Round Table: Interpretation of Scripture
Christian life flows forth from the nourishing Word of God. Each generation encounters the sacred text, and responds in love to the divine laws written therein. And yet, the interpretation of Scripture is a topic that oftentimes divides more than it unites. The complexity of the text dictates that we may not all think the same way; yet, in line with our mission to promote meaningful dialogue across Christian traditions, we asked our authors to address the following questions:
What tools and strategies does your tradition utilize to interpret the Scriptures? If someone with little knowledge of Christianity were to pick up the Bible, where would you advise them to begin (and why)? How does your tradition distinguish itself from others with regard to the interpretation of Scripture? Is there a guiding principle around which the Scriptures should be read and organized?
Responses to these prompts are shown below in a random order. They come from a variety of traditions: Methodist, Roman Catholic, Seeking, Anglican, Lutheran (LCMS), Reformed, Baptist, and United Church of Christ. We hope you will read them with charity, and we look forward to robust discussion. It is only appropriate to end this introduction with the words of Origen, whom many recognize as the father of Christian Scriptural interpretation:
The Spirit, who enlightened the servants of the truth (that is, the prophets and apostles), was preeminently concerned [to communicate] unspeakable mysteries to humankind … so that one who is capable of being taught might—by searching out the deep things revealed in the spiritual meaning of the Scriptures—partake in all the doctrines of the Spirit’s counsel (On First Principles, 4.2.7).
-Ben Winter, for the Conciliar Post Masthead
David James Baggett, Methodist
As a Christian philosopher—not a biblical scholar—my answer to the question of biblical interpretation is tied to my particular vocation as a moral apologist and ethicist. Of course the same principles of sound and solid exegesis apply to us all, but opinions can vary on what might constitute the best hermeneutical key to unlock the scriptures. As for me, I resonate with Augustine when he said that anyone who thinks he has understood the divine scriptures (or any part of them), but cannot by his understanding build up the double love of God and neighbor, has not succeeded in understanding them. Love seems to me the right hermeneutical key.
In saying this, I realize that this position susceptible to easy dismissal, caricature, or misconstrual. In our modern and postmodern context, love has undergone no small amount of degradation. It’s been reduced, domesticated, deflated, trivialized, and sometimes even perverted. Once in class I was emphasizing the point that many Christians likely doubt God’s love for them (despite whatever lip service they might be inclined to pay God’s love for everyone), and a graduate student bristled by saying that we overemphasize God’s love, not underemphasize it.
To make his point, he gave as an illustration the mistake that ultra-permissive parents make in spoiling their children. However, overindulgence in parents is not an excess of love, but a lack of it. It’s an emaciated distortion of love. Love may offer what’s wanted, but not without first offering what’s needed. What goes for children also goes for believers. Saddled as we are with the sorts of epistemic limitations we have, and the disordered desires we relish, what we need and what we think we need are likely to diverge. What we need and what we want are liable to radically diverge.
The clearest picture we have of who God is can be seen at the cross, when the Son of God took on the sins of the world. In that moment we see what the face of omnibenevolence looks like when it takes human form. Ask about any and every other Christian belief, doctrinal tenet, or biblical passage, and the cross sheds light on it. Theology insufficiently illumined by the unspeakable love of God that the cross reveals is bound to go wrong.
Take the issue of God’s wrath, or even the doctrine of hell. When people say they believe in God’s love, but also His wrath, that simple habit of talking bespeaks a fundamental misunderstanding. There’s not a hint of tension between God’s love and God’s wrath. His wrath is a function of His love, never an arbitrary punishment doled out to satisfy His caprice. God is love, the Bible tells us. It’s not just what He does; it’s who He is.
The Trinity is the eternal self-giving dance of divine love between the persons of the Godhead, and we are invited to learn the Trinitarian “dance steps” in order to enter into the infinite joy of eternal love. It’s what we were designed for, and there’s only ultimate joy as we learn to live with, rather than against, the grain of the universe—reality itself. Rejecting such love is rejecting the only ultimate joy there can be. There’s no other real happiness available.
In the meantime, we need to ask Him to loosen our vice grip on our own lives, so that He can assume the reins, transform us from within, empower us to follow Him, and to reciprocate His love in all we say and do.
