“Where do you even see that?” my friend said. “I can’t see that in the text.”
And that’s when I knew we were having two different conversations, the most recent I’ve had where the application of Sola Scriptura – the doctrine that Scripture is the sole infallible rule of Christian faith and practice – has been misunderstood.
I’m going to give three basic principles of interpreting Scripture. These aren’t the only ones, but they’re really good starting blocks.
Scripture in history
Like many things theological, when we define Sola Scriptura, we have to also include what it’s not. It’s not ignoring historical context – that a particular book was written to a particular people at a particular time. There are, in fact, things that don’t have to be explicitly said that the original audience would have clearly understood.
One oft overlooked example is Jesus’ healing of the invalid at the pool of Bethesda in John 5. The man legitimately couldn’t walk but was always beaten to the supposed “healing” by people who walked or even ran there when the water was “stirred up.”
We know from history that this was in reference to the Greek faith healing Asklepius cult. No, you don’t get that directly from the words of the text, but John’s first readers would have understood that Jesus busted up into an ancient Benny Hinn healing event, went to the wheelchair bound guys and dying cancer patients that they keep hidden in the back, and actually healed the guy while Benny was busy helicoptering his $5,000 coat at people and healing exactly nothing but his bank account.
To put it another way, I wouldn’t have to explicitly spell out Bethel Church at 933 College View Drive in Redding, California, if I gave you hints about gold dust (read: glitter in the HVAC) in Redding. The cult wasn’t the point of the story; Jesus was.
Scripture interprets Scripture
Sola Scriptura also does not take books of the Bible in a vacuum. They’re to be interpreted in light of each other, with clear passages providing light for the more vague, and with the New Testament giving the substance and fulfillment of Old Testament types and shadows (John 5:39, Heb. 10:1, Col. 2:17).
This concept is outright abandoned by dispensationalists when it comes to the nation-state of Israel. They insist that Israel and the church are two different salvific programs, which is how they invented the doctrine of the Rapture.
The good news is that there is one Lord, one faith, and one baptism (Eph. 4:5), and there is one people of God (Matt. 16:18), the ecclesia, translated as church in English. When the New Testament was being written, the authors wrote and spoke Greek, and nearly every New Testament quotation of the Old Testament is of the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. This should shed tremendous amounts of light on their use of terms, and the cockroaches of faulty doctrine should scuttle away.
To put it simply, the Greek ecclesia means assembly or congregation, a corporate body. Every single time our English Old Testament reads “assembly” or “congregation,” the Septuagint renders it ecclesia. The Old Testament had a congregation or church of Yahweh, which is how “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel” in Romans 9 makes sense, and how Galatians calls those who trust in Christ – the church – the true “Israel of God.”
Sometimes Scripture interprets Scripture in light of history
In a similar vein, a passage that has been abused to say that Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons are our spiritual siblings is 1 John 4:2, which reads in part, “every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God.” Well, it says that Jesus had flesh, so I guess anyone who says he had flesh is good to go, right?
Since 1 John was written after the Gospels, it’s safe to assume that the original readers were familiar with both the Old Testament, which spoke of Yahweh coming to earth (Isaiah 7), and Jesus identifying himself as Yahweh (John 8:58). Therefore, it’s not a stretch for anyone familiar with Christianity to know that the claim was that God came to earth.
The issue is then the fleshy bits, and this ties into Scripture being written in history. 1 John was written at a time when the Gnostics were rampant. The cult of Gnosticism is rooted in gaining secret knowledge (hence its name being rooted in the Greek word for knowledge), and, depending on the sect, either a belief that all physical matter is evil or that Jesus only appeared to be man, though he was still divine. Some Gnostic groups went so far as to say that Jesus wasn’t even crucified and that he tricked the Jews into crucifying Judas instead.
The problem John was addressing was basically the opposite of what we deal with now. Then, they were cool with Jesus being God, but a man too? Why, that would lower God too much. These days, we can’t grasp there being a God in the first place, but we weren’t the primary recipients of 1 John, so we can’t import what’s going on in our culture.
The issue of literary genre may be the toughest sell for some who want to interpret passages such as the decreation/judgment language of Revelation literally. We understand metaphors and similes in the secular world, but God forbid we interpret anything in the Bible in a way that isn’t woodenly literalistic. Hear me out, and we’ll make this easier to grasp.
This is how Word of Faith clown Kenneth Copeland can claim that he knew a guy who said a sermon “blew him away” and then had his house destroyed by a tornado, because, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Prov. 18:21). You can apparently literally kill people, never mind the absurdity of that statement and the lack of context, leaving off “and those who love it will eat its fruits.” If you love death, you’ll use your words to wreck people, but you’ll also eat the fruit of that death.
As another example, John 10 features Jesus saying, “I am the door.” I’m sorry, Jesus. You make a better door than a window, but you are clearly God incarnate and not a door.
Do the hard work. It will pay off.