Thomas C. Miersma is pastor of the First Protestant Reformed Church, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
The historical-grammatical approach to Scripture we have been considering sets before us certain principles for arriving at the meaning of the Word of God by allowing Scripture to interpret Scripture. The principles we have considered are by their very nature somewhat general. Scripture, while it is one Word of God, is at the same time rich and diverse. The Scriptures contain parables, visions, psalms, symbols, types, and other’ elements which are all to be approached in the light of the general principles we have considered.
These general principles however must be properly and carefully applied in harmony with the particular nature of the passage we are studying. Parables must be treated as one whole, as they follow the lines of an extended figure of speech. The meaning of types and symbols, and the fact that they are types and symbols must be determined by careful study, comparing Scripture with Scripture. The basic principles of interpretation which we have considered need to be applied therefore with wisdom, prudence, and flexibility. It is exactly the careful and sound spiritual judgment displayed by the Reformers in their application of these principles which makes their commentaries of abiding value, particularly those of John Calvin.
It is not our intention to pursue these matters further in a consideration of their specific application to the special problems of interpreting types, parables, etc. For those interested in pursuing such a study, our seminary has available a syllabus on hermeneutics which is recommended for further study. In our consideration of the Reformers’ principles of scriptural interpretation however, we have concentrated our attention on the mechanical aspects of Bible study, on the historical and grammatical principles. The third principle is that Scripture interprets Scripture spiritually. This principle is the fundamental one, the foundation upon which the others rest, and was to the Reformers the central one.
We have in part considered this principle in all that we have said concerning the Reformers’ approach to the Word of God. It is rooted in the truth that in the study of God’s Word we are taught of God, by His Spirit in our hearts. Formally this principle means that the Holy Spirit interprets His own writings as one unified Word of God, given us by the Spirit of Christ and pointing us to Christ. The significance of this for our Bible study is very comprehensive, but there are certain elements which it may well hold before our minds. The spiritual unity of that Word of God means that Scripture does not contradict itself. It has but one Author. Clearer passages of the Word of God explain more difficult and less readily understood passages. This spiritual unity is greater than the unity of its history, as the unfolding of God’s revelation to us, and greater than its grammatical unity in the meaning of words and phrases. It is rooted in the purpose of the Word of God which is to reveal God as the God of our salvation in Christ. It is characterized by a unity of the truth. This one Word of truth must be appropriated and studied by faith.
This spiritual oneness of the Word of God means that underlying the study of the history, context, words, and grammar in our Bible study lies a deeper principle: the unity of the truth. The doctrines, truths, and concepts of Scripture are not at war with one another but form an essential unity which is spiritual in character and which can only be understood by faith, in the Spirit. Not only must the scriptural uses of words and phrases be studied and their grammatical relationships, but the truths and doctrines, the content of the Scriptures, must be studied and compared with one another, so that our study consists of comparing spiritual things with spiritual, with that wisdom which is not of this world but which is taught of the Holy Spirit (I Corinthians 2:13). Such study belongs to the office of believer and to the anointing of the child of God with the Spirit of Christ to understand God’s Word. It is done prayerfully and reverently with a willingness to submit ourselves to the Word of God.
This principle that Scripture interprets Scripture first of all spiritually, and that it is thus that we are to labor with the Word of God, means that we know our Bibles well and our doctrine well. We approach the Word of God not only by faith but with the content of our faith before our mind and heart. We study God’s Word in the light of that which we have been taught and have learned as children of God. In such study of God’s Word, our confessions also serve a useful and important place. They are the expression of the content of our faith, the expression of the work of the Spirit of truth in the church, and give to us in brief and clear form a statement of that spiritual unity and truth of God’s Word which forms the unity of Scripture. It is for this reason that we sometimes say that a Reformed man approaches Scripture through the confessions, and by way of the three forms of unity. By this is not meant that the confessions stand above Scripture, but rather that they are a means to set before us the content of our faith and the unity of God’s Word of truth and therefore serve to lead and guide our study of God’s Word in harmony with its truth as a whole.
This means that we also take the time to know our confessions, both the three forms of unity and our minor confessions, the forms for Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, etc. We also use them in our Bible study as a guide and tool. Moreover it means that we are busy studying the doctrine and truth of God’s Word and our unique Protestant Reformed heritage, as well as being engaged in direct Bible study. In that Reformed doctrine we find a rule or standard to guide our study of the Word of God. By it we will better understand the place of a passage in the whole of Scripture and its meaning. Likewise, by continually testing that standard against the higher standard of Scripture itself, we will also develop in our understanding of the truth of God’s Word and enrich our Reformed heritage.
As the mere mechanical aspects of Bible study, the historical-grammatical aspects, are insufficient by themselves, so also the principle of the spiritual’ interpretation of Scripture is insufficient without them. We may not reduce Bible study to a mere mechanical method of interpretation. Nor may we take up the truth of the spiritual principle of interpretation which undergirds it and approach Bible study merely from the principle that I have faith and God’s Word and the anointing of the Spirit, and therefore I need not labor or study or have any knowledge of doctrine, Scripture, or the faith of the churches of which I am a member, out of the false idea that after all the Spirit will teach me, apart from the means which he has appointed. We may not adopt the attitude that I may simply open my Bible and read, and immediately and intuitively understand it without effort and without knowledge. Such a subjective, mystical approach to Bible study (for that is what such thinking is) is neither biblical nor Reformed. It reduces Bible study in our society life as churches to mere opinion-swapping, opinions without foundation.
Because we are dependent upon the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit rightly to understand God’s Word, to teach us and to impart to us wisdom, knowledge, and understanding of mind and heart; we also have the calling to worship Him in His divine work within us, reverence that work, and to do so by taking heed to His Word with faithful and diligent Bible study and prayer. We would no doubt be horrified and offended if our minister on the Lord’s Day simply walked into. the pulpit, decided on a text to preach while we were singing, thumped down his Bible, opened it, and began to preach without any preparation, labor, or consideration. To do so would be dishonoring to God and an offense to the church of Christ. To do so on the basis of the office to which he is called or on the basis of the inward working of the Spirit in that office, would be a corruption of that office and of the working of the Spirit. Is it any different for one holding the office of believer to do essentially the same thing by showing up unprepared when the church gathers for Bible study in its society meetings? How easily do we not fall into exactly this same irreverent pattern of conduct, this same irreverent attitude toward God’s Word and the working of His Spirit?
That Scripture interprets Scripture spiritually means that we also with an attitude of reverent and holy awe take up God’s Word, study it constantly and faithfully, as the most used book in our home, and do so with a sincere regard for its divine author. Moreover it means that we do so with all the talents, gifts, and abilities God has given us, laboring with God’s Word as believers, that it might truly be a lamp unto our feet and a light upon the pathway of our life. We mortify the excuses of our sinful flesh which say, “I am too tired, I am not a reader, I am unlearned, I don’t have time.” We put away from us also “. . . the instruction that causeth to err from the words of knowledge” (Proverbs 19:27), this world’s amusements, books, television, and entertainments, and take time to study the Scriptures “. . . which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus” (II Timothy 3:15). For in the Word of God is to be found spiritual wisdom and the knowledge of God which is eternal life.