A confessing community: The Scriptures interpreted

One of the biggest doctrinal controversies in the fourth century centred on the deity of Jesus Christ. Arius and his followers taught that Jesus Christ was a created being, who did not always exist. Athanasius strongly defended the deity of Jesus Christ and helped with that particular theological battle. The ecumenical Council of Nicaea settled the matter, affirming believe in Jesus Christ as “the Son of God” who was “of the essence of the Father, God of God, and Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.”

The Arians protested very loudly that the Creed contained nonbiblical language: “of the essence of the Father” and “of one substance of the Father.” This language, they argued, is found nowhere in the Bible and could not, therefore, be defended. They were appealing to “no creed but the Bible” in order to defend their heresy.

This historical incident highlights that, while the Bible is sufficient, it is necessary that we accurately interpret the Bible in order to guard the faith that was once-for-all delivered to the saints. Paul recognised this truth when he wrote to Timothy about the need to “do [his] best” to “rightly handl[e] the word of truth.” The Bible contains language that, to be properly understood, must be correctly interpreted. This is the burden of the next part of the Confession.

We recognise that our interpretation of Scripture is not infallible; nevertheless, we may gain a true and valid understanding of God’s mind revealed in the Scripture (Psalm 19:7–11; Proverbs 2:1–11). To this end, our interpretation must be governed by the author’s original intention and the context of the Scripture itself. Therefore, in seeking to understand a text, we depend on the illumination of the Holy Spirit, use the normal grammatico-historical rules of interpretation, and are assisted by the understanding of the true church throughout the ages (1 Corinthians 2:6–14; Ephesians 4:11–13; 2 Peter 3:15–16). (Sola 5 Confession 2.4)

The Confession strikes a balance between recognising human fallibility in interpreting infallible Scripture (“our interpretation of Scripture is not infallible”) and acknowledging that correct interpretation is not impossible (“we may gain a true and valid understanding of God’s mind revealed in Scripture”). It supplies two texts to support this affirmation.

Psalm 19:7–11 highlight what Scripture is capable of accomplishing: “reviving the soul”; “making wise the simple”; “rejoicing the heart”; “enlightening the eyes”; etc. Scripture does not, however, accomplish these things by osmosis. In order to accomplish the stated goals, the Bible must be understood, which implies that it must be correctly interpreted. And since it is able to accomplish these goals, it implies that it must be possible to correctly understand it.

In Proverbs 2:1–11, Solomon provides explicit instruction for how to benefit from God’s word. These instructions include an appropriate affection for God’s word, a commitment to hear (or read) it carefully, a heartfelt desire and commitment to understanding it, prayer for guidance, and diligence in mining deep for its truths. These are the elements required in careful and faithful interpretation of Scripture. But the promise is that those committed to such hard work can and will benefit from the Scriptures.

Even as we commit to the hard work of faithful Bible study, we recognise that “our interpretation of Scripture is not infallible.” We recognise by this that we do not necessarily have a corner on truth. There may be valuable insights to glean from those who hold to a different interpretation of particular scriptural or doctrinal truths. As diligent as we have been in our studies, and as much as we have trusted those who have taught us, it is possible—even probable!—that we are wrong in certain areas of our biblical interpretation. Recognising this will allow us to engage those with a different viewpoint in an irenic, teachable fashion.

By the hard work of Bible study, despite human fallibility in interpretation, “we may gain a true and valid understanding of God’s mind revealed in Scripture.” This affirmation removes our excuses for laziness. Rather than quickly dismissing any effort to understand biblical truth (because “the secret things belong to the LORD,” we will approach Scripture with the commitment that “the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deuteronomy 29:29). It is our God-given responsibility to study his word to learn his truth, rather than just ignoring it because it is “too difficult” for us to grasp.

Since “our interpretation of Scripture is not infallible,” it is important to think carefully about which doctrines are worth dividing over. There may be some doctrinal differences that make working together difficult, even if they do not require disfellowshipping over. For example, a Baptist pastor and an Anglican pastor would have significant difficulty planting a church together due to differences over certain doctrines, even though they wouldn’t disfellowship over this particular issue. We should be slow to disfellowship completely with others—and even slower to label others as “heretics”—unless the doctrinal difference is of a significant enough nature to call into question clear teaching about the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Swayed by the conviction that correct interpretation of Scripture is possible, “our interpretation must be governed by the author’s original intention and the context of the Scripture itself.”

