The Reformation and Biblical Interpretation

Prof. Hanko is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.


One part of the great heritage of the Protestant Reformation, to which we owe so much, is its doctrine of Scripture. Not only did the Reformation return the Scriptures to the church, but the Reformers laid down fundamental principles of biblical interpretation which the church has followed to the present. Many, even in Reformed and Presbyterian circles, have abandoned these principles in the interests of accommodation to modem secular trends and scientific discoveries, but the church which is faithful to the Word has cherished what the Reformers insisted on as the only correct method of biblical interpretation.

Medieval Background

To understand properly the valuable and significant contribution of the Reformers in this area, we ought to have some idea of the false teachings of the Roman Catholic Church in the years preceding the Reformation. 

The Romish Church effectively took the Bible from the people of God. It did this in the firm belief that only a trained and ordained clergy was capable of understanding Scripture. Not only did Rome consider the Bible in itself to be difficult of interpretation, but it denied that the people of God possessed the spiritual ability to understand this difficult and obscure book. It forbade, therefore, the common people to possess and read God's Word, and it persecuted those who attempted to translate the Scriptures into the common tongue and distribute God's Word to God's people. Tyndale was killed for translating the Scriptures into the English language. 

The obscurity of the Scriptures was due, according to Rome, to the fact that Scripture had a fourfold meaning. Different levels of interpretation required someone extremely skilled to penetrate to the lower levels where the true meaning of Scripture lay.

Furthermore, Scripture derived its authority from the church. And, while this meant many different things, it also meant that only the church possessed the authority to interpret Scripture. What the church said Scripture meant, that was its true meaning.

Thus the Bible was forcibly snatched from the hands of God's people. And so it is today. With the methods of interpretation employed by those who defend women in office, evolutionism, homosexuality, the. Bible has become a closed book to all but the "experts." It is no wonder that Bible study is on the decline. Who cares to read a book which one cannot understand anyway in its true meaning? Why read God's narrative of creation if the Bible does not mean what it says? Reading is an exercise in futility.

The Doctrine of Scripture

With a few minor exceptions, all the Reformers of the 16th century Reformation agreed on the doctrine of Scripture. Luther, Zwingli, Knox, Calvin, and all the second-generation Reformers held to the truth that Scripture is a unique and God-inspired book.

The whole question of the nature of -inspiration was not discussed much by the Reformers, chiefly because it was not an issue with Rome. But that Scripture in all its parts and down to its very words was the Word of God was firmly held. Calvin writes in his commentary on II Timothy 3:16: "All those who wish to profit from the Scriptures must first accept this as a settled principle, that the Law and the prophets are not teachings handed on at the pleasure of men or produced by men's minds as their source, but are dictated by the Holy Spirit.... We owe to the Scripture the same reverence as we owe to God, since it has its only source in Him and has nothing of human origin mixed with it." 

Along with this truth of inspiration, the Reformers also believed that Scripture was the sole authority in matters of faith and life. This was the truth, sometimes called "the formal principle of the Reformation," of sola scriptura — by Scripture alone. 

It is sad that this principle has been so recklessly abandoned today. Those who support evolutionism use as one of their arguments that the creation clearly demonstrates evolutionism; that the creation is also God's revelation; and that, therefore, we must accept the testimony of creation along with Scripture. Many of those who attempt to promote women in ecclesiastical office openly admit that Scripture is opposed to this notion; but they insist that Scripture must be interpreted in the light of our modern times. Thus Scripture is no longer the sole authority for our faith (in creation) and our life (in the church of Christ). 

This authority of the Scriptures is not given to God's Word by the church. The Scriptures are self-authenticating. The second point of "The Ten Conclusions of Berne" (1528), drawn up under Zwingli's influence, stated: "The Church of Christ makes no laws or commandments apart from the Word of God; hence all human traditions are not binding upon us except so far as they are grounded upon or prescribed in the Word of God." Luther's stirring appeal to Scripture at the Diet of Worms was a total commitment to the authority of Scripture, although he had come to this position two years earlier at the Disputation of Leipzig where he had debated with the Roman theologian John Eck. 

