What does it mean to say that we should use Scripture to understand Scripture?
A discussion that I was having today reminded me of an issue that you hear about often when discussing biblical interpretation with Evangelicals (among whom I count myself). That issue was the practice of using Scripture to interpret Scripture. It took me back to great textbooks that I was reading in my undergrad years and prior (books like Klein, Blomberg and Hubbard’s Introduction to Biblical Interpretation) and to classes with Bill Osborne and Chris Marshall (“Interpretative Method”). It’s a fairly significant issue if only because of the way that it shapes the way so many people understand the Bible, and the discussion I was part of today has prompted me to write down some of my thoughts on the use – and abuse – of the practice of using Scripture to interpret Scripture.
First allow me to set the scene by sketching the discussion that prompted me. I was talking about what, if anything, the biblical writers had to say to indicate whether they more clearly saw human beings as physical beings or as beings that are basically non-physical (having bodies until they die, but continuing to live on in their non-physical state afterwards). As readers may know, I hold the former view.
Whether you want to divide the person up internally into soul, heart, mind, or any other thing, there are many passages that talk about human beings as a whole – including whatever parts you think are bundled into “you” – and flatly says that you are dust. That’s what you are. And they also say that “you” will go back to the dust when you die. Again, you might think that “you” includes a soul (and/or other bits and pieces). But whatever is contained in “you,” those passages say that it goes back into the dust when you die.
The list of passages includes: Genesis 2:7, Genesis 3:19, Job 34:14-15, Psalm 22:29, Psalm 30:9, Psalm 90:2, Psalm 103:13-16, Psalm 104:21-30, Ecclesiastes 3:19-20, Ecclesiastes 12:7-8, Isaiah 26:19, and Daniel 12:2. I won’t quote them here, but feel free to look them up. As you look these passages up, a clear pattern emerges: The authors of the Hebrew Scripture viewed human beings in very physical terms. We are creatures of the dust (“we are but dust,” as one of those passages says), and like the other creatures in this world (which the Old Testament also describes as being made from the dust of the earth), we are sustained by the breath of life given by God, often synonymous with the Spirit of God. When these creatures (including humans) die, they go back to the dust, and God reclaims the spirit (or breath, those terms are interchanged as you look through these passages).
I pointed out this list of passages to somebody recently. He is a dualist, believing that we are an immaterial soul who lives inside a physical “container” (his choice of words). So this list of passages, I thought, would at very least show him that his view wasn’t biblical (whether you continue to think a view is true is another matter, of course). But these passages had no impact on his stance. Sure, he could see what the passages were saying, but his reply was to say (my summary): Yes, those verses are all true, but they’re only about part of us – the body. What about the soul? Those passages don’t mention the non-material soul, so you can’t interpret those passages as saying that human beings are physical.
I reacted in what I take to be a fairly natural way – “What?” Of course those passages don’t mention our non-material soul. How could they, when they so unanimously claim that we are physical beings, made from the dust and returning to dust in death? Obviously what was happening here is that my partner in dialogue could see quite plainly that these passages said that we are physical and didn’t say that we also have an immaterial soul, but because this fellow just knew – or so he was sure – that dualism was true and that this, really was what the biblical writers believed, it should be assumed anyway. It was an awkward reading of the passages though, there was no denying it. Somehow, passages that asserted bluntly that we are dust and will return to the dust somehow had to be taken to mean almost the opposite; that our conscious selves really are some immaterial thing that isn’t dust, and that really we don’t return to the dust when we die at all! These passages from the Hebrew Bible certainly weren’t giving rise to his view. Something else was at work.
In the end, the other fellow told me his method: He thinks that there are some passages in the New Testament that, while not directly teaching dualism, appear to presuppose it. Two texts in the New Testament that he mentioned are passages that I have discussed at some length here before: Luke 23:43 and 2 Corinthians 12, and he also mentioned 2 Corinthians 5. Because of this – and this is the vital part – he “interprets the Old Testament in light of the New Testament,” using his view of what this small number of New Testament passages means to regulate the range of possible meanings of all the passages in the Old Testament.
I don’t think the New Testament teaches dualism at all, but that’s another issue. The issue that I want to discuss here is the legitimate (and illegitimate) way to use some parts of the Bible to interpret other parts.