Daniel Hyland, Roman Catholic
When St. Joan of Arc’s persecutors sought to trap her with questions about the nature of the Church, she said, “About Jesus Christ and the Church, I simply know they’re just one thing, and we shouldn’t complicate the matter” . The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) affirms a similar truth regarding Scripture: “Through all the words of Sacred Scripture, God speaks only one single Word, his one Utterance in whom he expresses himself completely” (102). In other words, “All Sacred Scripture is but one book, and this one book is Christ” (134).
In these statements we find the conviction that God communicates Himself to man through Sacred Scripture and the Church, not as separate communications, but as one communication of the one Word of God, Jesus Christ.
When Christ sent His Apostles to preach the Gospel to all nations, the faithful joyfully submitted to their authority (cf. Mt 10:40; Jn 20:19-23). The Apostles exercised this authority by establishing norms of doctrine and forms of worship (Acts 2:42; Gal 1:8-9); appointing hierarchical ministers within the Church (Acts 14:23; Heb 13:17); and preaching “in the Name of Jesus,” that is to say, as though Jesus Himself spoke when they spoke, taught when they taught, and commanded what they commanded (Acts 15:28; 2 Corinthians 10:8-11). So the twelve Apostles, and those they appointed, could speak of their work–their preaching, commands for life and worship, and the institutions and leaders they established–as constitutive aspects of the Gospel and the Christian faith (2 Thess 2:15).
As the Church spread throughout the world and occasion arose, several Apostles and close followers wrote the four accounts of Christ’s life, known today as the Gospels. Additional letters were written addressing particular situations, individuals, and doctrines to expound and set forth more clearly the content of the Faith they had received. The Church treasured these writings and other written records from leaders, teachers, and holy people, always giving special love and reverence to the writings more closely associated with the twelve Apostles. As writings were copied and circulated, the Church gradually discerned the unique nature of the apostolic literature. Conscious of Her own authority and relying on the apostolic Tradition, the Church delivered the canon of Scripture to the faithful and the world.
It has always been the Church’s conviction that “access to Sacred Scripture ought to be open wide to the Christian faithful” (CCC 131). The whole of Catholic life is soaked through with Scripture, from the “peasant’s Bible” of stained glass to the ceaseless production of faithful and authoritative vernacular editions. In the contemplative reading of Scripture called Lectio Divina, Catholics linger on the words of Scripture, pausing often to reflect and pray; in the Liturgy of the Hours we follow the command to “pray without ceasing,” forming the rhythm of daily life with readings and prayers drawn from all parts of the Bible; and in the most beloved devotion of all, the Holy Rosary, we hold in our hands “a compendium of the Gospel”  and deepen our relationship with Jesus by meditating on the mysteries of His life, death, and resurrection through the eyes of His Mother.
As St. Jerome said, so the Church affirms: “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.”  Nowhere is this conviction of Scripture’s unity with Jesus seen more clearly than in the Mass. In the readings, selections from the whole of Scripture are arranged so as to illumine one another, culminating in a passage from one of the four Gospels. The Gospels are given pride of place as “the heart of all the Scriptures ‘because they are our principal source for the life and teaching of the Incarnate Word, our Savior'” (CCC 125). Commenting on this aspect of the liturgy, Fr. Josef Jungmann writes:
…in all traditional liturgies the readings always culminate in a passage from one of the four Gospels….In the Roman liturgy the lector was led to the ambo in a small-scale procession, with acolytes bearing candles and incense, and torches and bowls of fire…all this was by way of conferring on the book of the Gospels the reverence reserved by ancient court ceremonials for the ruler when he made a public appearance.
Immediately following the reading of the Gospel lesson, the minister “extends its proclamation” (CCC 1154) in his preaching before proceeding to the Liturgy of the Eucharist. This public encounter with Jesus himself  in the Mass gives root to private devotion, sustaining and guiding Christ’s faithful people, the Church. In the Mass, the Kingdom of God finds its origin and its fullness, because it finds Christ Himself: Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. Attending to the Word of Scripture and the Eucharist, we not only remember, learn about, and appreciate the revelation of Jesus Christ, but we encounter Him and enter into a loving exchange with the living God.
…the Church has always venerated the Scriptures as she venerates the Lord’s Body. She never ceases to present to the faithful the bread of life, taken from the one table of God’s word and Christ’s Body. In Sacred Scripture, the Church constantly finds her nourishment and strength…In the sacred books, the Father who is in heaven comes lovingly to meet his children, and talks with them (CCC 103-104).
Blessed are those called to the Supper of the Lamb.
