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Many times I've heard suggestions to the effect that "clearer passages should guide our interpretation of less clear ones". This is related to the principle that "Scripture interprets Scripture" (e.g. see What does it mean that "Scripture interprets Scripture"?).

Question: How do Christians who follow this principle handle tricky cases in which two sets of passages, let's call them A and B, which at face value seem to be very clear, lead independently to contradictory doctrines?

In situations like this, I see the following dilemma:

  • Either we choose A as the set of clear passages, establish a doctrine based on them and explain away the apparent contradiction raised by set B, or
  • we choose B as the set of clear passages, and explain away set A.

As an example, let's consider a concrete debate: Soul Sleep vs. Consciousness after death.

In this example, we could either focus on the first set of passages, acknowledge that most of them seem to be rather clear and establish the 'Soul sleep' doctrine based on them, and then simply explain away the second set, OR we could focus on the second set, establish the 'Consciousness after death' doctrine on the assumption that they seem rather clear, and explain away the first set.

How do adherents to the maxim "clearer passages interpret less clear passages" handle tricky cases such as this one? Are there additional principles/maxims that are commonly employed as "tie-breakers"?

If this needs to be further scoped to stay on-topic, I would prefer answers from Protestants.


Closely related, although slightly different: How do proponents of Sola Scriptura choose the "correct" interpretation of a key Bible verse?

Also related: Are there theological explanations for why God allowed ambiguity to exist in Scripture?

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    Well, would it not come down to which set of passages is more precise? They can't contain an equal amount of precision. Also, there's no way the two sets can truly contradict each other because ALL scripture is breathed of God, which means that God used His Holy Spirit to bring about each and every scripture; the word of God is HIS word, it's HIS work. God cannot contradict Himself, therefore scripture, being His work, must be internally consistent(whether externally consistent is another subject). So, it all comes down to which are more "clear"; the set of scriptures supporting ICS or SS.
    – Rajesh
    Jan 26 at 2:23
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    @Rajesh Agreed. It is line upon line and precept upon precept. Jan 26 at 2:26
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    It's not obvious that both of these sets of passages are equally clear. In particular, the "consciousness" verses tend to be visions, parables, implications, translational interpretations, etc., while the "sleep" verses tend to be more direct statements of fact. One set is far easier to explain away than the other. Jan 26 at 2:41
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    If it was a matter as suggested, there would be no false doctrine. Poor (biased) word choices, additions, ensure mass confusion - we know who is responsible for that. Apparent contradictions are inevitable and clearly there by design. If God is willing to partly blind Israel, He is willing to partly blind christianity too.
    – steveowen
    Jan 26 at 4:03
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    This question appears to me to be operating merely at a human intellectual level : the carnal mind exercising itself upon scripture, unassisted. Without the indwelling Spirit of Christ the carnal mind can blunder around scripture all it likes, serving its own opinions. If one reads the bible aided only by a human brain one can arrive at certain logical and sensible conclusions : but that is not revelation in the knowledge of Him [Christ]. What is missing from this question is the Person of the Holy Spirit. And also submission to the Ministry sent by Jesus Christ to the whole Church.
    – Nigel J
    Jan 26 at 4:12

1 Answer 1

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This article on The Basics of Sound Biblical Interpretation puts the principle

Scripture interprets scripture and the less clear or plain passages of scripture MUST be interpreted in the light of the clearer passages

in its proper context within the modern hermeneutical method called Historical Grammatical which started in the 18th century 1:

  • It is a principle within the theological interpretation phase, after the grammatical and historical analysis have been done for the individual verses under consideration.
  • Works in conjunction with other 4 principles of theological interpretation such as sola scriptura, correspondence theory of truth, etc.
  • When using this principle, there is a PRIORITY ORDER within the METHOD on how to apply this principle (see the above article for details):
    1. The Old Testament must be interpreted by the New
    2. The Gospels must be interpreted by the Epistles
    3. The incidental must be interpreted by the systematic
    4. The local must be interpreted by the universal
    5. The symbolic must be interpreted by the didactic

Notes:

  1. If after applying all the principles above, it's still not clear, then God simply didn't reveal enough and believers are given options.

  2. Another way to supplement the above principles to come up with better guidance or additional teaching is by judiciously use Tradition, Reason, and Experience. Different theological tradition will do them differently; see Wikipedia article Prima Scriptura.

  3. Bible study is supposed to be practical: there is sufficient revelation for entering into a Christian spiritual life and for journeying to heaven. In my opinion, a believer can then decide on his/her comfort level; if you need more certainty, join a denomination that can offer more teachings than the above principles can give you.

Footnotes

1 see "The Origins of Modern Hermeneutical Practices" section of Darren Slade's paper below

Resources

  1. John Piper's Look at the Book index of Bible passages that he conducted interactive Bible study on, illustrating the above principles in action (he uses a virtual whiteboard).
  2. Darren M. Slade, Nov 13, 2016, Christian Hermeneutics: The Problem of Using Solely Historical-Grammatical Methods for Christian Exegesis which contrasts Patristic exegesis with modern Historical-Grammatical Theory and then suggests using a Contemporary-Patristic Integrative Approach.
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    @Rajesh What looks arbitrary is actually what most conservative Protestant denominations and evangelicals pastors do "recently" (past 200 years) when you "open the hood" on how they interpret the Bible. It's called the Historical-grammatical method which is taught in seminaries. It's to be contrasted with the liberal Historical critical method. The original reformers like Luther and Calvin actually use more tradition than they are. Jan 26 at 3:07
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    "Would you be open to that possibility?" Technically speaking, everyone is open to every possibility, because none of us can predict the future with 100% certainty, and thus I do not know if something like what you described will/can happen or not. Honestly, this is such an incredibly far-off hypothetical(that doesn't really pertain to anything in our discussion) that I don't even know what to say about it. Clearly, it would contradict my axioms, and thus only two possibilities; (1) God did not really inspire the Bible, or (2) God works in self-contradictory ways. Can't accept either ATM.
    – Rajesh
    Jan 26 at 3:31
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    @Rajesh If the NT had not declared that Sarah and Hagar are allegorically two covenants it is unlikely to have been discerned out of the OT alone. The NT is a further revelation in the course of God's progressive revelation and, therefore, has authority to interpret the OT. Jan 26 at 13:09
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    @MikeBorden Oh, I don't disagree with any of that. I 100% agree that the NT is a further revelation. What I don't accept is that the "further revelation" is capable of contradicting what God has hitherto revealed, or that if it does contradict, what the NT says should take precedence over what the OT says. But, as I said before, the right way is to interpret every scripture by every other scripture, which means interpreting both NT by OT and OT by NT. If every scripture is inspired(which I hold as an axiom), then they'll be consistent, and thus no scripture takes precedence over another.
    – Rajesh
    Jan 26 at 13:51
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    @Rajesh "or that if it does contradict, what the NT says should take precedence over what the OT says" Agreed. Jan 27 at 2:11

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