Ground Rules of Biblical Interpretation – Part 2

(This is the second post in a 2 part series,click here to read part 1.)

Scripture Interprets Scripture (in context)

The second principle we want to look at is that “scripture interprets scripture.” This principle is just what it sounds like. When we face a passage or verse that is hard to understand, we can look elsewhere in God’s word to gain clarity. Since the entire Bible was inspired by the Holy Spirit, its teachings do not contradict one another but complement one another. Something in the Gospels might be clarified by a passage from the letters of Paul, and vice versa. Whenever Calvinism is discussed this principle is often abused. Not just by Calvinists but also by those on the other side of the issue. 

That scripture interprets scripture is a very basic rule of how to find out what the Bible is trying to say. Some passages have a clearer context than others. The more complete the context, the more confident we can be that our understanding of a particular verse or passage is correct. But it is often abused by those seeking to defend Calvinism from scripture. We must make it very clear that scripture interprets scripture, but scripture does not overrule scripture. Often the verses that speak of God’s sovereign rights are used to explain away the genuine responsibility (i.e. “ability to respond”) and choices of men.

Romans 9:16 (GWT)

“Therefore, God’s choice does not depend on a person’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy.”

The Calvinist interpretation for this verse goes something like this, “Who will be saved is God’s choice alone. God won’t save someone because they want to be saved, but because he has already determined to save them. Man’s decisions or desires play no role in determining who will be saved. God’s decision about who to give mercy to is not based on anything people do, want, or believe. His decision is not based on anything in the person he chooses, but in his sovereign will alone.”

Revelation 22:17 (GWT)

“The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come!’ Let those who hear this say, ‘Come!’ Let those who are thirsty come! Let those who want the water of life take it as a gift.”

This verse from the book of Revelation clearly implies that anyone who desires to be saved can be saved. There is nothing in the context to imply that this is anything other than a genuine offer of salvation to all people. To say otherwise would be to imply that the Spirit of God is insincere. So how does the Calvinist deal with a verse like Revelation 22:17 in light of Romans 9:16? Firstly, he ignores the context of the Romans 9:16 in order to arrive at his interpretation. Paul summarizes the meaning of Romans chapter nine in the last few verses of that chapter.

Romans 9:30-32 (GWT)

“So what can we say? We can say that non-Jewish people who were not trying to gain God’s approval won his approval, an approval based on faith. The people of Israel tried to gain God’s approval by obeying Moses Teachings, but they did not reach their goal. Why? They didn’t rely on faith to gain God’s approval, but they relied on their own efforts. They stumbled over the rock that trips people.”

This summary makes it clear that God gives mercy to those that come to him by faith in Christ, not to those striving to obtain righteousness by obedience to the Law of Moses. The Calvinist interpretation assumes that God gives mercy for no discernible reason, but just because he decides to give it. But the context disproves this assumption. According to the context, Romans 9:16 could be paraphrased in this way, “So being made right in God’s eyes doesn’t depend on person’s strict obedience to the Law of Moses, but it depends on God’s grace and mercy which is received through faith in Jesus Christ. God’s mercy is a gift received through faith, not a salary earned by good works.”

By taking interpreting Romans 9:16 in light of its context we see that it doesn’t contradict in any way with Revelation 22:17. In fact it is saying almost the same thing. Revelation 22:17 offers salvation to anyone that wants it, but then makes it clear that this salvation is a gift. It is not something someone can earn by obeying the Law of Moses or any other system of good works.

But the Calvinist doesn’t understand this. After failing to pay attention to the context of Romans chapter nine, the sincere defender of Reformed Theology seeks to explain the contradiction between Romans 9:16 and Revelation 22:17. In his mind the Romans’ verse “clearly teaches that God is the only participant in deciding who will receive salvation. What men want “obviously” makes no difference in what God decides. So the “unclear” verse in Revelation chapter 22 that “seems to say” man does have a say in whether or not God gives him mercy needs to be interpreted in light of the “clear” verse in Romans 9.

What is his conclusion? The Calvinist says that Revelation 22:17 says just what it means and means just what it says, “Anyone who desires can freely be saved.” But, then he adds the fine print in order to make it line up with his interpretation of Romans 9:16, “All that desire can come, but God will only give the desire to come to those who he wants save.” So, yes anyone who desires is free to come, but if God doesn’t give them the desire to be saved, they will never come. And he will only give that desire to those he has predestined to salvation.

In his mind the Calvinist has now applied the principle of scripture interpreting scripture. He has used the “obvious” meaning of one verse to clarify the meaning of a less clear verse. But this is not what he has done. This isn’t the case of one scripture making another clearer, but of one scripture cancelling out the clear meaning of another scripture.