1. Catechism of the Catholic Church (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1995), paragraph 795 [all references to the Catechism provide the paragraph number]; cf. Barrett, W.P., trans. The Trial of Jeanne D’Arc (New York: Gotham House, Inc., 1932), 125, https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/joanofarc-trial.asp
Asked if she would submit [her deeds and words] to the decision of the Church, she answered: “I commit myself to Our Lord, Who sent me, to Our Lady, and to all the Blessed Saints of Paradise.” And she thought that our Lord and the Church were all one, and therein they ought not to make difficulties for her. “Why do you make difficulties when it is all one?”
2. Dei Verbum, (Rome: Vatican, 1965), 8, http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19651118_dei-verbum_en.html; cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church 74-79, 85-97.
3. Pope John Paul II, Rosarium Virginis Mariae (Rome: Vatican, 2002), 1, https://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/apost_letters/2002/documents/hf_jp-ii_apl_20021016_rosarium-virginis-mariae.html
4. Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 133.
5. This conviction was clear from the earliest beginnings of the Church. Writing in the first century after the Apostles, St. Justin Martyr described the early form of the liturgy, beginning with the readings of Scripture and the homily as we have today.
And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place. And the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things.
See Bercot, David. A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers Inc., 1998), 254.
6. Jungmann, Josef A. The Mass: An Historical, Theological, and Pastoral Survey (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1976), 176-177.
7. From its earliest years, the Church revered this offering as Jesus Christ Himself, submitting their belief to the testimony of Scripture:
…not as common bread and common drink do we receive these…[The] food which is blessed by the prayer of His word…is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh. For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, “This do in remembrance of Me, [Luke 22:19] this is My body;” and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, “This is My blood.”
A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, 252.
Chris Smith, Seeking
Two points are crucial for Christians to understand if they are to come to an intellectually rigorous and theologically sound interpretation of scripture. First, Christians must understand the phrase “Word of God” properly. The title Word of God is most appropriately reserved for Christ alone (John 1:1-14). A more in-depth discussion of Christ as the Word of God is better left to more qualified philosophers and theologians, but the point I want to emphasize here is that lay Christians rarely speak of Christ as the Word of God, and very frequently speak of the Bible in this manner. This leads to serious confusion about what the Bible is and how it should be read, interpreted, and followed. It also leads to an unhealthy dose of literalism when it comes to biblical interpretation.
In my view, the phrase “word of God” is not appropriate to use in reference to the Bible. It creates the false impression that every word in the canonical scriptures is the direct word of God, and thus above any historical criticism and contextual analysis. Using the phrase “word of God” to describe the Bible also leads to the false impression that every chapter and verse carries equal weight. By understanding Christ as the Word of God and the fulfillment of the scriptures, you understand the way in which the New Testament reinterprets and provides for a new understanding of the prophecies and laws of the Old Testament.
A good example of this can be found in the way Jesus reinterprets the laws regarding the Sabbath. When Jesus heals on the Sabbath, this is viewed as blasphemous to the Jewish elders of the day (Matthew 12:2-12, Mark 3:1-6, Luke 13:10-17). Jesus explains that “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). According to the traditional understanding of the Sabbath that prevailed at that time, all work on the Sabbath was forbidden—even the work of healing. Yet Jesus explained that life is precious and sacred, and should always be given priority over lesser legal injunctions. This example shows why proof-texting—the practice of isolating a single biblical verse to argue a point—is bad theology. One must understand the spirit of the law (or the spirit of the text), which should always take priority over isolated verses and passages.
My second point involves understanding what the Bible is. It is an anthology of texts. It is an anthology unlike any other anthology ever collected. The Bible contains texts written by dozens of authors, spanning three millennia, and classified among many very different genres. It was never planned as a singular volume. This cannot be stressed enough. There is not a single author of any chapter or verse anywhere in any version of any bible that had any idea that their words would be contained in a single book known as The Bible. The scriptures we have come to know as the Bible came together by way of tradition and a long, arduous process of canonization. This means that one cannot just pick up the Bible and start reading without considering what it is that is being read. The reader must think about the genre of the text being read. The reader must also consider the historical, social, and cultural context in which each text was written. This is not to say that each text of the Bible does not speak to us today. Yet, in order to understand the message the text is trying to convey, one must understand the author’s purpose and audience in order to translate the lesson.
Interpreting scripture requires understanding a variety of things, including genre, purpose, context, and even how translation from Greek and Hebrew to English might affect the way a text is read. In order to make scripture relevant to us today, we must understand what it meant to those the texts were first addressed to. Far too often, Christians in America, following problematic notions of sola scriptura, try to read scripture too literally—leading to highly varied and confusing interpretations that fall short of the beauty of the Christian tradition.
