Why We Interpret the Bible the Way We Do
What we believe about the Bible guides how we interpret the Bible. First, what we believe: We believe God inspired the Bible. “All Scripture is inspired
This inspiration and authority extends to the very choice of individual words. The Apostle Paul affirms, “We also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit (1 Cor. 2:13). Because inspiration affects the choice of words, we call it verbal inspiration. At the same time, inspiration extends to all of Scripture. “All Scripture is inspired by God” (2 Tim. 3:16). The plenary session at a conference includes all of the people attending the conference. Plenary inspiration means the entire Bible is inspired. We believe in verbal, plenary inspiration.
Since inspiration is verbal and plenary, Scripture is an organic whole. “The various books of the Bible constitute an organic unity … The Bible is not to be compared to a Cathedral, constructed according to the plans and specifications of a architect, but to a stately tree, the product of progressive growth” (L. Berkhof, Principles of Biblical Interpretation, 53). As an organic whole, the Scriptures are self-consistent.
God also used organs of special revelation; He inspired human authors to write Scripture, taking full account of their humanity, yet repressing sin within them. “The Bible is, in all its parts, both in substance and form, down to the last minutiae, a book that comes from God. At the same time, it was composed from beginning to end, through the instrumentality of man, and bears all the marks of human authorship that are consistent with infallibility” (Berkhof, 48-49). This means we believe in “organic” inspiration.
Second, there are certain implications that arise from our understanding of the Bible. Since we hold to verbal inspiration, we study the words of Scripture, their meanings, their use as various parts of speech and in various grammatical constructions, and their use to form clauses, sentences, and paragraphs that express the thoughts of the writers and the God who inspired them.
Since we hold to plenary inspiration and the fact the Bible is an organic whole, and since we hold that the Scriptures are a self-consistent whole, we engage in systematic theological interpretation. We, therefore, take the analogy of faith seriously. We hold that Scripture interprets Scripture. The clearer texts of Scripture interpret those texts that are less clear.
Understanding Scripture as an organic whole, we also see this revelation as progressive. Later texts build upon earlier texts. The New Testament unfolds the Old Testament. Whereas the New Testament interprets the Old Testament, the Old Testament also informs our understanding of the New Testament. That is, we take the analogy of Scripture seriously. Earlier texts of Scripture give background and depth to later texts of the Bible.
Since we hold that God inspired human authors taking full account of their humanity, yet repressing sin in them, we study the historical background of the writers and of their writing. We study their forms of communication, their styles of writing, the peculiar idioms, and the figures of speech of the authors.
Finally, we understand the Bible as a book that is both divine and human. It is a divine book; God inspired the Bible. God is also the main character. He presents Himself. On the other hand, the Bible is a human book. God communicates Himself in human history, through human instruments, using human language. Therefore, when we study the Bible, we learn who God is, what He has done, and what He continues to do in this world. Our study is God-centered. This understanding of the Bible, therefore, directs us to what we call God-centered, grammatical, historical, theological interpretation.
With the above points in mind, consider Westminster Confession of Faith 1.7:
All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.
The “due use of ordinary means” refers to using the principles of good God-centered, grammatical, historical, theological interpretation. Implementing these rules, you “may attain unto a sufficient understanding of” the Scriptures. However, this is not enough. Consider Westminster Confession of Faith 1.6:
The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the word…
You and I must not only implement good God-centered, grammatical, historical, theological interpretation, you and I must also pray for light from the Holy Spirit. We must seek to implement Spirit-illumined, God-centered, grammatical, historical, theological interpretation.