The Authority to Interpret the Words of Jesus

Like most Christian leaders these days I subscribe to a number of Blog sites and receive regular articles via email.  Even if I don’t know the author of an article it doesn’t take long to work out what they are trying to say as well as the Historical Era that provides the basis for their beliefs.

Knowing the background of those you read is extremely important because, for example, if their background is Modernity with its philosophy of individualism and rationalism, they usually assume they have the authority to interpret the words of Jesus the way they want to and provide proof texts, usually taken out of context, to reinforce their view.

If you look back through Church history you will find the authority to interpret the words of Jesus has changed hands a number of times. It’s important to understand these changes because this understanding affects the way we think about ministry.

The following is an extract from Making Disciples in the Postmodern Era – Reviewing & Contextualising Historical Discipleship

Primitive Christianity (to the end of the first century)

In this Era, authority to interpret the words of Jesus was located in the apostles. That authority came from their relationship with Jesus who recorded nothing but simply talked, modelled and shared the Kingdom of God with His friends. The original interpreters of the faith, the apostles, passed it down through what came to be called the apostolic tradition (communicated orally), through succession (to their appointed successors, the bishops of the churches) and eventually through the written word.

Why did the Apostles eventually start to write down their view of the story and words of Jesus?

  • It was commonly believed that Jesus would be returning within the lifetime of his earliest followers so there was no need to write anything down but, as the years passed, the number of those who had been with Jesus grew less, and so a few of the remaining apostles wrote down their interpretation of the life and words of Jesus. These writings were used to augment their oral communication and it seems they had no thought of their writings being more than that.

The Common Era (100-600)

By the late second century, apostolic tradition and succession was accepted as the means of handing down the faith. About the same time the ‘rule of faith’ emerged in cities all over the empire. This ‘rule of faith’ was regarded as a summary of the essential truths confessed by those who stood in the tradition of the apostles. Eventually, the ‘rule of faith’ became universally summarised in the Apostles’ Creed. During the middle of this Era, the writings of the apostles were collected and affirmed as authoritative by the Council of Carthage in AD 397. They were considered authoritative because of their apostolic origins (either written by an apostle or under the authority of an apostle).

With this, the classical historical view of authority was established. The apostles had received their message from Christ and passed it on to the Churches. Both the oral and written traditions of the apostles were received by the Churches and guarded and passed on continually. What was passed on was not theology but the perimeters within which the Christian church did its thinking.

The Medieval Era (600-1500)

Authority in the early Medieval Era was also founded on the apostolic tradition and succession, but their understanding of authoritative did not separate Church, apostolic tradition, Scripture and interpretation into a series of categories, with one taking preference over the other. Instead, they viewed authority in a somewhat dynamic way. While the apostles were the original authority in the Church, writings by Augustine of Hippo or other Fathers of the Church, or a creed or council that extended or expounded an idea in keeping with apostolic teaching enjoyed a kind of apostolic authority. Because the Church was viewed as the true interpreter of the faith, the authority of the Church grew greater over time as more and more Fathers and councils were regarded as espousing teachings in line with the apostles.

Finally, the Church established a magisterium for the proper interpretation of truth and positioned the Pope as the true spokesperson of truth. This idea reached its height in Pope Boniface VIII (1303), who declared in a Papal Bull (Unam Sanctum ) that to be saved one needed to be under the pope’s authority. The authority founded on apostolic tradition ended up being authority focused in one person, the Pope.

This idea of Papal Authority was never universally accepted and was the subject of much discussion for the next two hundred years. The problem was, ‘who has the authority of interpretation?’ Various alternatives were proposed, such as the authority of a council, the authority of tradition, the authority of Scripture, or the authority of Scripture and tradition.

The Reformation Era (1500-1750)

The debate of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries paved the way for the Reformers who chose the doctrine of sola scriptura (Scripture alone). The Reformers pulled Scripture away from the Church, separated it from apostolic tradition, set it over against popes and councils, and made it stand on its own. However, the Reformers began another cycle of interpretation within their churches (Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican) in which the Reformers themselves were viewed as authoritative interpreters of Scripture. Each Reformation tradition was marked by a particular confession that functioned as an authoritative consensus on the teaching of Scripture. The Lutherans wrote the Augsburg Confession of faith; the Presbyterians, the Westminster Confession; the Anglicans the Thirty-Nine Articles; the Anabaptists, the Schleitheim Confession of faith.

These confessions functioned as the ‘Authoritative Rule’ for the interpretation of faith in each tradition. Consequently, the various Protestant traditions defined themselves by the differences that existed between them as opposed to the unity underlying their various confessions.

The Modern Era (1750-2000)

Authority in the Modern Era reflects the rationalism and individualism of the period. The rise of rationalism, specifically in the hands of modern liberals, relocated authority from Scripture to reason. Consequently, the Bible was removed from its historical context and was subjected to a critical analysis of its origins. Its distinctive character as the ‘Word of God’ was lost. The creeds and confessions were also dismissed as pious expressions of a believer’s experience with God and it was argued that they have no correspondence with reality.

Conservative Christianity continued to affirm the authority of the apostolic tradition, especially that which is contained in the Bible, and the creeds of the church, but argued for them through reason and evidential apologetics.

Reason replaced Faith

Throughout the history of the Church, the Bible has always been regarded as the inspired and revealed Word of God. Its trustworthiness has been assumed rather than debated. However, modernity with its emphasis on truth being known through reason rather than faith, introduced a major change in the attitude toward Scripture. Modernity reversed the dominant and longstanding principle that faith precedes understanding and taught that understanding precedes faith. Liberals and Evangelicals insisted on discovering the intent of a passage of Scripture and, in so doing, placed the interpretation in the hands of the scholars who had allegedly recovered the intention of the author. Now the individual could only read the Bible with an open commentary written by a scholar. The Bible, removed from a personal experience of the Spirit, could now be viewed as an objective book to be studied quite apart from a connection with God through Jesus.

The individualist interpretation of Scripture

The Modern view of authority to interpret also reflects the individualism of the Era. Individualism is central to the philosophy of the Modern Era and can be defined as ‘the actions or attitudes of a person who does things without being concerned about what other people will think’. This position is neither biblical nor historical.

If you challenge an individual’s interpretation of the faith (eg. biblical interpretation) it’s not unusual to hear ‘That’s just between me and God’ or ‘This is what I believe the Bible says’ or ‘The Bible says so in ….’ (and out come the proof texts usually taken out of context). The result is we end up with endless interpretations of the faith.

Today we look at any Biblical principle in an inclusive or exclusive way. We can speak of the common belief of the Church expressed in the Bible, universally accepted creeds and Church history, or we can use the term in an exclusive manner and speak of the view of Calvin, Luther, Wesley, or a local pastor, or anyone else you care to name. Therefore, as we approach authoritative interpretation, it will be helpful for us to make distinctions between ‘the faith of the church’, a ‘creed’, a ‘confession’, or a ‘personal conviction’.

As individuals, we must hold our opinions up against the universal faith of the Church and have them tested. Any personal opinion must be set out with humility and be described for what it is – ‘a personal opinion’.


We are now 2000 years removed from Jesus and our authority as believers is being interpreted and used in ways that are not compatible with the faith given to us by Jesus. Without a correction to these practices, we cannot expect the disciples of the future to go well.

1 thought on “The Authority to Interpret the Words of Jesus

  1. This helped me to locate myself and to see the challenge of making disciples not in my own image.

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