How to Read the Bible: Interpretation in the Reformed Tradition

We need to know what something is and what it is for before we will know what to do with it. I recently received a pair of calipers in the mail. A family member was going through some of grandpa’s old tools and sent pictures around to the family seeing if anyone wanted anything. I had no clue what calipers were for, but they looked interesting. A couple weeks later, they arrived at my door and promptly went into my toolbox. I didn’t use them because I didn’t know what to do with them. Once I realized what they were for, it made so many of my projects easier. 

Something similar is true when it comes to the Bible. When we do not know what it is or what it is for, we won’t know what to do with it. It will either start gathering dust on the shelf or we will come to it with faulty expectations (like using a pair of calipers like a pry-bar). When it comes to the Bible, there are three questions that shape interpretation: What is it? What is it for? and only then How do you read it?

What is it? 

What is the Bible? The Reformed were unanimous on affirming that the Bible was the very word of God, the means by which God reveals himself, even if they also affirmed God’s revelation in creation. But to drill down a bit deeper, they identified and defended specific properties of the Bible that shape how we read and understand it. Every theologian had a slightly different set or terminology, but they largely fell into four categories. 

First, there is the truth, certainty, or infallibility of Scripture. Scripture reveals God truly and reliably. The seventeenth century Dutch theologian, Petrus van Mastricht, sums up the typical Reformed position nicely:

“This general truth implies certain specifics: its doctrinal and historical statements are most accurately consistent with the matter and the facts; its practical statements with the will of God; its prophecies, promises, and threats with the future event – no differently and no less than if they had been eyewitness testimonies. And that is the case because it has the God of truth as its author; Christ as the very truth it contains, and as its faithful witness; and the Holy Spirit, truth’s infallible inspirer, as its guide”

Theoretical-Practical Theology, I:127

As now, there were differences about how to handle more thorny issues in the Bible, but the initial assumption was always that the Bible was a true and reliable witness. 

Second, there is the purity, holiness, perfection, and sufficiency of Scripture. The Belgic Confession, Article 7 says, “We believe that this Holy Scripture contains the will of God completely and that everything one must believe to be saved is sufficiently taught in it.” If the first property says the Bible is reliable, this one says the Bible is enough. It is holy, lacking nothing that we need for life and salvation. As John Calvin says, “it is better to limp along this path than to dash with all speed outside it” (Institutes I.VI.3). The ‘enough’-ness of the Bible does not mean we do not engage with tradition, or logic, or experience. But we never consider these as separate or independent sources of knowledge of God. Reason, Tradition, and Experience can, at times, be helpful guides, but it is never Scripture & Reason, Scripture & Tradition, or Scripture & Experience that forms our basis of knowledge of God and ourselves. This is what was meant by sola scriptura

Third, there is the perspicuity or efficacy of Scripture. Though not used as often, I like the term clarity. Herman Bavinck says it nicely, “Scripture speaks in the language of life, of the heart, of immediacy, of inspiration, and is thus understandable for every man, going forth into every generation, never growing old in its time, and therefore classic in the highest sense, in an utterly unique sense of the word.” (Bavinck, Eloquence, 37-38). John Calvin uses the image of the labyrinth to describe our natural knowledge of God apart from His Word. The Bible is not a labyrinth that can only be navigated by the educated and elite. The Bible is the clear thread that leads us out of the confusing labyrinth of our (mis)understandings of God. While we should value education and the use of original languages and grammar in studying the Bible, the truth of Scripture is fundamentally clear and not hidden. The Bible’s message is simple and clear enough for a child to understand, but deep enough that scholars will spend a lifetime studying it. This property guards against the Bible being metaphorically taken out of the hands of the people and kept only in the hands of the clergy. 

Fourth, there is the authority of Scripture. Often this property was listed first. We see this in Belgic Confession, Article 5, where the books of the Bible are received “for the regulating, founding, and establishing of our faith.” In the RCA, we talk about Scripture as ‘the only rule for faith and life.’ The content of our faith and the shape of our life as disciples is ruled by the Word of God. It is the norm, the standard for our faith and life as Christians. We are to be guided not by the whims of culture or our feelings or our desires, but by God’s Word. For the Reformed, scripture was also the final authority, the final court of appeals, so to speak, in any controversy on what we believe or how we live. In practical terms, I put it this way: If I read God’s Word and through study am confident that I understand it correctly, but I still don’t like what it says, then the problem is with me and not with the Word of God. That’s the kind of way that this authority of Scripture can function. 

