A buddy recently asked me to visit with his friend who is considering conversion to the Catholic Church, which I gladly did. After some time of listening, it became evident that a central issue of concern for this friend is the question of who has the right to interpret God’s Word. Evidently, years of debating different biblical interpretations among his Presbyterian brethren has made him weary and a little jaded toward the enterprise of reading Scripture for oneself.
With this experience in mind, I just read Pastor Kevin DeYoung’s recent blog post titled “The Doctrine of Scripture: Four Points from Two Verses” and realized that Kevin’s explanation of 2 Peter 3:15-16 is a wonderful solution for our friend’s biblical doubt. Here is the verse followed by DeYoung’s commentary:
And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures (2 Peter 3:15-16).
On one level, in these two verses Peter is simply saying “Paul agrees with me on this issue of holiness, not with the false teachers.” But in the course of saying that Peter makes some crucial claims about Scripture. Let me highlight four.
1. We see that apostolic writings were being added alongside the Old Testament canon as authoritative Scripture. Verse 16 says some people are twisting Paul’s letters, as they do the other Scriptures. The word in Greek is graphe. It occurs 49 others times in the New Testament and in every instance it refers to the Old Testament Scriptures. It’s remarkable that Peter, writing in the 60s, would place Paul’s writings alongside the Old Testament as equally authoritative.
And what’s more, Peter doesn’t even try to defend this astounding claim. In his mind he’s stating the obvious. This was not a point of contention. Peter didn’t need to convince these churches that Paul’s writings were authoritative on the level of Old Testament Scripture. Apparently, they already recognized that, assumed that, and treated Paul’s writings in that way. So when Peter refers in verse 15 to the wisdom given to Paul he is probably thinking of divine inspiration, not just that the man from Tarsus was a smart guy.
2. Scripture can be hard to understand. Christians throughout the centuries have taken great comfort in verse 16 where Peter admits there are some things in Paul’s writings that are hard to understand. Even Peter, this great Apostle, this first among equals in the early church, recognized there are some tricky parts in the Bible. It’s not all simple stuff.
Christians have always believed in what’s called “the perspicuity of Scripture.” That means Scripture is clear; it’s understandable. But the doctrine of perspicuity has never implied that all parts of Scripture are equally obvious or equally important. Perspicuity means the main things are the plain things. It means that the message of salvation is clear. It means the basic and most central stuff of the biblical storyline is understandable, even if you’re not the sharpest knife in the drawer, even if you’re uneducated, even if you’re a kid. We can all get that Jesus is the Christ, that we must repent, believe in Christ, and obey his commands. This much is clear. But that doesn’t mean everything is clear. Some parts require a lot of study. Some parts need scholarly attention. Some doctrines are complicated. Some parts of the Bible are quite difficult. Just ask Peter about Paul.
3. But the flip side of this second point is that even the hard parts in the Bible still have right and wrong interpretations. Notice, Peter didn’t say, “Some things in Paul are hard to understand. So who am I to say what’s right and what’s wrong? All we have are our interpretations.” No, he says, some things are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction. Peter did not think just because something was hard there couldn’t be a right answer to that hard problem. Some Christians are intellectually lazy. They dishonor the word and the God of the word with their quick surrender into the land of “who knows?” and “it’s not a salvation issues, so who cares?” They say, “Understanding the doctrine of election is hard. Coming to a conclusion on homosexuality is difficult. Making sense of the roles of men and women is impossible.” And so we give up and figure no interpretation can be better than another. Peter, on the other hand, is not afraid to say that the presence of hard texts does not preclude there being right and wrong interpretations.
4. Some wrong interpretations can kill you. There is certainly room for disagreements among Christians about some issues. We see this clearly in Romans 14. We don’t have to be lockstep on every debatable matter. But on some issues errant interpretations are not just wrong, they are dead wrong. The false teachers in Peter’s midst were twisting the Scriptures to their own destruction. They were quoting Scripture, but not well.
I’ve been in debates before where both sides are using the Bible. And what sometimes happens is that good people get confused and think “Well, if they both use the Bible, I guess both sides must be ok.” But Peter suggests you can use the Scripture, but use it in such a misguided, unfaithful, twisted way that your use of Scripture actually leads to your own downfall. Not every issue is this serious, but certainly when we are talking about whether or not God’s people must strive for holy lives and whether or not sexual sin is to be taken seriously (2 Peter 2) we are talking about an issue at the heart of Christianity. So to twist the Bible so that it allows you to call sin a blessing and to call those who oppose the sin all sorts of names that end with “phobia” or “mental” is to spin the Scriptures to your own destruction.