Jacob Quick, Anglican
In this short response, I would like to explore and explain precisely why I find the Anglican approach to the interpretation of Scripture compelling. After exploring different hermeneutical approaches to Scripture and scriptural authority, I found that I most resonated with an Anglican framework. What I most appreciate about the traditional Anglican approach to the interpretation of Scripture is its possibilities for diversity.
I am using the term “diversity” here to refer to the proliferation of different interpretations of Scripture and embodiments of Christianity across time, cultures, and faith communities. There is an undeniably vast number of substantially divergent interpretations of Scripture that have manifested throughout the history of Christianity. As Christian Smith observes, a “pervasive interpretive pluralism” characterizes the Christian community’s relationship to sacred text. This is not only evident by the large number of Christian denominations (i.e. Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian, etc.) but also by the diverse approaches to Scripture within these denominations (and compounded by the fact that the lines between the aforementioned denominations often blur in intriguing ways).
So how do I, as an Anglican, make sense of this diversity? While it may be natural to see pervasive pluralism as an impediment to unity that should (ideally) be overcome, entering the Anglican way has allowed me to see the plurality of biblical interpretation as a strength, not a weakness.
In fact, perhaps the best way to do justice to the illumination of the Holy Spirit is to embrace interpretive pluralism. As Christians, we believe that the Holy Spirit guides our interpretation of Scripture and reveals truth to us. However, this doctrine raises the inevitable question: if the Holy Spirit is guiding our interpretations of Scripture, then why are there so many? It is here that I believe we have two options: 1) Insist that Scripture has one true meaning and that there are diverse interpretations because sin interferes with the Holy Spirit’s work, or 2) Propose that the Holy Spirit, along with Scripture, engenders this interpretive plurality.
A major problem with the first option is that it virtually precludes meaningful ecumenical dialogue. If one insists that there is only one meaning to the text, then the question which naturally follows is which tradition has access to this singular meaning? Of course, every denomination is going to presume that they possess the only correct interpretation, otherwise they would form a different interpretive community. Under this hermeneutical model, ecumenical dialogue is not a space in which we learn about how God is revealing Godself to different communities in different ways, but a form of mission in which one tries to recruit all Christians into one’s own tradition. After all, if the Holy Spirit has privileged my tradition with the only correct interpretation, what else am I to do but bring all others into the tradition that God favors?
The second option, which celebrates interpretive pluralism, most accords with the dynamic nature and messages of Scripture. In order to interpret Scripture, the Anglican way depends upon antiquity (ancient tradition) and reason (i.e., knowledge and experience). The Anglican Church has always regarded Scripture as the supreme authority for doctrine in the Christian church, and the English Reformation heartily embraced the dissemination of Scripture in the vernacular. However, nearly all of the emphasis from early Anglican theology is placed on the sufficiency of Scripture for all truth “necessary to salvation” (Article six of the Thirty-Nine Articles). Richard Hooker famously wrote that Scripture must not be treated as a source of details, rules, or information which do not bear upon salvation. The Anglican hermeneutic of keeping salvation in focus, while leaning upon church tradition and human reason to foster a diversity of biblical interpretations on many points, allows for an enriched conversation with the sacred text.
Now, to circle back to the original prompt, I do not believe that there is one guiding principle around which the Scriptures can be read and organized, but rather a plurality of principles and hermeneutical approaches that highlight the beautiful diversity of our sacred texts. And it is this conviction which makes Anglicanism so appealing to me. The global Anglican communion not only spans different languages and cultures, but it is also home to different traditions, from evangelicalism to Anglo-Catholicism and many in between. I appreciate the Anglican focus on salvation—that which unites us to one another in Christ—and building from there toward respecting the manifold witness of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit through the complex, spellbinding, and inspiring mosaic of Christ’s church.
Sally Finck, Lutheran (LCMS)
It’s 2017—500 years after the Reformation. I stand in awe of this landmark, half a millennium after Martin Luther insisted that the Word of God, rather than human tradition, is the foundation of faith. In the early 1500s, Roman Catholicism had lost its focus on the Gospel in favor of ritual overgrowth: a focus on purgatory, prayers to saints, indulgences and individual penance. Luther’s goal was a reform of his beloved Church—in this light, Scriptural interpretation became a matter of paramount importance. Luther’s view differed from his peers, and while he was not alone in defying Catholicism, he is remembered for claiming to have “a captive conscience” to the Word of God. Where do we stand today?