Biblical Christians are also tempted to use this lazy form of scriptural interpretation. We can’t disprove the Calvinist interpretation of Romans 9:16 by quoting verses like Revelation 22:17. One verse can never cancel out another verse. Scripture interpreting scripture does not mean scripture explains away scripture. If two verses seem to contradict we know that the problem is not with scripture but with our understanding of scripture. We will find the answer to the seeming contradiction by looking more closely at the context of the passage in question, just as we did by looking to Romans 9:30-32 to clarify Romans 9:16.

Scripture Interprets Scripture (through right concepts)

But what happens when two verses seem to contradict and we can’t find anything in the context of either one to bring us any clarification. In this case we will have to do the hard work of reworking our understanding of certain scriptural concepts by studying the overall message of the Bible. Sometimes we are not overlooking the context of a passage but we are coming to the passage with a misunderstanding of certain biblical concepts.

John 10:27-29.

“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of my Father’s hand.”

When the Calvinist reads this he brings with him a misunderstanding of God’s sovereignty. He reasons, “If God decides to save someone that is that, the person will definitely be saved. This person cannot resist God’s irresistible grace or his preserving power. Those that God decides will become his disciples will certainly become his disciples. And those that are his disciples will be his disciples to the very end. God will ensure that this is what takes place because he is sovereign.” There is certainly seems to be nothing in the context of John chapter 10 to imply that Jesus is saying anything other than what the Calvinist sees. But we face a dilemma when we read the first chapter of Colossians.

Colossians 1:21-23

“And you, who were once alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the Gospel that you have heard…”

In verses 21-22 we are told that people who were once lost have now been saved and forgiven. They are no longer guilty before God, but have been reconciled to God and declared righteous in his sight. In light of what Jesus said in John chapter ten we would assume that if this is so, they will never perish. But then verse 23 warns them that their right-standing before God is conditional. Paul warns them that they will remain blameless before God only if they continue in their faith. The apostle Paul believed that it was very possible for them to fall away from God and perish, so he warned them not to let this happen.

Reformed Theology would tell us that Paul is speaking hypothetically when he says that our ultimate salvation is conditional on our continual trust in God. “Actually,” they say, “we know that it is impossible for true believers to fall away, so Paul is actually telling us that we will certainly continue in faith.” But this is not what Paul said. Paul could have said, “You will certainly continue in faith.” But instead, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit he said, “Be careful not to fall away from faith, otherwise you will not continue to be holy in the eyes of God.” This is another case of Reformed Theology ignoring the plain meaning of scripture. They turn the sincere scriptural warning into something that is merely hypothetical, and has no actual application to real Christians. Calvinism does not explain away the meaning of passages like this because they ignore the context, but because they hold tightly to a false understanding of God’s sovereignty and the believer’s responsibility. An attachment to false concepts causes them to ignore the plain teaching of the Bible.

Hebrews 3:14 says, “For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.” Calvinism would say, “Those who have ever had true faith will definitely keep it until the end.” Through an unhealthy devotion to certain theological concepts Calvinists are led to ignore the plain meaning of scripture. They would say that they are simply interpreting scripture with scripture, but this is not so. They are interpreting scripture with a theological system of beliefs. We are all in danger of this. It is tempting to think that we have all the answers, and any scripture that seems to disagree with our understanding of God and his word, must not say what it says. We must be willing to do the hard work of searching the Bible and letting it correct our understanding of the concepts it teaches. If we do this, many times we will find that what we previously believed is false. But that is okay, because we are disciples. We are on a journey of discovery. We don’t have all the answers, but God’s word does.

So what are we to do with this seeming contradiction? Believers will remain holy in God’s eyes only if they continue in faith, but Jesus said his sheep will never perish. One part of the Bible implies that our position in Christ is conditional, and another gives us the impression that it is unconditional. The lazy and dishonest way to handle this problem is simply to say that John 10:27-29 is not saying what it seems to be saying. Even though the context doesn’t seem to give us any valid reason for doing this, we could say that obviously Jesus is not saying what it seems he is saying because the verse in Colossians clearly say something completely different. In that case we would be committing the same error the Calvinist makes. We would be explaining away verses in John with verses from Colossians. That is a dangerous practice. It might help us feel like we are right and other people are wrong, but it won’t cause us to grow in our understanding of God.

We must be diligent and honest. We must keep searching, and not be satisfied with easy answers. Eventually we would find other passages of scripture that will convince us that Jesus didn’t meant what the Calvinist says he did. In time we will stumble upon John 17:12 which will help us better understand the context of John 10:27-29.

John 17:12

“While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction, that the Scripture might be fulfilled.”

Except is a big word. Jesus said to the Father that those whom the Father had given him were all safe, except Judas. One of the disciples that had been given to him by his father, and was being kept by Jesus, was lost! Here Jesus says that he did his part, he “kept” and “guarded” those the Father had given him, but one of them was still lost. Jesus said, “Those that endure to the end will be saved,” not, “Those that are saved will endure to the end.” John 17:12 gives us important perspective on the meaning of John 10:27-29. From this we are able to conclude that in John 10 Jesus did not mean what the Calvinist thinks he meant. This verse helps us to know that whatever Jesus did mean in John 10:27-29, he did not mean that it is impossible for anyone who truly comes to Christ to fall away from faith and forfeit eternal life.

