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Does Scripture Interpret Scripture?: A Case for Reading the Bible as Divine Revelation

(Lisa Robinson)

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.

 

17 Responses to “Does Scripture Interpret Scripture?: A Case for Reading the Bible as Divine Revelation”

  1. Great thoughts, Lisa (as usual!). I raised a similar issue recently.

  2. …”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.”—Says who? Who is the one person who decides the ‘correct’ way to interpret scripture? My point is if you say that X is the way to interpret scripture and I say that Y is the way—who, other than The LORD Himself, decides who’s right? It seems that we both would have to turn back to the scriptures themselves to tell us the correct way.

  3. Not too hard. I just read you without magisterium. And you expected me to understand you! When it comes to the hard parts, we can just hold out understanding loosely. Most is clear.

  4. Darrell,

    There are MANY hermeneutical principles found within the scriptures themselves.

    Your question “Says who” ? The inerrant, infallible perfect and preserved words of God “says so”.

    I will give just two examples from Peter:

    2 Peter 1:20 Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation.

    2 Peter 3:16 As also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction.

    Private interpretation and wresting of scriptures are two great lessons in how not to interpret the scriptures.

    And what do those two things “mean”? – start at 2 tim 2:15 (KJB)

  5. I can agree with this to a certain extent, however there has to be a balance.

    I tend to personally go on the side of the written word whenever I am in doubt, since the Bible authors were driven the Holy Spirit to write what they did, at least according to what we have been told in scripture.

    So at least in in that regard, I would say that the Bible does
    prove itself if we take in proper context.

  6. Lisa,

    I believe your point is valid about the danger of using scripture to interpret scripture.

    I weary of the “exegete” who when expositing a passage such as Acts 22:16, they “compare scripture with scripture” by stating something like “We know Paul wasn’t baptized to get his sins washed away, because of what Paul says in Eph 2:8,9 and 1 Cor 1:17″

    That is the trap of most cultist —jumping from one verse to the next to “prove” what the last verse says.

    However, where “comparing scripture with scripture” is a valuable tool is when we let the Bible speak for itself.

    2 examples:

    1.) How do we know the “suffering servant” of Isaiah 53 is Jesus Christ and not Israel or Isaiah or others? Philip, under divine inspiration tells us so: Read Acts 8:30-34 then Acts 8:35 Then Philip opened his mouth, and began at the same scripture, and preached unto him Jesus…. Jesus is the one found in the “same scripture” as Is. 53.

    2.) Who, when reading Psalm 16:10 would think that David is talking about anyone other than himself. And if not David, on what exegetical basis would we think this is referring to the messiah and his resurrection?
    Peter and Paul both help us understand who this passage is referring to by comparing scripture with scripture such as Acts 2:27-31 and Acts 13:35-38 Wherefore he saith also in another psalm, Thou shalt not suffer thine Holy One to see corruption. For David, after he had served his own generation by the will of God, fell on sleep, and was laid unto his fathers, and saw corruption: But he, whom God raised again, saw no corruption. Be it known unto you therefore, men and brethren, that through this man is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins:

  7. I believe the doctrine (letting Scripture interpret itself) is a good one.

    When we read the Bible through a grace scheme instead of a law scheme, and when a text is too convuluted we let it go and don’t get bogged down in it…then we have all we need. And NO Popes need inform us.

  8. Lisa Robinson June 11, 2012 at 6:51 am

    Jeff, yes I agree we still need to do scripture comparison but through lens of revelation which gives a canonical reading. That brings clarity to the comparison, as in the good examples you mentioned.

  9. Lisa Robinson June 11, 2012 at 6:58 am

    Darrell, what I’m suggesting is that if we stepped back and looked at the Bible from the 10,000 feet instead of the 1 foot, scripture gives evidence to God’s intentional disclosure of himself and his plan for the ages. It’s not necessarily a specific method of hermeneutics I’m suggesting but rather seeing how everything we read fits within that framework. Even then, we’ll have interpretive differences.

  10. So Lisa,
    You’re saying to interpret Scripture in light of revelation, but I’m still not quite sure what you mean by revelation. (I understand it is God’s action, his own revealing and not ours, but I still dont understand what you say it *is*) It sounds like you mean to interpret Scripture in light of a story or tradition that exists outside of Scripture (which I would agree with ! :), but I’m sure you don’t mean that.
    So do you mean to interpret passages of Scripture in light of “the big picture” that itself is revealed through Scripture? In other words, interpret the part in light of the whole? (This would be a particular WAY of letting Scripture interpret Scripture, it seems to me.)

