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On Its Own Terms: Rightly Reading Scripture, Part 1

Paul’s exhortation to Timothy—“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15)—not only exhorts us to read Scripture properly but it also serves as a warning that it is possible to fail in the task! How, then, ought we to read Scripture so that we get it right? This is no small question given that Scripture is like no other book. After all, Scripture is God’s Word and as such, it demands our complete attention, faithful reading, and careful application. Obviously to give a full answer to this question would require much discussion. In this three-part series of posts, I will offer some brief reflections on how to read Scripture correctly by unpacking one main idea: To read and apply Scripture rightly we must do so “on its own terms.”

However, this raises an important question: what exactly are the Bible’s “own terms”? Minimally, we can think of the Bible’s own terms in two ways: first, by thinking through what Scripture claims for itself, and second, how Scripture has actually come to us over time and by the progression of the biblical covenants. In this post, we will focus on the first way, while in the next two posts we will develop the second way.

What Scripture Is

To read and apply Scripture correctly, indeed to draw correct theological conclusions from Scripture for the life and health of the church, we must take seriously what Scripture is—in terms of its claim or self-attestation. What, then, is Scripture according to its own claim? In brief, Scripture claims to be nothing less than God’s Word written, the product of God’s mighty action through the Word and by the Spirit whereby human authors freely wrote exactly what God intended to be written and without error (2 Tim 3:15-17; 2 Pet 1:20-21; cf. Matt 4:4; John 10:35). In fact, as we read Scripture from Genesis to Revelation, a pervasive claim is made: Scripture is God’s authoritative Word, the product of God’s divine speech, written texts by the agency of human authors. Scripture not only makes such a claim, it also bears the marks of its divine origin in a whole host of ways. Yet, since the Enlightenment, not everyone has accepted this view of Scripture. Some suggest that the human character of Scripture entails error. Others suggest that the Bible is merely a record of God’s revelation, or others suggest that the Bible gives us no doctrine of inspiration that demands that we identify its human writings with God’s own Word. But all of these views fail because they inevitably deny the Bible’s view of itself. Although we do not have time to develop this point, I will assume this view of Scripture in what follows.

The Impact of Scripture’s Nature on Interpretation 

What impact does Scripture’s self-attestation have on our interpretation of it? Two answers may be given. First, given that Scripture is God’s Word, from the triune, sovereign, and omniscient Creator of the universe, we expect an overall unity and coherence across the canon, despite its diversity, that together declares God’s unfailing plan and purposes. Scripture is rightly viewed as a unified divine communicative speech-act that demands our complete trust and obedience. Additionally, as we think through the diversity of God’s revelation across time, we must view all its “parts” as fitting in a unified “whole.” In fact, Scripture is best viewed as the interpretation of his mighty acts that authoritatively discloses his unfolding plan that finds its overall unity centered in our Lord Jesus Christ (Eph 1:9–10; Heb 1:1-2).

Second, since Scripture is God’s Word through human authors, we discover God’s intent through the writing(s) of the human author(s) by reading their texts. We attend to what the human authors have said in the way they have said it because, as B. B. Warfield stated years ago, “what Scripture says [human authors], God says,” and vice versa. Furthermore, this point leads us to a “whole-Bible” or canonical reading of Scripture since each biblical author’s text is a necessary “part” of the “whole,” and cannot be fully understood apart from the whole. We must not read Scripture as isolated texts. Instead, individual authors must be read in light of the entire canon of Scripture. Due to divine inspiration, we discover God’s intent through the writing(s) of the biblical authors, but given the diversity of authors over time, what each author writes must be interpreted in light of the entire Bible. No doubt, God may say more than each author had in mind, but God’s intent is never less than the human author’s intent. And it is only by reading Scripture in light of the canon that we discover fully God’s intent, and how Scripture applies to us today in light of Christ’s coming. This observation is another way of stating the Reformation principle that “Scripture must interpret Scripture.”

It is also another way of thinking about the “fuller meaning” of Scripture. In our reading of Scripture, we must allow the NT to show us how the OT is brought to fulfillment in Christ, while also acknowledging that although the NT’s interpretation of the OT will probably expand the OT author’s meaning. Click To TweetNo doubt, this expression is understood in diverse ways, so it requires careful definition. It is best to understand the term to mean that the OT authors did not exhaustively understand the meaning, implications, and possible applications of all that they wrote, yet because they wrote under divine inspiration, what they wrote was God-given, true, and authoritative. However, the earlier authors probably did not fully grasp where God’s plan was going, given that God had not yet disclosed all of the details of his plan. Thus, as more revelation is given through later authors, more of God’s plan is discovered and we grasp better where that plan is going. For this reason, we ought to affirm that the NT’s interpretation of the OT is definitive since later texts bring with them greater clarity and understanding. In our reading of Scripture, we must allow the NT to show us how the OT is brought to fulfillment in Christ, while also acknowledging that although the NT’s interpretation of the OT will probably expand the OT author’s meaning by seeing new implications and applications, later texts will not contravene the integrity of the earlier texts. Thus, Scripture as an entire canon must interpret Scripture; the later parts must unpack and explain the earlier parts and theological conclusions must be exegetically derived from the entirety of Scripture, not merely one part. A canonical reading of Scripture, then, is not an optional way to interpret Scripture; it is true to the Bible’s own claim for itself, and apart from understanding the “parts” in terms of the “whole,” we will fail to interpret Scripture properly.

To correctly handle the word of truth requires that we interpret Scripture “on its own terms” and thus according to what it is. What is Scripture? It is God’s authoritative and truthful Word written through the agency of human authors, given for our instruction, correction, and growth in Christ Jesus. As such, God demands from us a faithful reading and application of his Word, so that we may learn anew to esteem what he values: “This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word” (Isa 66:2b).

Stephen J. Wellum

Stephen J. Wellum is Professor of Christian Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of Kingdom of Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the CovenantsGod the Son IncarnateChrist Alone, and Christ from Beginning to End.

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