There is something healthy about returning to one’s roots. When it comes to evangelical Christianity, its roots are found in the soil of the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation.

Interpreting Scripture by Scripture

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    Interpreting Scripture by Scripture

    Michael S. Horton

    As Paul reminded Timothy, "All Scripture is inspired by God and is [therefore] useful for teaching, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness" (2 Tim. 3:16)--all Scripture, not just our "life verses."

    At the same time, the Westminster Confession properly reminds us that not everything in Scripture is equally plain or equally important. We have to interpret the more difficult passages in the light of clearer ones. Scripture interprets Scripture, and we learn the whole meaning of Scripture by studying its parts and its parts by learning the whole. You need the box-top and the puzzle-pieces.

    Of course, there is disagreement about which verses are "difficult" and which are "clear," as well as which are more important. I think we'd all agree that the meaning of Christ's descent into hell is less clear and less important than his incarnation, active and passive obedience, resurrection, ascension, and return. Nevertheless, on a host of other points the roads diverge. Most evangelicals would place church government in the "Who Cares?" category. Far from being at the core of the faith, such a view was at least important enough to divide the Reformed tradition over Episcopal, Presbyterian, and Congregational polities. For Eastern Orthodoxy, episcopacy is essential to the very existence of the church, and Rome takes it one step further, insisting on the primacy of the bishop of Rome.

    Even when it comes to the gospel, there are quite different assumptions at play. Eastern Orthodox churches think that the clear and important passages emphasize theosis--a process of being conformed to Christ-likeness that leads to final salvation through a combination of grace and free will. Roman Catholics have traditionally maintained that the clear and important passages teach the reconciliation of humanity in the church through its management of the treasury of merit.

    Arminians think that the clear and important passages teach the primacy of God's love (over other attributes), the universality of grace, and the libertarian free will of human beings. While Reformed theology never teaches God's sovereignty (predestination) as a central dogma from which every other doctrine is deduced, the love of God and a libertarian view of free will do function that way in standard Arminian systems. Arminians often acknowledge a stand-off: Calvinists enshrine God's sovereignty and predestination, while they make God's universal love and human freedom normative. "You have your verses and we have ours," is the oft-heard shrug that can only weaken the believer's confidence in the unity, consistency, and reliability of Scripture.

    Truth be told, we don't have "our verses" and they don't have "their verses." God has "his verses," and therefore all of them belong to "us." If we have "our verses," then not even these teach what we think they do. After all, Scripture interprets Scripture, and if we feel compelled to embrace some passages over others in order to maintain consistency, we haven't really understood "our verses."

    Arminian theologians Clark Pinnock and John Sanders share the presupposition that all of God's attributes are subservient to his love and that his purpose is to save every person. In fact, he recognizes that these theses function as presuppositions or "axioms" by which exegesis must be tested. (1) For example, from Arminian premises Pinnock defends "inclusivism": the view that even apart from explicit faith in Christ, people are saved if they respond to the light they have been given. He adds, "I agree that inclusivism is not a central topic of discussion in the Bible and that the evidence for it is less than one would like. But the vision of God's love there is so strong that the existing evidence seems sufficient to me." (2) Here Pinnock seems to admit that a general principle trumps the weak exegetical support of his position. The box-top is more important than the pieces of the puzzle.

    For hyper-Calvinists, God's sovereignty trumps other attributes, and predestination often marginalizes or even cancels out other passages that seem equally clear and important. For example, although Scripture just as clearly and emphatically teaches the universality of God's external call through the gospel, God's gracious care for all creatures, and the missionary imperative, hyper-Calvinists simply repeat the "TULIP" passages instead of seriously incorporating the whole teaching of Scripture into their faith and practice. For others, "Reformed" means transformation of every cultural sphere, even when that means marginalizing or even downplaying the soteriological questions that are at the heart of the Reformed confession. More recently, some argue that "union with Christ," not predestination, is the central dogma of Reformed theology. "Central dogma," however, has a particular meaning. It's a thesis from which everything else is deduced, rather than a central teaching that emerges inductively from the whole teaching of Scripture.

