Dear Colby: Does the Bible Interpret Itself?
The Authority of the Bible Part V: One reader asks about the idea of the Bible interpreting the Bible
This is Part 5 of my current series on “The Authority of the Bible.” If you need to catch up:
Part 1: What is the Authority of the Bible and Why Does it Matter?
Part 2: What does it Mean to be Under the Authority of Something?
Part 4: The Source of Authority has to be Good (and Worthy of Submission)
A reader recently sent me a question about an idea he’d heard that “the Bible interprets the Bible.”
This (as I understand/recall) is one of the guiding principles of sola scriptura—the position that holds Scripture alone to be our authority for faith and life.
Since sola scripturists believe the Bible to be without error, and since they prize a literal interpretation as the best approach, they’ve then worked out this idea that the Bible interprets itself.
The suggestion being that we can use the clear parts of the Bible to help us understand the cloudy. The explicit verses give the necessary guidance to understand the implicit.
Now, on one level I want to say I affirm this general idea.
I think the Bible says a lot of different things, and sometimes those things are not super clear, and sometimes our understanding of those murky parts can indeed be aided by the apparent clarity of other parts.
In fact, the idea of “the Bible interpreting the Bible” is part of my argument why Genesis 19 (the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah) is not, after all, a story about God’s judgment against homosexuality. There are clear and explicit statements in Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Matthew about why Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed. If a person reads Genesis 19, and thinks, “hmm... all the men of the city wanted to have sex with two guys...” and then genuinely asks, “I wonder if that’s why God destroyed the cities? Because they were gay,” well, we can turn to more clear/explicit portions from later Biblical writers to confirm that no, that is not why these ancient cities found ruin!
Pretty neat, huh.
Or, consider how much of the Old Testament chronicles Israel’s experiments (for lack of a better word) with sacrificial rites, rituals, and systems. And then consider how Jesus quoted the prophet Hosea saying that God “desires mercy, not sacrifice.”
To the extent that the reasons behind/machinations of the sacrificial rituals are opaque, Jesus’ declaration of the priority of mercy is crystal clear.
By the way, this particular move—using Jesus’ teaching as an interpretive lens for other parts of the Bible—is one I’m totally down with.
Again, I’m not outright opposed to the idea that the Bible can be a self-interpreting text. Although, I’d prefer to say it like this: Some parts of the Bible can help illuminate other parts.
Yeah, totally. Especially if the “some parts” are Jesus-shaped ones.
More Than a Closed Loop
But here’s where I likely diverge from most sola scripturists.
At the end of the day, the idea of “the Bible interpreting the Bible” just creates a sort of closed loop that will eventually require external interpretive effort. It isn’t sufficient, in other words, to solely rely on the Bible as an interpretive tool for the Bible. It sounds nice on paper (hehe, get it?), but in practice it has serious limitations.
While Text A might help us better understand what is going on with Text B, we nonetheless still have to interpret Text A!
So what’s going to help us with that? How can we hope to understand Text A, which will then in theory help us with Text B?
Now, if you then say, “Look over here, Text C can help,” well then fine, again, I submit there might be verses over here to help us unpack verses over there... but--hopefully you can see my point by now--how are we then going to interpret Text C!?
If we never get an opportunity to get on the merry-go-round, then how can it ever be a tool of transformation and growth and spiritual development? It’s just a pretty bit of architecture lulling us to sleep with it sweet, sweet sounds.
Kind of Like a Cook Book
I was reading a cook book the other day.
It’s from the Great British Bake Off (a family fav), and the recipes in the book are many of the ones performed from the show. Because the show is British, at the end of the book there’s a translation guide for us Americans. For example, when a recipe calls for coriander, I have to look in the back to know that coriander in America is “cilantro” (yum!). Or when a cake calls for buttercream icing, I turn to the back for the steps on how to make buttercream icing, which then calls for 100 grams of sugar, forcing me to look up what “grams” are in “cups.”
You get the gist. The cook book is a sort of self-referential library of information that, when cross-referenced, can help interpret itself. You can use this part to help illuminate that part. The explicit interprets the implicit. And so on.
