Scripture Interprets Scripture

The Reformation axiom “Scripture interprets Scripture” speaks to the idea that when we interpret the Bible, we allow God to speak for Himself. We allow the author of Scripture to interpret His own words. If Scripture does not interpret Scripture, then something else will. What do I mean when I say that? If a person does not permit God to speak for Himself through His Word, what invariably happens is that the person ends up speaking for God. Consequently, this interpreter irresponsibly arrives at a private interpretation. For the person who develops their own private meaning, Scripture becomes, as Martin Luther put it, a wax nose that can be shaped into whatever form the interpreter likes. When this happens, the interpreter cannot be corrected by the text; rather, the interpreter becomes lord over the text. Private interpretation is typically a symptom of idolatry: in my heart, I want God to serve me, so I will fashion an interpretation that suits my desires.

The Reformation axiom “Scripture interprets Scripture” speaks to the idea that when we interpret the Bible, we allow God to speak for Himself. We allow the author of Scripture to interpret His own words. If Scripture does not interpret Scripture, then something else will. What do I mean when I say that? If a person does not permit God to speak for Himself through His Word, what invariably happens is that the person ends up speaking for God. Consequently, this interpreter irresponsibly arrives at a private interpretation. For the person who develops their own private meaning, Scripture becomes, as Martin Luther put it, a wax nose that can be shaped into whatever form the interpreter likes. When this happens, the interpreter cannot be corrected by the text; rather, the interpreter becomes lord over the text. Private interpretation is typically a symptom of idolatry: in my heart, I want God to serve me, so I will fashion an interpretation that suits my desires.

Private interpretation denies objective truth, is radically subjective and enables a person to presume that the verse can mean one thing to them and something completely different to someone else without either of them being wrong. The obvious problem here is that if this is possible, the text loses all meaning. That is, if the text can mean divergent things to different people at the same time, then the text means nothing at all.

There can only be one objective interpretation of Scripture that is true. Accordingly, because the Lord is a God of truth, He speaks it everywhere all the time. This tells us that something God says in one place must necessarily agree with the uniform body of truth in the whole canon of Scripture. There is never disharmony among Scriptures because God does not contradict Himself. Hence, when we allow Scripture to interpret Scripture, we do not find ambiguity but clarity. Consequently, if we are ever unsure about one text, we interpret what is fuzzy by what is clear. We also remain silent where God has not spoken.

There is a natural tendency toward clarity in all of us, and people are comfortable when things make sense. Interpretation makes things plain. However, if Scripture does not interpret Scripture, then in our pursuit of clarity, something else will: that something else could be personal preference, a political ideology or self-exaltation, just to give a few examples.

What the responsible Bible student always wants to discern is not “What do I think the text means?” Instead, they want to know what message the author was trying to communicate. There is only one ultimate author of Scripture, so the question we are always searching an answer for is “What is God trying to say?” On the one hand, this is where your local preacher comes in: part of his job is to make the Scriptures plain to you and explain what they mean. On the other hand, your pastor is never called to read your Bible for you. It naturally follows that if you read something, to get the most out of it, you have to understand it. This is why every Christian must have a basic framework for how to read the Bible for all it’s worth. Accordingly, Christians are exhorted to rightly handle the word of truth (II Timothy 2:15). We are not to be like the ignorant who twist the interpretation of the Scriptures to their own destruction (II Peter 3:16). What then safeguards us from wrongly handling the Word? The answer is to cling tightly to basic principles of biblical interpretation. In this episode, I will explain three such basic principles. But before I dive into them, let us begin with our Scripture focus.  

II Peter 1:20-21 says:

But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture becomes a matter of someone’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.

These verses speak to the origin of the prophetic message. Hence, the principle that animates II Peter 1:20-21 is that God is the ultimate author of Scripture. The Scriptures originate from God, and therefore, no prophecy of Scripture ever arose from a merely human interpretation of things. Consequently, if human minds did not ultimately produce Scripture, then human minds cannot ultimately interpret Scripture. Of course, this in no way suggests that human minds cannot understand Scripture, because God revealed His Word to us so that it would speak to our minds and open doors of understanding. No author writes to be misunderstood. Scripture contains the content we need to know for salvation, and thus God desires that we readily understand His revelation to us. The point is that the principle Scripture interprets Scripture is supported by the Scriptures themselves.

In what follows, I will now describe the basic principles of Bible interpretation. All three principles are derivations of “Scripture interprets Scripture.”

Principle Number One. Interpret the Bible literally. Interpret based on what Scripture literally says, and don’t presume different meanings. We don’t presume God meant something else other than what He revealed.