After validating the authority of Scripture (a larger topic), a Lutheran first looks at the purpose of Scripture. This guiding principle lets us know that all theology is really Christology. The Bible’s overarching theme is the story of Christ and His redemptive work. Each book in the canon—excluding the apocrypha (although Lutherans and Protestants would be enriched by reading these books)—is about Christ’s Gospel of free forgiveness. Any question on a Bible verse or parable (whether literal or symbolic) should be viewed in light of this overall purpose.
Second, a Lutheran discerns Scripture by studying more than one passage to gather meaning. Lutherans ask whether any proclaimed interpretation (say, in a sermon or message) is eisegesis or exegesis. Eisegesis means reading yourself into a story of the Bible. For example, “David conquered a giant with God’s help, and you can too.” Exegesis means seeing Christ: “David was a forerunner to Christ; David defeated the giant of Goliath. Christ defeated the giants of sin and death.”
Third, a Lutheran can consult the infamous Book of Concord. The Book of Concord is not the Word of God, just to be clear! It is rather the explanation of how Lutherans interpret Scriptural matters—it is what we, to this day, confess through teaching about hell, grace, forgiveness, marriage, the church, good works, prayer, the saints, etc. Many of our confessions are found in the Book of Concord. The book contains theological agreements, written by important early Lutherans, and signed by all Lutheran clergy to indicate harmony among the new Lutheran parishes. I would like to call it “the book of Scriptural Clarification.”
As a tentative fourth principle, there are many helpful writings by the church Fathers that confessional Lutherans, Anglicans and some Episcopalians are beginning to consult more frequently. Many of the churches that splintered off after the Reformation did away with early church history and writings. These writings are very valuable in seeing multiple layers of meaning in parables and difficult passages. My prayer is that the “Sola Scriptura” of Luther’s Reformation would be placed in proper context: Scripture trumps extraneous rules, but no man is an island. May the clarity of the Gospel shine through all interpretation! Kyrie Eleison!
Mark Green, Reformed
In interpreting Scripture, I am reminded of something ground into me during my time in seminary: “Start with the Bible, not with the commentary. Context is king.” In his book Theological Science, T.F. Torrance has a marvelous quote regarding knowledge and study:
If knowledge is to be more than personal opinion… there must be control of our personal intellectual constructions by something which is not constructed but received. In our human knowledge of God this is humbly to acknowledge that what is genuinely given has unquestionable right to control our thinking and acting, just because it is so utterly given to us and not made by us (Theological Science, p. viii).
For Torrance, this regards theology and the study of God Himself, but it is also crucial in understanding Scripture. Before we begin studying Scripture, we must understand its intentions over our own. We read the Gospels different than we read the Psalms, as we read secular nonfiction and poetry differently.
Regarding Scriptural interpretation, Reformed thinkers are often accused of focusing on the intellectual over the spiritual or practical, and also of departing from the ancient Church Fathers, who built the Church with the beautiful wisdom the Lord revealed through them. I agree that this latter is a temptation for us. However, Calvin himself firmly denies the charge, stating:
So far are we from despising [the Church Fathers], that if this were the proper place, it would give us no trouble to support the greater part of the doctrines which we now hold by their suffrages. Still, in studying their writings, we have endeavoured to remember…, that all things are ours, to serve, not lord it over us, but that we are Christ’s only, and must obey him in all things without exception (Institutes of the Christian Religion, Preface to the King of France, par. 4).
To Calvin, the Church Fathers and their studies on Scripture were to be honored and studied with respect. But, as science seeks to improve upon our understanding of nature by “standing on the shoulders of giants,” the Reformers sought to continue improving our study of God and of the Scriptures. Sola Scriptura does not throw out all other texts, but rather places Holy Scripture as the absolute foundation which we build our understanding of the Christian faith.
The Reformed tradition’s study starts with the text itself. What genre is it? Is it meant to be narrative, artistic, or both? What does the text tell us about itself? And how does the passage fit in the bigger picture? We seek to understand how a text flows from one passage to another. We also understand that the Scriptures are not self-contradictory, but fit perfectly together. And all of its wondrous Truth is revealed in Jesus Christ, whom Torrance calls “the incarnate Logic of God, the Logic of God’s Grace and Truth toward us” (Theological Science, 206). We do not ascend above Scripture, but rather the Lord Himself “stooped down to speak with us in our poor creaturely words and human logic, and thus to give them poor creaturely words and human logic, and thus to give them a Truth beyond any power or capacity they can have in themselves” (Theological Science, 205). We are receivers of Truth, and disciples at the Master’s feet.