  11. This sounds to me like a straw man. What I mean by “scripture interprets scripture” is scripture, interpreted correctly in its context (with co-text) with a proper understanding of literary and historical backgrounds, interprets scripture. “scripture interpreting scripture” is not a license to proof-text, but it seems that’s what you’re really arguing against.

  12. Irene, yes to this.

    “So do you mean to interpret passages of Scripture in light of “the big picture” that itself is revealed through Scripture? In other words, interpret the part in light of the whole? (This would be a particular WAY of letting Scripture interpret Scripture, it seems to me.)”

    I think it is more intricate than just seeing the big story but considering God’s intentional disclosure with respect to his plan and promises. In this regard it begins with God but what we know about him is because of what he has revealed to us throughout the 66 books. I might do a follow up post to flesh this out some more. I also don’t want to dismiss the fact that we do need to do scripture comparison.

  13. John, no I’m not arguing against proof-texting. Proof-texting in and of itself is not a bad thing but only becomes that depending on how we use it.

  14. My problem with proof-texting is that when we focus on some verse to prove another verse, we tend to only prove that we can interpret two verses to mean the same thing, not necessarily PROPERLY understanding them. That kind of approach tends to beg the question. And when we get down into grammar arguments, especially when the words have a wise range of usage, it tends to beg the question even more.

    I believe that we should, as Lisa suggests, start with the 10K view and drill down, but when we drill down to the point that we loose the overall context of the book and/or chapter and it turns into something else, I think it is time to wonder if we haven’t drilled PAST the intended meaning.

  15. Lisa, of course “Scripture interprets Scripture” is a perfectly valid principle. I wouldn’t call it a “method” however. It doesn’t describe HOW you and I do something, it states a reality on which we can proceed to seek understanding as we interpret the Scriptures.

    It just doesn’t mean “any old way you do it is fine.” Yes, you have to THINK and CONSIDER what each part means. It is not a license to be sloppy. Perhaps we could say allow X verse to inform Y verse, but only after you’ve correctly interpreted X verse and legitimately related to Y.

    Once again, it’s not a matter of misuse leading to no use, but rather to correct use.

  16. Lisa,

    If you do decide to do a follow-up post, maybe you could address this question: You’re interpreting a passage in light of the whole revelation of God, as written in the Bible. However, as RC Sproul (I think?) has pointed out, Protestants have a fallible canon of infallible books. So it then seems a logical impossibility to interpret a part in light of the whole when you can’t be absolutely sure what the whole consists of. In other words, if you are interpreting Scripture with a man-made canon, how can you have confidence in your results?

    Another closely related issue:
    Now I’m not saying you do this, just relating a familiar experience. When I ask, in a theological discussion, “doesn’t this verse mean such-and-such?”, the reply is often, “no,no,no!! You must look at the WHOLE of Scripture!!”. After a while it becomes obvious that this appeal to greater context is just code for “you’ve got to look at this verse from my Calvinist theological paradigm”. It makes it obvious that there are different interpretations of the big picture, too. I think no matter how high a view we take or how far we step back, we can never escape looking at Scripture with some kind of theological glasses which influence our view.

    • IF SCRIPTURE IS YOUR GUIDE, THEN YOU WOULD NEED TO HAVE SCRIPTURE TO BACK THAT DOCTRINE.
      WE DO HAVE A SCRIPTURE THAT SAYS TO COMPARE SPIRITUAL WITH SPIRITUAL AND WE HAVE LOGIC.

      1 Corinthians 12:13 DOES NOT SAY WE ARE BAPTIZED IN THE HOLY SPIRIT IT SAYS WE ARE BAPTIED IN TO THE BODY BY THE SPIRIT. ALSO Galatians 3:27 SAYS BAPTIZED INTO CHRIST.

      IF YOU HAVE SCRIPTURE TO BACK UP THE HOLY SPIRIT IS CHRIST THEN YOU WOULD HAVE A CASE FOR THOSE SCRIPTURES TO BACK YOUR STATEMENTS. BUT YOU DON’T. SO, YOU NEED TO STUDY AND READJUST YOUR DOCTRINE. HOPE THIS HELPS.

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