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INTERPRETATION: Christians Can Understand the Word of God
All Christians have a right and duty not only to learn from the church’s heritage of faith but also to interpret Scripture for themselves. The church of Rome doubts this, alleging that individuals easily misinterpret the Scriptures. This is true; but the following rules, faithfully observed, will help prevent that from happening.
Every book of Scripture is a human composition, and though it should always be revered as the Word of God, interpretation of it must start from its human character. Allegorizing, therefore, which disregards the human writer’s expressed meaning is never appropriate.
Each book was written not in code but in a way that could be understood by the readership to which it was addressed. This is true even of the books that primarily use symbolism: Daniel, Zechariah, and Revelation. The main thrust is always clear, even if details are clouded. So when we understand the words used, the historical background, and the cultural conventions of the writer and his readers, we are well on the way to grasping the thoughts that are being conveyed. Spiritual understanding—that is, the discernment of the reality of God, his ways with humankind, his present will, and one’s own relationship to him now and for the future—will not however reach us from the text until the veil is removed from our hearts and we are able to share the writer’s own passion to know and please and honor God (2 Cor. 3:16; 1 Cor. 2:14). Prayer that God’s Spirit may generate this passion in us and show us God in the text is needed here. (See Ps. 119:18-19, 26-27, 33-34, 73, 125, 144, 169; Eph. 1:17-19; 3:16-19.)
Each book had its place in the progress of God’s revelation of grace, which began in Eden and reached its climax in Jesus Christ, Pentecost, and the apostolic New Testament. That place must be borne in mind when studying the text. The Psalms, for instance, model the godly heart in every age, but express its prayers and praises in terms of the typical realities (earthly kings, kingdoms, health, wealth, war, long life) that circumscribed the life of grace in the pre-Christian era.
Each book proceeded from the same divine mind, so the teaching of the Bible’s sixty-six books will be complementary and self-consistent. If we cannot yet see this, the fault is in us, not in Scripture. It is certain that Scripture nowhere contradicts Scripture; rather, one passage explains another. This sound principle of interpreting Scripture by Scripture is sometimes called the analogy of Scripture or the analogy of faith.
Each book exhibits unchanging truth about God, humanity, godliness, and ungodliness, applied to and illustrated by particular situations in which individuals and groups found themselves. The final stage in biblical interpretation is to reapply these truths to our own lifesituations; this is the way to discern what God in Scripture is saying to us at this moment. Examples of such reapplication are Josiah’s realization of God’s wrath at Judah’s failure to observe his law (2 Kings 22:8-13), Jesus’ reasoning from Genesis 2:24 (Matt. 19:4-6), and Paul’s use of Genesis 15:6 and Psalm 32:1-2 to show the reality of present righteousness by faith (Rom. 4:1-8).
No meaning may be read into or imposed on Scripture that cannot with certainty be read out of Scripture—shown, that is, to be unambiguously expressed by one or more of the human writers.
Careful and prayerful observance of these rules is a mark of every Christian who “correctly handles the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15).
J.I. Packer, now retired, was for many years Professor of Historic and Systematic Theology at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia. He is a senior editor of Christianity Today and is author of numerous books including, Knowing God, Rediscovering Holiness, Evangelism & the Sovereignty of God and A Quest for Godliness.
He is an ordained Anglican minister and holds the D.Phil. from Oxford University.