Once we reflect on the text itself, we study the historical context. Who, when, where, how? What is the social/political/religious environment around the time and place of its writing? Historical context gives reality and weight to the words. The Scriptures are not ethereal ideas of well-being, but manifest in our rational universe. God is not distant and aloof, but immanent and involved with our history and lives. Historical context also reveals elements that help us understand things not detailed in Scripture. For example, understanding the brutality of the Babylonians gives greater context to reactions in books like Habakkuk and Jeremiah. Historical context is crucial for deeper study.
Grasping the literary and historical context, and gleaning what we can there, then we seek the wisdom of theologians, commentators, and Church Fathers all to gain greater perspective of Scripture.  Finally, after all of that, the Scriptures are to be lived out. “It isn’t Reformed if it isn’t covenantal,” a professor of mine once said, and it isn’t Christian if it doesn’t seek to transform our lifestyle. We are not brains on sticks, and God never intended for us to become insular or isolated. Scriptural study begins with humility toward God’s teaching, and continues on in humbly serving one another, seeking to embody those Scriptural truths to the world.
1. This maintains the purity of the original context, while appealing to wiser men and women than ourselves. In this, I adore studying different traditions so I do not isolate myself. Scripture is too valuable to risk allowing my own biases to override the original authors’ intent, and Scripture, to the Reformed thinker, creates the foundation upon which all other writings are understood.
Timon Cline, Reformed Baptist
The famous battle cry of the Reformation was and is sola Scriptura. To the Reformers, Scripture alone was the final authoritative appeal. In fact, allegiance to this principle is partially how the fifth generation New England Puritans justified rebellion against the Crown, on the eve of the American Revolution. No authority but Scripture could claim ultimate and total authority over the lives of men. Indeed, Scripture, and especially Scripture proclaimed, was treated as the very face of God (to paraphrase Augustine). Back to the sixteenth century, in championing sola Scriptura, Luther and the Reformers identified two primary enemies—the papists and the Anabaptists (and Zwickau prophets). Both groups, in the Reformers’ view, subordinated Scripture to either extra-scriptural, man-made authorities or subjective, internal experience. By contrast, the Reformers saw Scripture as the foundation for all other doctrines (thus it is almost always addressed first in Reformed confessions). Necessity, sufficiency, infallibility, and perspicuity were essential to its authority, and for all knowledge gleaned therefrom.
It’s important to parse what these attributes of Scripture really meant. They are often misrepresented today. But first, it is useful to note that the Reformers often talked about understanding of Scripture in the context of the word proclaimed (the most important means of grace). Though the Reformers repudiated much regarding church hierarchy and authority, it is clear that they highly venerated the pulpit and those ordained to fill it. The Second Helvetic Confession (1564) expresses their sentiments most clearly, saying that when the word is properly preached, then “the very Word of God is proclaimed, and received by the faithful.” The Holy Spirit’s operation was confined to the ordinary means of grace, amongst which, as stated, proclamation of the word by a lawful authority was supreme (the other means depended on it for their efficacy). This focus was partly contextual. Despite the indispensable (to the Reformation) rise of the printing press, few would have had access to a copy of a vernacular Bible at the time, and/or been able to read it. Thus, preaching was the main way the congregation experienced Bible intake. Yet, the Reformers were staunch proponents of catechesis. The approved catechisms (memorized) were the instruments by which most people would judge sermons for biblical accuracy and doctrinal faithfulness. As I have said before, catechesis is grossly neglected in Protestant circles today, to their own detriment.
Today, nearly every Christian has access to the text for themselves, which means that questions of scriptural interpretation are more prevalent and relevant. Arguably the attribute of Reformed doctrine of Scripture most debated is perspicuity. The typical Catholic objection to such is that it leads to radical individualism and doctrinal chaos, eroding church unity in the absence of a countervailing authority. The postmodern objection to perspicuity is that texts are fundamentally obscure and subjective, governed only by the will to power.