The first question that shapes how the Reformed interpret the Bible is ‘What is it?’ We can identify certain properties of Scripture that make a difference in how we read it. I grouped them in four categories: the truth/reliability of Scripture, the sufficiency of scripture, the clarity of scripture, and the authority of scripture.

What is it for? 

What is Scripture for? Purpose determines use. We use a wrench to turn bolts and not to hammer in nails because we know what it is for. When someone hands me some chocolate and tells me that it is for my children, I now know what to do with the chocolate. I don’t eat it myself, even if that seems like fun. I relate to it based upon the purpose for which it was given. In a similar way, knowing why Scripture was given will shape how we read it, related to it, what we do with it. The Belgic Confession, Article 3 says the that the Scriptures were given “with special care for us and for our salvation.” 

Scripture was given ‘for us.’ By ‘us,’ the Belgic Confession means the church. For the Reformed, Scripture was given to build up the church and to glorify God. When Calvin argued for the Bible to be translated into the language of the common people and for the importance of people reading in their own language, he used the image of the church as the school of Christ. The Bible should be in the hands of the people, in a language they can understand, so that we would grow in our ability to encourage and correct one another in the faith and thus grow as a church (Zachman, The People’s Book, 64-68). The natural home of the Bible is the church. It is an apologetic and evangelistic word, but its primary place is in the life of the church. 

Scripture was also given ‘for our salvation.’ As John 20:31 says “But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” Scripture was given to be received by faith in Christ and Scripture was given for faith in Christ. This includes knowledge of God and communion with God. It involves repentance, faith, and trust in Jesus Christ. There is much to be learned through the Bible, but its primary purpose is that we might cling to Christ in faith. This purpose changes what we expect to find in the Bible. 

One last thing about the purpose of Scripture. For the Reformed, Scripture is useful for life and doctrine. Scripture is theological. van Mastricht describes theology growing out of the word of God as “the doctrine of living for God through Christ” (TPT I:98). The separation between biblical studies and systematic theology is a later invention. Many of these theologians were regular bible teachers and parish preachers. The same people wrote bible commentaries, systematic theologies, devotional works, and fierce works against opponents. It was all of one piece to them. 

As a brief example, I’ll end this section with just a quick list of the ten uses of Scripture – the ‘why do we read it’ – by Petrus van Mastricht. First, to impress the authority of Scripture upon its hearers. Second, for growing in the love of the divine Word. Third, for refuting contempt and hatred of the divine Word. Fourth, for the study of the divine Word. Fifth, for the reading of the divine Word. Sixth, for the hearing of the divine Word. Seventh, for the interpretation of the divine Word. Eighth, for meditation on the divine Word. Ninth, for conversations about the Scriptures. Tenth, for observing and practicing the Word. (TPT I:182-201). For each of these, he has a page or two describing this practical outcome of reading the Bible. His structure is very logical and – perhaps – dry, but his content is very devotional and heartfelt. 

How to read it? 

Having heard what the Bible is and what it is for, how then do we read it? There was a basic pattern of reading that we might call Whole-Part-Whole. 

We begin with the whole picture. First, begin with prayer. The Reformed were convicted that Christian devotion and prayer were not casual add-ons to the process of reading the Bible, but absolutely central. Calvin talks about the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit being needed to receive rightly the word of Scripture (I.VII.4). So prayers for the work of the Holy Spirit and a lively life of Christian devotion and prayer were crucial for reading the Bible. The idea of being a dispassionate observer or trying to get objective distance is not a properly Christian way of reading the Bible. In short, it would not be reading it as God’s Word. 

Second, consult the tradition of interpreters as a guide, not an authority. We are never the first to read any passage of Scripture. We don’t need to pretend to be. The sufficiency and clarity of Scripture does not mean that we never read any other books or that we cannot learn much from the reading of others. However, this great tradition of interpretation functions as a guide, not an authority. They are like wise elders we do well to listen to, but do not always agree with. Calvin’s commentaries are a good example of this. He regularly interacts with Augustine and Chrysostom’s interpretation of a given passage. Sometimes he agrees with them, sometimes he disagrees, but he always listen in some way. 

