From the Treasure Chest: “Difficulties of Private Interpretation”

Alec Guinness (as Chesterton’s Fr. Brown) stands in for Fr. Bampfield

A few weeks ago, I happened upon a lengthy essay by Reverend George Bampfield entitled “Cannot.” Yesterday, I posted a little note on the Bible, and today Reverend Bampfield will help me explain something else that helped me decide to become a Catholic. I don’t know what Father George looks like so I have borrowed Sir Alec Guinness in the role of Chesterton’s Father Brown as a proxy.

The reason, or answer if you will, is right there in the title of this new Bampfield gem that I discovered today, by searching the YIM Catholic Bookself with the word “scripture.” I think you will enjoy what my friend Father George has to say on this matter.

Considering that I used to work on aircraft at one point in my Marine Corps career, I didn’t have the luxury of interpreting the NAVSEASYSCOM technical pubs on the aircraft I was tasked to repair, nor should I have been allowed to either. As such, this essay makes nothing but sense to me. Take it away Father George,

Difficulties of Private Interpretation

I was a young man when my inquiry into truth began. I wished to save my soul—to know the truth and do the right; I asked myself and others how I was to find the truth ; the answer was ever the same, “Search the Scriptures.”

But here came a difficulty.

I knew that the Scriptures were the Word of God ; but I knew also that God’s Writings are then only of use to us when we know what God meant by that which He wrote. God’s Word, if we put to it the devil’s meaning or man’s meaning, is not God’s Word at all. “The letter killeth;” it is “the spirit” which “quickeneth.” What we need is God’s meaning of God’s Word. The same Holy Ghost who wrote the Scriptures, He only can interpret them.

Was it possible for me to miss this meaning? I read in the gospels that the Scriptures could be so misused. The devil tempted our Lord with Scripture texts, using God’s Word with the devil’s meaning (St. Matthew iv.); the Pharisees rejected our Lord by Scripture: “Search the Scriptures, and see that out of Galilee a prophet riseth not” (St. John vii. 52), using God’s Word, indeed, but perverted by man’s sin: of the Sadducees our Lord said, that though they read the Scriptures, they knew them not (St. Mark xii. 24); and the Apostles were “foolish and slow of heart to believe all the things which the prophets have spoken.” (St. Luke xxiv. 25.) It was not the multitude who “knew not the law” who condemned our dearest Lord, but the Pharisee, the scribe, and the lawyer, whose whole study was in the Sacred Writ.

Nay, the Scriptures themselves told me plainly, “that no prophecy of the Scripture is made by private interpretation.” (2 St. Peter i. 20.) And, again, that in St. Paul’s epistles, at least, there “are certain things hard to be understood, which the unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other Scriptures, to their destruction.” (2 St. Peter iii. 16.) The Scriptures, then, can be used to our destruction, and who was I that I should think myself learned or stable? “Thinkest thou,” said Philip to Queen Candace’s chamberlain, “that thou understandest what thou readest?” who said “How can I, unless some one show me?” (Acts viii.30, 31)

It was, then, I concluded, possible for me to miss the true meaning of God’s Word; and if I missed it, I missed it to my “own destruction.” The fault lay not in the Scriptures, which are holy, but in my wretchedness, who misinterpreted.

When I stated this difficulty to others, I received always the same answer, “Pray to God the Holy Ghost, and He will guide you.” But here arose two or three difficulties.

(a) I knew that without God’s help, no man can understand the Scriptures; but I knew also, that God’s help is given more or less in proportion to the fervency of prayer and the righteousness of him who prays. It is the “continual prayer of a just man;” or, as the Protestant translation renders it, “the effectual fervent prayer of the righteous man” (St. James v. 16), not the lukewarm prayer of the unrighteous, that “availeth much.” Dared I “trust in myself that I was righteous?” (Luke xviii. 9)—my prayer “fervent and effectual?” If conscience did not compel, humility would exhort me to think otherwise; and, if so, how could I tell that the true meaning of Scripture was given me in answer to such worthless prayers as mine? The fault lay not in God, who is ever ready to give to them that ask, but in the poverty of the asking and the asker.

(b) But I found that, on this view, not only must I trust in myself that I was righteous, but also despise others. (St. Luke xviii. 9.) For I found that others did the very same thing which I did—namely, pray to the Holy Ghost, and yet explained Scripture in a sense wholly opposite to mine. If I learned from the Scripture that baptism was necessary to salvation, another from the very same Scripture would teach that baptism was not necessary to salvation, and that my doctrine was soul-destroying and hateful to God. If I prayed to the Holy Spirit, so did he; if I was fully convinced, so was he ; if to my spirit I hoped that “the Holy Spirit gave testimony that I was a child of God” (Rom. viii. 16), the same claim also did he make. How could I tell that he was wrong and I right? My prayers answered and his not? Was I holier than he? I dared not think so.

Of one thing I was certain, that the Holy Ghost could not teach to me that a doctrine was true and to him that the same doctrine was not true. One of us was wrong, and teaching, what God hates, a lie; but by what sure sign could I say what was wrong ?

Sometimes I was told that these differences were not essential points; but I could not understand this. Men certainly differ, for example, on the question whether baptism is necessary to salvation or not. Surely a debate about a necessity is an essential point. In no worldly business, I am certain, in no question about the life of our bodies should we say, “Such a thing may be necessary, but it is not essential for us to know whether it is necessary or not.”

Moreover, who would dare to tell us which part of our Lord’s teaching was essential and which not? “Such a truth will save us, but such another truth He need not have brought from heaven.” This I knew, that not one jot or one tittle of His words shall pass away (St. Matt. v. 18; St. Matt. xxiv. 35), and that we dare not add to nor take from His words (Rev. xxii. 18, 19), but I knew not who was to be the judge of our Lord’s teaching, and tell us which part we must believe and which we might reject.

It is a marvel to me how men can believe that Christ, who is love, has so left Christianity in the world, that nearly nineteen centuries have passed away, and men are still in doubt about the very necessities of salvation. In the Catholic Church alone is no doubt.

(c) The third difficulty which came to me, when I was told to pray to the Holy Ghost and He would guide me, was this. “But then,” was my reply, “if I can be mistaken when I interpret Scripture, how am I to tell when I am mistaken, and when not?” To this question I have to this day been unable to obtain an answer, except in the Catholic Church. I propose it once more for solution.

The answer which I made to myself was that if our interpretations of Scripture are little more than guesses, in which we might be mistaken, we could never tell if we were right or not; and that, as a result, the possession of truth was to us impossible; if we once admit doubt we cease to know it as a truth. Most of all should this be the case with religious truth. If heaven is not a certainty it were hard to struggle for it; if it be doubtful that there are three persons in God, who could worship them? What martyr would bleed for an opinion which was possibly false?

Our interpretations are fallible opinions; and opinions, however probable, are not certain truth. It seemed to me, then, that we had the choice of two evils, either to hold that each individual interpreter of Scripture is infallible, or to acknowledge that all interpretations of Scripture are fallible, and therefore all religious doctrines uncertain.

I need not show the absurdity of the first alternative; for the upholders of private judgment are the very men who deny infallibility. I fear, then, we must accept the second, and own that there is no certain religious truth on earth, unless, indeed, the Catholic Church be right, and God has provided, in his mercy, a guide whom he has made infallible.

Looks like checkmate again for the good Reverend Bampfield. You can read the original article at the YIMCatholic Bookshelf.

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