7

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"?


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?

8
  • 1
    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
  • 1
    @Rajesh Agreed. It is line upon line and precept upon precept. Jan 26 at 2:26
  • 3
    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
  • 2
    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
  • 2
    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

2 Answers 2

3

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 this Present Truth magazine article for details, which in turn is based on Edward John Carnell's outline of hermeneutics in the Chapter 5 of The Case for Orthodox Theology 1959 book):
    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.
  3. Chapter 5 (Hermeneutics) of Edward John Carnell's 1959 book The Case for Orthodox Theology.
20
  • 1
    @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
  • 1
    "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
  • 1
    @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
  • 1
    @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
  • 2
    "The Gospels must be interpreted by the Epistles". Why? Because Paul is so much more authoritative than Jesus? Jun 7 at 20:55
2
+50

I'll offer a response in 2 parts:

  • A Latter-day Saint's perspective
  • A historian's perspective

A Latter-day Saint's perspective

It was a similar concern that led Joseph Smith to start asking questions that the ministers of his day could not answer. In his personal history he recorded some of his feelings as he lived through the Second Great Awakening:

8 During this time of great excitement my mind was called up to serious reflection and great uneasiness...so great were the confusion and strife among the different denominations, that it was impossible for a person young as I was, and so unacquainted with men and things, to come to any certain conclusion who was right and who was wrong.

...

10 In the midst of this war of words and tumult of opinions, I often said to myself: What is to be done? Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together? If any one of them be right, which is it, and how shall I know it?

11 While I was laboring under the extreme difficulties caused by the contests of these parties of religionists, I was one day reading the Epistle of James, first chapter and fifth verse, which reads: If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.

12 Never did any passage of scripture come with more power to the heart of man than this did at this time to mine. It seemed to enter with great force into every feeling of my heart. I reflected on it again and again, knowing that if any person needed wisdom from God, I did; for how to act I did not know, and unless I could get more wisdom than I then had, I would never know; for the teachers of religion of the different sects understood the same passages of scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling the question by an appeal to the Bible.

13 At length I came to the conclusion that I must either remain in darkness and confusion, or else I must do as James directs, that is, ask of God. I at length came to the determination to “ask of God,” concluding that if he gave wisdom to them that lacked wisdom, and would give liberally, and not upbraid, I might venture. (Joseph Smith History)

Joseph Smith recognized that the same passages of scripture could be argued to support a wide diversity of doctrines. I believe this is, fundamentally, the same observation that stands behind the OP.

His response, inspired by the Biblical text, was to seek further guidance from God. The subsequent verses in his personal history describe his First Vision, and the resulting Restoration of many Gospel truths.

The experience of Joseph Smith demonstrates several additional sources that can help clarify Biblical passages that might otherwise be interpreted several different ways:

  • Additional scripture that has come through the Restoration. In the context of the debate in the OP, Alma 40 and Doctrine & Covenants 138 unambiguously affirm post-mortal consciousness.
  • The teachings of living prophets. We believe the Lord's church is led today by apostles & prophets who are every-bit as authoritative as Moses or Peter. For a brief, relevant example regarding post-mortality see this sermon by Thomas S. Monson
  • Personal revelation. The power of the Holy Ghost is available to all who will seek it. The Gift of the Holy Ghost comes by entering into covenants executed with God's authority. Two of the features of this gift described in scripture are "that he may pour out his Spirit more abundantly upon you" (Mosiah 18:10) & "that they may always have His Spirit to be with them" (Moroni 4:3). I believe in a God who can & does answer questions, and has affirmed to many individuals what He has taught through His modern prophets: people are conscious and active in the spirit world.

A historian's perspective

The degree to which we are dependent on non-Biblical sources in order to understand Biblical texts is difficult to overstate. We have a Strong's Concordance for Greek because of the millions of words preserved in pagan Greek writings. We understand the context of the ministry of the apostles because of the writings of Roman historians.

  • If we want to make a text say anything we like, we should ignore historical & cultural context
  • If we want to understand what a historical writer actually meant, enlightenment from other sources is indispensable. We cannot understand an ancient text in a vacuum.

Second Temple Jewish history

The records of the culture, customs, and beliefs of the Jews, especially proximate to New Testament times, are a wealth of information regarding how the people who originally wrote & read the New Testament documents would have understood them (we have far fewer such records prior to the 2nd temple era).

In the context of the debate referenced in the OP, 2nd temple Jewish sources demonstrate a belief in post-mortal consciousness. The parable of the rich man & Lazarus in Luke 16 is an example of a teaching regarding post-mortality that is saturated with beliefs prevalent in contemporary Judaism.

--

Early Patristic Writings

The writings of the Ante-Nicene Fathers represent an era when the church was not yet politically powerful. As a result, people who were already putting their lives on the line to practice their beliefs didn't have incentive to keep an Emperor (or any other political figure) happy by compromising on what they believed. These writers are within just a few generations of the apostles. They disagreed with each other all the time. But where there is a clear majority (and occasionally they're bordering on unanimous) view, this ought to be taken seriously. Did all of the disciples of all of the apostles completely lose the Gospel message that quickly? If so, why do we trust that they handed down the New Testament to us accurately?

In the context of the debate in the OP, the Ante-Nicene Fathers support post-mortal consciousness by a significant super-majority.


Conclusion

Although I take no issue generally with the idea that scripture interprets scripture, I suggest the maxim can be overdone if taken to an exclusionary extreme. All manner of sources enable us to understand scripture. We may not treat them all of these sources with the same level of authority or reliability, but we ignore them to our own loss.

A source I particularly treasure is modern revelation. I believe in a God who speaks in our time, to our knowledge base, and for our understanding. His revelation in the past is of inestimable value, but it was not fundamental to our salvation that we learn Hebrew, Greek, or history. I believe His ongoing revelation today is the most directly applicable resource for resolving ambiguity in ancient holy writ.

1
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Ken Graham
    Jun 11 at 22:45

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .