Saturday, June 14, 2008

Scripture: Its Own Interpreter

My previous installment on "Hermeneutics" ended with a provocative assertion: "Scripture interprets Scripture." It is interesting how this principle of Bible interpretation relates to "context" and "the analogy of faith." They can all be inferred from Christ's words in John 10:35 ("The Scripture cannot be broken"), the assumption that the Bible has an indestructible unity. Observe:
  1. Scripture has such a unity that it never contradicts itself; every part of it bears harmonious and consistent witness to all articles of faith. So we apply the analogy of faith to every teaching or interpretation, comparing it to this harmonious testimony of Scripture.
  2. The unity of Scripture also extends to the local level, where clauses, sentences, and paragraphs stand in meaningful relation to each other. So we interpret every biblical statement in light of its context; otherwise we would do violence to its true meaning.
  3. Scripture is not made of identical parts; it is a unity of different but complimentary parts, each serving a particular purpose. One passage establishes this article of faith, another establishes that article. One passage speaks to its purpose very clearly and directly, another passage less so. Subject to context and the analogy of faith, we use the clearest passages that most directly establish an article of faith (sedes doctrinae) to clarify our reading of less clear and direct verses related to the same teaching.
That is how "Scripture interprets Scripture." Now let's illustrate this abstract principle with a lively example. During the Reformation, in 1529, Martin Luther and the Swiss reformer Ulrich Zwingli met at Marburg, Germany, along with other theologians representing both parties. They held a series of debates on the biblical doctrine of the Lord's Supper, which was the chief obstacle to union between Lutherans and the Reformed. How interesting that, in historical perspective, both Lutherans and the Reformed claim victory in these debates! What I think this reveals is the difference between two approaches to interpreting Scripture.

Zwingli & Co. used a wide selection of Bible passages to "prove" that the doctrine of the Sacrament - that we actually eat Christ's body and drink his blood with our mouths - is foreign and even repugnant to Scripture. So when Jesus says, "I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me shall not hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst" (John 6:35), this "proves" that when He speaks soon afterward about eating His flesh and drinking His blood (6:51), it is only a metaphor for "coming" to Him and "believing" in Him. And when Jesus says, "It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing" (6:63), this "proves" that no spiritual benefit (such as forgiveness) can be attached to fleshly eating (such as eating His body). So from the Reformed perspective, Zwingli's party made an ironclad biblical case (which Luther either would not or could not answer), "proving" clearly that the "eating and drinking" in the Sacrament is purely spiritual, and consists of faith.

Luther "would not or could not" answer this because he kept going back to the words "THIS IS MY BODY," which he famously wrote on the table so that he could repeatedly pull back the cloth and reveal them again. In the eyes of Reformed scholars this was a feeble defense by a stubborn, tradition-bound man who refused to yield even to Zwingli's larger amount of biblical ammunition. But in other eyes - eyes conditioned to reading Scripture under profoundly different principles - Luther triumphed. He triumphed on the strength of the sedes doctrinae principle of Bible interpretation. He triumphed by confessing, firmly and clearly, that the key to the Sacrament is what Christ said in His last will and testament (Matthew 25:26-28; Mark 14:22-24; Luke 22:19-20; 1 Corinthians 11:24-25). This is the clearest testimony of God's Word on what is in the Lord's Supper. In these words, which have undeniable and immediate application to the Sacrament, Jesus declared: "This [bread] is my body...This [cup] is my blood...for the forgiveness of sins."

The passages Zwingli adduced may or may not be remotely related to the Lord's Supper. So the proper order is to interpret these John 6 quotes by reference to Jesus' words of institution, rather than vice versa. After the analogy of faith (which Zwingli challenged) and the context (which makes no reference to the Sacrament), the most decisive filter or lens for evaluating a Bible verse's relevance to doctrine is the sedes doctrinae.

Applying these principles to John 6:35 and John 6:63 reveals that these verses have no bearing on the doctrine of the Lord's Supper. They are not teaching about the same thing. They do not contradict, correct, or obliterate Jesus' plain, literal teaching, at the most serious moment of his earthly life, that what He gives us to eat in the Sacrament is His body for our forgiveness. By some vague association of ideas one might draw an analogy between the Lord's Supper and what Jesus teaches in John 6; in fact, I dare say it is impossible for a biblical teacher not to do so. But analogy of faith, context, and sedes doctrinae dispose of any attempt to turn Jesus' words in John 6 against His all-important words, "THIS IS MY BODY." Whoever would reason differently, quote as many Scriptures as they may, must be driven against these words as the wind drives a ship against a rock.

"Scripture interprets Scripture" is a distinctively Lutheran hermeneutic. I suppose the phrase may drop off the lips of other Protestant teachers; but if they took it seriously, they would teach differently. It does not mean the Bible is a democracy of equally-weighted words that can be brought into contention with each other, so that the side supported by the most words wins. Rather, the sedes doctrinae principle means that Bible passages relating to a doctrine can be arranged in a hierarchy, with those that most plainly and directly establish the doctrine holding authority over the rest.


dave said...

To say that "Scripture is its own interpreter" is a "Lutheran concept" belies the fact that the Bible says plainly enough that it is is own interpreter ("comparing scripture with scripture"); that, of course, means that the Bible, which pre-dates any Lutheran concepts, is vastly more authoritative than any of man's establishments.

All of that back-patting aside, I think it's refreshing that someone else has "found" a basic principle that was never lost...except on those who want to put man's interpretation equations into the way of the Bible alone.

Did you know that the Bible will tell us how long ago Adam and Eve sinned (13020 years), the months, days, and years of Jesus' birth, death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven? Well, it does but only if Scripture interprets Scripture. When we let the Bible speak, we find that many of our so-called doctrines are full of error.

Cuda said...

How absurd!

Scriptures cannot pre-date any Lutheran concept, since "Lutheran" simply means "what Scripture teaches".

The principle that Scripture interprets Scripture is so little recognized, and even less used, that it might yet be considered a novelty. The silly attempt to say that the Bible says when Adam and Eve sinned (in terms of how many years ago) demonstrates the need to rehearse basic and Biblical concepts. "Dave" apparently has no contact with the reality of Scripture himself.

When you approach Scritpure full of your own ideas of what it must say, you can hardly claim that Scripture is the one doing the interpreting.

dave said...

cuda, you've made some statements that, sadly, point out a bitter spirit (in you). maybe the nervousness about "lutheran" is at the root of it...who can know? for you to admit that the Bible interpreting itself is "novel" only provides support for your need to immerse yourself in the precious Word of the Creator. i hope that you will be so predisposed.

RobbieFish said...

Dave - No, the Bible doesn't tell us any of that stuff. Claims like yours are the reason hermeneutical principles need to be established. Go back to the text and pay attention to what it says, and stop trying to dig hidden messages out from between the lines.

Cuda said...

I fail to see any bitterness in what I wrote. You apparently take truth which contradicts you as "bitterness".
Secondly, I have absolutely no nervousness about "Lutheran". I believe that as far as one strays from the Lutheran faith, so far does one stray from the Christian faith and from Scripture as well.
I am not nervous in the slightest. I am not bitter either. I hope you find the truth, but judging by your comments, you are not even looking.
By the way, I did not say that the idea of Scripture interpreting itself was novel, I said that it is so little used that it might yet be considered a novelty. If you read everything with as little attention to what the words are actually saying as you read my comment, it is small wonder you have confusion over what the Scriptures actually teach.