These arguments have significant merit. Space will not allow a full treatment, but what I will say is that clarity of divine revelation has been an issue for humans since the garden, and will likely always be so whilst we still view things through a glass darkly. But the Reformed assumption undergirding sola scriptura is that the meaning of Scripture is objectively there because God is the ultimate author of both Scripture and reality itself. He can be trusted, through the operation of the Spirit, to communicate his desires to his people. Thus, though sometimes hard work (as we are always fighting our own depravity) the true meaning, as intended (and defined) by the author, can be ascertained. And we have confidence, as the Westminster Confession says, that what is necessary unto salvation is “clearly propounded” in Scripture and can be understood (through “use of the ordinary means”) by both the learned and unlearned alike.
This leaves a necessary ministerial role for tradition as part of the ordinary means of interpretation. But it preserves Scripture itself as the final authority over itself. One of the principles the Reformed followed was that the Bible was its own hermeneutic; the difficult passages must be read in light of the less difficult. Therefore, the Bible must be considered in its entirety. Each verse cannot be interpreted in a vacuum. This is a daunting task, but by providence the church has been provided with many shepherds throughout her history to aid in deeper understanding. Scripture is given to a people, not just individuals, and must be read with that in mind. Scriptural perspicuity is essential to the life of the church, if anything of God and man is to be known, and we can trust the Spirit to preserve that for us.
Mike Landsman, United Church of Christ [Writing on “Word of Faith” Tradition]
There is much to appreciate about the Word of Faith tradition, particularly its professed belief in the authority of the biblical text, its tenacious belief that Scripture means what it says, and the notion that God will do what Scripture says because God cannot lie. However, the tradition goes too far in certain areas and, as such, makes many mistakes in how it reads and interprets the Bible. I believe it is important for Christians of other denominations to understand this hermeneutic so that fruitful dialogue can occur and so that there can mutual understanding of each other’s actual beliefs.
The Word of Faith tradition can have an incredibly novel approach to biblical interpretation and how Scripture can and should be utilized—not only for personal study, but to give individual believers a base they can stand upon to receive answers to petitions they’ve made to God. Word of Faith has had, I believe, an influence on church culture out of proportion to its rather limited size. This is due to the large media ministries of several of its luminaries (who dominate most of Christian television). As I mentioned above, biblical interpretation in this tradition is novel and full of contradictions, as well as spectacular leaps of creative and imaginative exegesis. To begin to understand this approach to biblical interpretation, one must understand the distinction that is made between the written word and the spoken word.
The written word, referred to in the Word of Faith tradition as logos, is the best place to begin—as “written word” is used to speak of Scripture itself as it appears on the page. Like most evangelical traditions, the supremacy and inerrancy of Scripture would be affirmed by those in Word of Faith, who see it as the only binding authority on Christian doctrine and practice. Essentially they read and interpret Scripture in line with the commonly held understanding of sola scriptura. Much is made of the plain reading of the text; appeals to extra-biblical tradition to guide interpretation are generally not trusted. It doesn’t matter what St. John Chrysostom or St. Jerome thought a certain passage meant, what matters is the individual reader’s understanding, guided by the Holy Spirit. What is also unique is that visions and supernatural experience also guide interpretation. Many Word of Faith leaders cite visions of Jesus teaching them a previously unknown point of doctrine. The leader responds by telling Jesus that what he has just revealed is not in Scripture. Jesus responds by showing them in Scripture where this new doctrine appears which results in the leader accepting the doctrine and teaching it to their people. This practice is rare among the laity, but laity are trained to follow what they believe is the Holy Spirit’s guidance in understanding a specific text even if it violates some rules of context (see below for an example).
The spoken word, referred to in the Word of Faith tradition as rhema, is tied in with the written word because the written word is what leads to the rhema word. Not all of the written word is a rhema word, but all rhema words are initially written words. Rhema is used to describe what happens when the Holy Spirit gives the reader an insight that they did not previously have while studying a particular text of Scripture. The insights often have to do with a personal problem, such as illness, depression, or poverty. The written word, or logos, becomes a rhema word when a new understanding has been received and then spoken, or confessed. This act of speaking aloud the new insight is what activates the power of God—cementing the insight and claiming the promise of God contained in the text (Isaiah 55:11). Word studies are a favorite in this tradition, and many people have had rhema moments while digging deep into a Strong’s Concordance.
It should be noted that in Word of Faith institutions biblical languages are not taught, and as a result many mistakes result. The most common error is the “illegitimate totality transfer,” where a partictular word’s range of meaning is applied wherever the word appears—regardless of the context. So the Greek word for to save, sozo, would be interpreted according to every possible meaning in its semantic range every time it appears in the New Testament. This lack of nuance leads to particular understanding of texts that the texts themselves do not support. It should be said though that there still is an understanding that context drives interpretation but context, and other considerations such as traditional understanding of the text, can be mitigated by a fresh new revelation.