    In the history of Lutheran theology, justification has sometimes functioned as a central dogma that downplays or even contradicts other clear and important teachings of Scripture. Radicalizing Luther's call to privilege in Scripture "whatever preaches Christ," many liberal Protestants advanced a "canon-within-a-canon" hermeneutic. We need not accept everything in Scripture, but only that which proclaims Christ. Even in confessional Lutheranism, one may sometimes discern a tendency not only to give proper weight to the Bible's own testimony to justification, but to treat it as a central dogma from which all other biblical teachings are deduced.

    Some conservative evangelicals treat creationism and a literalistic hermeneutic in this manner, with strict dispensationalists reading the Bible primarily as a series of predictions concerning present-day Israel, Armageddon, and a literal millennium. At least in the older version, dominated by the Scofield Study Bible, the seven-dispensation scheme becomes a grid into which all of Scripture is pressed.

    The Forest and the Trees

    On one hand, there is the danger of missing the forest for the trees. Treating the Bible as a catalogue of timeless principles, doctrines, and proverbs, some expositors assume that they are just restating the Bible in so many words. A noted pastor once told me, "When I'm preaching through the Sermon on the Mount, I sound like a legalist; when I'm preaching through Galatians, I sound like an antinomian." Although this sounds like fidelity to the text--wherever it leads us--it is problematic for at least two reasons. First, it's naive. No one comes to the Bible without presuppositions. We all have some doctrinal framework we have acquired over years of studying the Bible together with other believers in a similar doctrinal background. Second, this assumption undermines confidence in the unity of Scripture. Jesus did not teach legalism and Paul did not teach antinomianism. As an apostle commissioned with the authority of Jesus himself and writing under the Spirit's inspiration, Paul's message is Christ's message. If we interpret the Sermon on the Mount as something completely unrelated (much less, contradictory) to Galatians, then we haven't gotten either right.

    Many of us were raised in churches where the pastor boasted that it took him years to get through one book. This is the glory of expository preaching, we were told. But is that a good way to read a story? The historical books of the Old Testament and the gospels of the New provide the overarching narrative within which the laws and doctrines make sense. The Epistles are, well, epistles: letters that were addressed to a particular church (or group of churches) and were generally read aloud as such in public worship. We get a lot out of these letters when we hear them read in their entirety, yet it's also important to unpack the rich content week by week--always bringing our people back to the basic argument. Typically, the historical books and the gospels have a storyline and the epistles have an argument (or series of arguments). But in this verse-by-verse approach, both the plot and the arguments can be easily lost to atomistic exegesis.

    On the other hand, there is a danger of turning a legitimate--even important--biblical motif or doctrine into a central dogma from which we deduce everything else. This is missing the trees for the forest. If the danger in the first view is to focus on the pieces of the puzzle without the box-top (a broader biblical and systematic theology), this view suffers from a tendency to marginalize or even ignore important aspects of "the whole counsel of God."

    Scripture is a canon. Although it is properly said that the Bible is more of a library than a book, because of its diverse genres and authorship spread over many times and places, there is a unity inherent within the Bible. We do not impose this unity on Scripture from without. We do not force the pieces to fit, even though deep down we might think that they are contradictory. Scripture is inherently unified in its basic plot and teachings. And yet revelation follows redemption. It keeps pace with the history of God's unfolding plan. God works differently in various periods with different covenants. Neither the unity nor the diversity is sacrificed to the other.

    The Bible not only has diverse genres, it was written by diverse human authors "in many times and in many ways" (Heb 1:1). Because inspiration is organic rather than mechanical, Scripture reflects the humanity as well as the divinity of its authorship. Galatians is not just a restatement of the Sermon on the Mount. Yet both are part of the same new covenant canon. Therefore, they have to be interpreted together.

    When we do this, we discover more richly what each actually means. In Galatians, Paul is talking about the difference between the covenant of law (Sinai) that points forward to Christ by types and shadows, and the Abrahamic covenant of promise that is realized in Christ as the seed in whom all the nations are blessed. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is announcing a regime change, as the old covenant theocracy (including its holy wars) gives way to a new society of forgiven and blessed heirs who endure persecution and love their enemies for Christ's sake. Jesus and Paul are drawing us into exactly the same reality of the kingdom of grace, though Jesus does so as its inaugurator and Paul does so as an apostle, exploring the ramifications within the unfolding plan of God in history.

