It is a dangerous conceit to imagine that when we read the text of Scripture we do so from an entirely neutral vantage point. I must never assume that an interpretation is obviously correct merely because it is obvious to me. In fact, it may not be a valid understanding of the text at all. The truth is that whenever we seek to make sense of anything—an event, a poem, a relationship, a song, a text of Scripture, whatever—our beliefs, assumptions, experiences, and prejudices act like a lens through which our understanding is shaped.
As a result some have argued that since this is true, the meaning of the text is relative to each reader. I find my meaning in Scripture, you find yours, and that’s the end of it. But that can’t be correct—life would be impossible if we lived that way. If I am driving down a street and blow an elderly pedestrian out of the crosswalk, even a relativist will be unimpressed if my defense is that everyone’s interpretation of red lights is equally valid, and that my personal interpretation of them happens to be taking aim at pedestrians. We expect everyone to interpret red lights correctly; my personal interpretation, no matter how sincerely held, would be seen as not just incorrect but criminal.
Such issues are part of what is involved in hermeneutics—the science of interpretation—and can get quite involved. That’s because those of us reading the text of Scripture are both finite and fallen, which means we are both limited and broken in our attempt to understand the text. So there is a lot for careful scholars to sort out, so that the rest of us can have confidence that our understanding of Scripture actually resonates with the truth of God for life, culture, and reality.
Thankfully, there are some practical steps ordinary Christians can take to help us keep our understanding of Scripture within the great stream of biblical orthodoxy. I will mention three here—two that provide boundaries on our understanding of the text so we don’t go off track, and one that provides a biblical lens to intentionally adopt for understanding the text which helps us discern the correct meaning.
Boundary #1: Reading dead theologians
Since we all come to the text of Scripture with our beliefs, prejudices, assumptions, and experiences, it can be helpful to listen to commentators who approach the text with a different set of personal and cultural baggage. So, I pay attention to theologians and commentators from very different settings and backgrounds that lived in widely different periods of time. I read the best teachers and commentators working today, interspersed with enduring works that were produced as God’s Spirit raised up teachers over the long history of the church.
So, the Patristic writers, St. Augustine, the Reformers, and the Puritans (to name just four), have all provided me with rich insight into the Scriptures. They all have their biases and societal quirks, of course, but they are usually easier to spot since they tend to be different from my own. Often they challenge my understanding of the text as far too deeply shaped by my middle class, Western, consumerist cultural assumptions.
C. S. Lewis summed it up this way:
Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook—even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it… The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.
Boundary #2: Swimming in the stream
It is helpful to imagine Christian orthodoxy as a great river streaming down through the ages. Reading church history reveals that shooting off from that main river are all sorts of little rivulets and creeks. These are not heresies or cults, because they remain connected to the main river. Still, they are not in the mainstream, but have veered off to some extent for one reason or other. Sometimes they major in minor issues—remaining basically orthodox, but unbalanced. Sometimes they remain true to Christian orthodoxy in many central issues but adopt novel doctrines or interpretations unknown in the history of the church. Sometimes they begin as a helpful corrective but then take on a life of their own, as if the corrective were the primary thing for all of life and faith. Sometimes they are the result of orthodoxy being shaped by the almost subconscious assumptions of a cultural moment—like fundamentalism and modernism, both of which were birthed by the Enlightenment. Whatever the cause, the possibilities and permutations are almost endless.
So, one way to position oneself within the mainstream of Christian orthodoxy is to live within the understanding of Scripture set out in the great Creeds and Confessions of the church. For me, this means that I affirm the Ecumenical Creeds of Christian history (the Apostles’, Athanasian, Nicene, & Chalcedonian Creeds), and the Reformed Creeds and Confessions (especially the Heidelberg Catechism & the Westminster Confession and Catechisms).
When I say I affirm them, I mean I am convinced they best express and summarize the teaching of Scripture as to what is included in orthodox Christian belief and practice. So, as I seek to understand the text of Scripture, if my interpretation runs counter to what these classic Standards say, I assume my interpretation is probably incorrect. More study, reflection, and research are needed. What I want is not what seems “obvious” to me, but what is biblically orthodox, so I seek to read and understand the Bible within the community of Christ’s church.
It is not that these extra-biblical Standards are infallible—they aren’t, and don’t need to be. Only the Scriptures are infallible, but since my analysis of the text is always fraught with my limited and broken perspective, these Standards help keep me within the mainstream of Christian orthodoxy.
