Heremenuetics 101 - Part 4: Letting Scripture Interpret Scripture
Letting Scripture Interpret Scripture
We know that The Bible is divinely inspired based on its own testimony (1 Timothy 3:16) and various arguments as well (see my blog post "5 Reasons To Believe The Bible Is Divinely Inspired"). Given that that is the case, it would be impossible for scripture to make an error. The Bible is inerrant because it is divinely inspired. God cannot make mistakes because He is a Maximally Great Being (see "The Ontological Argument For God's Existence"), and a Maximally Great Being would not be capable of making mistakes because a being who always does things right is greater than one who commits blunders. If God cannot err, and The Bible comes from God, it follows logically that The Bible cannot err. Therefore, if we find a verse in The Bible that seems to contradict the rest of scripture's teaching on the subject matter, we should interpret this anomalous verse in light of the numerous clear passages.
Examples Of Scripture Interpreting Scripture
Example 1: James 2 and Works Based Theology
The book of James has always been a favorite of those who advocate for salvation by works, because what he says in chapter 2 seems to support salvation by works. For example, in verse 14, he says "What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?" and in verse 26, he says "As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead." And throughout the entire chapter, he talks about the importance of good works. How Abraham was considered righteous by what he did by obeying God to sacrifice Isaac on the alter (verses 21-23), and he rhetorically asks what good it would be if someone came to your door being in need of clothes and food, but you simply send him away saying "Be warm and well fed." He says "Faith without works is dead". Doesn't this teach works based salvation?
Well, there's actually more than one hermenuetical principle that shows us that this is not what James is talking about. The first one is the principle this blog post is about; namely to let scripture interpret itself. Various passages of scripture explicitly state that a man is saved by faith alone and that works plays no part.
First, we have Ephesians 2:8-9 which says “For it is by grace that you have been saved, through faith -- and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works so that no one can boast.” Ephesians 2:8-9 is clear cut; we are saved by God’s grace. God’s grace regenerated us or made us born again (John 3:3, 2 Corinthians 5:17) when we placed our faith in Him. Once we placed our faith in Jesus, God’s grace regenerated us, and God forgave us and adopted us as His children (John 1:12). Ephesians says that we weren’t saved because we did any good works. The passage implies that if we could be saved by good works, we’d have something to boast about. We could go on and on in the afterlife about how much better we were than other saints that were there. “Yeah, you did some nice things Bob. But you should take a look at my spiritual resume." However, we have nothing to post over because we're not saved by our good works. I honestly don't know how anyone can read Ephesians 2:8-9 and not come to the conclusion that Paul is teaching justification by faith alone. “For it is by grace that you have been saved, through faith -- and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9). It doesn't get any clearer than that.
Secondly, in Paul's epistle to the Romans, he says you have Paul saying “What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness. Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: ‘blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin’.” – Romans 4:1-8
In this passage, Paul basically says that salvation is a gift from God, and we don't work for it, for if we did, then it would no longer be a gift. It would no longer be grace. He uses the comparison of an employer and an employee. When an employer gives an employee his wages, he isn't giving him a gift. He's giving his employer his due. He worked hard for that money, so the employer is obligated to pay up. But we know salvation is a gift, not a wage. "The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 6:23). Death is the wage for sin. We do get into Hell because of our works (our bad works), but we don't get into Heaven because of works. We get into Heaven because of God's grace which he bestows upon us through faith in Him.
Isaiah 64:6 says “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags.” Our righteous acts are like filthy rags to God. Have you ever tried to clean something with a dirty rag? I have. All it does it move the dirt around. It doesn’t get anything clean. In order to clean the thing that needs to be clean, you need a clean rag. If the rag is filthy, all you’ll be doing is moving the dirt around. In the same way, we’ve been made dirty by the stains of our sins.
So, Ephesians 2, Romans 4, and Isaiah 64 all teach that salvation cannot be obtained through good works. There are actually a lot of other passages which say the same thing, but I won't cite them for the sake of brevity. But then, what about James 2? It seems to contradict all of these passages? If we let scripture interpret itself, we won't let the seemingly works based language allow us to conclude that James is teaching works based theology. The Holy Spirit would not say one thing on one book and then contradict Himself in another book.
The principle of taking scripture in its immediate context is relevant here as well. Who is James speaking to? At the very start of this epistle, we find that James is writing to Jewish people who were scattered abroad (1:1), which were people who lived their lives in legalism. They were taught by their religious leaders that they had to earn God's favor by keeping the law of Moses. Then they received the gospel; the good news that God loves them even though they're sinners and that He sent His son Jesus to die on the cross to absorb the penalty for their sins so that they wouldn't have to. The price was paid by His shed blood. All they had to do was place their faith in Him. Unfortunately, these new Christian Jews had gone from one extreme to the other. Now instead of straining themselves to live morally perfect lives so that they can gain the favor of God, they've gone to the other extreme of moral lazyness. They've reduced Christianity to a mere creed. As long as you believe God exists, Jesus died on the cross, and rose from the dead, etc. etc, you'll be saved. It doesn't really matter how you live. That is what James was dealing with here. He compared their faith to the person who promises to help, but then does not fulfill that promise (verses 15-16).
They are somebody who just give intellectual assent to Christ and His words, but they don't keep His commandments. James tells us that this is a worthless faith. It's dead. James says in verse 19 that even the demons believe God exists, but they're under His judgment. The implication is that James' readers have a belief that doesn't differ from that of the demons; they accept the truths of Christianity, but live lives of immorality.