    Restless and Reformed: Predestination/God's Sovereignty

    Since the "central dogma" thesis cuts across traditions, I might as well start with my own. Richard Muller and other scholars have systematically dismantled the idea that predestination operates as a central dogma in Reformed theology. In fact, these historical theologians demonstrate that no doctrine functions like that in the Reformed system.

    Nineteenth-century historical theology was especially drawn to the "Great Idea" approach: locating a central dogma from which everything else in the system could be deduced, explained, and contrasted with rival systems. Of course, Calvin defended an Augustinian doctrine of God's sovereignty and predestination when exegetical and polemical occasion required. This emphasis, however, can hardly be considered a central dogma from which the whole system is deduced, especially when it is not even mentioned in his summary of the Christian faith (the Geneva Catechism). Nevertheless, God's sovereignty and predestination became a way of explaining or criticizing Calvin and Reformed theology, by friend and foe alike. By contrast, the entire Lutheran system was allegedly deduced from the doctrine of the justification of the ungodly.

    Especially in cases of fresh discovery, it's understandable that God's sovereign grace swallows our whole horizon. It changes everything. We begin to see passages we had overlooked before. It's a paradigm shift. But that's exactly why we have to be careful at just that point: a paradigm can arise naturally from a fresh reading of Scripture or it can be imposed upon Scripture from without. For example, if one has been raised to believe that salvation depends on the individual's free will, predestination reasserts God's freedom. God is free to elect and to condemn. But is this merely because God is sovereign? Of course not. There is a kind of teaching of the sovereignty of God that is close to an arbitrary portrait. No, in Scripture we learn that God is free to elect whom he will and to condemn the rest because everyone deserves condemnation. In other words, God's sovereignty cannot be separated from his justice and righteousness--or from any other attribute, including his love. Just as we can't use one passage or list of verses to cancel out others in Scripture, we cannot enshrine one attribute of God above others. There is a real danger in worshipping an attribute rather than God himself.

    When predestination is made the central dogma, Christianity becomes indistinguishable from Islam. I've seen and heard a few hyper-Calvinist presentations that extolled the sovereignty of God without ever mentioning Jesus Christ. And yet Calvin said that it is only in Christ that we find our election. I have also heard presentations in which God's activity in condemnation was treated as equivalent to his activity in salvation. This, however, ignores the clear biblical teaching that has chosen some to be saved from the mass of condemned humanity. There are lots of passages that celebrate God's mercy in electing grace. But God is praised as directly and solely responsible for the salvation of the elect, not as directly and solely responsible for the condemnation of the nonelect. That is why the Canons of the Synod of Dort (1618-19)--from which we get the so-called "five points of Calvinism"--affirm that "Reformed churches detest with their whole heart" the view that God is as involved in damnation as he is in salvation. When predestination or the sovereignty of God is made the foundation on which we build a skyscraper of a theological system, we end up picking out some passages of Scripture to stand over others in judgment. It becomes a canon within a canon. This is something Reformed orthodoxy never allowed.

    Critics, however, may be forgiven for thinking otherwise. First, there is a growing tendency right now to reduce Reformed theology to the five points of Calvinism. Sometimes the impression is given that anyone who believes in predestination is Reformed. Of course, that would make Thomas Aquinas as Reformed as R. C. Sproul! However, these "five points" are themselves a summary of the Canons of Dort, which are much richer and fuller than that summary. Furthermore, the Canons were drawn up by Reformed Christians on the Continent (with representatives from the Church of England) as a refutation of Arminianism. They serve along with the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism as a standard for Reformed faith and practice, subordinate to Scripture. The Westminster Standards confess the same faith. Whenever the whole council of God is reduced to a few "fundamentals," we lose the richness and depth of those very doctrines. Furthermore, when these doctrines are isolated from the broader system of faith and practice, they yield easily to one-sided emphases.

