Monday, August 24, 2009

The Circular Argument: Interpreting Scripture from Scripture

One of the curious things I come across with those who give primacy to Scripture and deny the role of Sacred Tradition is the explanations given in order to defend their belief.  Generally summed up, the statement of “Interpreting Scripture from Scripture” means one needs to take the Scripture as a whole and reject any readings which are contrary.

As one site put it, citing 2 Timothy 3:16 (All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness)

So all scripture is useable for doctrine. However, if we take the view scripture is inspired and that God is Holy, we then can know that there will not be any contradictions. If we see a contradiction then it is our understanding that must be changed. We also must realize the differences between the Old Testament and the New. While the Old is still profitable for doctrine, we must realize the New says the Old is a shadow.

The problem is that this does not answer the question.  If I and another study Scripture as a whole, and another draws from Scripture a conclusion which is contrary to mine, to what shall we both appeal to?  John Wesley, in his Sermon 136, shows the limits of the appeal to Scripture while trying to justify the appeal to Scripture alone when he says:

[III. 1.] If, then, we have spoken the word of God, the genuine unmixed word of God, and that only; if we have put no unnatural interpretation upon it, but [have] taken the known phrases in their common, obvious sense, — and when they were less known, explained scripture by scripture; if we have spoken the whole word, as occasion offered, though rather the parts which seemed most proper to give a check to some fashionable vice, or to encourage the practice of some unfashionable virtue; and if we have done this plainly and boldly, though with all the mildness and gentleness that the nature of the subject will bear; — then, believe ye our works, if not our words; or rather, believe them both together. Here is all a Preacher can do; all the evidence that he either can or need give of his good intentions.

Of course, we have to start with that first IF: what guarantee do we have that one has met these requirements?  How can we be assured that one has taken a less known verse and explained it by Scripture as opposed to committing eisegesis?  If there is a small error in the beginning, a great error will be at the conclusion (to paraphrase St. Thomas Aquinas).

In other words, how well can an inerrant scripture lead when it is interpreted by erring people.  John Wesley again seems to struggle against the human inadequacies, when in Sermon 64 [68] says:

2. It must be allowed that after all the researches we can make, still our knowledge of the great truth which is delivered to us in these words is exceedingly short and imperfect. As this is a point of mere revelation, beyond the reach of all our natural faculties, we cannot penetrate far into it, nor form any adequate conception of it. But it may be an encouragement to those who have in any degree tasted of the powers of the world to come to go as far as we can go, interpreting Scripture by Scripture, according to the analogy of faith.

So, the question is this: Can we say for certain that when we interpret Scripture by Scripture, that our understanding of Scripture is adequate to so interpret what is meant.

Then there is the meaning of “the analogy of faith.”

Calvin, in his introduction to his Institutes writes:

When Paul declared that all prophecy ought to be according to the analogy of faith (Rom. 12:6), he laid down the surest rule for determining the meaning of Scripture. Let our doctrine be tested by this rule and our victory is secure.

The problem is that in context, Romans 12:6 tells us:

1 I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

3 For by the grace given to me I bid every one among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith which God has assigned him. 4 For as in one body we have many members, and all the members do not have the same function, 5 so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. 6 Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; 7 if service, in our serving; he who teaches, in his teaching; 8 he who exhorts, in his exhortation; he who contributes, in liberality; he who gives aid, with zeal; he who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.

In other words, the appeal to Romans 12:6 is to claim that those ministers have the prophecy in proportion to their faith.

The result is a circular argument:

  1. The minister in question has the ministry proportion to faith.
  2. We can tell this because his interpretation of Scripture by Scripture
  3. His interpretation of Scripture by scripture shows his ministry

The problem is if we reject the interpretation of Scripture by Scripture as expounded by a minister, we no longer see his authority to interpret.  Ultimately this is a subjective test of whether or not one approves of what the interpreter of Scripture has to say.  When we consider the number of Christians who contradict each other on matters of the faith (Baptism is a symbol vs. a saving sacrament; John 6 is literal vs. John 6 is symbolic), all of them claiming to interpret Scripture by Scripture, there are two possibilities:

  1. Either Scripture is not Inerrant or
  2. “Interpreting Scripture by Scripture” is not a sound principle because it fails to take into account how men may be misled.

Jesus Christ is the way, truth and life.  However, there is one way, one truth and one life.  Not many contradictory ways.

So how did the early Christians handle it?  Numerous groups, such as the Sabellians, the Adoptionists, the Arians, the Nestorians and so on all appealed to Scripture to show that their view was acceptable within Scripture, denying it contradicted Scripture.

The Christians did so by appealing to the Teachings of the Apostles.  Scripture was not to be interpreted by any individual who came along, but through the consistent teaching of the Apostles passed on within the Church.  When something cited Scripture in contradiction to the constant sense it was understood as, it was a warning sign.

The problem with “Interpreting Scripture by scripture” when faced by this is that anyone can argue that an interpretation contradicting their own is, well… contradictory to Scripture.  (As an aside, this is also a No True Scotsman fallacy.  Essentially arguing that the Bible is clear, and putting down opinions different than ones own by saying they are not true interpretations of the Bible this makes anything one says “unchallengeable.”)

When one considers how the early Christians handled it, the idea of Interpreting Scripture from Scripture, while ignoring the fact that the individual is still interpreting the Scripture he uses to interpret Scripture [is this confusing anyone?] is essentially spiritual anarchy.  Only when we consider a Church given the power to bind and loose can we understand how we can have a consistent faith for 2000 years

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