This principle, interpret the Bible literally, tells us that the Bible is not a secret code book that has to be “broken” in order for someone to get the real meaning. Instead, because the Bible is a book, we read it like any other piece of literature. So, verbs are verbs, nouns are nouns and numbers are numbers. While reading the text literally and searching for the author’s intent, the goal is to get at the plain sense of the text. That is, we must pay attention to the style that is being used and the literary conventions of that style. Styles change depending on the method an author has chosen to communicate. Accordingly, we don’t read a newspaper the same way we read the lyrics to a song. As a result, in the Bible, we read history like history and poetry like poetry; we don’t read poetry like a sermon or a historical narrative. If we did, we would be violating the plain sense of the text.

The Psalms, for example, are all types of Hebrew poetry. Poetry uses rich imagery that often serves as a figurative depiction of reality. So, in Psalm 91:4, when the writer says that under God’s wings you take refuge, this does not mean that God is a large bird. Instead, we recognize the poetic style and how the author is using language as a symbol to communicate the faithfulness of God and the safety He provides. Recognizing style is important because the Bible has many different types: for example, poetry, historical narrative, proverb, epistle, prophetic visions and sermons. God used different literary styles because He accommodated Himself to the genres that we are familiar with. There are rules for reading each of these genres, and if we violate these rules, we can develop readings that are not connected to the text.

Reading the Bible literally also means recognizing that the original message was communicated in a particular historical setting. This is a gap that must be crossed to arrive at a faithful interpretation. The original Scripture writer was recording the text in another language: Hebrew or Greek. Sometimes, words do not translate precisely, and in other instances, the way a culture used a word is radically different from how it is used now. For example, let us go back to the Scripture we used in the last episode: James 1:2-4. That text says:

Consider it all joy, my brothers and sisters, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

The word I want to focus on is the Greek word that is translated as perfect. That word is τέλειος (TE-LEE-OS). The simple lesson is that our English language assigns a different meaning to the word perfect from what the Greek word telios communicates. There is some degree of overlap, but it is not precise. When we hear the word perfect, we think of something as good as it can be and without flaw. However, telios does not communicate the meaning of flawlessness, but rather means attaining a good end or achieving the highest standard. So, what James is saying in 1:2-4 is that testing ultimately results in spiritual maturity and greater conformity to Christ’s character. Testing will certainly not produce a “perfect” person who no longer sins. Furthermore, when we look up how telios is used in different Scriptures—like Romans 12:2, I John 4:18 and Hebrews 9:11—we see that the same word is used to communicate the same meaning. So, while we read the Bible literally, we are also mindful that the text was not recorded literally in English: it was originally recorded in another language.

Reading the Bible literally also means understanding that the original message was communicated in a particular cultural setting. In other words, writers would speak to a culture that was worlds away from ours. The original listening audience lived in a world that had unique customs drastically different from our modern world. The point is that we must recognize these distinctions, and also that a proper interpretation of the text now can never mean anything other than what it meant for the original listening audience. A verse could not mean ABC to a 1st-century Jew and then mean XYZ to a 21st-century American. Scripture is eternal, and although earthly cultures and customs change, divine principles do not. Hence, when we read the text literally, we do so cognizant that God was speaking through a particular language, time and culture into order to communicate unchanging, eternal principles that equally speak to all people, everywhere, all the time.   

So, principle number one is to interpret the Bible literally. The next principle builds on top of the first one.

Principle Number Two. Context determines meaning. This principle means that the context of Scripture determines the meaning of Scripture. So, when a Bible interpreter seeks to answer the question of “What is God trying to say?” they consider not only the isolated Scripture in question but also the whole setting: what is said before, what is said after and what function a part serves in communicating a whole message. If a person were to divorce Scripture from its context, they would be divorcing Scripture from Scripture.

The principle that context determines meaning emphasizes the norm that no honest Bible interpreter would ever cherry-pick one verse from Scripture and then develop their own meaning separated from context. As an example, I could say that the Bible says, “There is no God.” This is not a lie—Scripture does say that—but if I separated that statement from the context in which it was said, I would arrive at a meaning totally opposite to what the Scriptures communicate. Of course, the Bible does not support atheism. Psalm 14:1 does contain the phrase “There is no God.” But what does the entire verse say? It says:

The fool has said in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they have committed detestable acts; there is no one who does good.

Context therefore gives us proper meaning: someone who has the wrong assumptions about life will say in their heart—not their mind—that God does not exist. This is not a rational thought but a deep-rooted desire. As a result, they will live a godless life characterized by corruption and evil. And, if we zoom out even further and study what Psalm 14 says as a whole, the overall message is that people in general are foolish and wicked: this is exactly why we need a God to save us.

