In the last essay we discussed several aspects of biblical interpretation. We noted four types of biblical interpretation that developed during Church history. We also discussed the importance of the 18th century emphasis on interpretation according to the historical context of the document. And we dealt with the interpretive concept of typology. In this essay I want to look at this matter of biblical interpretation from an entirely different angle. I want to discuss the key interpretive principles that orthodox interpreters use to interpret the Bible.
I have organized the material into three major categories. I have named the categories Boundary Principles, Historical Principles, and Common Sense Principles.
First are the boundary principles. Boundaries have a specific purpose. They provide parameters. That is, they set limits beyond which we are not supposed to go. The first kind of boundary principle is the kind that sets limits for what is authoritative, or normative. Therefore I call them Normative Boundaries.
Divine revelation is such a boundary. God has chosen to provide his people with a standard, or normative, revelation. If we ask where we find that divine revelation, the answer is in the Bible. In orthodox theology, the Bible is God’s normative means of revelation. God can and does reveal himself to humanity in other ways, but all non-biblical revelation must be measured by the biblical norm.
Therefore a second normative boundary is God’s inspiration of the Bible. As we saw in the essays on inspiration, the Bible is especially inspired. That is, the biblical authors were inspired by God in an extraordinary way as they wrote their books. In those essays we saw that the process for inspiring Scripture was that the human authors functioned in an ordinary fashion, using ordinary human methods. But they did it under an extraordinary degree of inspiration by the Holy Spirit. And the effect was a unity of divine and human action that resulted in a normative, authoritative, body of written material, the Bible.
We also saw in those essays that the Holy Spirit not only inspired the writers of the Bible, but he also inspired the church to recognize which books were extraordinarily inspired. In that way the Holy Spirit superintended the process of canonization. And the Bible became the authoritative norm for Christian faith and practice.
Those are the normative boundaries. A second group of boundary principles set theological boundaries. These principles have to do with what is orthodox. The term “orthodox” literally means “straight thought.” Once again we are dealing with a technical term of the Church. Orthodoxy consists of the theological doctrines that Christians of all traditions traditionally have believed through the centuries.
Thus the first theological boundary is Orthodoxy. Although admittedly there are many obscure passages in the Bible, and not all passages can readily be harmonized, nevertheless the theological matters essential to faith and practice are revealed clearly. And this accounts for the existence of theological orthodoxy.
The second theological boundary I want to mention is the principle of unity and harmony. This principle says that the Bible, the Christian canon, has an overall unity and harmony. To some of you that may seem an unnecessary statement. But in much of biblical scholarship today, this principle is not held. Many liberal scholars today emphasize the diversity of the Scriptures so much that they claim that it has no unity and harmony.
We orthodox thinkers are in strong disagreement with them on this, as on many points. We certainly recognize the diversity of biblical teaching. There are diverse theologies in the Old and New Testaments (e.g. those of Paul and John). But that does not destroy the unity. Indeed the diversity fits into a larger unity and harmony of biblical, theological truth. Thus orthodox interpreters insist that both biblical and systematic theologies are possible and useful.
A third theological boundary links Christ and Salvation. Again this seems unchallengeable to most orthodox Christians; but the fact is, many people today believe that salvation is possible apart from Christ. But orthodox believes disagree. There are many facets of various legitimate biblical and systematic theologies on which persons can agree to disagree, but the primary thrust of every orthodox Christian theology is salvation through Christ. Orthodox theology always centers on Christ.
A third set of boundary principles can be called methodological boundaries. Those principles set boundaries in the area of biblical interpretation. For example, there is a principle of normative meaning. Not only is there a normative, authoritative body of written material (the biblical canon), there also is a normative meaning being communicated through that material.
This normative meaning is defined as the meaning intended by the inspired author. In other words, what the author (under the inspiration of God) intended to communicate to his original audience is the unchanging meaning of the text.
A second methodological boundary principle is the distinction between meaning of a text and its significance. We already have established that the meaning of a text always is that intended by the author. We invariably must begin there. Yet we must distinguish that meaning from the significance of the text to its interpreter, because the significance of a particular passage to an interpreter in a later time and culture may be quite different from the significance it held for the original audience. (The contrasted terms are borrowed from E.D. Hirsch, Jr., Validity in Interpretation, p. 8f.).
