criticism from Catholics, but I believe is much more spoken about than actually experienced in practice.

  2. The more common and practical experience is that by encouraging all protestants to do their own Bible study and interpretation, the end result is that all protestants interpret scripture. As the as Proverbs says, iron sharpen iron. When protestants examine scripture individually, and in groups, and discuss their views and opinions, it allows the group as a whole ownership over the interpretation, which can be a big benefit.

Of course, there can be drawbacks, and all methods of scriptural interpretation can be abused.

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You should also address the question of what happens when various churches come up with different, incompatible answers though presumably guided by the same Holy Spirit: you get an explosion of denominations not seen for a 1000 years after the centralization of power in the church (not that suppression of dissent was a good thing). –  justbelieve Jul 4 '13 at 7:04
Smorgasbord Christianity can be similar to "Lone Ranger Christianity". 2 Tim. 4:3 seems to point to such becoming popular: "For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear." (NIV) –  Paul A. Clayton Jul 4 '13 at 13:45
Excellent answer. May I suggest correcting the capitalization on "priest"? Many Protestants would insist on need of going through a (the) Priest. –  pterandon Jul 4 '13 at 15:36
@pterandon: You can edit to correct the capitalization yourself :) –  Flimzy Jul 4 '13 at 19:47

Some of the other answers have highlighted the Evangelical and Mainstream Protestant positions on the interpretation of scripture. I wanted to draw attention to a different position adopted by Anabaptist churches, specifically Mennonite, Amish, Brethren and some related churches. In those churches interpretation of the scriptures is done by the community.

The Priesthood of all believers is upheld by everyone in the community having the right and ability to contribute to the interpretation. The community can (and should) give special weight to those with the skills, knowledge and training in biblical interpretation: however there is no hierarchical 'priest' who can dictate to the rest of the community what the interpretation is.

This 'community interpretation' happens at multiple levels. A small group may work on interpreting some piece of scripture within itself. That interpretation might be communicated to the church as a whole, which takes account of it, making its own interpretation by which it guides its own life. The church might contribute its understanding to a denominational group, and might take account of denominational understandings in its own interpretation.

This approach also upholds the role and status that Christ gives to the Church as more than simply individual believers who happen to meet together. It is also related to the Orthodox approach, which reserves to the church the role of interpreting scriptures, but does not do it through the church hierarchy in the same way the Catholic church does.

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Good answer. I'd say that this compares well to the prima Scriptura model in Methodist theology, where they use the Wesleyan Quadrilateral and to Reformed hermeneutics, e.g., Richard Pratt in his book He Gave Us Stories suggests that interpretation is done as a balance between Christians of the past (history/tradition), contemporary Christian community (current context), and individual understanding. –  metal Jul 5 '13 at 18:34

Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, in Protestant Churches there is no central single authority for interpreting scriptures and to layout fixed doctrines to follow. This is why there are many denominations among the Protestants. Denominations within themselves have their own doctrines to follow but it's always slightly different from other Protestant denominations.

Examples: Seventh Day Adventist Church has a strong doctrine on observing the Sabbath and against consuming unclean animals while other Protestant churches consider these laws as obsolete. Some churches like United Pentecostal Church does not adhere to the Trinity doctrine while most of the other Protestant churches adhere to it.

Anyone with influential personalities can start a new church or denomination. See this question. This has a positive side and negative side. Without a mature knowledge about the scripture it is very easy to become a heretic knowingly and unknowingly. But even the Roman Catholic way of single authority for interpreting scripture also has a positive side and negative side. The positive side is that there is less confusion regarding doctrines for the members and the negative side is that the Church can exercise it's authorities for it's own benefits and no one can question it. This was the reason why Martin Luther stood against the Catholic Church for the wrong doctrines prevailed in the Roman Catholic Church and his actions sparked the beginning of Protestant Churches.

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I came across these rules of Biblical Interpretation more than a year ago. I would like to offer a quote from number 5 for an answer to the question of authority.

