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Parameters of Meaning – Rule 11: While interpreting Scripture with Scripture is valid, it is only to be employed as a check upon interpretation. Using the Analogy of Faith as part of one’s hermeneutics introduces it prematurely and may smuggle ones assumptions into the interpretation.
All evangelical Christians believe that Scripture should be used to interpret Scripture. We all can recite at least some words from 1 Corinthians 2:13:
These things we also speak, not in words which man’s wisdom teaches but which the Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual.
But of course, 1 Corinthians 2:13 does not say we compare Scripture with Scripture; that is just assumed. And it’s a decent assumption, since we know that one part of the Bible (say Text B) may be used to throw light upon the part one is trying to understand (i.e. Text A). Scholars refer to this as “the Analogy of Faith” rule, and it is a good rule. The real problem is when Text A has not been sufficiently studied in its context before Text B is brought in to clear things up. Or to put it differently, trouble can ensue when Text B is called upon before Text A has been exegeted to smooth over “issues” foreseen in Text A. The Analogy of Faith is being misused by being introduced too early in the interpretive process. Let me provide an example.
In Ephesians 2 we meet with a verse whose interpretation has caused some controversy:
And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1)
This verse is then interpreted by some Reformed writers through John 11:
Then they took away the stone from the place where the dead man was lying. And Jesus lifted up His eyes and said, “Father, I thank You that You have heard Me… Now when He had said these things, He cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come forth!” And he who had died came out bound hand and foot with graveclothes, and his face was wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Loose him, and let him go.” (John 11:41, 43-44)
A classic case of this is to be seen in R. C. Sproul’s book Grace Unknown: The Heart of Reformed Theology, where he relies completely on the Raising of Lazarus story to interpret Paul’s words in Ephesians 2. In fact, Sproul barely expounds Ephesians 2:1 at all, and certainly not in context.
What Sproul is doing (and many others who employ this same device), is that he is trying to establish one of the storied “Five Points of Calvinism” and the teaching of regeneration preceding faith as a necessary part of the order of salvation (ordo salutis). Whether Sproul is right about that or not is not the point. The point here is that he is straying outside of good interpretive parameters in his zeal to prove his case. John 11 refers to a real corpse where the soul has left the body. It is inanimate and cannot think or respond to any stimuli. But the persons being referred to in Ephesians 2:1-3 were never in that state. Paul distinctly characterizes them (unsurprisingly) as conducting their affairs under the influence of the godless world system and of its spiritual ruler, Satan (Eph. 2:2). They were living and thinking. Added to this (again unsurprisingly) their thinking and behavior was dictated by their sinful “flesh” (Eph. 2:3).
Paul’s description of the state of Christians before they became Christians is that they were living, thinking, planning persons who lived their lives under the thrall of the world, the flesh, and the devil. They were not corpselike. “Ah,” the rejoinder comes back, “they were like corpses because they were utterly unable to respond to the Gospel before being re-vitalized (i.e. regenerated) by God.”
But there’s a problem here. Lazarus’s dead body was literally unable to respond to anything, whereas we are told in Ephesians 2:3 that unbelievers do respond—in disobedience! It makes no sense to speak about a dead body as “responsible,” but sinners are responsible. In Ephesians 2 the deadness (nekrous) is not literal. They hear, they think, they reject. This is because they are “dead in trespasses and sins”—a phrase that is expanded upon in the following verses, as well as in Ephesians 4:17-19, and which is utterly nonsensical if applied to a corpse. Therefore, since the “deadness” of unbelievers includes their active response to the Gospel it does not follow that they need to be regenerated in order to believe, in which case the Jn. 11 analogy is inappropriate. Rather, the “deadness” might require only that they need rousing or convincing or alerting, or all three; something that the Holy Spirit is said to do (Jn. 16:8). We might refer to someone who is sleeping as “dead to the world.” Similar figures of speech are found on the lips of Jesus (e.g. Lk. 9:60 and 15:24, 32). One would not run to either of those passages to prove regeneration before faith of course, yet they are semantically closer to Ephesians 2:1 than John 11:41-44.
My goal here is not to argue with the doctrine so much as to point out how the Analogy of Faith was brought in before the parameters of meaning of Ephesians 2:1 were determined.
Paul Martin Henebury is a native of Manchester, England and a graduate of London Theological Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary (MDiv, PhD). He has been a Church-planter, pastor and a professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics. He was also editor of the Conservative Theological Journal (suggesting its new name, Journal of Dispensational Theology, prior to leaving that post). He is now the President of Telos School of Theology.