The Use of Scripture in Theology, Part 3

Read Part 1 and Part 2.

The Analogy of Faith

In The Nick of Time
Modern theologians used to think of theology as a science, by which they meant that it was an ordered body of knowledge that required investigation and systematization according to standardized methods. Both pre-modern and post-modern theologians know that the modern view is an oversimplification. While not entirely rejecting the notion that theology resembles the sciences, they have come to realize that it also resembles the arts. Theologians are more like scientists when they gather evidence. They are more like artists, however, when they begin to weigh and to judge the evidence. The necessity of judgment introduces an element of subjectivity into the theological enterprise. This element of subjectivity can never entirely be eliminated—in fact, it should not be. Nevertheless, it must be disciplined if the theologian is to do more than to assert preconceptions and prejudices.

Even though theologians must weigh and judge the evidence, they do not want their judgments to be purely subjective. How can the subjective element be disciplined and kept in its place? The answer to this question is contained in the word method.

Every theologian proceeds according to some method. Differences over method almost always result in differences over conclusions. Therefore, students of theology appreciate theologians who explicitly identify the method they are using.

For most theologians in the historic, Protestant tradition, the key to method is the “analogy of faith.” The analogy of faith was articulated as a response to the Roman Catholic insistence that Christians needed an authoritative interpreter of Scripture. According to the Romanists, without an authoritative interpretation, Christians would be left to wallow in a sea of subjective opinions. In response to this Romanist assertion, the Reformers insisted that subjectivity could be avoided by using Scripture to interpret Scripture. Luther and Calvin articulated this principle at length, and it was incorporated into Protestant symbols such as the Westminster Confession of Faith.

The “analogy of faith” is the name that theologians have given to the principle that Scripture interprets Scripture. In theory, nearly all evangelicals affirm the analogy of faith at some level. Nevertheless, as Catholics are fond of pointing out, Protestants continue to disagree about many points of theology. According to Catholics, this disagreement demonstrates the subjectivity of the analogy of faith. Some recent evangelicals (Daniel P. Fuller, for example) have agreed with them.

The problem is real. Different theologians, all claiming to use Scripture to interpret Scripture, arrive at widely divergent interpretations, resulting in markedly diverse theologies. What accounts for this discrepancy of opinion among theologians who claim to be employing the same method?

The short answer is that these theologians are not really employing the same method because they understand the analogy of faith differently. Theologians who profess loyalty to the analogy of faith actually do their work in significantly different ways. Some of those ways are better than others.

At one extreme are theologians who simply discard any biblical evidence that does not fit within their theological system. They are already persuaded that the system is exactly what Scripture teaches. For them, saying, “Scripture interprets Scripture,” is tantamount to saying, “Our systematic theology interprets Scripture.” The problem with this approach is that some evidence is never allowed to speak for itself. Whatever contradicts the system is explained away. Indeed, a theologian who is strongly driven by a system may even fail to notice much of the evidence.

To interpret Scripture according to a preconceived systematic theology is a misuse of the analogy of faith. Unfortunately, this method is quite common, particularly in some of the more conservative circles. Against this misuse, the genuine analogy of faith asserts that Scripture must be allowed to speak in such a way that it revises and corrects all systems.

Starting with a system is not necessarily bad. In fact, every theologian who has ever lived has started with some sort of system. Without a system or tradition of interpretation, a theologian would simply wallow in data. Some initial construct is necessary in order to give theologians a direction to pursue in their task.

The problem arises when theologians assume that their system is final and treat it as given. To start with some system is unavoidable, but to leave that system unexamined and unchallenged is a cardinal, theological sin. Good method requires the theologian to pursue an enlarged version of the hermeneutical spiral: the system is tested against the biblical data and corrected as necessary, and then the biblical data is re-envisioned in the light of the newly-amended system. This is one exercise in the analogy of faith.

At a more detailed level, however, each aspect of each theologian’s system should rely upon the analogy of faith. In the weighing of evidence, texts will seem to point in different directions. At this level, skillful theologians need to determine which texts weigh more. In other words, they need to decide which texts to use in establishing a theological conclusion and which to understand in light of other texts.

The analogy of faith says that Scripture interprets Scripture. The crucial questions are, “Which Scripture interprets which Scripture? Which texts must be understood in the light of other texts?”

The answer to this question does involve an element of judgment. When theologians make these decisions, they act more like artists than scientists. That does not mean, however, that their answers have to be purely subjective. When theologians ask, “Which Scripture interprets which Scripture?” certain methodological principles can help them find the right answer. To articulate these principles will be the task of the next essay.


Henry Vaughan (1622-1695)

FALSE life! a foil and no more, when
Wilt thou be gone?
Thou foul deception of all men
That would not have the true come on.

Thou art a Moon-like toil; a blind
Self-posing state;
A dark contest of waves and wind;
A mere tempestuous debate.

Life is a fix’d, discerning light,
A knowing Joy;
No chance, or fit: but ever bright,
And calm and full, yet doth not cloy.

‘Tis such a blissful thing, that still
Doth vivify,
And shine and smile, and hath the skill
To please without Eternity.

Thou art a toilsome Mole, or less,
A moving mist;
But life is, what none can express,
A quickness, which my God hath kiss’d.

Kevin BauderThis essay is by Dr. Kevin T. Bauder, president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). Not every professor, student, or alumnus of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
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