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Interpreting Scripture – introductory resources

Confessions and catechisms

During and after the Reformation, churches and denominations set out to explain their general understandings of Scripture and their distinctive views on important issues in confessions of faith. These confessions are very helpful overviews of what each tradition or denomination believes, as well as what holy men seeking to serve the church believe that Scripture teaches on the whole. If you want a summary of the whole teaching of Scripture to provide Biblical context for interpreting specific passages, a Reformed confession of faith is a good source of that summary.

Reformation churches also valued training all believers and their children in the ways of Scripture, and so each confession of faith is accompanied by a catechism—a series of questions and answers designed to help fathers train their families in the teachings of Scripture. These are very accessible, and are written with the intention that children would be able to memorize them. If you want a good summary of Biblical teaching to study as a family or to commit to memory, a Reformed catechism is a good source of that summary.

The historic confession and catechism for Southern Baptists are the London Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689 (also known as the Charleston Confession of Faith because it was the confession originally adopted by First Baptist Church in Charleston and the Charleston Baptist Association) and The Baptist Catechism.

Other Reformed confessions and catechisms can be found at

Different views on interpreting scripture

There are many Christians who believe the Bible to be the inspired Word of God who follow different principles of interpreting that inspired Word. Very generally, there are three broad groups of Christians who hold a high view of Scripture but hold to different principles of interpreting it: Roman Catholic, Reformed, and Dispensational (or Fundamentalist) Christians. Within these categories, there are differences between individuals; and there are individuals that do not fall into any one category. There are also individuals or churches that fall into one of those categories but would use a different name (or no name). However, these three categories are a helpful, general starting point.

(For purposes of full disclosure, I follow the Reformed principles of interpreting scripture.)

Roman Catholics, in a nutshell, believe that the ultimate standard for determining the correct interpretation of a passage of Scripture is the interpretation of the church of Rome. That is, though the Bible is the true and inspired Word of God, the Roman church (specifically the pope) is the final standard of God’s truth. We will not talk much about Roman Catholic approaches to Scripture in class. However, if you would like more information about the Roman view, and the problems with it from a Protestant perspective, see Michael Horton’s recent article, “Who’s in Charge Here? The Illusions of Church Infallibility.”

Reformed Christians believe that the ultimate standard for determining the correct interpretation of a passage of Scripture is Scripture itself. An interpretation is true if it is consistent with the whole teaching of Scripture, read in its proper contexts. That is, Scripture interprets Scripture. Also, Reformed Christians read the Old Testament through the lens of the New Testament, and read all of Scripture in light of its central person—Jesus Christ.

Dispensationalist or Fundamentalist Christians profess belief in a literal interpretation of all Scripture. It is important to note that Christians from all three groups interpret some passages literally and others not literally. The distinctive place where Dispensationalist Christians apply their literal interpretation regards the Old Testament and the people of Israel. Dispensationalists believe that the Old Testament should be taken literally, rather than read through the lens of the New Testament, and therefore that passages (particularly prophecies) about Israel, Jerusalem, the land of Israel/Canaan/Palestine, and the temple should be taken literally, not symbolically of a larger spiritual reality.

Personally, I find the Reformed view to be the most Biblical, and the rest of this article provides the basic Reformed principles of interpreting Scripture. If you would like to study the difference between the two Protestant views (Reformed and Dispensational) further, Ligon Duncan has an excellent explanation of the differences and the importance of them online as part of a seminary course on Biblical covenants. It is available both as an audio lecture and a rough transcript (containing a helpful chart).

Authority of scripture

When thinking about how to interpret Scripture (the fancy term is hermeneutics), it is important to start with the authority of Scripture. Evangelical Christians hold that Scripture alone (sola scriptura) is the authoritative word of God, given by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, ‘to be the rule of faith and life’ (Westminster Confession of Faith). It is holy, true, and without error in its original form (see the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy), and its authority is derived from God himself, not from the church or any other human institution or standard of truth.

Reformed and Reformed Baptist Christians also believe the following (from the Westminster Confession):

All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.

That is, everything necessary to salvation is not only included in Scripture, but is accessible and understandable, even to the unlearned. In fact, even many Protestants who do not consider themselves “Reformed,” but nonetheless are evangelicals who hold a high view of Scripture, agree with that point as well.

But while all things necessary for salvation are readily understandable, “all things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all.” Peter speaks of this in his second epistle (ch. 3):

And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.

Some Scripture is difficult to understand, but it is important to keep in mind what Peter says earlier in that same epistle. He writes that scripture is not subject to one’s own “private interpretation” (see II Peter 1:19–21). Simply because a passage poses interpretive difficulty does not mean that anything goes. Rather, Scripture remains singular in its meaning, and it always accomplishes the purpose for which God sends it forth (see Isaiah 55:11).

Here’s the issue of interpretation, then: If Scripture alone is the authoritative word of God, if it derives its authority from no other source outside itself except for God, if it is not subject to private interpretations, but on some matters is clearer than others, how are we to understand and interpret the unclear or difficult passages? (And how are we to be sure that we haven’t mistaken a difficult passage for an easy one?!) Is there a rule or standard against which we can measure our interpretations to be sure that we understand the word of God correctly?

The analogia fidei, or “rule of faith”

There are, of course, different views among Christians as to what that rule or standard is—the dogma of the church, the literal meaning of the text, etc. However, Reformed Christians take very seriously their belief that Scripture alone is the “rule of faith and life,” and thus we have the Reformed principle of interpreting Scripture (often called the analogia fidei or “rule of faith”), articulated concisely by the Westminster Assembly:

The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.

Scripture interprets Scripture. Clear passages explain difficult passages, the New Testament explains the Old Testament, and “the supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined … can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture” (WCF). To be sure, it is of immense importance and value to read every part of Scripture in its Scriptural context, its historical context, its proper literary genre, etc. But the ultimate arbiter of truth as revealed by God is the Holy Spirit, as he has spoken in Holy Scripture.

Christ-centered interpretation

Scripture gives us one general principle for interpreting scripture that should always be on our minds when reading God’s word. On the first Easter Sunday, rumors had begun to spread about Christ’s resurrection, but he had not yet appeared to all the disciples. In Luke 24:11ff., two of Christ’s disciples were walking on the road to Emmaus. The risen Jesus appears to them, but they don’t recognize him at first. The disciples tell Jesus what has just happened in Jerusalem (i.e., what happened to Jesus), and lament that “we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” Vv. 25–27 (ESV) recount Jesus’s reply:

And he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures [i.e., the Old Testament] the things concerning himself.

When Jesus explained the Scriptures to the disciples, Jesus explained what it revealed about himself. As Christians, that’s the lens we should look through when reading Scripture: the person and work of Jesus Christ. It all points to him. Even Genesis 1–2 points to Jesus Christ. And if we read or interpret any passage in the Old Testament without reference to Christ, we have missed the point.

Helpful resources

These are just some basic, though important, principles for interpreting Scripture. Following are a couple helpful introductory resources for understanding Reformed hermeneutics more deeply.