I will provide another example of context determining meaning. A couple of days ago, I was having a conversation with another Christian. We were talking about how the Bible informs a believer’s sense of money management. She then made the point that the Bible says that people who are wealthy are called to pay a greater rate on their taxes. I then asked, “How did you arrive at that conclusion?” She responded by paraphrasing Jesus’s words in Luke 12:48, saying, “To whom much is given, much is expected.” After she said that, I felt a rush of fire quickly rise from my gut to my head. I was troubled because I knew someone was quoting Jesus’s words out of context and thus was arriving at a false conclusion.

So, what does Jesus literally say in Luke 12:48? The NASB says:

From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and to whom they entrusted much, of him they will ask all the more.

Those are the Lord’s exact words, and I think the literal meaning is straightforward: those who have more privileges have greater responsibility and demands placed upon them. But is Jesus here talking about money and taxes, or something else entirely? In order to answer that question, we have to look at the context of Christ’s words. And when we dig deeper into the text, we readily see that Jesus isn’t principally talking about material wealth and a person’s responsibility to secular authority. He’s using a parable to communicate an individual’s overall responsibility before God. How did I determine that meaning? Just by looking at the context.

The immediate context is Luke 12:35-48. There, the central thrust of what Christ is speaking about is to “be in readiness.” He even says in verse 35, “Be prepared, and keep your lamps lit.” He then illustrates this teaching by telling his listeners a parable in which responsible servants wait and are ready for their master so that the moment he comes home, they are prepared to serve. Christ then elaborates on this theme of readiness even further in verses 42-48. In those verses, Jesus says:

Who then is the faithful and sensible steward, whom his master will put in charge of his servants, to give them their rations at the proper time? Blessed is that slave whom his master finds so doing when he comes. Truly I say to you that he will put him in charge of all his possessions. But if that slave says in his heart, “My master will take a long time to come,” and he begins to beat the other slaves, both men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk; then the master of that slave will come on a day that he does not expect, and at an hour that he does not know, and will cut him in two, and assign him a place with the unbelievers. And that slave who knew his master’s will and did not get ready or act in accordance with his will, will receive many blows, but the one who did not know it, and committed acts deserving of a beating, will receive only a few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and to whom they entrusted much, of him they will ask all the more.

So, what’s the overall message Jesus is communicating here? The message is, “Be ready, because everyone has a duty to fulfill their responsibilities.” The message is, “Blessed is the servant who is ready and doing when his master arrives.” Moreover, that message of positive readiness is tempered with a warning of negative consequences: there will be grades of punishment that the judge will mete out in proportion to both the privileges each person has enjoyed and their response to those privileges. So, if you act irresponsibly, are not ready and squander what you’ve been given, your master will come at an unexpected time and count you as among nonbelievers. And if you know what God’s will is but are negligent and don’t do anything with what you’ve been given, you will be punished. It is then that Jesus says, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and to whom they entrusted much, of him they will ask all the more.

Hence, analyzing the Lord’s words in context makes it abundantly clear that God is not primarily talking about giving up what you have (e.g., by coercive taxation) but rather about making the most use of what you have been given. God is the master in this parable, and He is the agent who distributes a certain portion to each individual. This portion may be spiritual gifts like teaching, it may be a natural gift like leadership or it may be a material gift like financial abundance. God is also the agent who metes out punishment. Therefore, if a man is not responsible with his allotted portion, he will ultimately answer to his Maker. Accordingly, the government is not the judge in this parable: the State is not the enforcer of God’s Law, because God already has that covered. The point for every Christian to consider is this: are you ready and making the best use of what you have? Answering that question is urgent because, either now or later, you will make an account before God.

If I have explained the context properly, then it is readily apparent that in Luke 12:35-48, God has something much bigger than money and taxes in mind: He’s communicating principles that apply to a complete individual and how they live their life overall. He’s communicating principles that speak to an individual’s responsibility to God and not to the State. Therefore, it would be reckless to interpret “To whom much is given, much is expected” as an inspiration for tax policy. Again, context determines meaning, and if you take any verse out of context, you will arrive at a false meaning. That false meaning often results in a verse saying what you desire it to say, as opposed to listening to what God actually said.

Furthermore, if you wanted to be biblically precise and make a proper application of Christ’s instruction to the principle of economics, what you would end up with is a policy of taxing those with wealth less. Why? So that secular authority will not get in the way of their using what they have been given to fulfill their responsibility before God. The Lord never assigned the IRS to do His work. Someone may then ask, “But what if those wealthy individuals are godless?” And the answer is, “Then they will answer to God.” May the Christian never allow a secular authority to ever perform a work so as to supplant a command or principle that God intended for individuals. 

