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Greek and the interpretation of Scripture
Posted By Eric Sammons On May 26, 2010 @ 8:30 am In Apologetics,Protestantism,Scripture | Comments Disabled
In some Evangelical circles, knowledge of the Biblical Greek language is seen as a trump card in any arguments regarding the interpretation of Scripture passages. When a debate occurs, someone just has to say, “well, in the original Greek, this means…” and the argument is won. But the reality is much different: although knowledge of Biblical Greek is helpful in many ways, it does not automatically give one knowledge of the “real” meaning of a passage. Greek is still a human language, and as such, it has its ambiguities just like any language. Furthermore, those who know Greek have their own biases and preconceptions which they bring to the text. Sometimes knowing the Greek can eliminate certain possible interpretations, but never does it alone give you sure knowledge of the meaning of a debated passage.
One of the most well-known Greek teachers in the Evangelical world is Bill Mounce . I myself have used his materials to learn Biblical Greek. Fortunately, even though he is an expert in the Biblical Greek language, Mounce does not fall into the fallacy of thinking that knowledge of Greek gives you some secret knowledge of the inner meaning of the Bible. He understands that proper interpretation includes many factors outside of just knowing the original language.
Case in point: a recent blog post  by Mounce caught my eye, as he decided to tackle 2 Peter 1:20-21, which is a heavily debated passage between Catholics and Protestants. This passage states:
RSV: First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.
NAB: 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.
NIV: Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.
Greek: τουτο πρωτον γινωσκοντες οτι πασα προφητεια γραφης ιδιας επιλυσεως ου γινεται ου γαρ θεληματι ανθρωπου ηνεχθη προφητεια ποτε αλλα υπο πνευματος αγιου φερομενοι ελαλησαν απο θεου ανθρωποι
The importance of this passage in Catholic/Protestant debates should be clear: does this passage mean that an individual cannot interpret Scripture? If so, that would go a long way towards undercutting one of the bedrocks of Protestantism. After making some introductory comments regarding context, Mounce posits two different possible meanings for verse 20:
Contextually, Peter is saying that the prophecies of Scripture were not made up by the prophets from what they saw and heard in their prophecies and dreams; but what they understood them to mean was the result of the Holy Spirit carrying them along. They too had experienced the direct work of God, just as Peter had on the Mount of Transfiguration. But can we be more specific?
1. One view is to say the passage is talking about origins. These prophecies and interpretations came from God, as opposed to what the false teachers were teaching.
2. A second view is to say the prophecies are not open to any one person’s individual interpretation, but the interpretation must be in conformity to apostolic interpretation. For us today, this would mean Scripture in general.
At this point, I am not sure there is much difference between these two options. Prophecies and their interpretation come from God, not from individuals who vary from the apostolic teaching.
I would be in basic agreement with Mounce at this point, and in fact I would say the two possibilities can be combined into one: the origin of prophecies in Scripture (and all of Scripture for that matter) is the Holy Spirit, and therefore an individual is not allowed to make up their own interpretation of what they mean. Furthermore, any interpretation cannot vary from the deposit of faith – what Mounce calls “apostolic teaching.” But then Mounce goes off the tracks:
But the Catholic REB translates “No prophetic writing is a matter for private interpretation.” This would cement the seat of authority of interpretation in the church and not any individual teacher, preacher, or prophet, and exclude, among others, people like Luther. At one level, this is not saying anything different. The false teachers were wrong to come up with their personal (and different) interpretation of things. But I wonder how Peter would feel being told that his interpretation of the Messianic Kingdom was wrong because is was an individual interpretation and different from the prevailing (i.e., Rabbinic) views of the day. I suspect he wouldn’t agree.
Let’s get this straight: Mounce agrees that it is not proper to get interpretations “from individuals who vary from the apostolic teaching,” yet he thinks the Catholic understanding of the passage could be used against Peter, the chief apostle?! Peter, by definition, cannot have an “individual interpretation” which varied from the apostolic teaching, as he is himself an apostle. Surely Mounce cannot believe that Catholics would use this passage against Peter, the first pope!
And this brings up a more important question: how do we know what is “apostolic teaching”? Most Protestants today would say it is by properly interpreting Scripture. Yet you can see the circular argument: Biblical interpretation cannot vary from apostolic teaching, yet apostolic teaching is determined by (individual) Biblical interpretation. There must be some determination of what is apostolic teaching outside of Scripture. And fittingly, it is the role of the apostles (and their successors), not just any individual, to declare what is apostolic teaching. The reason is that the apostles have the same origin as the Scriptures, for it was the Holy Spirit which gives them their authority.
Although Mounce errs in his understanding of the Catholic interpretation of this passage, I would agree fully with the final paragraph of his post:
As is so often in Greek, the original language gives us the range of interpretive options, but usually it is context that makes the final decision. Greek is not a magic key that reveals the one and only possible interpretation; otherwise we wouldn’t have an endless supplies of Greek commentaries.
Fortunately, Christ did not expect us to be Greek scholars to understand the Bible; instead he gave us apostles and their successors to guard and teach the deposit of faith, which gives us the overall context in which to properly interpret Scripture.
Article printed from Divine Life – A Blog by Eric Sammons: http://ericsammons.com/blog
URL to article: http://ericsammons.com/blog/2010/05/26/greek-and-the-interpretation-of-scripture/
URLs in this post:
 Bill Mounce: http://www.billmounce.com
 recent blog post: http://www.billmounce.com/blog/05-24-2010/can-individual-interpret-scripture-2-pet-1-20
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