The way we can be sure of our knowledge of Him
is to keep his commandments 1 John 2
I was talking to a friend recently who suggested that one of the reasons her group does not read scripture more often is that they are afraid of the implications of private interpretation of scripture. As we all know, the Catholic Church differs from the protestant churches in this as well as other matters. The error of private interpretation looms so large that they fear the scriptures, and yet they need not.
What does this mean? The Church does not forbid studying the Bible privately, in fact, she actively encourages it. (I had one friend who told me that prior to Vatican II she had a priest who explicitly told the congregation NOT to read scripture for fear of what it might do to their faith. I once believed this to be the norm; however, I have come to understand that this was really an exceptional circumstance in the Church.) If we read the Bible privately and study it, we HAVE to interpret it. As the interpretations for single verses of scripture are, with rare exceptions, not explicitly defined in Church doctrine, how does one avoid the error of private interpretation?
It seems to me that there are two ways that are really branches of one way. The first is to interpret scripture and before you make any public revelation of your conclusions to test your understanding against the understanding that the Church has from her other teachings. That is, contra Luther and other protestant reformers, the Bible cannot be interpreted outside of the understandings of the Church Fathers. So, if in reading the Bible you come to the conclusion that the only basis for understanding scripture is scripture alone, not only are you being ascriptural, but you are flying in the face of 2000 years of received tradition. You can be pretty certain that no matter how bright you are, when your conclusions oppose two-thousand years of understanding and discernment through the Holy Spirit, you are the one who is wrong. Under those circumstances, you abandon your privately received revelation and read the Bible according to the Church's understanding. Thus, while the Church defines the meaning of very few individual scriptures, the traditions of the Church preserve intact the meaning of the whole of scripture. When one of your thoughts about a verse varies from this and you trust in the Holy Spirit for discernment, you will readily see it. Formation as a Catholic in the Tradition and doctrine of the Church, and the invocation of the Holy Spirit before reading scripture will preserve you from this form of error.
Another way to have private interpretation be in line with Catholic Church doctrine is private application. That is, the interpretation you have arrived at is meant for a specific application in you own life without being shared with the entire world as a doctrinal surety. For example, my reading of the scripture suggests to me that violent aggression against others is forbidden ME. The Church clearly teaches that there are occasions and instances when violence may be used in the preservation of some larger good. Thus, I cannot say that pacifism is a Catholic Doctrine--that is clearly false; however, I can, in good conscience say that I may be a pacifist--that there are no instances for me, as an individual, in which use of violent force would not be a sin. Were I to expand this to say that Christ demands it of the Church as a whole, I would be in error.
But even in private application, the whole must NOT be in conflict with Church teaching. That is that the Church teaches that violent force MAY be justifiably used, but she does not teach that it must absolutely be used. If my private interpretation of scripture led me to the conclusion that Jesus Christ were married and had children (a la ˇThe DaVinci Code", I would, of necessity, have to reject the conclusion because that is not the understanding of the Church. I encounter this difficulty every time I read a scripture about Jesusí "brothers and sisters." I know how I want to understand that scripture, but I also know that it stands in direct contradiction of Church Teaching. I bring myself back into line reminding myself of the perpetual virginity of Our Blessed Mother.
In most cases, private application of scripture will not be so broad as to entail such errors. For example, you may read of the rich man who approached Jesus and was told to "sell everything you have and give to the poor." You may decide that the meaning for you, at this time, is to sell part of your stock portfolio and give to a local crisis pregnancy center. You should probably take such a conclusion to a spiritual director or companion and share in the discernment of the decision (although this is not strictly necessary, it acts as a good safeguard). But this application in no way contradicts Church teaching. Similarly, one could read Jesusí words about faith the size of a mustard seed and conclude that they are encouragement to undertake some task that is before us in faith.
As I said before, for any large judgments it is probably best to seek a discernment partner to assure that you are not just following your own lead. But for most scripture studies, you'll find that the applications are very small, very personal, and very doable. For example, the scriptures may serve to convict you of certain wrongs in your life, and you conclude to add that thing to you next confession list and to pray for help in not returning to it. The Bible may serve to encourage you. "Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say, Rejoice!" You may conclude from this that you should be more mindful of God in your everyday life.
The important point is that whenever your "application" flies in the face of received tradition, you should assume that you are incorrect in your understanding. With discernment (either individually over time or with a partner or group) and prayer to the Holy Spirit for guidance and understanding you can rest assured that you will be preserved from wandering in error.
Pride is the chief sin that leads us into private interpretation. Humility and obedience are the specifics against the pride that would destroy faith. Just stop and consider, "How can I know here and now what has not been known in two thousand years of thinking about God?" Stop and consider, is your mind the caliber of St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, or even John Paul the Great? If not, then one would do well to listen to them and to those concurring opinions than to assume that the Holy Spirit is going to plant on you some revelation that flies in the face of 2000 years of history and tradition. Simply recall who you are before God and in the communion of Saints, and you will quickly return to the proper understanding of scripture--the understanding promulgated by the Church. But whatever you do, do not let fear of private interpretation keep you from reading, listening, and understanding what God has to say to you in His Word.
This is from a response to a post in comments. I thought it important enough to ally it with the main body of the post in the vain hope that when I wanted to revise this (if ever) I'd find all of the pieces together in one place.
But that is another problem I didn't mention. Scripture should be interpreted in the context of all of scripture. No single piece should be isolated from the fabric and then have it said, "This is about X." It would be like cutting a black square out of a checkerboard and then explaining what the pattern is. All of scripture needs to be addressed when we interpret any piece of it. Interpretations out of line with the plain meaning of the entirety are also suspect. I should have mentioned that up top.