August 28, 2014 Broadcast

Why So Many Interpretations? The Clarity of Scripture & Interpretation

A Message by Stephen Nichols

You may hear people in certain circles of evangelicalism claim that they do not need teachers or instructors of Scripture, for, as Jeremiah says, “And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jer. 31:34). The New Testament affirms Jeremiah’s message, and it explains that the fundamental message of the gospel is clear and easy to understand if the Holy Spirit enables the heart. However, as Peter declares in his second epistle, clarity does not equal simplicity— as Paul’s epistles frequently remind us. Understanding and interpreting Scripture requires the illumination of Scripture, a heart for the Lord, and discipline, as Dr. Nichols reveals to us in this lesson.

From the series: Why We Trust the Bible

Get the Donkey Who Carried a King Book and Audiobook for a Gift of Any Amount

Further Study On This Topic

  1. devotional


  2. article

    We Believe the Bible and You Do Not

  3. devotional

    The Clarity of God's Word


Last week we finished exploring how the Word of God accomplishes the very purposes of God Himself. But sometimes the Word seems to take longer to accomplish its purposes than at other times. This is not due to any defect in the Bible itself, but results from our inexperience in handling Scripture properly. When we know how to properly interpret the Bible, the Scriptures impact our lives more quickly and more meaningfully. In order to help us learn some of the principles of proper biblical interpretation, we will base our studies this week on the audio series Knowing Scripture by Dr. R.C. Sproul.

All of the sciences have rules and methods that govern how that science operates properly. Biblical interpretation is no different; there are rules that we must follow in order to understand the Scriptures rightly. The science of interpreting the Bible is called “hermeneutics.”

One common approach in the field of hermeneutics is called the “existential method of interpretation.” In this approach, the text is viewed not as God’s Word in and of itself. Rather, it is only a vehicle that God uses to have a direct, immediate encounter with our souls. In the existential approach, what God says through the Bible is not always the same as what the text itself says. This approach results in a radical subjectivism that assumes the text can mean totally different things to different people.

We do indeed directly encounter God in the pages of Holy Writ, but that is because the words on its pages are the words of God Himself. Because God’s Word is true, there only can be one possible original meaning for each biblical text. This meaning will be the same for us as it was for the original audience thousands of years ago because truth does not change. Our differing settings may cause the precise application to be different, but never the text’s meaning. If we want to find the one, true meaning of the text, we must follow the “grammatico-historical method.” This hermeneutical approach investigates the original cultural setting of the text and focuses on grammar and syntax in order to understand what the author of the text meant when he wrote to his original audience. Only this method can give us the original meaning of the biblical text. Otherwise, we end up with a dangerous subjectivism that denies truth itself.

We Believe the Bible and You Do Not

Keith Mathison

Not too long ago, in an effort to get a better grasp of the Lutheran doctrine of the Lord’s Supper, I was reading the chapters on the sacraments in Francis Pieper’s Christian Dogmatics, and I ran across this statement: “The difference between the Lutheran Church and the Reformed in the doctrine of Baptism is fully and adequately defined by saying that the former believes God’s Word regarding Baptism, the latter not” (vol. 3, p. 269).

Let that one sink in for just a moment. Here we have one of the most respected Lutheran systematic theologians of the last century saying that the difference between his church and the Reformed over baptism can be summed up as follows: “Lutherans believe the Bible, and the Reformed don’t.” It’s just that simple, right?

When I first read this, I was a bit taken aback. How could a theologian as brilliant as Pieper so casually ignore the role of interpretation on this point? Why could he not see that this is not a matter of disbelieving the Bible, but of disagreeing with the Lutheran interpretation of the Bible?

I recalled, however, that this kind of statement in regard to the sacraments goes back to the sixteenth-century debates between the Lutherans and the Reformed. In his debates with the Lutheran Joachim Westphal, John Calvin was almost driven to distraction by Westphal’s repeated claim that Jesus’ words “This is my body” allowed of no interpretation. One either believed them or one disbelieved them. In the historical context of the Lutheran-Reformed debates, then, Pieper’s statement is not terribly unusual.

If you are Reformed or Baptist, what is your immediate reaction to Pieper’s statement? Do you accept his claim that the only difference between you and the Lutherans on the subject of baptism is that Lutherans believe the Bible and you don’t? Or do you think that his statement is a poor excuse for an argument? Do you think it is a fair statement, or do you think it is somewhat self-serving?