1. It must also be noted that some in the tradition will make the claim that Scripture is as much the word of God as Jesus himself. Jesus is called the Logos in John 1:1 and the written word is the logos (Hebrews 4:12) causing an odd equating of Jesus Christ with the written text.
Cameron David Brooks, Reformed (Acts 29 Church)
What is the Bible? Christians have spilled much ink over this question—and for good reason. What we take the Bible to be shapes and informs what we take the Bible to mean. Thus, when we take the Bible to be something it is not, we are in danger of missing its meaning. My task today is not to define the Bible in exact terms; instead, I wish to explore a simpler idea: the Bible is a unified story. Below are three simple interpretive strategies that follow from this fact. We might call them narrative approaches to interpreting Scripture, and I believe they will, by God’s grace, help us better glean the meaning of the Bible.
First, a narrative approach to the Bible means seeing the bookends. On page one, the Bible’s story begins with God’s creation of our good cosmos. We see the climax of this creative act when “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27). As the first humans, Adam and Eve enjoyed the unimaginable delight of unhampered communion with God… at least for a time. Here is act one in the story of Scripture—the first bookend.
Turn to the opposite end of your Bible. In Revelation 21-22 we find another act of creation, or, more precisely, of recreation. This time, however, the setting is not a garden but a city, the “new Jerusalem” where God again dwells with his people in perfect peace (Rev 21:2). This is the second bookend. That the story of Scripture begins in a garden and ends in a city should inform everything between; it illuminates God’s redemptive mission to move the world from point A (the first bookend) to point Z (the second).
Next, a narrative approach to the Bible means reading Christologically. Without question, Jesus is the main character in the story of Scripture. His life, death, resurrection, and ascension tear through the biblical narrative like lightning against a black sky. Astonishingly, Scripture tells us that Jesus is “God with us.” In Jesus, we actually see God write himself into the drama he put in motion–-a drama turned tragic by human sin. We might say the Director became a character in order to save the story from a sour ending. This is not only the heart of the Christian gospel; it is the heart of a narrative approach to the Bible.
After his resurrection in Luke 24, Jesus opens the Scriptures to show two disciples that, all along, the story has pointed to him. “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (v. 27). Jesus is the key to unlocking the meaning of the entire Bible, the name every plot and subplot whispers in one way or another. No doubt, this truth does not terminate the challenging work of deciphering how the Scriptures (especially the Old Testament) bear witness to Christ; it does, however, make such work possible.
Third, a narrative approach to the Bible means reading interactively. New Testament scholar N.T. Wright has helpfully outlined the biblical story in five acts—Creation, Fall, Israel, Jesus, Church. While by no means a comprehensive definition, this “act theory” allows readers to dive into the weeds of the Bible’s complex narrative without getting lost; it provides the requisite coordinates of reference which enable us to explore the constellation of characters, plots, teachings, and genres within Scripture without losing sight of the bigger picture.
The Church is the final act of the biblical story because it is through the Church—filled with the Holy Spirit—that God has chosen to spread Christ’s message of reconciliation through the world. The Church (i.e. now) is the final stretch before Christ’s return.
Reading the Bible interactively, then, means reading as participants in God’s redemptive story, the biblical story which has not yet reached the new Jerusalem. Just as Israel retold the story of creation and sin, Jesus retold and relived the story of Israel, and the Gospel writers retold the story of Jesus, so must the Church (as the final act) retell and relive the entire story of Scripture through its worship, witness, and service to the world.
Perhaps this third point is most important. We too often approach the Bible as a static mixture of precepts and history, not as the true, vibrant story of God’s work in the world—a story he calls us into through Christ today. But the Bible must become your story. Further, an interactive approach to Scripture impels us not only to read the Bible for ourselves, but as a community in dialogue and dramatic interaction with the whole body of Christ.
As Christians, Scripture is our story; and we will miss its deepest significance until we have become storied by it.
1. I have settled on three, but there are doubtless many more.
2. For the wording of this point I am indebted to my mentor, Mark Catlin of the Novum Institute in Princeton, NJ.
3. N.T. Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God (London: SPCK, 2005).
4. On this point, see Craig G. Bartholomew, Introducing Biblical Hermeneutics: A Comprehensive Framework for Hearing God in Scripture (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2015), 82.
We invite your participation in charitable discussion of these viewpoints—and others—in the comments section.