John Piper says it this way:
We need faithful expressions of the Bible—both those written for our generation and those preserved from other generations… you can use biblical texts to justify false things. How do you avoid doing that? One way to avoid that is to have the community of faith come together, argue through to what the Bible really means—not what a heretic says it means—and then crystallize it in a few statements so that people can tell where you actually stand. A person who considers himself a “Bible only” person could believe anything. Therefore we need creeds (affirmations of faith) to see clearly how people are reading the Bible. Are they reading error into the Bible? Or are they drawing truth out of the Bible? To suggest that we get rid of all creeds and just have the Bible is simply to allow people to think loosely about what the Bible says and not require that we come to terms with what it really means.
St. Paul tells us that God graciously provides faithful teachers to instruct his people (see, for example, Romans 12:6-8 and Ephesians 4:11). To be dismissive of their office is to be dismissive of the Spirit who called and equipped them. So, in the sermons, commentaries, Creeds, Confessions, and Catechisms they wrote down through the centuries, one grace they bring us is to be a sort of boundary for our Bible study helping us correctly understand the text of Scripture as we read.
Lens to adopt: A storied perspective
The third way we can help insure that our understanding of the text is correct is to intentionally adopt a biblical way of seeing it—a lens which can shape our understanding of its meaning. I was taught one by Francis Schaeffer that I am convinced is biblical, Christ-centered, and deeply rooted in the history of Christian faith. And though it’s simple enough for ordinary Christians with busy schedules, it’s also profound enough that scholars can use it to plumb the depths of God’s revelation in his word.
First, let me set the context for you. A classic principle of biblical hermeneutics is that Scripture should interpret Scripture. If that sounds daunting or esoteric, it isn’t. It’s actually quite natural. Here is an example of what I mean. Let’s say you read a letter of mine addressed to my wife, Margie. (We’ll ignore why you are reading my private letters—it’s irrelevant to my example though not to your ethics, but that’s another topic.) In any case, in my letter to Margie you read this sentence: “I’ve fallen in love with Ruth.” Now, whenever we read something we naturally try to make sense of it. So, you might interpret this as bad news for my marriage. In fact, this interpretation might seem so completely obvious to you that you may have trouble even considering whether another interpretation is possible. On the other hand, you might read that sentence, “I’ve fallen in love with Ruth,” in the light of the rest of the letters I’ve written to Margie. And there you might discover that I have been reflecting on the wonderful Old Testament book of Ruth. That the story of Ruth and Boaz has moved me deeply, causing me to consider anew the meaning of marriage and the beauty of the covenant it represents. And that in the process I have reaffirmed the solemn wedding vow I took to love and cherish Margie until death parts us. All of which means that my falling “in love with Ruth,” contrary to how you first understood it, has actually deepened and strengthened the faithfulness of my relationship with Margie. The point is, the best way to understand what I wrote to my wife is to allow the rest of what I’ve written to her to provide the correct interpretation. So it is when we read the Bible: we must allow Scripture to interpret Scripture.
Because this is a natural way of making sense of things, you don’t need to be a scholar to develop skill in allowing Scripture to interpret Scripture. By God’s grace, we can over time grow, bit by bit, in an ability to read the Bible so that God’s word sheds light on its own meaning. We can learn to analyze each text by its immediate context, by other things the same author wrote, by texts addressing the same topic, etc., in other words, a growing set of concentric circles which help us understand what the text means. (For some practical help in getting started developing this skill, see my A Practical Method of Bible Study for Ordinary Christians published as an eBook on Ransom’s web site—especially the section on “Correlation.”)
Here, though, I want to develop the idea of Scripture interpreting Scripture in a slightly different direction. It goes like this: if we want to correctly understand the Bible, we should use the Story of Scripture as the lens through which we read and understand it.
The overarching Story of Scripture unfolds in four parts or stanzas: Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration (C, F, R & R). What I am suggesting is that we intentionally learn to make this 4-part Story the lens through which we read and understand all of Scripture and every text of Scripture.
It only makes sense that we do so. If C, F, R, & R is the grand theme that unfolds from Genesis to Revelation, then each part of Scripture fits into it. Each text is an essential part of that Story, and so the meaning of each text can be best captured when we read it in light of the whole.
It’s a simple idea, but one that permits us to reflect on the meaning of each text in a way that helps guide us to a correct biblical or orthodox understanding of that text.
Note: In “Understanding Scripture Correctly (II),” I explore in practical terms what it looks like to read a text of Scripture through this storied lens.