The authority of Scripture was, by the Reformers, based foursquare on the principle of Scripture's perspicuity. Scripture is clear and easy to understand. But Scripture's perspicuity was, in turn, based on the truth that the literal meaning of Scripture is the correct one. Scripture means what it says; thus Scripture is clear; thus Scripture is self-authenticating in its authority.

Rules for Biblical Interpretation 

The Grammatico-Historical Method

When Rome spoke of four levels of meaning in Scripture, Rome held to an allegorical method of interpretation. All Scripture is basically allegorical. 

Over against this view, the Reformers held to the grammatico-historical method. By this they meant several things. 

They meant, first of all, that Scripture is the record of God's revelation in history, and that a text must be explained in its historical setting. One must understand what the temple meant for Solomon and Israel when it was built in order to understand what God is saying to us in the building of the temple. 

Secondly, Scripture is written in human language and must be interpreted according to the rules of Hebrew and Greek. God wrote Scripture in our language so that we could understand it. God spoke of Himself in such a way that it is clear to us what He says. Calvin compared God's speech to us as the "lisping" of a nurse maid who speaks to a child in a way the child can understand. 

Thirdly, the grammatico-historical method meant that Scripture was to be taken literally. While this principle cannot be so rigidly applied to Scripture that even figures of speech and symbols are taken literally (as the Anabaptists attempted to explain Scripture), Scripture itself will clearly indicate when it is not to be taken in its absolutely literal sense. Luther put it this way: "The Christian reader should make it his first task to seek out the literal sense, as they call it. For it alone is the whole substance of faith and Christian theology; it alone holds its ground in trouble and trial." 

Fourthly, this literal sense destroys allegory once and for all. Luther had learned the hopelessness of allegory while he was a monk, and he sharply condemned such interpretation as "mere jugglery," "a merry chase," "monkey tricks," and "looney talk."

Again today the church is beset by those who wish to resort to allegory to learn from Scripture by allegory that which is not clearly taught, and indeed to learn even that which is contrary to Scripture. Harold Camping has even discovered the date of Christ's return by hopeless allegory, and he leads many astray. 

The Reformers would have none of it. The Reformers did not deny that some Scriptures were more difficult to understand than others; but, so says Luther, "a doubtful and obscure passage must be explained by a clear and certain passage," for, "Scripture is its own light. It is a fine thing when Scripture explains itself."

Christ-centered Interpretation

It is, said the Reformers, the literal meaning of Scripture which will lead us to Christ. Allegory hid Christ. The literal meaning leads the believer to Christ. "He who would read the Bible," Luther says, "must simply take heed that he does not err, for the Scripture may permit itself to be stretched and led, but let no one lead it according to his own inclinations but let him lead it to the source, that is, the cross of Christ. Then he will surely strike the center." The literal meaning "drives home Christ." 

Christ is the "center" of Scripture, for Scripture reveals to us our salvation and leads us to Christ. Whatever does not teach Christ is not apostolic, even though St. Peter or St. Paul does the teaching. Again, whatever preaches Christ would be apostolic, even if Judas, Annas, Pilate, and Herod were doing it."

The Spirit Interprets Scripture

Perhaps the most fundamental principle of all is the Reformers' insistence that the Holy Spirit alone interprets Scripture. 

This means two things. 

It means, first of all, that Scripture interprets Scripture. The Reformers insisted that this principle, sometimes call the "analogy of faith," was not merely a principle of convenience. By it they meant that Scripture was the Spirit's book, for it was inspired by the Spirit as a unity; and the Spirit used His own writings in one place to explain His writings in another place. 

But, secondly, and equally important, the Spirit was the Interpreter of Scripture in the hearts of the people of God. Reason cannot explain Scripture, for the man who relies upon reason is an unbeliever whose mind is darkened. To him Scripture is a "closed book" Scripture, Luther said, "is foreign and strange to reason, and particularly to the worldly-wise. No man can accept it unless his heart has been touched and opened by the Holy Spirit." The Holy Spirit alone can open the Scriptures because the Holy Spirit gives faith by which we lay hold on Christ taught us in God's Word. 

Thus the interpreter of Scripture is the man who comes to Scripture in humility, seeking to be taught by the Holy Spirit that he may take Christ as his all-sufficient Savior. 

Would that these towering principles of the Reformation would still today be the confession of the church!

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