Let me illustrate. When you read the Bible, you are an interpreter. You look for the significance for your life in the text. That is, you ask yourself, what God wants to tell me from this text. That is the significance of the text for you, though you may commonly refer to it as its meaning. But actually the meaning was what the author intended for his original audience. It is possible for the significance for you to be the same as the meaning. The command to love God with all your heart would be an example. But frequently that will not be the case. The meaning may refer to something that no longer exists in our culture, as when Paul teaches about eating meat that has been sacrificed to idols. So in a case like that, we must seek a significance that is useful to us in our cultural situation.
A third methodological boundary principle is that Scripture is to be interpreted by Scripture. This is a Reformation principle that stands unrefuted. The Bible is its own best interpreter.
For instance, Ambiguous or Obscure Passages are to be interpreted by parallel passages that are straightforward and clear. For example Mt. 27:61 says that Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” were sitting at the tomb after the burial of Jesus, without identifying the other Mary. But Mk. 15:47 clarifies the matter. Mark identifies the other Mary as “the mother of Jesus.”
Isolated statements are to be interpreted in light of the general teachings of the Bible as a whole. In other words, if something is mentioned only once in scripture, one should interpret it in light of the total biblical message.
Old Testament statements are to be interpreted in light of the New Testament. (See “Progressive Revelation” below.)
A fourth methodological boundary principle is that Scripture is to be interpreted using the historical-theological method. We cannot go into this now, but the key factor is to interpret the Bible on the basis of orthodox rather than liberal presuppositions. (See G.E. Ladd, The New Testament and Criticism, 1967.)
That completes the boundary principles for doing theology. To summarize, it is extremely important for orthodox Christians to know the proper boundaries for doing theology. We are limited in regard to our standard or norm by revelation, inspiration and the canon. We also have boundaries in respect to what is orthodox. And there are certain limits to our methods.
A second major category of interpretive principles can be termed historical principles. These are principles that have to do with history and culture. First we have to understand God’s relation to History. In the orthodox world view, history is a controlled system with God as the primary controlling factor. Liberals to the contrary look at the universe as a closed system, in which natural law is the primary controlling factor. That is, they would say that every effect must have a natural cause.
A second important concept is historicity. No text, including the biblical texts, is ever free from its historical situation and time. Nor is any interpreter of the Bible ever free from his or her own personal place in history. This means that biblical interpreters must take into account the temporal and cultural distance between themselves and the text. This is another way of talking about significance as opposed to meaning.
A third concept that has to do with history is language. There is no meaningful human understanding apart from language. In addition, the language of the Bible is human language, not a supernatural language apart from or different from human language. Therefore all the subtle problems that arise in human communication that are due to the difficulties of language usage generally are present in biblical interpretation and must be taken into account by the interpreter.
Fourth, another important historical principle is called accommodation. Biblical revelation in general is accommodated to human weaknesses and limitations. It is written in human languages and thought-forms. If it weren’t so, we wouldn’t be able to understand it. Therefore, it is totally couched in human experience; and generally it is framed in the cultural contexts of the individual authors. Occasionally the nature of the revelation itself causes a break with cultural expressions, but that is not the general rule; it is the exception.
Fifth is progressive revelation. The historicity of texts and interpreters along with the principle of accommodation require interpreters to recognize and account for what is called progressive revelation. God did not reveal everything in any one age. But as Jesus in his time taught via parables “as they were able to hear it” (Mk. 4:33), so also God made revelations throughout biblical history according to the ability of the people to receive and understand. The primary example of this is the differences seen between the Old and New Testaments. And that is why the Old Testament must be interpreted in light of the New.
I have one more major category of interpretive principles. I call them common sense principles. The first is general common sense. When more than one interpretation is possible, the one that most readily suggests itself to attentive, intelligent readers who have some interpretive competence should be favored over those that are obscure or strain credulity. One that is more inclusive should be preferred over one that is exclusive.
The second is being willing to admit ignorance. When one does not know what a particular statement means, it should be admitted. For example, when we read in 1 Pet. 3:19 that Jesus preached to the spirits in prison; or when we read 1 Cor. 15:29, where Paul writes about a person’s being baptized for the dead, we must admit that we do not know with any certainty what they were teaching.