Third, the Reformed assumed the overall unity and coherence of Scripture. There are sixty-six different books in the Bible. Each author, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, writes differently, in a different context, and to a different original audience. Yet, because the ultimate author of Scripture is God and God does not contradict himself, the Reformed assumed that the Bible was fundamentally coherent. Tensions, yes. Contradictions, no. There were differences in different eras of salvation history – particularly between the Old and New Testaments – but there is a fundamental unity of God’s Word. This unity shaped the process of using clear passages in Scripture to interpret more difficult ones, even if they are in a totally different part of the Bible. You can only do this if you believe in a fundamental unity of God’s Word, that it speaks with one voice – God’s. 

Next, we move from the whole to the part, the particular passage of Scripture you are studying. In looking at a particular passage of Scripture, the Reformed took great pains to pay attention to the words in the original languages and the grammar of Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic. They frequently wrote word books, grammars, and dictionaries to help in the reading of Scripture. Then, you also need to determine whether something is literal or figurative, then look at the context of a passage. Why was this written to this people? Where does this fit in the overall argument of the passage, of the book? What are the circumstances this is addressing? If you have ever opened a bible commentary and seen, at the beginning, an outline of a book with its main argument and purpose laid out for you, this is the legacy of reformed interpretation. Now, not every commentary’s summary would be recognizably reformed, but the process of determining the overall argument of a book so that you can situate a text in its context is reformed. 

So in the particular text, you look at language and context, focusing on the literal meaning of the text. Often this would be equivalent to what we would think of as the ‘literal meaning’ or ‘the intent of the author,’ but not always. Because of the conviction of the coherence of the whole Bible and that the fundament author is God, there are times where the literal meaning is not strictly a historical meaning, but a theological or Christological one. Sometimes the plain sense was the spiritual sense. They drew together the literal and spiritual meanings of the text (Bartholomew). They were resistant to medieval allegorical interpretation, but open to theological interpretation. My personal distinction between typology and allegory is that typology functions within the realm of scripture – between scripture passages. For example, the true/final referent of a passage may be Christ, the church, etc. On the other hand, allegory sees the referent of the passage to be something outside of the text/theology and may draw its pattern from elsewhere. In short, when it came to approaching the individual passage, the reformed focused on the reading a text in its literary, canonical, and theological context. 

Lastly, we move back to consider the whole by interpreting Scripture in light of other scripture. I like to call it “where else have I seen this?” I will give an example from a sermon of mine. Genesis 49 tells of the blessings on the sons of Israel. Of Judah it says, “binding his foal to the vine, his donkey’s colt to the choice vine.” I spent time trying to get the literal meaning of the text, but then asked, “where else have I seen this?” This took me to Zechariah 9:9, “behold your king comes to you riding on a colt, the foal of a donkey” then to the triumphal entry of Jesus, where he comes in riding on a colt and foal. This question opens up the vistas of Scripture to see connections you would not before. 

We can also interpret unclear passages in light of clear ones. Sometimes this means placing similar passages alongside each other, so that one clarifies the other. Other times it meant placing texts that seemed to be saying differing things alongside each other to see what is causing the difference. Jesus tells us not to swear oaths, but scripture frequently has godly people giving oaths or even being commanded to swear oaths by God’s name. Tension, yes. Contradiction. no. So we have to interpret unclear in light of the clear, determine what is similar and what is dissimilar. This method requires an intimate knowledge of the whole body of Scripture. 

Conclusion

We won’t know how to read the Bible unless we first know what it is and what it is for. The Bible is the true, sufficient, clear, and authoritative word of God and it was given by God for us, the church, and for our salvation. Knowing its nature and purpose, how do we read it? We begin with the whole context of prayer, consulting the tradition, and the unity of Scripture. Then we move to the details of the passage, considering language and context to determine the plain meaning of the passage. Finally, we move to the context of Scripture as a whole, considering how this passage might be interpreted in light of the rest of the Bible. 

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