Straightforward statements on broad moral precepts are generally going to be easier for us to understand to understand than, say, elaborate apocalyptic imagery
Should we do it at all? Yes, I think so. There are a couple of reasons for this. One is the simple reason that – as we all realise – some pieces of ancient writing are clearer than others. Straightforward statements on broad moral precepts are generally going to be easier for us to understand to understand than, say, elaborate apocalyptic imagery. Clearer passages of Scripture will be useful in helping us understand more obscure passages created by the same community of faith. For example, Daniel had a strange dream of bizarre animals that was then given a divine interpretation: They referred to kingdoms in the world. In the book of Revelation the author takes and uses those same images, but he does not state that they refer to kingdoms in the world. By comparing Revelation to Daniel, we can use the earlier book to help us understand the later book, because it contains more information about what the images mean.
Through the human authors, God is speaking.
The second reason is more theological in nature. Christians maintain that while the books of the Bible do tell us about the perspective of the human authors, they tell us more than that. Through the human authors, God is speaking. The doctrine of the divine inspiration of Scripture, although it comes in several forms, is the idea that the human authors are, in God’s own way, serving a role of conveying something that God – and not just the human author – wants to convey. In addition to having a human author, with all of his frailties, imperfections and limitations, Christians believe that the books of the Bible also have a divine author, and because of this there is a basic unity to the Bible as a whole. Understanding one part of the Bible can therefore be helped by a good understanding of other parts that speak to the same issues.
I think a great example of this rears its head in the list of passages I gave earlier. Take Ecclesiastes 12:7, which refers to the death of human beings, saying that “the dust shall return to the earth as it was, and the spirit shall return to God who gave it.” Some people today use this as a proof text for dualism and for the idea that we go to heaven when our bodies die. But they couldn’t use this passage this way, if only they would use Scripture to interpret Scripture. All of the other passages that I listed repeatedly reinforce the idea, first stated in Genesis 2:7, that human people are made from the “dust,” natural, physical constituents, and they have from God the spirit, he breath of life, common to all animals, which is reclaimed by God when those creatures die. If readers of Ecclesiastes 12:7 were familiar with the Old Testament background of the language that it uses, they would be much better equipped to understand it.
Christians over the centuries have, in light of God’s self-revelation in the person of Jesus, found “echoes” or rather foreshadows of Christ in various Old Testament passages.
The principle of using Scripture to interpret Scripture became very important to Christians when it came to reading Old Testament passages in a Christological sense. I am speaking here not just of prophecies in the sense of predictions that are only properly fulfilled by Jesus. Instead, Christians over the centuries have, in light of God’s self-revelation in the person of Jesus, found “echoes” or rather foreshadows of Christ in various Old Testament passages. It’s important to realise that in treating Old Testament passages christologically, the reader does not (and must not) try to change what they would have meant to the first readers, but they do still gain a new significance insofar as they resemble and even prefigure what unfolded in the work of Jesus. In Genesis, the words still do refer, in the primary sense, to enmity between the serpent and humans in general, but when God says that the serpent will strike at the heel of the woman’s offspring, and he shall crush the serpent’s head, Christians have always seen striking image of Jesus’ defeat of Satan through his death on the cross. When Isaiah wrote of a young woman conceiving and giving birth to a special son who will be called Immanuel (God is with us), in the primary sense it really does refer to an event in the Old Testament, but Christians, including the authors of the New Testament, have seen a strong and divinely intended parallel here with the birth of Jesus, who truly was God with us. So it’s not the case that the first Jewish readers of these texts had no idea what they meant, and nobody understood them until Jesus came along. Instead, with the arrival and saving work of Jesus, passages like these take on a new and more profound significance.
[Sometimes] all we’re really doing is allowing our conclusions about some parts of Scripture to trump the apparent evidence found in other parts of Scripture…
Notice however, that the practice of using Scripture to interpret Scripture needs to be done carefully. Say there were fifteen passages of Scripture that appeared to say that Mary Magdalene was married (some of them even say “her husband was a man named Samuel”), and there are two passages that appear to describe her as single (I’m using an example that’s not doctrinally entangled just to keep it simple). Obviously it’s not legitimate to say, “well I take those two passages to mean that she was single, and now I’m going to use those two verses to interpret the other fifteen, and hey presto, the Bible now clearly teaches that Mary Magdalene was single!” In a case like this (and, I say, in a case like that of my dualist partner in discussion), we’re not actually using the Scripture to interpret other parts. All we’re really doing is allowing our conclusions about some parts of Scripture to trump the apparent evidence found in other parts of Scripture, relieving ourselves of the burden of really dealing with all of the evidence. Certainly in the Mary Magdalene example, concluding that two passages speak about her as though she was single does not help us to explain the meaning of the other fifteen passages, and it does not give any clues as to why they say what they do. It is simply a case of preferring some passages and basically ignoring the others – even though the others are the clear majority.