However, guess what? All of that comprehension still required that I knew what cilantro was! And I still needed to know what 1/4 cup was and how to measure that amount sugar.
In other words, I still had to interpret even the supposedly “clear and explicit” parts of the text.
And this is what I feel many sola scripturists either ignore about “the Bible interprets itself,” or have never fully sat with long enough to see. You can’t have a closed loop of interpretation. Otherwise we’re just monkeys thumbing through the works of Shakespeare. It’s all unknowable, unintelligible goobly-gock. What’s even the point?
But I believe the Bible was intended to be read, and shared, and heard, and... gasp... wait for it... even understood! That’s right, I’m over here as a progressive Christian saying that I think the Bible was meant to be understood! And, not only that, we can understand it! Or at least, we can find ways to understand it. And some ways are a hell of a lot better than others (see the aforementioned destruction of Sodom & Gomorrah).
I tried asking this guy how we can know that our interpretation of the Bible is the right one.
He finally answered, “It’s the Bible itself.”
cue eye roll emoji
So your answer to “how can we know we’ve got the right interpretation of the Bible” is, “because the Bible.”
(This is but one of many reasons why I ultimately abandoned my evangelical heritage. It lacks a degree of intellectual curiosity, honesty, and integrity).
Now, Owen and I weren’t there (in the video I linked to above) to talk about this particular issue, so ultimately I let it go. But if I could’ve responded I might’ve tried to point out what I’ve pointed out here. That such a notion only takes you so far.
There has to be... I repeat... there HAS to be a point in which we, human beings, enter the fray. A point at which we stick our sweet little finite heads into the merry-go-round of “The Bible interpreting itself.” We can’t just sit back and let the words on the page do all the work and then, what, just hope that we soak it in through our skin like it’s vitamin D?
So I guess, to get back to my original reader’s question, my thoughts on the idea that “the Bible interprets the Bible” are nuanced.
Yes, I acknowledge that such moves can (and should!) be made. And at times are both necessary and helpful in more fully appreciating and understanding parts of the Bible.
And yet, at the end of the day, such a notion is not sufficient because we still have to engage with the text eventually. And that sort of engagement requires things such as:
us being aware of our own prejudices
us being aware of our own contexts and preconceived ideas
understanding the culture of when the words were written
understanding the language of the original authors
holding all things in light of the mission of Jesus
and so on.
Thank you, reader (whom I’ll call “Derek”--not his real name) for your question!
If you have a question for me, feel free to fire it my way.
In the meantime, what do you think about the idea of the Bible interpreting itself?
”The Authority of the Bible” Series
Part 1: What is the “Authority of the Bible?”
Part 2: What it Means to Be Under the “Authority” of Something
Part 3: Four Ways We Engage with and Experience Authority
Part 4: The Authoritative Source Must be Good
Part 5: Does the Bible Interpret Itself?
Join Me Live to Talk About It
As always, I’ll be live today (Wednesday) at 2pm PST to talk about this article.
Hope you’ll join me!
It's funny how I used to believe this closed loop system explanation as well! Now that I'm out of conservative fundamentalist Christianity, I can see things clearer. It blew my mind when I finally realized that the Bible is not just one book but is a LIBRARY of books, with some stories being close to mythological, some that are poems, parables, and so on. I mean I knew that the Bible was comprised of 66 books but it never occurred to me that each book is not in a continuous series and shouldn't be read and interpreted that way.
Excellent approach. The problem is quite old and thus apostolic succession and tradition naturally filled the vacuum left by an obvious problem. Councils met, canons written, and a huge system developed to Babel tower heights. Moral theology joins medieval schoolmen and soon we have an authoritarian and abusive infallible system. Protestantism rights the wrong by fundamentalism in their own silly evangelical councils with the likes of Jerry Falwell & Anita Bryant. A more sane answer with wisdom and compassion, a Christocentric Trinitarian relational perichoretic approach finds a safer lane for living the Christian life in a manner that does not toss Scripture out nor turn the Logos of God into a book! The Logos is God. Perhaps Barth still has something to say 😉