In December of 2013, the final two White Horse Inn broadcasts for the month covered ten rules for interpreting the Bible. If we fail to follow proper rules for interpretation, we can stray very widely from the intent of the scripture. I know I did for decades. Not everything in scripture is equally clear either, but without studying the things we can know, we will never understand exactly why we believe what we believe. These two conversations were very helpful to me, so I’m sharing the ten rules with a little commentary.
Sharing a quote from the White Horse Inn conversation because it is so very fitting to introduce these roles. This is an exchange between hosts Kim Riddlebarger and Michael Horton:
(KR) Folks are coming to the Bible looking for scripture to speak to them, to their current trial and situation and if they don’t find that right away they’ll lose interest in it. when in fact the bible is telling a different story, Christ’s story.
(MH) And here’s the point, once you understand that, that it’s not first of all about you, it’s precisely what it’s actually about that changes you forever… that is the most benefit to you that day. You talk about, “Wow, this really spoke to me today.” Well, we’re not saying we don’t want the bible to speak to you today; we’re not saying we don’t want you to find application; we’re not saying we don’t want you to be comforted, or challenged, or convicted, or whatever. We’re saying that that only comes when you let the biblical story do its work on you, rather than coming with your expectations, your list of demands, and then expecting the Bible to meet them.
(KR) Hearing again that my sins are forgiven that I’m covered in somebody elses perfect righteousness is kinda the starting point to have all those other problems put in proper perspective and give me the desire and the gratitude and the ability to actually do something about them. It starts with that.
Without further ado, here are the ten rules:
1. The Bible is not about you
The Bible is not God speaking to you individually, but is the unfolding story of Christ’s redemption. The application for us comes from our relationship to the central theme of Christ. The Bible is ultimately for me, but not about me.
2. Text and context
What does the passage actually say? To whom was the book written? Why was it written? We must do our best to understand the answers to these questions to properly understand. Without considering this, we can interpret the Bible with our 21st century context. Rather we need to comprehend, as best as possible, the historical context in which it was written.
Let’s not draw a straight line from God to me through these words, but from God to the particular context in history that we are talking about to Christ and then to me as I’m in Christ. (Michael Horton)
3. Interpret the Old Testament in light of the New Testament
When we look to the examples of Jesus (in the Gospels) and the apostles (in both Acts and the epistles), we see that they consistently interpret the Old Testament in light of Jesus and the cross. When we don’t, we make the mistake of either effectively ignoring the Old Testament, making Christ’s fulfillment shallow or lost, or reading the Old Testament separate from the New Testament, sacrificing its doctrinal significance.
4. Don’t moralize
When we infuse moralism into a text that is a dynamic part of redemptive history, we reduce Christianity to another system of ethics comparable to other religions. This reduces Christianity to how you live and the consequences of your interactions with other people. While the agenda is different, both the left and the right do this by simply using Bible characters as moral examples rather than seeing them in their redemptive context. This is not to say that there isn’t morality in the Bible, but that we should not superimpose moralism over the gospel.
5. Scripture interprets scripture
The concept here is that the whole interprets the parts and the parts interpret the whole. Not everything in scripture is equally clear, but we can’t allow a difficult or obscure text to interpret a clear one. The overarching narrative of scripture is an unfolding promise of a deliverer who will come from the seed of the woman and crush the serpent’s head. While understanding the meanings of words, lines and sentences is important, we cannot lose the meaning of the whole. Often we miss the broader picture when we narrow our focus too tight and we end up reading into the passage something that simply isn’t there. This is similar to someone describing a puzzle by telling about the bumps and cutouts on a single piece, or even on all the pieces, without actually telling what the finished picture is. That’s not how we view puzzles. We look at the box top to see the broader picture into which the piece fits.
6. Don’t spiritualize
When there is an allegory of spiritual things (like Galatians) the Bible tells us. Outside of those instances, we add to scripture when we spiritualize the text by making it say something it isn’t
Example: Jesus calming the storm becomes “Jesus can calm the storm of your life”. In reality, the response of the disciples shows that the story is actually about declaring that Jesus is the Lord over the sea and sky.
Example: Jesus healing miracle becomes Jesus opening “spiritual” ears or eyes. Jesus Himself showed the purpose when He sends the message to John the Baptist in prison, “Go tell John these things are fulfilled today.”
7. Don’t doctrinalize
Similar to rule four, of course there are doctrines in scripture. The problem comes when we preempt the redemptive narrative to focus on the doctrines when, in fact, it is actually from that redemptive narrative that the doctrines arise. Doctrine is not opposed to application, it IS the application.
Example: The narrative (Jesus was crucified and resurrected) gives rise to the doctrine (justification, original sin, etc.)
8. Recognize motifs (recurring themes)
The writers of scripture often allude to or explicitly reference themes from earlier events without using direct quotation. We need to understand the earlier references before we can comprehend the meaning.
Examples: Matthew is written under the shadow of the Exodus and Passover. John was written as a parallel to the Jewish calendar feasts referenced in Leviticus.
9. Recognize the distinction between law and gospel
Law is not just the Old Testament. Gospel is not just the New Testament. These pair of themes run, intertwined, throughout the entirety of scripture. Understanding the distinction between the two is vital. Law shows what God requires of us. Gospel shows what God has done for us.
Closely related is understanding the difference between imperatives (commanding us) and indicatives (defining us). Another corollary is understanding the difference between the covenant at Mount Sinai (“The Law”) and the covenant of grace (“The Gospel”). Both originated in Eden, but were developed along parallel but different paths in history.
It has been said that he who understands the two covenants is a theologian, and this is, no doubt, true. I may also say that the man who knows the relative positions of the Law and the Gospel has the keys of the situation in the matter of doctrine. The relationship of the Law to myself, and how it condemns me; the relationship of the Gospel to myself, and how if I be a believer it justifies me–these are two points which every Christian man should clearly understand. …Or else he may cause himself great sorrow, and fall into errors which will be grievous to his heart and injurious to his life. To form a mingle-mangle of law and gospel is to teach that which is neither law or gospel, but the opposite of both. (Charles Spurgeon)
Recognize we don’t come to the text without personal baggage. Everyone has presuppositions, the problem is with the person who thinks he has none and/or the person who is unwilling to examine his presuppositions.
(Adapted from White Horse Inn broadcasts WHI-1185, Top Ten Rules of Interpretation (Part 1) and WHI-1186, Top Ten Rules of Interpretation (Part 2))