5 Scripture must be its own expositor, since it is a rule of itself. If I depend on a teacher to expound it to me, and he should guess at its meaning, or desire to have it so on account of his sectarian creed, or to be thought wise, then his guessing, desire, creed, or wisdom is my rule, not the Bible. Psalms 19:7-11; 119:97-105; Matthew 23:8-10; 1 Corinthians 2:12-16; Ezekiel 34:18,19; Luke 11:52; Malachi 2:7,8

I wish that I had known these rules many years ago. For those who are interested, here is a link: http://www.restoringtheoldpaths.com/uploads/William_Millers_Rules_of_Interpretation.pdf

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Welcome to the site! This next has nothing to do with the quality of your answer (which was good, by the way), it's just standard to help new visitors avoid misunderstanding the site (as I did at first.) As a new visitor, I'd recommend checking out the following two posts, which are meant to help newcomers "learn the ropes": the help page and How we are different than other sites? –  David Stratton Dec 27 '13 at 0:24

As others have remarked, Protestantism doesn't recognize a central authority, or any intermediary but Christ between the faithful and God. This (like other Protestant teachings) is a reaction to the perceived abuses of the Catholic Church of the time (the mere naming of the faith is a witness to its reactive origins).

Others have expounded the doctrine of Universal Priesthood. I am going to focus more upon the consequences of Sola Scriptura, another tenet of Protestantism. Martin Luther asserted, "a simple layman armed with Scripture is greater than the mightiest pope without it". The formal version that emerged during Reformation is Sola Scriptura, which states that the Bible has all the information required for salvation. This is demonstrated by its

  • inspiration (the Word of God)
  • clarity (the doctrine is clear and accessible to an ordinary man of average IQ),
  • efficacy (the Scripture produces immediate submission in readers),
  • authority (the Scripture is the will of God and must be obeyed without exception) and
  • sufficiency (there are no holes in the Scripture that need to be filled by science, tradition or later clarification of doctrine).

In particular, clarity means that any man can interpret Scripture in good faith (though he must take into account history and tradition, a requirement which is perhaps ignored by those who start a new faith or write a new book for selfish goals, or through ignorance and lack of humility).

A visible, though probably unintended consequence of the removal of central authority / censorship (initially meant as a reaction against the Catholic Church) was the unprecedented explosion in the number of denominations after Reformation. While a community might come to an agreement by doctrinal discussions among members and the innate human desire to conform (groupthink), distinct communities (especially widely separated ones, such as New World vs. Old World) will not have an opportunity to reconcile their beliefs.

One common objection to Sola Scriptura is that both the New Testament and the Old Testament books included in the Bible were selected by the church itself, therefore leading to a circular argument. Many non-canonical books, (i.e. books not included in the Bible -- some of which are nevertheless referenced in the "Bible") contain information distinct or apparently contradictory to the canonical books. Protestants answer that the canonical books were widely accepted since the early church, and perhaps selected by Peter, Paul and John. There are other objections to Sola Scriptura (see e.g. the Catholic-inspired article Twenty One Reasons to Reject Sola Scriptura). From a human psychology POV, I suppose it is understandable that in correcting past abuses, reformers might err in the opposite direction.

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Mod notice: Complaints about and discussion on the topic of downvoting is not a constructive use of comments. Concerns or clarifications about how the system works should be taken to Christianity Meta. If downvotes on a particular post are a concern, ask a positive rather than a negative question. Rather than asking "Why the downvotes?", ask "Does anybody have suggestions on how this can be improved?" or something of that pattern. Comments that even mention downvotes don't even need a moderator to remove: any community member with a single flag can make them auto-delete. –  Caleb Jul 5 '13 at 8:46
Now about your answer: Although I have upvoted this as I think it's an exceptionally good overview of a doctrine that is exactly relevant to the question, it does kind of end on a down-note. I really think it would be a better answer without the last paragraph. While it correctly identifies a Catholic objection to the doctrine, it is unnecessary to cover the Catholic position in or defend the Protestant position in the scope of this question. In doing so, you also err and present a counter-argument that is not the most significant one, thus weekending rather than defending the position. –  Caleb Jul 5 '13 at 8:49

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