    Second, critics often paint Calvinism as hyper-Calvinism. And, unfortunately, they may actually encounter people who embody this caricature. Falling into extremes is always a temptation for new converts. There are popular versions on the ground that do make God's sovereignty or predestination the center of Scripture. Of course, we have to interpret Scripture in the light of Scripture. It may be confusing for some people to read verses like this alongside other equally clear passages concerning God's unconditional election. The problem, however, lies with us. The Spirit who inspired "all Scripture" employs the richly diverse voices of different biblical writers--each with his own personality, style, and even beliefs--while nevertheless teaching a unified message. God indeed knows how to communicate "in many times and in many ways," yet without contradiction. So we must beware of flattening out biblical teaching, as if it taught only one truth or even concentrated on one truth. At the same time, we have to be careful not to turn diversity into contradiction.

    Just as often these days, neophyte Calvinists have begun to realize the wealth of classical Reformed emphasis on union with Christ. Perhaps this, rather than predestination, is the central dogma. Among others, such as Max Goebel, Matthias Schneckenburger (1804-48) was particularly successful in defining Reformed Christianity as the champion of union with Christ over and against the Lutheran emphasis on forensic justification. (3) This is sometimes used to critique or reevaluate the ordo salutis by contemporary Reformed thinkers.

    Surely, if there is any central dogma in Scripture, it is Christ. However, not even Christ's person and work function as a central dogma. There is an important difference between the centrality of Christ's person and work in Scripture and a central dogma. A central dogma is a thesis from which everything else is deduced. Such a dogma may even be biblical. But when it functions as a central dogma, it distorts instead of illuminating everything around it.

    Reformed exegesis does not start with predestination, the sovereignty of God, justification, or union with Christ. Its system arises from Scripture rather than being imposed upon Scripture. It does not, however, pretend merely to interpret individual passages apart from an account of the Bible's own broader motifs. There are three hermeneutical (interpretive) motifs that we believe arise naturally from the Scriptures themselves: a law-gospel distinction, redemptive-historical exegesis centering on Christ, and a covenantal scheme.

    Law and Gospel

    When law and gospel function as a central dogma, every sermon--regardless of the passage--sounds the same. Somehow, the sermon has to conform to "Here's how you've blown it" and "Here's how Christ saves you." As preaching goes, this may not be the worst thing in the world, but it is not itself an exposition of Scripture.

    The Reformers affirmed the importance of distinguishing between law and gospel. It is one of those basic distinctions that a preacher or reader of Scripture must bear in mind when coming to any passage. Nevertheless, it is the passage that must be interpreted. We are not exegeting the categories of law and gospel but the Scriptures in the light of that important distinction.

    The third use of the law (to guide believers) is affirmed in the Lutheran as well as Reformed confessions. Our preaching and reading of Scripture should not be embarrassed by the calls in Scripture to wise and grateful living. Sometimes imperatives die the death of a thousand qualifications, worried as we understandably are that imperatives can lead to self-righteousness or despair. I've been reading through Proverbs in family devotions, and while there are remarkable places where Christ is personified as Wisdom, a lot of the book is simply wisdom for daily living. We have to beware of overreacting against one form of reductionism (using the Bible as a handbook for daily principles), only to fall into another form (ignoring its wisdom for daily living). Always bearing the proper distinction between law and gospel, aware that each does different things, we nevertheless need to listen to every word that comes from the mouth of God.

    Redemptive-Historical Interpretation

    The same can be said of looking for Christ in all the Scriptures. This has become something of a mantra in Reformed as well as in Lutheran circles. Wilhelm Niesel observes:

    Reformed theology, just like Lutheran, knows that it is God's Word which addresses us from the Bible and produces faith and that this Word is Christ himself. But this address does not become an experience within our control on the basis of which we can read through the Bible and test whether it "sets forth Christ." Calvin read the whole Bible expecting to find Christ there. (4)Again, this healthy emphasis can become a distortion when it is the focus of exegesis rather than an interpretive lens.Sometimes we are bewildered by the diversity of the Bible, wondering how Leviticus or Esther bears any relation to the Gospel of Matthew or to Romans. What is the thread that pulls together all of the narratives, laws and wisdom, prophecy, poetry, instruction and exhortation? There really is a unifying message from Genesis to Revelation, and it is Christ who brings all of the threads together. When we read the Bible in the light of its plot, things begin to fall into place. Behind every story, piece of wisdom, hymn, exhortation, and prophecy is the unfolding mystery of Christ and his redemptive work.

