Doctrinal Matters: Difficult Passages
Is Private Interpretation Possible?
Does the phrase “no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation” (2 Peter 1:20) mean that we can’t understand the Bible for ourselves?
A casual reading of 2 Peter 1:20—with little concern for the context in which the passage is found—might very well lead one to understand the verse in such a manner. However, a closer examination of this passage reveals that it has no reference at all to those who read the Scriptures, but refers instead to those who wrote the Scriptures. By studying the context of the passage, one learns that the passage is discussing how the Scriptures came into existence, not how they are to be “interpreted.”
Continuing the thought from verse 20 to verse 21, we read: “Knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation, for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (emp. added). That little word “for” in verse 21 connects the two thoughts. The English word “for” derives from the Greek conjunction gar. Strong’s Greek-Hebrew Dictionary (1994) indicates that this word is a “primary particle” that assigns “a reason” and is used in argument for “explanation” or “intensification.” The reason that “no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation” is because “prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (emp. added). The word “for” connects the two thoughts. Peter is saying that the prophets did not invent what they wrote; rather, they were guided by the Holy Spirit (cf. 2 Timothy 3:16-17). No doubt this is why the NIV reads: “No prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation” (2 Peter 1:20, emp. added)—not the reader’s interpretation.
Furthermore, according to Mounce’s Analytical Greek Lexicon of the New Testament (1993), the Greek word epilusis (translated “interpretation” in 2 Peter 1:20) means primarily “a loosing” or “liberation.” The stem of epilusis is luo, and means literally “to loosen, unbind, unfasten” (p. 305). Therefore, “no prophecy of Scripture” ever was released, loosed, or given out by the prophets’ own inventions. They did not put their own “interpretation” on God’s message; instead, the Holy Spirit guided them. Thus, this passage has no reference to present-day interpreters of the text, but rather to those who wrote it—i.e., the prophets or apostles (cf. Ephesians 3:5).