2 Pet 1:20—Can an Individual Interpret Scripture? (Monday with Mounce 73)
2 Pet 1:20-21 are important verses for our doctrine of
Scripture, and so it should come as no surprise that there are some differences
of opinion on the meaning of the passage.
Peter begins in v 16 by saying, “For we did not follow
cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our
Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (ESV). Peter is
asserting his authority over the false teachers because of his direct
experience with Jesus. One source of this first-hand knowledge is the Mount of
Transfiguration experience (vv 17-19).
Peter continues by adding a second source of authority:
the prophetic word (v 19), and then adds, “knowing this first of all, that no
prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy
was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were
carried along by the Holy Spirit” (ESV).
While there are a host of questions about the meaning of
specific Greek words, the general meaning of the passage is clear. The audience
of the letter should not listen to the false teachers but to Peter (and the
other apostles). Their understanding of doctrinal truths is based on first hand
information and on the direct work of the Holy Spirit, as was that of the
original prophets. Sometimes, when looking at a passage with multiple
questions, it is best to start with what we all agree on. So often what we
believe in common is lost in the minutia of differences (as important as they
may be) of a passage.
1. Who are the “we”? At least it is Peter, James, and
John, since the three of them saw the Transfiguration. But it seems possible
that Peter is thinking about all the apostles. However, in v 19 contextually it
looks like the “we” is expanding to Peter and his audience.
2. What is “the prophetic word”? Again, letting context
be our guide, it is probable that he is thinking of the OT prophecies specifically
about the coming of the Messiah and his kingdom, which after all is the context
of the discussion. It specifically is a “prophecy of Scripture” (προφητεια
γραφης). It is also possible that Peter is also thinking about NT prophecies by
first century prophets that agree with the OT message.
3. The ESV translates γινεται as “comes” in the sense of
“come into being.” This is the most basic meaning of γινομαι. In this case, the
issue is one of the origins of true prophetic interpretation.
4. But what is ιδιας επιλθσεως? “One’s own
interpretation.” Certainly the gist is clear. The false teachers were coming up
with their own — and therefore incorrect — interpretation of things. They were
wrong to deviate from the apostolic understanding of things. But can we be more
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
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.
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 it was an individual interpretation and different from the
prevailing (i.e., Rabbinic) views of the day. I suspect he wouldn’t agree.
For me, v 21 cements the interpretation that Peter is
talking about origin. Moo states, “Believers are to pay attention to the
prophetic word (the main point of v. 19) because they know first
of all that it does not originate from human beings (v. 20), but from God (v.
Any interpretation of the Messianic Kingdom that denies
the future reality of the kingdom (as was true in Peter’s day, see 3:11-13),
what Peter calls “cleverly devised myths” (v 16), comes under the same divine
judgment as the false prophets in Jeremiah’s day, who “speak visions from their
own minds, not from the mouth of God” (Jer. 23:16).
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 endless supplies of Greek
William D. [Bill] Mounce posts every Monday about the Greek language, exegesis, and related topics at Koinonia. He is the author of numerous books, including the bestselling Basics of Biblical Greek, and is the general editor for Mounce's Complete Expository Dictionary of the Old and New Testament Words. He served as the New Testament chair of the English Standard Version Bible translation, and is currently on the Committee for Bible Translation for the NIV. Learn more and visit Bill's blog (co-authored with scholar and his father Bob Mounce) at www.billmounce.com.
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