Perhaps you have heard of this method of interpretation, that scripture interprets scripture. Basically, it says that if we want to know what a verse or passage means, that we have to look elsewhere where the same word or concept is used to understand what it means. However, I am increasingly coming to the conviction that this is not a reliable method of interpretation.
As I have written about previously in a number of posts, we cannot read the Bible in a fragmented manner. We have to examine the theme and genre of each book and consider how that book correlates to the overall meta-narrative of scripture. In other words, who is the author and what is he addressing according to God’s story that is playing out from Genesis to Revelation. We must consider what is going on in terms of divine revelation. Scripture interpreting scripture can fall short of this.
What do I mean by divine revelation?…
Many times, the word revelation is used in conjunction with illumination that we receive. It is common for someone to say they have received a revelation about God because of something new they have come to learn about him. However this dismisses revelation in terms of something God does. Revelation is disclosure. So revelation is contingent upon the one revealing to disclose what he is doing.
God’s disclosure occurs in the context of his intersection and interaction with his creation. He reveals himself according to what he is doing in relation to his plan and program for all ages. This is why his speech is interlinked with his revelation. As he speaks, he reveals and as he reveals it is according to what he is doing. Revelation is according to God’s activity, not our understanding. What he has done has culminated in his Son, who fully reveals the Father and he has done so for the sole purpose of reconciling humanity to himself, which makes it a very personal and beautiful thing. It is no wonder that the Old Testament demonstrates actions and promises that foreshadow what will be accomplished in the Son. We see this succinctly in Hebrews 1:1-2;
In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets, at many times and in various ways, but in these last days, he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe.
We must understand the connection between God’s activity in the Old Testament with the written word, the presence of Christ on earth and his teaching, and the apostles’ commission to be proclaimers of that message. They validate the testimony of that message and what that means for body of Christ, his Church today built on the foundation of the prophets and apostles (Ephesians 2:20). So reading the bible as divine revelation means considering how each component relates to his disclosure according to what he is accomplishing with respect to salvation history. Revelation provides a succinct and beautiful unity of the 66 books.
What’s the problem with scripture interpreting scripture?…
When we use scripture as a gauge to determine meaning, whatever scripture is chosen as the base of interpretation will govern the interpretation. But this may not be in concert with divine revelation, meaning it may not take into consideration how this is playing out in scripture according to God’s activity. For example, let’s consider Acts 8:14-17
When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. When they arrived, they prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit had not yet come upon any of them; they had simply been baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.
On the surface, it appears that this group receives the Holy Spirit subsequent to belief. And this is true. But if were to use other scripture as a guide to interpret this, I would look at 1 Corinthians 12:13 and Galatians 3:27, which indicates that the baptism of the Spirit occurs simultaneous to belief. So looking at the events in Acts 2, we can conclude that the events of Pentecost start the permanent indwelling of the Spirit because of the texts that were used for interpretation.
However, Acts 19:1-7 gives us another picture of the Holy Spirit’s permanent presence occurring after the fact of belief. We can easily use this as a guide to explain that in some cases, we can expect this to occur, especially since it happens after Acts 8.
And this leads to the problem of scripture interpreting scripture. You can easily make a case either way depending upon which scripture you use as your guide. I can just as well say that the Spirit’s reception occurs after belief because after all, that is what is happening in these events.
But if we look at what is going on in Acts 8 and 19 in context of divine revelation, I think that provides some more clarity and gives us a picture of how the Holy Spirit’s ministry is unfolding in light of God’s plan unfolding for all people. The introduction of the Spirit’s baptism occurred with the charge to the apostles to be witnesses from Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria and to the uttermost parts of the earth (Acts 1:8). Remember, the apostles were sent to authenticate the testimony of Christ and in this way, are acting in concerting with divine revelation. So when the church begins spreading out from Jerusalem, and when this first occurs, it makes sense that the apostles needed to validate the reception of the Spirit in these regions as God’s plan unfolds.
And here we see the difference. Revelation becomes the guide to interpretation according to what God is doing instead of other scripture being the guide that can give us alternate interpretations. We can then take the author, audience, genre of literature and theme into consideration to give us a fuller understanding against the backdrop of God’s overarching plan.
So I don’t want to downplay that we should not use scripture to interpret scripture. But alone, it will not give us adequate understanding of isolated passages.