How should we interpret the Bible? Important for the interpretation of Scripture is the unity of Scripture, the clarity of Scripture and the place of Jesus Christ in Scripture (Christocentric interpretation).

Source: New Horizons, 1991. 3 pages.

How to Interpret the Bible

Every believer ought to be concerned to interpret the Bible correctly – not just pastors and professional theologians. But, you may think, since the Bible is God's word to his people, its meaning should be clear.

The Necessity for Interpretationβ€’πŸ”—

There is an important element of truth in such reasoning – an important truth recaptured by the Reformation. Roman Catholicism taught then (as it still does today) that the Bible is so obscure and unclear that the average person cannot trust what it seems to say, but rather must believe only what the Church says it says (the official teaching of the Church). This deadly error led to a massive exchange of divine truth for confused human reasoning and superstition in the Roman Church. So the Reformers resolutely insisted on the clarity (or perspicuity) of Scripture. They declared that the central message of the Bible (that is, salvation in Christ) is quite clear and can be sufficiently understood by all who receive it in faith. Scripture is not basically unintelligible and ambiguous.

But Luther, Calvin, and the other Reformers never meant to suggest that there are no difficult passages in the Bible or that it doesn't need to be explained. Rather, the Reformation unleashed a period of widespread, unprecedented preoccupation with interpreting Scripture. Calvin's commentaries on the Bible are perhaps the most impressive and enduring evidence of this concern for biblical interpretation.

Scripture contains "some things that are hard to understand" (2 Peter 3:16). There we discover "the deep things of God," things which "no eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived" – things which, by God's Spirit, need to be searched out or investigated carefully (1 Corinthians 2:9, 10). We must not overstate this point, but, when we go after its full meaning, Scripture is difficult.

On balance, to use an illustration attributed to Augustine, the Bible is like a puddle through which a lamb can walk and barely get its hoofs wet, but also like a deep forest pool in which an elephant can take a bath.

The difficulties involved in biblical interpretation ought not to be magnified. It is not an esoteric activity far beyond ordinary believers and their abilities. Basically, interpreting Scripture is nothing more than reading it – carefully, thoughtfully, and with discipline. That's the way God intends all of us, not just the specialists, to read it. No doubt such reading may sometimes involve aptitudes and expertise that only some believers have. But we can note at least three basics that are given with the "literacy level" that God expects of every believer.

The Unity of the Bibleβ†β€’πŸ”—

Most importantly, the Bible must be read with a conviction of its God-given unity. In giving Scripture to the church, God utilized various human authors in the full integrity and distinctiveness of their individual personalities, and the Bible is misread if that diversity is neglected. But God is ultimately its author; it is his word. Consequently, the Bible does not contradict itself. In the multiplicity of its parts, its teaching is coherent and unified. We properly speak of "the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures." (This may seem obvious to us, but many people today no longer accept the Bible as the Word of God. They treat it like an anthology of mutually contradictory, often confused, and outdated religious convictions. They think that it is up to us to decide what, if anything, in it is true and useful.)

The Reformers were firmly convinced about the unity of Scripture as God's very word. That conviction moved them to stake everything (as we today must be ready to do) on the principle of sola Scriptura. Luther made explicit the cardinal importance of this principle for biblical interpretation, saying that "Scripture is its own interpreter."

When we say that the Bible interprets itself, we do not mean that it is to be interpreted in isolation from history and God's surrounding revelation in the creation. Rather, because Scripture is unified and harmonious in its teachings, it is its own best interpreter. That is, every passage is to be understood in the light of the rest of Scripture.

It is helpful, when reading the Bible, to think of each passage as being surrounded by a set of concentric circles, where each circle represents a wider context. That is, a passage of Scripture must first be understood within its immediate context (a paragraph or chapter), then within the section of the book in which it is located, the book as a whole, the section of the testament, the testament as a whole, and finally within the Bible as a whole. A text may have a close connection with another one elsewhere in Scripture, but that connection should not be drawn without first considering each text in the light of its own set of contexts.

Christ the Centerβ†β€’πŸ”—

Secondly, the Bible is basically a book about Christ. He is the center of everything in it. He, preeminently, is "the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole," to use the language of our Confession (1:5). Today, this is not to slight the fact that Scripture reveals our God in his triune fullness. Nor is it to depreciate the fact that the Bible addresses our contemporary needs as individuals. Nevertheless, Scripture is God's special or saving revelation, in which Christ is uniquely crucial:

There is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved. Acts 4:12

He is the one mediator between God and men. 1 Timothy 2:5

Further, to say that Christ is the center of the Bible means, pointedly, that he is the center of the redemptive history that it records. He is "the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End" (Revelation 22:13) of the covenantal drama that began in the Garden of Eden and whose final resolution has already been settled by his death and resurrection and is ready to be revealed when he returns. The Bible is not just about Christ in general, but about something that his disciples have always had difficulty in keeping central – "the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow" (Peter 1:11; see also Luke 24:25-27, 45-47). Only this Christ, as crucified and glorified, is both the consummate revelation of the triune God and the very life of believers in each and every one of our personal concerns (Colossians 2:9, 3:3, 4). When the Bible is read in any other way than this, Christ is effectively supplanted by someone or something else, however "piously" that may happen.

Everything in the Bible is related to Christ, even where that may not be immediately apparent. For instance, the wisdom of Proverbs degenerates into deadening moralism and the married love celebrated in the Song of Solomon loses its spiritual dimension when they are detached from the Christ "in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge" (Colossians 2:3) and who is "the head of the church, his body" (Ephesians5:23).

The Spirit as Interpreterβ†β€’πŸ”—

Finally, in reading the Bible we must never forget that the Holy Spirit is its true – and, ultimately, it’s only – interpreter. Apart from his regenerating and illuminating work we cannot even begin to understand Scripture (1 Corinthians 2:14). As Calvin put it rather pungently, an unbeliever with the Bible is like an ass at a concert! Sound biblical interpretation is one of the Spirit's great gifts to the church. That's why our Bible reading must not only be careful but prayerful.

You may not be capable of doing all that your pastor and others in the church are called and set apart to do as interpreters of Scripture. But when you read it in the power of the Spirit and with prayer, alert to its unity as God's own word and as focused on the exalted Lord Jesus, then you will close the distance between yourself and the expert, and you will become more of the interpreter and teacher that God desires each of his people to be (Hebrews 5:12).

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