Previous article in this series: August 2015, p. 438.
The True Interpretation of Scripture
The apostle Peter has said that the Holy Scriptures are not of private interpretation (), and thus we do not allow all possible interpretations. Nor consequently do we acknowledge as the true or genuine interpretation of the Scriptures what is called the conception of the Roman [Catholic] Church, that is, what the defenders of the Roman [Catholic] Church plainly maintain should be thrust upon all for acceptance. But we hold that interpretation of the Scripture to be orthodox and genuine which is gleaned from the Scriptures themselves (from the nature of the language in which they were written, likewise according to the circumstances in which they were set down, and expounded in the light of like and unlike passages and of many and clearer passages) and which agree with the rule of faith and love, and contributes much to the glory of God and man’s salvation.
The first article of the Second Helvetic Confession (SHC) established the fundamental truth that Scripture is the “true Word of God.” Scripture is the true Word of God because “God himself spoke to the fathers, prophets, apostles” and through the Holy Scriptures “still speaks to us” today. As the true Word of God, Scripture contains all that is necessary as “pertains to a saving faith, and also to the framing of a life acceptable to God.” In connection with the truth of the inspiration of Scripture, the SHC also establishes the closely related truth—of critical importance to the Reformation—that “the preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.” Thus, “when this Word of God is now preached in the church by preachers lawfully called, we believe that the very Word of God is proclaimed, and received by the faithful.”
Chapter 2 of the SHC takes up the subject that is logically next in order. Having established the inspiration and infallibility of the Scriptures, the next matter of importance is the interpretation of these infallibly inspired Scriptures. Given the holiness of the sacred writings themselves, how are unholy and sinful men to interpret these Scriptures? What method ought they to employ and what principles ought they to implement?
The article begins with the negative—two negatives, in fact. First, no passage of Scripture is of any “private interpretation.” And, second, neither is the church to be considered the infallible interpreter of Scripture, as is the claim of the Roman Catholic Church.
First of all, no passage of Scripture is of any private interpretation. Here the SHC appeals to II Peter 1:20, “Knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation.” It is a questionable interpretation of II Peter 1:20 to appeal to it as a condemnation of the right of the individual to interpret Scripture as he pleases, apart from the Scriptures themselves and apart from what the church of the past has taught. As a matter of fact, II Peter 1:20 is not talking about what we usually think of when we refer to the interpretation of Scripture. At the end of this first chapter, the apostle Peter is not talking about the interpretation of Scripture, but he is talking about the origin of Scripture. He is answering the question: “Where did the Scriptures come from?” His answer is that Scripture did not originate in the private interpretation of those who wrote the Scriptures. In this sense, no part of Scripture is “of,” that is, does not arise out of, “any private interpretation.”1 That this is the correct understanding of the verse is plain from what immediately follows at the beginning of verse 21: “For the prophecy [of Scripture] came not in old time by the will of man.” Scripture does not originate in the private interpretation of the men who wrote the Scriptures because Scripture does not originate in the will of man. What, positively, is the explanation for the origin of Scripture? “Holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” ().
Even though, strictly speaking, II Peter 1:20 is not talking about the interpretation of the Scriptures, it is nevertheless true that Scripture is not to be interpreted according to the private opinion of the individual reader of Scripture. This is the foolish notion that has been resurrected in our day. Scripture means whatever it means to you. Many contemporary Bible study programs promote this view. No, Scripture does not mean whatever it means to you. Scripture means what it means. Scripture means what its one divine author intended it to mean, nothing more and nothing less. It is not our business to impose a meaning on Scripture foreign to the intended meaning of its author. No one has the right to do that with what someone else has written. Man certainly does not have the right to do that with what God has written. Our business is to discover the meaning of Scripture and apply that meaning to our life in the world. Our calling is to know the mind of God, and knowing the mind of God, know God who reveals Himself in Holy Scripture.
Principles of Scripture Interpretation
With regard to the right interpretation of Scripture, the first paragraph of this second article of the SHC sets forth a number of important principles. The first important principle of the interpretation of Scripture that is “orthodox and genuine” is that the meaning of Scripture is to be “gleaned from the Scriptures themselves.” In these words the SHC gives expression to the fundamental Reformation principle of the interpretation of Scripture: Scriptura Scripturam interpretatur, that is, Scripture interprets Scripture. Scripture is its own interpreter, which is to say, since Scripture is the Word of God, only God can interpret His own Word.
That Scripture is to interpret Scripture means also that attention is to be paid “to the circumstances in which [the Scriptures] were set down,” that is, the background, occasion, and context of specific passages. But especially does it mean that Scripture is to be “expounded in the light of like and unlike passages, and of many and clearer passages.” Scripture is to be compared with Scripture. This means that similar passages are to be compared with each other, and the more difficult passages interpreted in light of the easier, the less clear passages understood in light of those passages that are clearer.