The same was true in the discussion I had today. Saying that you think a small number of passages in the New Testament are easier to understand if dualism is true, and therefore any passages that appear to suggest (even directly state) a physicalist view of people should be declared not to really do so – this is not using Scripture to help us understand Scripture at all. This is just to not engage in the exegesis of a large number of passages because we are content with the conclusions that we have drawn from others.
Another vital principle to bear in mind is that when using Scripture to interpret Scripture, more straightforward statements should be used to unravel and explain more cryptic statements, and not the other way around. For instance, look at the many clear texts in the list I gave, and observe how they so clearly unite in speaking on one issue. It would be very unwise to take such direct and repeated statements, and subject their meaning to our understanding of a very unusual passage about visions of a man who saw the third heaven – in a passage that is anything but clear.
That example might distract or irritate you, because perhaps you think I’m dead wrong about physicalism. OK, here’s a different one: 1 Corinthians 15 (in my view) presents some fairly clear teaching about future events. There, Paul claims, Jesus is now reigning after his resurrection, and he will continue to reign until all his enemies – even death itself – have been conquered, and the dead are raised back to life. You might not agree with my assessment, but I think I speak with the majority in saying that this is spelled out in very straightforward terms in verses 20-28. So if there’s an appropriate time to say that Christ is reigning, it’s right now. Some people, by contrast (I think in particular of those who hold to what is termed “dispensationalist” theology) reject this view, and claim on the basis of a rather picturesque passage, Revelation 20, that there will be more than one time in the future when the dead will rise; there will be a first resurrection, and then a long period during which Christ reigns, and then a final resurrection, and then that reign will come to an end and the rest of the dead will rise and God the Father will, as it were, take over the reigns. I say “picturesque” because it’s a context notorious for its almost excessive symbolism, with beasts, dragons, lakes made of fire (!!!) and so on. I think that a good application of the principle of interpreting Scripture with Scripture means that we should take what are – again, in my estimate – clear, more straightforward passages like 1 Corinthians 15, and use them to help us understand more arcane passages like Revelation 20, rather than independently interpreting Revelation 20 and then allowing that interpretation to decide what other passages mean.
When you’ve got a very large pool of writing in the Old Testament on a subject and just a few in the New Testament, you should actually use the Old Testament background to help you understand the passages in the New Testament, and not the other way around.
What’s more, there is a real risk in choosing to privilege our understanding of a select few New Testament passages at the expense of the well attested voice of the Old Testament. It’s all very well to believe that revelation is “progressive,” that is, it gets larger and larger over time as God reveals and clarifies more issues. I think this is the right way to think about revelation, for the simple reason that it couldn’t have been given all at once. But we have to take care that we understand this as genuinely progressive, that is, it makes progress and adds to a pre-existing body of revelation. We should not think that this means we can actually reject what was once said. You should use pre-existing data, then, to interpret new data. In fact my friend had it exactly backwards. When you’ve got a very large pool of writing in the Old Testament on a subject and just a few in the New Testament, you should actually use the Old Testament background to help you understand the passages in the New Testament, and not the other way around. This is the key to understanding the book of Revelation, for example, which draws all of its imagery from the Old Testament. This is the key to understanding Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus, for example (going into Egypt, then passing through the water in baptism, then going through the wilderness, which are all clear parallels to the nation of Israel in the book of Exodus). Similarly, the basic presuppositions about God and human beings, including the list of passages I gave earlier (and others besides) are all things that should inform the way we understand the New Testament writers, most of whom lived and breathed the thought world of readers of the Old Testament.
So yes, you should use Scripture to interpret Scripture – Just as long as what you’re using is Scripture (rather than the system of theology that you’ve derived from it), and what you’re using it to do is actually interpret (and not silence) other parts of Scripture.
- Tom Wright on reading the Bible literally
- How to escape the Bible with your theology intact
- Episode 056: Material Salvation
- Of proof texts and ghosts: The Bible and the mind-body question, part 2
- Ehrman: I’m not destroying Christianity, I’m only destroying the Bible!