Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Analogy of Scripture

I want to talk a bit about the analogy of scripture. This is also known as the principle of scripture interpreting scripture. The reasoning behind this goes something like this:
God is the source of truth and is unified without contradiction
Scripture is God’s revelation, so it to reflects his character of truth and unity
Because of this, we can use scripture to interpret scripture
Because of this, the more difficult passages should be interpreted by the clear passages

However, I think there are a number of dangers with this reasoning.

1) This reduces the theology of scripture to basic formulas of logic. We must assume that the Bible in all its diversity (of authors, times, etc.) results in a perfect mathematical unified picture of theology. The reality is that this simply is not the case. Good biblical scholarship rightly recognizes the tension of various themes. For example, we presently experience the kingdom and its blessings in Christ, the promises of God have been fulfilled in the present. Thus, we have a realized eschatology -- the future is now. But in tension with this is the reality that things are not all right, the promises are not fulfilled entirely. We still wait for the return of our king and fullness of his kingdom. This is a future eschatology. The New Testament clearly points to both. We cannot reduce this tension to a simple philosophical formula. Any understanding of the Trinity or incarnation of Christ clearly reflects this tension. Any good study of the issue of divine sovereignty and human freedom should reflect this.

There is fundamentally a difference between biblical tension and biblical contradiction. The Trinity might be construed as a contradiction, but biblically it is a tension. There are themes that stress both the division and unity of God. The reality is that God’s truth is complex and infinitely surpasses our finite human understanding. This does not allow for God’s truth to be clearly a contradiction, but it does mean that there are aspects of God’s character and action that we cannot fully break down and understand. This is a very difficult line to walk, as there are plenty of theologians who affirm tension, but for all practical purposes describe contradiction. This is also difficult because there is a lot of ambiguity as to how to avoid affirming contradiction without “ironing out” a tension.

2) It is difficult to decide what “clear” and “difficult” passages are. There are no biblical criteria. The reality is that there are biblical themes that lie in tension. It seems as if there are no checks and balances for the exegete in deciding what passages are clear. It is all to easy to instead reduce passages which contradict one’s theological system as the “difficult”, and the passages that are in harmony as “clear”. The best example I can think of is Hebrews 6:4-6. This passage brings out some of the worst of some of the best exegetes. Calvinists come up with a number of different options for how to understand this apparent “difficult” passage (because they reject that believers can fall away) and appeal to John 6:37-39 (one of the strongest affirmations of Calvinism). Arminians likewise stumble over this passage, not because it apparently teaches that believers can fall away, but because if it happens it is permanent.

3) This principle can circumvent the basic principles of exegesis. Unlike #2, some theologians will simply rule out some interpretations while exegeting a passage based on prior theological conviction (which in turn is based on certain passages). It is unfortunate, but these same theologians will describe how “the whole testimony of scripture” stands against this interpretive option, so it cannot be allowed. But this is not good exegesis. If the option is reasonable within the bounds of literary and historical context, then it should be given a fair hearing.

4) This reverses the exegetical process. The process of exegesis begins with the smaller parts and works towards the whole. This means you have to start with each sentence, putting together what it means. This then is interpreted in the context of paragraphs, chapters, and books. (This is essentially Osborne’s hermeneutical spiral: the spiral from small units of thought to context and back again, ideally ever spiraling closer and closer to the truth). Once one has a good grasp on the themes and meaning of a book, then we can gather together all these themes and build the big picture of scripture. We cannot start with a theological system, because this will impose meaning on exegesis.

Of course, nobody actually can function this way. We all have a theology even if we do not think we do. The point is that we must always be letting the text itself challenge our theology, so that in the same we the hermeneutical spiral uses context to interpret words, and words to interpret context, the text will shape our theology, so that our theology conforms to the text and not our presuppositions.

What are the benefits of this principle, if the above cautions are heeded? First and foremost, it is necessary to achieve the “big picture” of scripture. Each book has its own set of themes, and each author has a purpose and intended shape for these themes. But these themes also build off of each other. For example, Sailhamer argues that all of scripture is essentially a commentary and exposition on the Pentateuch. That the themes of the Pentateuch are repeated, expanded, and commented on by every biblical author. This means that if Paul’s doctrine of justification is such a commentary, then we first need to understand the themes of sin, grace, debt, redemption, forgiveness, etc. in the Pentateuch. Once we have a grasp of how those themes operate there, then we can move through the rest of scripture and observer those same themes, ultimately arriving at Paul and seeing how Paul maneuvers these themes. In a sense, this process is just that: the text interpreting the text. But it is more watching how later authors comment and manipulate (in a positive way) prior biblical themes.

This is not an easy task. It requires a lot of work, and requires a solid comprehension of scripture. I would love to see somebody approach systematic theology in this way. Instead of repeating the questions, grids, and debates of the last 2000 years, they would assimilate the biblical themes and paint a systematic theology of biblical theology. Something like Ladd, something like Grudem, but something altogether different.

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