The principle of Scripture interpreting Scripture includes the idea that the meaning of Scripture is to be determined “from the nature of the languages in which they were written.” Here the SHC gives expression to the importance of understanding Scripture in its original languages, the Hebrew of the Old Testament and the Greek of the New Testament. These were the languages in which God inspired the Scriptures to be written. The proper interpretation of Scripture is the interpretation that pays attention to the words of Scripture in the original languages in which it was written. By insisting on the interpretation of Scripture according to its original languages, the Reformers rejected the Roman Catholic exaltation of the Latin Vulgate. Although the Reformers regarded Jerome’s Vulgate to be a faithful translation of Scripture, it was, for all that, a translation—not Scripture in its original languages. Proper interpretation of Scripture means going beyond any translation of Scripture to the original upon which every faithful translation is based: the Hebrew of the Old Testament and the Greek of the New Testament.
Insistence on the importance of the original languages of Scripture also brings out another important Reformation principle. This principle stands closely connected to the teaching of the preceding article that the preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God. The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God as that preaching is based on the original languages of Holy Scripture. In their preparation of the sermons that they preach, the ministers of the Word must wrestle with the original languages. They must pay attention to the specific words inspired by the Holy Spirit. They must pay attention to the peculiar grammatical constructions that are used in their text. They must compare Scripture with Scripture in the original languages of Scripture.
And since the Scriptures are to be interpreted in their original languages, the Reformers and the churches of the Reformation insisted on a trained and educated clergy. If the ministers of the Word must labor with the Scriptures in “the languages in which they were written,” aspiring ministers must learn the biblical languages. The Reformation was not only a return to the Scriptures, it was a return to the Scriptures in their original languages. Not just anyone who feels led by the Spirit ought to preach and teach in the New Testament church, but those who are called and sent. And those who are called and sent ought to be those who are duly trained for all aspects of the work, especially the most important aspect of the work of the ministry, the preaching of the Word.
That Scripture is its own interpreter means also that individual passages are to be interpreted according to “the rule of faith and love.” At the same time, those interpretations are to be judged as genuine that “contribute much to the glory of God and man’s salvation.” The “rule of faith” refers to the overall teaching of Scripture. No interpretation of a specific passage is to be regarded as correct that conflicts with the overall teaching of Scripture. For example, Paul’s teaching in I Timothy 2:4 that God “will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the [saving] knowledge of the truth” cannot be interpreted to mean that God wills the salvation of every man, because this conflicts with the overall teaching of Scripture that He wills the salvation of some only, that He has chosen some men only to everlasting life, and that He has sent His Son to die for the elect.
At the same time, that interpretation “contributes much to the glory of God and man’s salvation.” The view that God wills the salvation of every human being, but in the end is able to save only some, robs God of His glory and is a denial of the biblical truth concerning man’s salvation.
Interpretations of the Holy Fathers
Wherefore we do not despise the interpretations of the holy Greek and Latin fathers, nor reject their disputations and treatises concerning sacred matters as far as they agree with the Scriptures; but we modestly dissent from them when they are found to set down things differing from, or altogether contrary to, the Scriptures. Neither do we think that we do them any wrong in this matter; seeing that they all, with one consent, will not have writings equated with the canonical Scriptures, but command us to prove how far they agree or disagree with them, and to accept what is in agreement and to reject what is in disagreement.
If Scripture is to interpret Scripture, how is the church to regard the writings of the holy fathers of the church? What status ought we to accord these writings? What authority do the ancient fathers have in the church today?
That Scripture is its own interpreter does not mean that we hold in contempt the writings of the ancient fathers. The writings of the ancient fathers, like Augustine of Hippo and Anselm, are and ought to be held in high esteem in the church. These men defended the truth against heretics. These men set forth the truth positively. These men were instrumental in the development of the truth, enriching the church’s understanding of the biblical deposit of the truth. That we are to walk in the old paths and in the traditions of our fathers (Jer. 6:16) demands that we esteem what the fathers have written, “their disputations and treatises.” That we have regard for the leading of the Spirit of the church of the past into the truth (John 14-16) also includes that we hold the writings of the ancient fathers in high regard. The church may be thankful for them, and centuries later continues to avail herself of their writings in the ongoing task of the church in the defense and development of the truth of God’s Word.
But we receive these writings and make use of these writings only “as far as they agree with the Scriptures.” At the same time “we modestly dissent from them when they are found to set down things differing from, or altogether contrary to, the Scriptures.” The Scriptures are the supreme authority in the church. These men were not infallible and did not regard their writings as infallible. The church need not receive anything not found in the Scriptures, and may not believe anything contrary to the Scriptures. This is the viewpoint that any faithful minister, theologian, or teacher takes. He does not desire that the members of the church follow him slavishly and unquestioningly. Thus, “[n]either do we think that we do them any wrong in this matter; seeing that they all, with one consent, will not have their writings equated with the canonical Scriptures, but command us to prove how far they agree or disagree with them, and to accept what is in agreement and to reject what is in disagreement.” In this way, in the interpretation of the Scriptures we honor the Scriptures for what they are: the very Word of God.
1 By “prophecy of Scripture” the apostle does not refer only to the prophetical portions of Scripture, in distinction, let us say, from the historical portions or poetical portions of Scripture.. By “prophecy of Scripture” is meant all of Scripture from the point of view of the fact that all of Scripture is the Word of God. That is what “prophecy” is—the very Word of God. All Scripture is prophecy because all Scripture is the Word of God.