In his first lecture on the psychological significance of the Bible, psychologist Jordan Peterson shared an image with the audience that he called “one of the coolest things that he had ever seen.” It was a visual representation of the entire Bible, which showed how the text of Scripture interacts with itself. The bar graph on the bottom represents all the chapters in the Bible, while the nearly 65,000 textual cross-references are depicted by colored arcs, which correspond to the distance between chapters. It’s an amazing example of the connected narrative within the Bible and how it speaks to and interprets itself.
This should come as no surprise to Reformation Christians. Sola scriptura has been part of our tradition for nearly 500 years. Scripture alone is the sole rule and norm for faith and life. Being the very Word of God in written form, the reformers also maintained that “Scripture interprets Scripture” which means that the Bible is its own interpreter.
This is a profound concept to be sure. But here is an even deeper truth: Scripture not only interprets itself but also interprets us. As we read and hear the Scriptures, the Holy Spirit convicts us of our sin and then points us to Christ so we can be comforted by the Gospel. “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb 4:12).
As Luther wrote, “the Bible is the manger in which Christ is laid.”
This is why we take great care when approaching the text of Holy Scripture, coming before God’s Word in deep humility, and not believing that our 21st-century ideas and interpretations are somehow more enlightened. Holy Scripture was given by God and inspired by the Holy Spirit to reveal divine truth to fallen man. But this is not just another set of divine “truths” to follow. This is the revelation of truth itself in the story of the promised Messiah and Savior of the world, the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ. As Luther wrote, “the Bible is the manger in which Christ is laid.”
So what do we really mean when we say “Scripture interprets Scripture?” In short, it means that as we engage in hermeneutics (the art of interpretation), we interpret the implicit by the explicit and the cloudy through the clear. The clear passages of Scripture that speak of justification by grace through faith in Christ (the central theme of the Bible) are used to interpret more difficult passages.
Here are two key phrases to keep in mind in the pursuit of faithful biblical interpretation. “Context is king,” and, “a text without a context is a pretext.” What we strive to do is allow the context of a given passage to help dictate how we interpret it. We begin with the immediate context of the phrase or sentence, then move to the paragraph, then the chapter, and then the book. Finally, because Christ himself claims all of Scripture as a testimony to himself, we allow the Old Testament to be interpreted in light of the New Testament, and vice versa (Luke 24:44). As St. Augustine famously said, “The Old Testament is the New Testament concealed, the New Testament is the Old Testament revealed.”
Scripture is clear in its main teachings and doctrines. People don’t need any special knowledge or training to understand sin, grace, forgiveness, and salvation.
We also try to keep the literal sense of the text in mind, or the sensus literalis. In other words, we seek to interpret the text in the sense in which it was written and the way it was intended to be read. Whether we are reading narrative, poetry, history, prophecy, or a letter, we try to get into the shoes of the original hearers and read a text the way it was originally meant to be read.
Another idea important to the reformers was the perspicuity (or clarity) of Scripture. This means that the Scripture is clear in its main teachings and doctrines. People don’t need any special knowledge or training to understand sin, grace, forgiveness, and salvation. Do we fully comprehend everything found in the Bible? No, but we apprehend the main and plain things of Scripture by faith through the power of the Holy Spirit.
“As for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which can make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16-17).
In the end, we believe the Bible because we believe in Jesus. Just as Jesus is both God and man, the Bible is also both God’s book and man’s book. We know that as Son of God and Son of Man, we are able to trust Jesus and his Word regarding all things. He has proven his faithfulness by means of his resurrection from the dead, so we know that everything he ever said or did is true. If he said it, we believe it, and that includes what he said about the Scriptures.
Unlike other religions, Christians don’t merely follow a book. We believe the Word of God because Christ himself is the Word, our light, life, and very salvation.