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Bible Interpretation

“The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself; and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.” The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.” (WCF I.ix-x)

The Westminster Divines (authors of the Westminster Confession of Faith, 1647) provide for us in the above quotation some wonderful tools to consider in approaching the glorious task of biblical interpretation. The overarching principle for every Bible interpreter is to allow Scripture to interpret Scripture. That sounds great, but what does that mean? What does it actually entail for Christians as we read our Bibles? It means before going to dictionaries, commentaries, books, pastors, theologians, newspapers, facebook, etc. to get an interpretation of a specific passage, chapter or book of the Bible, we first must be diligent to go to the Bible itself to see how the rest of Scripture fits with it and clarifies that particular verse. For example, if you want to know what Jesus means when he commands “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mk. 12:30-31), you must not look to your own definition of the term nor should you look to society. You must let Scripture interpret Scripture. 1 John 5:3 defines for us what “love” is: “ For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.” Likewise, if you would like greater insight into Jesus’ language in Matthew 24 when he speaks of sun, moon, and stars falling out of the sky, let Scripture itself interpret that language. Ask questions like: ‘Where else in the Bible are sun, moon, and stars mentioned?’ and ‘How do these things fit within the larger story of the Bible?’. The Bible provides a comprehensive way of viewing the world and thus, within Scripture we find a particular way of utilizing language, symbols, pictures, shadows, etc. Bible interpretation requires that we have a comprehensive understanding of both Old and New Testaments. Jesus and the Apostles never minimized nor dichotomized the Scriptures, especially the Old Testament books.

In fact, all throughout the Bible we see the Prophets quoting the Pentateuch and the Apostles quoting the Prophets and the Law. This is how the Divines could suggest that this principle was infallible, because all of the biblical authors utilize this methodology of interpretation. So when we say that Scripture has to interpret Scripture we are simply saying that we must allow the Bible to tell us how to read and interpret itself. With this in mind here are five points to consider to help us truly let the Bible define our interpretation:

1. Remember Scripture is one cohesive story united by God’s covenant with his people. This can be categorized by the term Biblical theology. Although systematic theology is typically useful in helping us understand different categories and topics, it ought not to be how we read and study the Scriptures. The Scriptures do not fit within a cut/paste categorical system. Rather, the Bible is one cohesive book, to be read as one story, not as a collection of random stories or theological topics put together. To read the Bible biblically we must understand that it is one large covenantal drama. The first three chapters of Genesis contain this drama in seed-form and the rest of the Bible is a gradualistic outworking of that seed. A helpful analysis of reading the Scripture with a Biblical theology comes from Dr. Henry Krabbendam says that when following the Hebrew divisions of the Bible (the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings) to help understand the structure of Scripture better, one can compare the Bible to a house; “The foundation of the house is the Law, the Pentateuch. The walls of the house are the Prophets. The windows of the house are the Writings. The roof of the house is the New Testament. The “golden thread” that runs through the whole is the covenant promise, “I will be a God to you and to your seed and you will be my people.”

2. While reading, ask good questions to familiarize yourself with all of the Bible, not just the New Testament, but all of it. A few examples:

  • Does this text quote or refer to other Biblical portions?

  • Do the expressions, symbols, or patterns used have meanings established in earlier books?

  • Is this text referred to, or explained more, in some later book of the Bible?

3. Read the Summaries of the Bible, as Rev. Wayne Rogers explains in his wonderful essay entitled How to Read the Bible Biblically: “The unity and harmony of the Bible is unveiled in summaries of the Bible within the Bible itself.” He goes on to give a few examples of summaries within Scripture that will aid the student in following the story of redemption:

  • Acts 7: A summary of the progress of the redemptive plan of God.

  • Isaiah: “Isaiah is a summary of the Bible in structure as well as theme. Like the Bible as a whole, Isaiah consists of 66 divisions (chapters), which are divided thematically into 39 “O.T. chapters” and 27 “N.T. chapters.” Like Genesis, the first book of the Bible, it begins with creation. Like Revelation, the last book of the Bible, it concludes with a prophecy of the new heavens and new earth. The first 39 chapters deal with O.T. themes, creations, sin, judgment. The last 27 chapters deal with N.T. themes, redemption, salvation, righteousness.”