So is James teaching works based theology? He's definitely putting a heavy emphasis on good works, but not for salvific reasons. James is teaching that a true faith, a true, genuine saving faith, will produce good works in time. A tree is supposed to produce fruit. If it doesn't produce fruit, we conclude that the tree is dead. Likewise, a regenerated person is supposed to produce the fruits of The Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). If he doesn't, the reason must be because he doesn't have genuine saving faith. Fruit doesn't produce trees, but trees are supposed to produce fruit. Good works don't produce salvation, but salvation produces good works. Even Paul agrees that we should do good works. Immediately after saying that we're saved by grace alone through faith alone, he says "For we are God's handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do." Good deeds don't save people; saved people do good deeds. It's interesting to note that both Paul and James draw on Abraham's obedience to God to make their point. Abraham believed God, and was credited to him as righteousness. Abraham's faith is what made him righteous, but then after having faith, Abraham acted on it by performing a work. A good work flowed from Abraham's faith, and good works should flow from our faith as well. This is what James is saying.
Example 2: Hate your family if you want to be my follower?
Luke 14:26 is a verse non-Christians love to poke at. It says "If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters--yes, even their own life--such a person cannot be my disciple."
Wait, what? We can't be followers of Jesus unless we hate our family? "Like, OMG! Jesus is literally preaching hate! This proves that Jesus is immoral and The Bible is immoral!" says the non-Christian. Not so fast! Let's let scripture interpret itself. Everywhere else The Bible, and Jesus Himself places a strong emphasis on love. In Luke 6:27-36, Jesus said "But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you. If you only love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even 'sinners' love those who love them. And if you do good only to those who do good to you, why should you get credit? Even sinners do that much! And if you lend money only to those who can repay you, why should you get credit? Even sinners will lend to other sinners for a full return. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful." In Matthew 22:37-39, Mark 12:30-31, and Luke 10:27, Jesus quotes Leviticus 19:18, which tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves. What's more, 1 John 4:20 says that if we say that we love God while harboring hatred in our hearts towards someone, we are liars and the truth isn't in us. 1 John 3:14-15 says that if you hate someone, you're a murderer at heart and therefore have no eternal life in you.
Given all of these biblical passages condoning love and condemning hate, it is extremely unlikely that Jesus is commanding us to literally hate our family members. Moreover, we know that Jesus often spoke metaphorically. When he told us to pluck out our eyes and cut off our hands if these body parts offend us (Matthew 5:29-30), I don't know anyone who thinks Jesus was really saying we should maim ourselves.
It is most likely the case that Jesus is speaking either metaphorically or hyperbolically. Perhaps Jesus is simply saying that we should love Him so much that it seems like we hate everyone else by comparison. Of course, we don't need to guess, the parallel passage in Matthew's gospel makes it clear this is indeed what Jesus means. "Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me." (Matthew 10:37).
Example 3: Giving Birth Earns You Salvation?
Once while I was reading through The New Testament, I came across a very bizarre verse. "But women will be saved through childbearing--if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety." (1 Timothy 2:15). What? Women are saved through child bearing? What is that supposed to mean? Is Paul saying that for a woman, giving birth is her ticket into Heaven? Well, whatever it means, it probably doesn't mean that. After all, The Bible says in numerous places how we're saved. We're saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9, Romans 4) in Jesus Christ (John 3:16-18, John 3:36). If we confess with our mouths "Jesus is Lord" and believe in our hearts that God raised Him from the dead, we will be saved (Romans 10:9). Having Jesus or not having Jesus is what determines whether we have life (1 John 5:12). Given that this is the case, it cannot be the case that a woman earns salvation through giving birth. We already know what The Bible does not say based on what it does say everywhere else! That's what it means to let scripture interpret scripture. This is an unclear passage. We know what it does not say based clear passages.
John Piper wrote an article giving an explanation of what this verse means. You can read it by clicking here. John Piper sums up his interpretation as follows:
"Even though many women today and in history may feel the ongoing effects of the curse in the pains of childbirth and the lifelong wounds that it may leave, I urge all of our Christian sisters not to despair. God’s word to you is hope, not curse. God’s plan for you is salvation not destruction. Yes, just as the man must work out his salvation through the cursed futilities and miseries of his labor (Genesis 3:18–19), millions of women must find her salvation through the pains and miseries of childbearing. The path of salvation is the same for her as for all the saints: 'continuing in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.' Jesus Christ is the Savior who became a curse for us (Galatians 3:13). The sting of the curse has been removed. ....At the last day every vestige of the curse will be undone and every wound will be healed. That is part of what it means to be saved through faith in Christ."Again, this is just a summary Piper's exegesis. For a fuller explanation, read Piper's article "How Are Women Saved Through Childbearing?"
If we hadn't let scripture interpret itself, we might have built a heretical works based doctrine from 1 Timothy 2:15. However, we knew what scripture clearly teaches about salvation, and this prompted us to take another look at the text.
When you come across difficult passages, turn to the rest of scripture and see what it has to say. Does 1 Timothy 2:15 teach that women will get into Heaven by having babies, well, the rest of scripture says no, so it very likely doesn't. Is Jesus endorsing hatred in Luke 14:6, well, He emphasizes love everywhere else, so very likely no. Interpret unclear passages of scripture in light of the clear.
By the way, often times even terminology can be learned from scripture. As Mel Lawrenz of Bible Gateway said "When you read a passage and wonder what 'resurrection' really means or 'the kingdom of God' or 'sexual immorality' or 'Passover' or 'antichrist' or 'marriage,' there is one place to turn: the rest of the Scriptures." (quote from here)