Lest I be accused of picking on my Lutheran brothers, ask yourself this question now: “How many times have I seen my theological heroes use essentially the same kind of argument in different theological disputes?”

I don’t know about you, but as I reflect on it, I can recall numerous times when I’ve seen this “argument” in action in my own theological circles. When I was a dispensationalist, the common thought was that the difference between premillennialists and everyone else was fully and adequately defined by saying that premillennialists believed God’s Word regarding the millennium while amillennialists and postmillennialists did not. We believed what God said in Revelation 20. Amillennialists and postmillennialists did not believe what God said. Case closed.

When I was a Baptist, I regularly heard it said that Baptists believed God’s Word concerning believer’s baptism while others did not. As a Presbyterian, I’ve heard it said that Presbyterians believe God’s Word concerning the promises to the children of believers while the Baptists do not.

I’ve heard this line of argument used in disputes involving the Sabbath, the days of Genesis, theonomy, the gifts of the Spirit, church government, you name it. In every dispute over the meaning of some biblical text or theological point, it seems that someone eventually throws out some version of the line: “The simple fact of the matter is that we believe what God clearly says here and you don’t.” When both sides in a given debate do it, the result is particularly edifying.

Re-read the Lutheran quote in the first paragraph. Do you (assuming you are not Lutheran) find it persuasive when it is said of you that the only reason you do not accept the Lutheran understanding of baptism is because you do not believe God’s Word? Probably not. But we find that same kind of statement very assuring (and persuasive) when it is said in support of a doctrine or interpretation that we happen to agree with.

The problem with Pieper’s statement is that he does not allow for any conceptual distinction between the infallible and inerrant Word of God and his own fallible and potentially errant interpretation of that Word. Thus, to disagree with his interpretation is to disagree with God. But this is obviously false. Presbyterians and Baptists do not reject the Lutheran doctrine of baptism because they disbelieve God’s Word. They reject it because they think Lutherans have misinterpreted God’s Word.

The fact of the matter is that people who believe equally in the authority and inerrancy of Scripture sometimes disagree in their interpretation of some parts of that Scripture. We know God’s Word is not wrong, but we might be. God is infallible; we are not. We are not free from sin and ignorance yet. We still see through a glass darkly. In hermeneutical and theological disputes, we need to make an exegetical case, and we need to examine the case of those who disagree with us. It proves nothing to make the bare assertion: “We believe the Bible and you don’t.”

The Clarity of God's Word

The clarity of Scripture is another attribute of the Word of God that is developed throughout the Old Testament. Our Lord has made it plain in His Word that His inscripturated revelation is not to be locked up in libraries and universities and studied only by scholars; rather, it has been designed so that all people can read and understand its basic message.

Scripture testifies to its clarity in several ways, the first of these being its understanding of divine accommodation. God did not speak to us in a lofty or strange language but instead accommodated Himself to our weaknesses, speaking to us on our level so that we might understand and obey His commandments. Exodus 33:11 says this of Moses, the first great biblical author: “The Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.” Our Creator did not reveal Himself to Moses in a divine language no one could understand, nor did He give examples or analogies uncommon to human experience. Instead, he spoke as a friend would, in a manner that would be clearly understood by the hearer.

God also illustrates the clarity of His Word in commanding everyone in the covenant community to have it on their lips and teach it to their children. Today’s passage assumes that every person in Israelite society, from the most educated priest to the most illiterate peasant, would be able to comprehend enough of the Word of God to teach it to others (Deut. 6:6–7). If the Lord had made His revelation so obscure that few could understand it, He never could have commanded His people, saying that there must be “no portion of time unoccupied with meditation on the Law” (John Calvin).

Jesus also presumed that the people could understand God’s Word. In Luke 24:25–27 He expects the disciples on the road to Emmaus to have understood and believed the basic teaching that the Messiah must die and rise again. The problem with their understanding was not Scripture but their unbelief.

Not everything in the Bible is equally clear; Scripture implies as much when it appoints teachers for God’s people (Eph. 4:11–14). Yet as Jesus’ encounter on the Emmaus road shows, the gospel is plain to anyone who will read the Bible.

Since the beginning,

our aim has been to help Christians know what they believe, why they believe it, how to share it, and how to live it…

More about Renewing Your Mind