Scripture Interprets Scripture: Historically

Thomas C. Miersma is pastor of the First Protestant Reformed Church, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

The principle that Scripture interprets Scripture is, as was pointed out, last time, the fundamental principle of the reformers’ approach to Scripture. It is rooted in the confession that the Scriptures are the Word of God to us and in the truth that God Himself, by His Holy Spirit, will also teach us in the understanding of them. This truth the reformers received by faith, upon the testimony of Scripture itself and the Spirit’s witness in their hearts that the Scriptures are of God.

Having set forth this principle, however, it must also be applied. This takes, as we have seen, the humble willingness to let Scripture speak, to be taught, and to learn of God what He would say unto us. It was this that the reformers sought in their study, exegesis, and exposition of the Word of God. To expound this principle in all its significance is beyond the scope of this column; we can only hope therefore to draw a few main lines for consideration. 

To apply the principle that Scripture interprets Scripture means essentially that Scripture is its own commentary. Thus it begins with studying a text or a passage of the Word of God in its context. The Scriptures themselves make plain that God gave us His Word through the instrument of the apostles and prophets, so that “holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” (II Peter 1:21). Each passage or book had a certain place and purpose in the life of the people of God in the time in which it was written and has a certain place in the unity of Scripture. 

This leads to the historical principle of Bible study and exegesis. If you are studying the book of I Corinthians you must take into account what Scripture has to tell us historically about that local congregation, its circumstances, its problems, and the reason God gave His Word to us as a letter written to that church through the apostle Paul. This information the letter itself furnishes us, as do the other epistles and the Book of Acts.

Likewise if we are studying the Psalms of David, we must have in mind the history and life of David which is given us in the Word of God. In the same way, the Psalms themselves will show us the inner life and experience of Gods servant David when we study the history. It is to Scripture’s own explanation of the time and circumstances that we must look. 

This does not mean that we may not use other books to give us help in understanding the culture, geography, and matters of the day-to-day life—climate, dress, clothing, and other such things. But we look first of all to the Word of God for answers also to these questions. It is perhaps important to underscore this in our day and age. An atlas, a Bible dictionary, and similar tools are useful in aiding our understanding. But they do not have the authority of the Word of God. One need only compare several atlases to see that they will quite often differ from one another, even in the location of some important cities and towns. Likewise one only has to compare the findings of various cultural studies as to life in the land of Canaan at, for example, the time of Abraham, and the various pictures which have been drawn at different times, to see that they cannot be more than a useful and helpful tool. We must beware of placing the theories and the supposed findings of such studies as archaeology on a par with Scripture. It is not archaeology which interprets Scripture but Scripture which sets the standard for the research and findings of archaeology in Palestine. It has too often been the case that the supposed findings, facts, and conclusions of one generation have been overturned by the next. 

This does not mean that we may not use such material to illustrate and understand Scripture; but it must be with caution, and Scripture alone must be decisive. This was the method of the reformers. It is also one of the reasons that even today their commentaries are still valuable and sound. For, not having available to them many of these tools, they were content to let Scripture explain itself in these matters. 

It is in the same manner that we must let Scripture explain to us every aspect of its history, its origin and the background of each book and epistle. This study includes reading the book as a whole to understand the main thought and intent of the book, so that we might understand first of all what that Word of God said, and was intended to say to the church when it was written. The epistles of the New Testament were, for example, all written to specific churches with specific needs and problems. This too belongs to Scripture’s explanation of itself. 

This means also that when figures and images are set before us in the Word of God, as for example in the Prophets, that they are shaped in the language and times in which the church then found itself. This will guard us against the false so-called literalism of some extreme methods of interpretation which would find in Scripture everything from modern weapons of war to cars and helicopters. Scripture itself makes it plain that it was given by God in history. We must therefore let Scripture guide us to understand it as it was given. 

This means that Scripture also explains to us the inner experience of God’s saints and gives us what we need to know of their feelings, struggles, and emotions. It does so by setting forth the common experience of God’s people in the world, which we may take up in our understanding of historical passages as well as the specific details. This too is a matter of allowing Scripture to guide our understanding and interpretation. This also characterizes the expositions and commentaries of the reformers. By letting the Scriptures lead them in this, comparing similar circumstances and experiences with one another, as found in Scripture, the reformers were able to set forth from the Word of God a full and rich understanding of the life of God’s saints, which is also given us for our instruction. At the same time they avoided that kind of creative fiction which would add to the simple narrative of Scriptural history all kinds of unbiblical nonsense so that the narrative of our Lord’s birth for example, is transformed into the melodramatic love story of Mary and Joseph. 

By proceeding historically within the boundaries which Scripture itself draws, and allowing Scripture to guide them in its study the reformers were safeguarded from the wild fancies of medieval speculation, mysticism, and allegory. Texts were interpreted in their proper contexts and relationships and the reformers were guided to a sound understanding of God’s Word and its meaning. 

At the same time, because they approached the Word of God by faith, recognizing both the organic character of inspiration and Scripture’s abiding authority, they avoided the modern error of reducing Scripture to mere human writings. Confessing the sovereignty of God over all the affairs and circumstances of life and His all-embracing counsel and providence, they were not led into the trap of regarding Scripture as culturally conditioned or time-bound. The historical principle of Scriptural interpretation properly applied is a matter of Scripture interpreting Scripture. The reformers followed it to know and understand the meaning of God’s Word. Buy they also understood that God had ordered all things and had unfolded His Word in history with a view to the church of all ages. They sought to understand what that Word meant for the church in the time and place in which it was given, because it is exactly that Word which God still speaks to His church today and that in the fullest sense of the word.

They saw God as the Giver of His Word Who had spoken that Word and revealed Himself in the history and lives of His people, who spake by the mouth of His servants, the prophets and apostles. “And that afterwards God, from a special care, which he ,has for us and our salvation, commanded his servants, the prophets and apostles, to commit his revealed word to writing. . . ” (Confession of Faith, Article III). Although therefore Scripture was to be understood historically, yet nevertheless, it was that which the Spirit had to say to the church of all ages, in His unchangeable Word, which stood before them upon the pages of Holy Writ. It was not to set aside God’s Word that they laid hold of the historical principle, but because Scripture itself led them to it and by it they came to a knowledge of the truth. It was not an instrument to obscure the meaning of God’s Word or to explain away its requirement and calling as is so often the case today. Rather it was a principle taught in Scripture which they properly applied to make Scripture clear and to understand it aright.