The Confession highlights two elements of correct Scriptural interpretation: “the author’s original intention” and “the context of the Scripture itself.”

By “the author’s original intention,” we understand that the writers of Scripture had a particular intention in mind, and our interpretation must be guided by the author’s intention. It is therefore imperative that we work hard to discover the author’s intention. For example, in the Genesis creation account, what was the author’s intent? Was it to give a historical narrative of the specific way in which God created the universe? If that was the author’s intent, then our interpretation will lean toward a young-earth, literal six-day creation. Was the author’s intent rather to counter ancient pagan creation myths by employing similar imagery but ascribing creative power to the one true God rather than the gods? If that was his intent, you might lean toward an old-earth creation model, perhaps even a form of theistic evolution. Your interpretation will be governed by your studied conviction regarding the author’s intent.

When we consider “the context of the Scripture itself,” we remember that no part of Scripture should be read in isolation. When it comes to studying any text, we must consider its context in the surrounding chapter(s), within the book itself, within the biblical genre, and within the overall flow of the biblical story. The Bible tells one overriding story; it is not simply a collection of disconnected stories and wise sayings that are interpreted in isolation from each other. Furthermore, Bible texts are given in a particular historical context, which must be examined and understood as part of the interpretive process.

Given the above convictions, we are committed to “understand a text” by following (at least) three important rules: “the illumination of the Holy Spirit” and “the normal grammatico-historical rules of interpretation” as we are “assisted by the understanding of the true church throughout the ages.”

“The illumination of the Holy Spirit” is required because the Bible is not a book of human invention; it is given to humanity by the Spirit of God. It contains deep spiritual truths from and about God. Since it contains the very thoughts of God for humankind, we must depend upon God to correctly reveal those thoughts to us. Natural wisdom is incapable of discerning spiritual truth. Paul taught this plainly:

Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written,

 

“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,

nor the heart of man imagined,

what God has prepared for those who love him”—

 

these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.

 

The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.

(1 Corinthians 2:6–14)

Practically, we “depend on the illumination of the Holy Spirit” as we bathe our Bible study in prayer. There are helpful rules of Bible study to follow, but if we divorce those rules from prayer, we have no guarantee that we will correctly discern what the Scriptures teach.

The “normal grammatico-historical rules of interpretation” rest upon the conviction that each Bible passage had one basic meaning, which is firmly rooted in historical truth, and relates accurately according to the common principles of human language. The Bible relates relating real, interconnected historical events, which must be acknowledged and understood before the teachings of the Bible make sense or have application. “Grammatical” suggests that the interpreter uses language the way any normal person would.

For centuries prior to the Reformation, when this model of interpretation had been largely ignored, Scripture was highly allegorised, and unscrupulous clergy claimed that it took special training and divine insight for anyone to understand the true meaning of Scripture. Grammatico-historical interpretation allows the average reader of Scripture—guided by the Holy Spirit and committed to understanding the author’s original context and intent—to interpret the Bible for him- or herself, rather than having to rely on trained theologians to do so.

Even as we affirm the ability for the average Christian to correctly understand Scripture, we recognise that our interpretation should be “assisted by the understanding of the true church throughout the ages.” After all, God gave to the church apostles, and prophets, and evangelists, and pastor-teachers to teach the Scriptures (Ephesians 4:11–13). Offices like apostles and prophets no longer operate today, and so we understand that we rely on those offices through their writings. If Peter was thankful for the writings of Paul, we should surely be thankful for and not ignore the writings of faithful Christian interpreters who have gone before us. We must not imagine that we have discovered things that the Spirit has never revealed to any other Christian. While it is possible that a minority interpretation of Scripture is correct, we must be careful of allowing ourselves to be tossed about by every wind of doctrine—by every new and novel teaching we hear.

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