Can the Bible Be Understood By the Common Man?
Man is notoriously a creature of extremes, and nowhere is that fact more evident than in the attitude taken by different ones to this subject. Whereas some have affirmed the Bible is written in such simple language that it calls for no explaining, a far greater number have suffered the papists to persuade them that its contents are so far above the grasp of the natural intellect, its subjects so profound and exalted, its language so abstruse and ambiguous that the common man is quite incapable of understanding it by his own efforts, and therefore that it is the part of wisdom for him to submit his judgment to “holy mother church,” who brazenly claims to be the only Divinely authorized and qualified interpreter of God’s oracles [see notes 1 and 2 below]. Thus does the Papacy withhold God’s Word from the laity, and impose her own dogmas and superstitions upon them. For the most part the laity are quite content to have it so, for thereby they are relieved of searching the Scriptures for themselves. Nor is it much better with many Protestants, for in most cases they are too indolent to study the Bible for themselves, and believe only what they hear from the pulpits.
The principal passage appealed to by Romanists in an attempt to bolster up their pernicious contention that the Bible is a dangerous book—because of its alleged obscurity—to place in the hands of the common people is 2 Peter 3:15, 16. Therein the Holy Spirit has told us that the apostle Paul, according to the wisdom given him, spoke in his epistles of “some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, to their own destruction.” But as Calvin long ago pointed out, “We are not forbidden to read Paul’s epistles because they contain some things difficult to be understood, but that, on the contrary, they are commended to us, providing we have a calm and teachable mind.” It is also to be noted that this verse says “some things” and not “many,” and that they are “hard” and not “incapable of being understood”! Moreover, the obscurity is not in them, but in the depravity of our nature which resists the holy requirements of God, and the pride of our hearts which disdains seeking enlightenment from Him. The “unlearned” here refers not to illiteracy, but to being untaught of God; and the “unstable” are those with no settled convictions, who, like weathervanes, turn according to whatever wind of doctrine blows upon them.
Do We Need Teachers?
On the other hand, there are some misguided souls who have suffered the pendulum to swing to the opposite extreme, denying that the Scriptures need any interpreting. They aver they have been written for simple souls, saying what they mean and meaning what they say. They insist that the Bible requires to be believed and not explained. But it is wrong to pit those two things against each other: both are necessary. God does not ask for blind credence from us, but an intelligent faith, and for that three things are indispensable: that His Word should be read (or heard), understood, and personally appropriated. None other than Christ Himself gave exhortation, “Whoso readeth, let him understand“
(Matthew 24:15)—the mind must be exercised upon what is read. That a certain amount of understanding is imperative appears further from our Lord’s parable of the Sower and the Seed: “When any one heareth the word of the kingdom, and understandeth it not, then cometh the wicked one, and catcheth away that which was sown in his heart.., but he that received seed into the good ground is he that heareth the word, and understandeth it” (Matthew 13:19, 23). Then let us spare no pains to arrive at the meaning of what we read, for what use can we make of what is unintelligible to us?
Others take the position that the only Interpreter they need, the only One adequate for the task, is the Holy Spirit. They quote: “But ye have an unction from the Holy One, and ye know all things . . . but the anointing which ye have received of Him abideth in you, and ye need not that any man teach you” (1 John 2:20, 27). To declare that I need none but the Holy Spirit to teach me may sound very honoring to Him, but is it true? Like all human assertions that one requires to be tested, for nothing must be taken for granted where spiritual things are concerned. We answer that it is not, otherwise Christ makes superfluous provision by giving “pastors and teachers for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry” (Eph. 4:11, 12). We must ever bear in mind that it is a very short step from trusting God to tempting Him, from faith to presumption (Matthew 4:6, 7). Neither should we forget what is God’s common and usual method in supplying the wants of His creatures—mediately and not immediately, by secondary causes and human agent. That pertains as much to the spiritual realm as to the natural. It has pleased God to furnish His people with gifted instructors, and instead of haughtily ignoring them we ought (while testing their teaching— Acts 17:11) to accept thankfully whatever help they can afford us.
Far be it from us to write anything which would discourage the young believer from recognizing and realizing his dependence upon God, and his need of constantly turning to Him for wisdom from above, particularly so when engaged in reading or meditating upon His Holy Word. Yet he must bear in mind that the Most High does not tie Himself to answer our prayers in any particular manner or way. In some instances He is pleased to illumine our understandings directly and immediately, but more often than not He does so through the instrumentality of others. Thereby He not only hides pride from us individually, but places honor on His own institution, for He has appointed and qualified men to “feed the flock” (1 Pet. 5:2), “guides over us” whose faith we are bidden to follow (Heb. 13:7). It is true that, on the one hand, God has so written His Word that the wayfaring man, though a fool, should not err therein (Isa. 35:8); yet, on the other hand, there are “mysteries” and “deep things” (1 Cor. 2:10); and while there is “milk” suited to babes there is also “strong meat,” which belongs only to those who are of full age (Heb. 5:13, 14).
 From the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
77 “In order that the full and living Gospel might always be preserved in the Church the apostles left bishops as their successors. They gave them their own position of teaching authority.” Indeed, “the apostolic preaching, which is expressed in a special way in the inspired books, was to be preserved in a continuous line of succession until the end of time.”
85 “The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone. Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ.” This means that the task of interpretation has been entrusted to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome.
100 The task of interpreting the Word of God authentically has been entrusted solely to the Magisterium of the Church, that is, to the Pope and to the bishops in communion with him.
 From the Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent
Furthermore, in order to restrain petulant spirits, It decrees, that no one, relying on his own skill, shall,–in matters of faith, and of morals pertaining to the edification of Christian doctrine, –wresting the sacred Scripture to his own senses, presume to interpret the said sacred Scripture contrary to that sense which holy mother Church,–whose it is to judge of the true sense and interpretation of the holy Scriptures,–hath held and doth hold; or even contrary to the unanimous consent of the Fathers; even though such interpretations were never (intended) to be at any time published. Contraveners shall be made known by their Ordinaries, and be punished with the penalties by law established.
And that from a child thou hast known the Holy Scriptures,
which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.
All scripture is given by inspiration of God,
and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:
That the man of God may be perfect,
thoroughly furnished unto all good works.
2 Timothy 3:15-17