  • 1 and 2 Chronicles: These wonderful books provide a great summary of the Scriptures. It begins with Adam and concludes with King Cyrus mirroring the language of the Great Commision (2 Chron. 36:23; Matt. 28:18-20). The Chronicles is the last book of the Hebrew Bible composed after the exile for the remnant returning to Jerusalem. Its themes are a good synopsis, “It concerns the temple and the kingdom of God, in preparation for the New Testament in which Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham (Matt. 1:1), comes to gather the remnant, inaugurate the kingdom of heaven, and to build His temple.”

4. Keep in mind that the Bible was written for us, but not to us. The Westminster confession describes unity of texts in stating that “...the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one)”. Most of us have participated in Bible studies where the leader of the discussion turns to a participant after reading a passage and asks “What does this verse mean to you?”. This catastrophic way of studying Scripture has led to much of the confusion within the church today. If we push that system of interpretation to its conclusion by saying that 200 people were present at the Bible study and each participant was asked the same question, wouldn't that lead to 200 different meanings of one verse? The Bible is meant for our instruction and profitable to our lives (2 Tim. 3:16-17). But what if we read instructions or construction blueprints like the Bible study example? Could you imagine saying something like, ‘The way I’m interpreting these blueprints I think we should do 7 brick walls instead of 4 brick walls, and let’s paint all of the red brick you requested a tannish-mustard, it’ll look better!’ Dr. R.C. Sproul shared a relevant story in regards to this principle, “A professor once assigned his students one verse of Scripture, asking them to write down fifty things they had learned from it and turn in the assignment the next day. The students groaned, stayed up late that night, compared notes, and came dragging in the next day with their lists of fifty. The assignment for the next day was to prepare a list of fifty more. What the professor was endeavoring to inculcate in his students was that a single text of Scripture may have a thousand possible applications, but only one correct meaning.” We are not interested in asking “What does the text mean to you?” but “What did the text mean to the author when he wrote it?”. A verse can have countless applications, but when it comes to meaning, there is only one. Thus, when we say the Bible was written for us but not to us we are simply saying that there is moral, ethical, doctrinal, instruction for us to glean from the book of Romans, Deuteronomy, and Revelation, but these books were not written directly to us. The distinct authors were writing to particular audiences and we must not insert ourselves into the Scriptures.

5. Work to view obscure verses in light of the clear ones. When we encounter difficult or obscure passages, the temptation might be to come up with our own meanings or to skip over these sections out of fear of misinterpretation. However, if something is unclear in a verse or chapter it is most likely more clearly addressed somewhere else within the scope of Scripture. This interpretive principle can be clearly seen when approaching Biblical themes that have a heavy utilization of apocalyptic language. Many of the eschatological verses, chapters or books will have this language. But we can approach highly symbolic or apocalyptic texts by interpreting them in light of more clearer passages such as the Great Commission or the Lord’s prayer; which do not carry any symbolic language.

As we consider these principles with a genuine desire to be better Bible readers through the power and illumination of the Holy Spirit, I would love to highlight one last and obvious thing when it comes to Bible interpretation; that we are actually reading the Bible. All of it. From cover to cover, not just the red letters. Over and over again. Jesus authored Numbers just as much as He authored Ephesians or John. Immerse yourself in the world of Scripture. Allow the Bible to formulate the way you see the world. Let the Word of God saturate your language. Presuppose the Bible for everything and anything. I leave you with a short meditation on the glories of Scripture from an unknown source, tolle lege:

This Book (the Bible) is the mind of God, the state of man, the way of salvation, the doom of sinners, and the happiness of believers. Its doctrines are holy, its precepts are binding; its histories are true, and its decisions are immutable. Read it to be wise, believe it to be safe, practice it to be holy. It contains light to direct you, food to support you, and comfort to cheer you. It is the traveler's map, the pilgrim's staff, the pilot's compass, the soldier's sword, and the Christian's character. Here paradise is restored, heaven opened, and the gates of hell disclosed. Christ is its grand subject, our good its design, and the glory of God its end. It should fill the memory, rule the heart, and guide the feet. Read it slowly, frequently, prayerfully. It is a mine of wealth, a paradise of glory, and a river of pleasure. Follow its precepts and it will lead you to Calvary, to the empty tomb, to a resurrected life in Christ; yes, to glory itself, for eternity.

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