Anytime I’m in a discussion with just about any Christian outside of Protestantism, the proof text of 2 Peter 1:20 comes up. The person, hearing my explanation of a passage, claims that my interpretation of the text is not valid by itself—I need the authority of the Magisterium or the Early Fathers or Something. But is that what the verse is teaching—that any interpretation of the text is dependent on the totality of the Church (be it the historical Church or the body of teaching from the Church) over (and against) the individual?
Well, there’s a pretty major contextual problem. Peter isn’t talking about the authority of the Church in matters of interpretation at all.
He started making the argument that the Coming of the Lord is immensely important both to the practice and hope of the believer. When he considered its importance he started addressing the charge of the objectors, that is, that the believers are following a clever myth.
Now myths back then meant something very different than myths today. Myths seem to mean “lies” today—especially when coupled with the words “cleverly concocted”. But myths back then were the religious stories that carried some sort of moral lesson for the purposes of affecting practice. So there were historical myths (which spoke about the capriciousness of the gods and the great care that men had to employ under their oversight) and there were the future myths (where some future activity of the gods is pertinent to our activity in the present).
If one notices that Peter is talking about the future coming of the Lord Jesus and how it is to affect believers in the present one can easily see how the charge of cleverly concocted myths comes up: it all sounds like a great story to motivate a philosophical mindset with the intention of being good in practice.
Peter, noting the accusation, addresses it on several levels.
The first level is on the basis of the Transfiguration which they witnessed. Now here the argument is more than “no, it’s true: we saw it” but rather “because we saw the change of Christ into that glorious form, and he departed the Earth in ignominy, we know that he’s going to come back in that glorious form.”
The second level is on the basis of prophecy—and it would be very weak counterargument indeed if the defense was “because we prophesied about it” If such were the case, they would be better off talking about stuff they’ve witnessed (like miracles). No rather the point is that they have the prophetic word of God (previously recorded) which was altogether reliable—and that was confirmed by the in-time action as viewed by the apostles on the mount of transfiguration. In other words, the wonder of the transfiguration has confirmed what God had previously said through the prophets and this therefore spoke of the surety of Christ’s future activity in returning. Since they have this prophetic word confirmed the believers should pay attention until daybreak; Christ’s return.
The third level is on the basis of the inspiration of Old Testament prophecy. It wasn’t that the prophets came up with this stuff and by happy coincidence the message was confirmed. Rather it is God who spoke through the prophetic vessels because there is no prophecy that has ever been made that comes by the act of human will but by men moved by the Holy Ghost speaking from God. So the transfiguration, God spoke; in the Old Testament, we have the recorded message of God; and in the Old Testament, these prophetic utterances were God speaking. So it is not merely a matter of understanding what God is doing (after all, the Prophets didn’t have to understand God’s actions; they just had to speak His message without straying over an against the false prophet, Jer 23:16 , Ezek 13:3), nor is it a matter of interpreting what’s going on in its redemptive-historical context (which may have been possible for the prophets at some points but even this was dependant on God revealing it to the prophet) it is that the whole bang-shoot finds its origin in God.
Now this is important. The prophesy comes from God but so does the interpretation of that prophesy in time so that Peter can later say (2 Pet 3:16) that there are things that are difficult to understand in Paul’s writings (and the rest of Scriptures) which some specific people distort to their own damnation. What’s interesting is that Peter points these untaught people out by being people who don’t diligently look for the new heavens and earth (2 Pet 3:13), ignore that God’s actions are decisive (2 Pet 3:10), ignore that God isn’t slack with his promises (2 Pet 3:9), ignore the fact that God’s timing is God’s timing (2 Pet 3:8) and ignore the fact that God’s word has power and a guarantee (2 Peter 3:5-7). Such people, says Peter, are merely mockers (2 Peter 3:3-4).
Anyway, the point here isn’t that an interpretation can’t happen on the side of the individual—but that these things find their source in God’s activity. If we were to make an interpretative principle out of this it would not be that one must interpret Scripture under the oversight of some specific group but rather that any interpretation, or dictation, of prophecy must be grounded on the word of God, rooted in his historical message, confirmed by his activity and responded to with adamant expectation. Now this isn’t to say that the interpretation must be confirmed in the present. It may very well have been that the interpretation was confirmed in the past regarding something future (like the Transfiguration securing the understanding of the second coming). But it happens because God has authenticated the message.
This doesn’t only turn the position that demands a Church council or a Magisterium on its head; it puts the final authority where God has placed his final authority: his own word.
I do want to add one note, outside of the thought-flow of the text (which this post focused on), about the wisdom of multiple authorities speaking into any Scriptural matter; it should be applauded. We stand in a stream of the Spirit of God working for millennia, in the Church and in circumstances. That should have some bearing on these things even if the final authority is still the word of God.