So do we have our interpretation? No, there is still more work to do. We know from John 17:12 what Jesus didn’t mean in John 10:27-29, but that is not enough for the diligent student of the word. We want to know what Jesus did mean. So we must keep searching the scriptures like diligent Bereans. By ruling out certain interpretations with the help of other scriptures in a related context we are able to shake ourselves free from the false concepts that often influence our reading of the Bible. This is not the end of our search, but it is a good start. As we continue to ask, seek, and knock, eventually we will stumble other passages in scripture that give us a more positive interpretation of the verses we are wrestling with.

1 Peter 1:3-5.

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.”

The Calvinist reasons, “If God keeps us by his power, then we will certainly be kept. After all, who can defeat God’s power?!” So the Calvinist’s misinterpretation of John 10:27-29 is not primarily due to his misunderstanding of the context, but due to his misunderstanding of certain biblical concepts; in this case his misunderstanding of the relationship between divine sovereignty and human responsibility. He assumes that if God does something then people have no effective role to play. But 1 Peter 1:5 clears up this misconception. Here we see that the power that preserves us is God’s power; but we also see that we receive the benefit of that power through our faith. God alone keeps us, but we must accept his keeping grace. God’s power protects us and our faith positions us to receive that grace. Once again we learn that salvation is by God’s grace alone, from first to last. And that grace is received through faith alone, from first to last.

In John 10:27-29 Jesus promised that he will protect his sheep. We can be sure that he will be faithful to teach, guide, rebuke, correct and train us. He will keep us. He is our good Shepherd. He will lead us to eternal life and warn us when we are straying. Colossians 1:23 warns us that if we hope to experience the eternal life that Jesus is keeping us for, and leading us to, we must not turn away from entrusting our lives completely to his keeping hands. Hebrews 3:12-14 warns us that if we harbor sin as Judas did it will harden our hearts and give rise to unbelief. This unbelief will lead us to fall away from the living God and lose our share of the inheritance that is in Christ. This is why 1 Peter 1:5 can tell us that we are guarded by God’s power, and that his keeping power is received by entrusting ourselves to his care.

After allowing God’s word to correct our understanding of certain concepts we can look at Jesus’ statements in John with fresh eyes. We can now see that in John 10:27 Jesus speaks in the present tense. Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.” He defines who his sheep are. Those that listen to Christ, and follow him are his sheep. If someone meets these qualifications, and continues to meet them, they are his sheep, and he imparts his life into them and protects them in his hands. His sheep, which are in his hands, will never perish. So we see that Jesus didn’t say that those who have ever come to him in faith “will never perish,” but those who listen to him, and submit to him, in the present can’t perish because they are guarded by his power. Those who are entrusting their lives to him will be given eternal life; and those who are not entrusting their lives to him will not be given eternal life.

So when we face the contradiction between Colossians 1:23 and John 10:27-29 we can’t take the lazy route and assume one verse cancels out another. We must search the scriptures like a noble Berean. When we come upon John 17:12 which shows that in John 10:27-29 Jesus didn’t mean what the Calvinist thinks he meant, we can’t yet be satisfied. After all, our goal is not to disprove Calvinism but to understand the scripture so we can apply it to our lives. So we keep searching until scripture interprets scripture. We want scripture to reconcile the verses that seem contradictory to us, not overrule them. We look to the Bible to teach us more clearly the concepts we should hold.

Noble Bereans or Lazy Cretans?

The two most important keys to correctly interpreting the Bible are diligence and honesty. We cannot be satisfied with less than satisfying answers just because we are lazy spend the time and energy it will take to find the truth. Many want to have all the answers now, so they settle for answers that are less that convincing. Coming to understand some topics in scripture can takes years. The disciple’s journey to understanding the word of God is just that, a journey. A man’s hunger drives him to work, the same goes for understanding the Bible. A disciple’s desire to understand the word of his master drives him on to question and search until his conscience is satisfied. “It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out” (Prov. 25:2). The Bereans were not noble because they easily accepted the message of the Gospel, but because they accepted it honestly (Acts 17:11). They were willing to do the hard work of searching the scripture in order to find out if what the apostles of Jesus were telling them were true. In order to add knowledge to our faith as the scripture commands we will need to be noble hearted. We can’t let our desire to take it easy tempt us into accepting something that really doesn’t satisfy our conscience’s need for real answers. To find truth, one must be honest above all else!

3 thoughts on “Ground Rules of Biblical Interpretation – Part 2

  1. Thanks Again Chris. The following link is a great response to the calvinist in regards to John 10

    Russ

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