    Jesus himself told us how to read the Bible--all of it. The Pharisees were the guardians of the Bible. For their followers, they were its authoritative interpreters. Yet for them the Bible was primarily a story about Sinai: the covenant that Israel pledged to fulfill all of the commands of his law. It was not the subplot--the "schoolmaster" leading to Christ, as Paul described--but the main thing. When the Messiah finally arrived, he would drive out the Romans and reinstitute the Jewish theocracy. The Messiah was a means to an end, not--as Paul called Christ--"the end of the law."

    Jesus himself told the religious leaders, "You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life" (John 5:39). Jesus taught his disciples to read the whole Bible (at that point, the Old Testament) in terms of promise and fulfillment, with himself as the central character (Luke 24:25-27; 44-45). No matter how well they had memorized certain Bible verses or how quickly they could recall key moments in Israel's history, the Bible was a mystery to them before Jesus explained it as his story.

    Christ is the thread that weaves together all of the various strands of biblical revelation. Apart from him, the plot falls apart into a jumble of characters, unrelated stories, inexplicable laws, and confusing prophecies. The disciples finally seemed to understand this point, since the gospel went from Jerusalem to the Gentile world through their witness. Even Peter, who had denied Christ three times, was able later to write as an apostle:

    Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look. (1 Pet. 1:10-12)

    God's eternal Son is present at the beginning of the story at creation (John 1:1-3; Col. 1:15-20). He is the Rock struck in the wilderness for Israel's sins (1 Cor. 10:4). And in the Bible's closing book he is God's last Word, too: "Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forever more, and I have the keys of Death and Hades" (Rev. 1:17-18). In the heavenly scene, only the Lamb was able to open the scroll containing the revelation of all of history: "And they sang a new song, saying, 'Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth." And everyone in heaven fell down before the Lamb in worship (Rev. 5:9-14). That is the goal of God's good news.

    Many of us were raised in churches that didn't quite know what to do with the Old Testament, except perhaps to find moral examples: "Dare to be a Daniel!" When we read the Bible in the light of the unfolding plot of redemption around Christ, otherwise unrelated books become a unified canon. Nevertheless, as with law and gospel, a redemptive-historical approach can sometimes turn every sermon into the same sermon. Regardless of the passage, the message is basically creation, fall, redemption, and consummation. Ironically, the very goal of redemptive-historical preaching is not met, because believers are not led to see how this passage fits within the broader history of God's purposes in Christ.

    Covenantal Scheme

    Reformed theology is covenant theology. God's unfolding purposes in Christ are realized in a covenantal relationship. Furthermore, classic Reformed theology discerns in Scripture three overarching covenants: the covenant of redemption, made in eternity between the persons of the Godhead with Christ as the mediator of the elect; the covenant of works, made with Adam as the federal representative of humanity; and the covenant of grace, made with believers and their children in Christ as the last Adam.

    Once again, this covenant theology can be read out of the Scriptures or it can be imposed upon the Scriptures. In the major Reformed systems, these covenants form the architecture. We don't always see the architecture of a building--its supporting framework and columns. Similarly, these covenants are not always explicit in every passage. We need not turn every sermon into a covenant theology lecture in order to interpret the Scriptures covenantally. As with the distinction between law-and-gospel and redemptive-historical interpretation, the Bible's covenant theology is something that we read out of Scripture and bring with us as preachers, hearers, and readers of each text. But we must hear each text, not just repetitions of covenant theology.

    There is therefore no "canon within a canon"--all Scripture is God-breathed and therefore useful (that is, canonical) for norming the church's faith and practice. We need the box-top and the pieces, the forest and the trees. In fact, it's the pieces that make up the puzzle and the trees that make up the forest. We need to recover our confidence that the Father who inspired these texts by his Spirit, with his Son as its central content, is Lord of the parts and of the whole.
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