The Use of Scripture in Theology, Part 4

Read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

Principles of Comparison

In The Nick of Time
All good theology must be grounded in the careful exposition of the biblical text. Theologians can and do draw upon other sources for their theology, but the one authoritative source is Scripture. Ultimately, all theological assertions must rest upon biblical evidence. If they do not, then they remain merely human opinions.

When good theologians are trying to answer a doctrinal question, they need to examine all of the biblical evidence that pertains to the question. The problem is that the biblical evidence often appears to point in different directions. Some evidence seems to support one answer, while other evidence seems to support a different and perhaps contradictory answer. Competent theologians must somehow account for all of this evidence, regardless of the direction in which it appears to point. They must not allow themselves to ignore or dismiss any of the evidence.

Neither should they allow two incompatible conclusions to stand side by side. Christian theologians are committed both to the unity of truth and to the unity of the Scriptures. Contrary assertions cannot both be true. Since all that the Bible affirms is true, then no affirmation of Scripture can genuinely contradict any other assertion of Scripture. Every instance of apparent contrariety within Scripture can be attributed to some misunderstanding of the text. When the Bible is understood correctly, then all of its teachings will harmonize.

Theologians must resist the temptation to indulge in hasty or facile harmonization, but their task is to understand the biblical teachings as a unitary whole. This means that the interpretation of individual texts is corrigible to the teaching of the entire Bible, which, in turn, is discerned by understanding all of the relevant texts. In other words, theologians allow Scripture to interpret Scripture. This principle is known as the “analogy of faith.”

When theologians use Scripture to interpret Scripture, they are forced to make choices. Some passages will be allowed to stand on their own, while some passages will be understood in the light of other passages. Some passages explain, while others must be explained. Theologians must weigh all the evidence, but they must also recognize that some evidence weighs more.

Weighing the evidence requires theological skill and judgment. Many of the differences between theologies can be attributed to differences in the way that theologians have judged the evidence. Theologians who read the same Bible can come to very different conclusions when they disagree about which texts should be used to interpret other texts.

Theologians have invented or discovered all sorts of rules to help them determine which Scriptures weigh more. Some of those rules are of questionable value. For example, the so-called “Law of First Mention” states that the first reference to a concept in Scripture becomes the key to understanding all subsequent mentions of that same concept. Reasons for accepting this rule, however, are not immediately obvious. Often the Bible will mention a concept in a tangential or obscure way, clarifying the notion only at some later point. Most biblical concepts increase in clarity throughout Scripture. The notion of progressive revelation is predicated upon this phenomenon. The “Law of First Mention” does not appear to be a particularly helpful methodological tool.

Nevertheless, more valuable tools are available. Three of them are especially valuable in weighing biblical evidence and determining which texts should be used to interpret other texts. Every beginning theologian should master these methodological tools. They serve as tests that a theologian’s use of Scripture must be valid.

The first test is the test of intention. This test states that intentional or deliberate passages weigh more than tangential passages. A deliberate passage is one that aims to answer the question that the theologian is asking. A tangential passage is one that mentions the topic, but its focus is really elsewhere. The treatment of the question in that text is merely incidental.

On the one hand, when Scripture touches on a subject tangentially, the mention typically lacks detail. Tangential texts are also more liable to misunderstanding because they contain fewer contextual clues as to their meaning. Since such passages are vague, they must not be treated as if they were definitive. They can supply incidental information, but they must not be allowed to determine the interpretation of passages that are more direct and deliberate.

On the other hand, when a biblical passage aims directly to answer a question, the answer is definitive. Indeed, that is precisely what definitive means. The definitive passages provide the framework within which the theologian can fit the incidental information.

How can someone recognize a deliberate passage? Often, the passage directly articulates the question that it intends to answer. Other times the text will disclose the intention by focusing sharply upon a specific topic, discussing that topic in considerable detail. In most cases, distinguishing deliberate passages from tangential ones is not a difficult task.

Of course, the Bible does not directly aim to answer every theological question. When it does not, theologians may be forced to rely upon tangential passages more than they would like. They draw whatever inferences they can by comparing incidental passages.

For example, the Bible contains very few passages (though it does contain some) that aim to define the nature and work of angels. Most of what Christians know about angels is inferred from incidental references. Suppose a theologian asked the question, “What is the relationship between cherubim, seraphim, and the four living creatures of Revelation 4?” Scripture never gives a direct answer to that question. In fact, Scripture contains no passage in which cherubim, seraphim, or the living creatures are the center and focus of attention. Any answer to this question will have to rely upon locating, collating, and comparing the various references to these spirit beings.

Sometimes theologians can piece together a theological conclusion out of incidental references, and sometimes not. Even if they can, however, a conclusion that relies exclusively upon incidental references will be much less probable than a conclusion that rests upon the clear teachings of a deliberate passage.

Scripture interprets Scripture, but which Scriptures interpret which other Scriptures? The first answer to that question is that deliberate passages interpret tangential passages. Two more answers will be developed in the next essay.

How Condescending and How Kind Was God’s Eternal Son

Isaac Watts (1674-1748)

How condescending and how kind
Was God’s Eternal Son!
Our misery reached His heav’nly mind,
And pity brought Him down.

When Justice, by our sins provoked,
Drew forth its dreadful sword,
He gave His soul up to the stroke
Without a murm’ring word.

He sank beneath our heavy woes,
To raise us to His throne;
There’s ne’er a gift His hand bestows
But cost His heart a groan.

This was compassion like a God,
That when the Savior knew
The price of pardon was His blood,
His pity ne’er withdrew.

Now, though He reigns exalted high,
His love is still as great;
Well He remembers Calvary,
Nor let His saints forget.

Here we behold His bowels roll,
As kind as when He died;
And see the sorrows of His soul
Bleed through His wounded side.

Here we receive repeated seals
Of Jesus’ dying love:
Hard is the wretch that never feels
One soft affection move.

Here let our hearts begin to melt,
While we His death record,
And with our joy for pardoned guilt,
Mourn that we pierced the Lord.

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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