Does Scripture Interpret Scripture?

Something many Christians are taught, but especially evangelicals/fundamentalists, is the idea that “scripture interprets scripture.”  I remember hearing this often while growing up in the evangelical tradition—specifically whenever the topic of hermeneutics came up.  To the question, “But how should we interpret this verse or passage of the Bible?” -I often heard, “Well, we should let scripture interpret scripture.”

What we needed in that moment, we were told, was a good concordance or even the word index in our Bibles, if we had study Bibles.  As most know, a concordance is an alphabetical list of words used in the Bible along with all the passages in which they occur.  Everyone I knew had a good concordance or study Bible.  This would allow us to see all, or many, of the passages where the same words were used as the verse or passage in question.  We would see how those other passages might help us better understand and interpret the passage under scrutiny.  We were told this was, “scripture interpreting scripture.”

Except, it wasn’t.  Cross-referencing, using a concordance or Bible index, are great study tools, but they are not the equivalent of scripture interpreting scripture.  The Bible, or any written form of communication does not interpret itself.  A passage, verse, or word in one place, does not interpret a passage, verse, or word in another place.  All it does is give one information regarding how those same words, themes, or names, have been used in different parts of Scripture.  Helpful to know—yes—but such isn’t interpretation.

Scripture does not interpret scripture.  Only we do that.  Only the reader(s) interprets.  He may gather as much information as possible.  He may look at all the passages where certain words, names, or themes are mentioned.  He may consult commentaries, dictionaries, concordances, indexes, other studies, and other knowledgeable people.  He may pray.  He may mediate upon the passage.  He may seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  He may do all this.

And yet, at the end of the day, after all is said and done: The scripture, the Bible, did not audibly speak to him and give the interpretation of the passage or verse.  He still had to interpret the passage or verse.  We might liken this to a sports analogy:  They say the loneliest position in sports is the pitcher’s mound.  While he or she is surrounded with other components, other helps, at the end of the day, the pitcher is the only one throwing that ball.  If there are no outs, bases are loaded, and the pitch count is 3-2, one can either throw that next pitch or hope the manager comes out and takes the ball.

It is the same for any reader.  While we can surround ourselves with many components and helps for study, at the end of the day, we alone are the interpreter.

We may even defer to other interpreters.  We may note we have studied a passage or verse and we are not sure what it means.  Thus, we look at the interpretations of others and agree, or disagree, with theirs.  Still, we alone make this decision.  This was not “scripture interpreting scripture,” this was us, agreeing or disagreeing with another person’s interpretation.

Why is this important?  Some might say, well, of course the people using this phrase know it is the person, in the end, making the interpretation.  I’m not so sure about that.  I know when I was using that phrase, and when I heard that phrase, I really did think I was just following what the Bible “clearly” taught and these other passages were doing the interpreting for me.  I was being a good detective; I was simply following where these verses led me.  I doubt I am the only one who felt that way.  Such a line of thought was an illusion at best.

The idea of “scripture interpreting scripture” is a hold-over from a Protestant sensibility, which was concerned with the consensus of that time regarding how we should interpret the scripture.  Obviously there was more to it than that, but such is another post.  This sensibility carries the idea we are objective observers where enough clues will speak their obvious message to us, as we just take note of them.  It allows us a supposed distance from the text, wherein we can now act like a judge who has been handed the verdict from the other scripture passages sitting in the jury box.  We just read the verdict.  Case closed–the jury has spoken.

In my opinion, the concept of “scripture interpreting scripture” is really about individual human authority, which is ironic given its creation in a milieu of wanting to elude consensus human authority.  It is a way for the interpreter to believe he is not voicing his own opinion or perspective, but by looking at all the words and passages, actually communicating the very mind and understanding of the writer(s), and by extension, God.  This is no doubt what gives many a pastor and theologian their supreme confidence (arrogance?) as they rail against those who do not share their interpretations.

The concept, I believe, is a cover, a diversion.  It is also somewhat deceptive (to ourselves).  It is a way of avoiding responsibility and ownership.  We need to own our interpretations, as just that, interpretations.  It doesn’t matter if they are others’ too or how long or short they have been held by us or others (that is another matter).  What matters is that, if one is going to assert them, he also then take ownership of them no matter how they were procured.

Instead of telling people, “scripture interprets scripture,” we should tell them to cross-reference and use all the study tools available, so they can arrive at the best and most honest interpretation they are able, even if such is: I don’t know; or, I’m not sure what this means.  Bottom line: Own your interpretations, because only you interpret scripture.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Phil Ledgerwood

    Is there a way to “like” articles on Patheos? Consider this article “liked.”

    Even when I was Mr. Reformed Theology, this idea (the analogy of faith) was one of the more problematic. I remember a discussion with my friends where one of them was maintaining that creeds were unnecessary because we had scripture. Another of my friends was making the argument that every time you say, “Scripture teaches…” and complete that sentence with anything but Scripture, you’re basically writing a creed. The other guy responded that quoting other Scriptures was the only way to explain what the Scriptures teach.

    I especially like the point you made about the role of the human interpreter being fuzzy in many evangelical conceptions of what it means to know the meaning of Scripture. My own experience (anecdotal, I know – not saying this is the result of some big study) has been that many conservative evangelicals do not functionally recognize the difference between “what Scripture says” and “what I think Scripture says.” While we always operate off what we think Scripture says, it’s healthy to recognize that’s what we’re doing – that the meaning of Scripture in our head is not equivalent to the actual Bible or, by extension, the intentions of the authors, the hermeneutics of the original audience, etc etc.

    But I think this is why discussion around different readings of Scripture can be so difficult to have in conservative evangelicalism. If you disagree about, say, ordaining women pastors, it’s not about comparing two interpretations of Scripture and weighing their merits, it’s that one side obeys the Scriptures and the other doesn’t. It’s not, “I think the Scriptures promote this view,” it’s “the Bible teaches that.”

    Texts don’t interpret other texts, and they don’t teach anything, either.

  • raveen1956

    I always thought that “scriptura sui interpres” of course did not literally mean that Scripture does the interpreting of scripture. Of course “we” are doing the interpreting. However, that does not mean that we are done when we establish the rule that we should own the fact that we are doing the interpreting ourselves, when we admit to the fact that we, that I, have to take responsability for it.
    I took it to mean that in my interpretation it was never enough to argue that it was “my” reading, my interpretation, but that I must give sufficient argument for it, and that that argument was possibly decisive only when it was based on scripture itself – the text, the context, the canonical context, the eb and flow of the biblical narrative etc. Only then could we be true to the character of scripture as a word of truth – Joh. 17:17. So the phrase to me was ultimately just shorthand for a method of interpretation that was based on the assumption that scripture was trying to tell us truth. I am not convinced by your article that the phrase was intended to convey anything other than that – it might have been abused, certainly – or that it needs to be replaced by the more post-modern sounding phrase: what I am telling you now is just my view… Or is my interpretation of your article not close enough to the text and your intentions? (Because it already is “my” way of reading it just now.)

  • I’ve always found “scripture interprets scripture” as an excuse to resolve a Bible contradiction by picking what you want the Bible to say and then shoehorning the unwanted passage into that mold. It makes the Bible into a sock puppet.

    So I think I’m agreeing with you, pretty much?

  • David

    This article would have been even more persuasive if the author had given two or three specific examples from the bible of how scripture does not interpret scriptures