So, principle number two is that context determines meaning. The final principle builds on top of this one.

Principle Number Three. The whole interprets the part. This principle takes the idea that context determines meaning from the local level and then elevates it to the context of the entire Bible. This simply means that the particular is always interpreted by the general because the general begets the particular.

Another way of expressing the principle of the whole interprets the part is that what God says in one place will always agree with what God says in the rest of the Bible. Again, because the entire canon of Scripture is a coherent body of Truth, the part and the whole will always say the same thing. Even more, once a person begins to successively read the Bible all the way through, what they will discover is that the Bible is very repetitive: God tends to reiterate the same themes in different ways. The point is that what God says in one place will always agree with what He has said everywhere else.

To illustrate the principle of the whole interprets the part, let’s look at the most famous verse in the Bible: John 3:16. That text says:

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish, but have eternal life.

Now, there are some people who would use this verse and say something like this: “You see, God loves the whole wide world so much that He sent His Son into the world to save everyone without exception. Therefore, in the end, everyone will be saved.” And my response to that statement would be, “Not so fast.” Without getting into the technicalities of how the word world is being used, let us simply read the Scripture and discern what it is saying. John 3:16 does not say anything about a person’s ability to have faith in Jesus. If we read the text literally and follow the logic of the verse, the only thing that John 3:16 tells us is that everyone who believes in Christ will not perish, but will have eternal life. So, who will have eternal life? The text says everyone who believes—the text does not say everyone.

Furthermore, if we allow context to determine meaning, who did Jesus communicate this teaching to? Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. And why did Nicodemus come to see Jesus in the first place? Because he was curious and sought answers to his questions. Nicodemus knew that Jesus had to be sent by God, or else Jesus would not have been able to perform the signs that He did (John 3:2). What Jesus will then tell Nicodemus is that “unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). In other words, membership in a spiritual kingdom requires a spiritual birth. And in the same way that no person had a choice in when and to whom they were born, the same rules apply to the kingdom of God. Just as the wind blows where it wishes, so is everyone who is born of the Spirit (John 3:8). The point is that the context of the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus speaks to the issue of salvation: in particular, those who enter into the kingdom of God. This group is not general but particular. Although the Light has come into the world, many will reject the Light because they love the darkness (John 3:19-20).

Now let’s zoom out even further and allow the whole of Scripture to interpret one small part (John 3:16). What the Bible makes plain to us is the idea of particularism. Meaning, God’s providential rule of the world does not entail Him saving everyone. Instead, He always redeems some people as opposed to all. For example, in the time of Noah, God did not save the entire world from the flood. He only preserved eight people in the Ark. God did not save the Egyptians and the Hebrews in Egypt. Instead, He called all those who were His out into the wilderness. Subsequently, God did not choose all nations on the face of the Earth to be His representatives; instead, He chose a particular people: descendants of Jacob. Jacob and Esau were twins, but while Jacob served God, Esau rejected Him. In the time of Jesus, there were many who rejected the Messiah. In fact, there were some who despised Him so much, they killed Him. Clearly, you don’t crucify the Lord whom you serve. And, at the end of the Bible, the text tells us how history will end: with a new heaven and a new earth. The earthly paradise will be populated only by those people whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life (Revelation 21:27). Paradise will not be populated with those who reject God (Revelation 21:8): that is, “the cowardly, and unbelieving, and abominable, and murderers, and sexually immoral persons, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and liars.” What will their fate be? “Their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.

This broad analysis of the whole canon of Scripture repeatedly communicates the same message: that God saves some people, not all people. Therefore, if allow big-“S” Scripture to interpret little-“s” scripture, we can clearly see that in John 3:16, Jesus is saying that some people will believe in Him and everyone who believes will be saved. Interpreting this way is not only faithful to Scripture but it also makes logical sense, in that the whole interprets the part.

In conclusion, Scripture interprets Scripture. If Scripture does not interpret Scripture, then something else will. We must therefore all be diligent in our Bible study to always discern, “What is God trying to say?” We may pursue that goal responsibly by always referring to what God has already said and not filling in any gaps with our own speculations. If we allow Scripture to interpret Scripture, we can always closely follow three principles:

  • Interpret the Bible literally
  • Context determines meaning
  • The whole interprets the part

My hope is that these three principles will enable you to read the Bible for all its worth and equip yourself to examine everything carefully so that you may discern what is true.

 

Dr. C. H. E. Sadaphal

 

 

One thought on “Scripture Interprets Scripture

  1. Emerencia Manka Neba says:

    I am very grateful, I have understood the three principles, and this is going to help me a lot in understanding and sharing biblical messages. Thank you very much for the enlightenment.

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