Interpretation in the Reformed Tradition

Shirley C. Guthrie

The following is an extract from the article “The Doctrinal Task of the Reformed Church” by Shirley C. Guthrie, from The Bulletin Of The Institute For Reformed Theology, Vol 2 Number 1, Pg 5-6 (Fall 2000 issue), Published by the Union Theological Seminary & Presbyterian School of Christian Education, Richmond, VA

The Scripture Principle

The large number of Reformed confessional statements is evidence of Reformed conviction that the church’s understanding of Christian faith and life in any particular time and place is subject to criticism and correction in light of the Word of God that is the enduring norm of the church’s faith and life in every time and place. Reformed confessions and theologians differ in their understanding of the authority of scripture (whether, for instance, it is itself the revelation of God or a human witness to it). But there is a remarkable consistency in Reformed tradition concerning the use and interpretation of scripture. In a time when some Christians tend to argue about the Bible instead of reading and trying to understand it, and when others use it only to confirm and defend their culturally and historically conditioned biases and preferences, I believe that Reformed Christians and churches need to reclaim the rules for the interpretation of scripture that comes from their own confessional heritage. I can only briefly summarize and comment on them here. (In the representative selection of Reformed statements in the Book of Confessions of the Presbyterian Church USA, these rules are found in the Scots Confession, Chs. XVIII and XIX; Second Helvetic Confession, Chs. I and II; Westminster Confession, Ch. I; Declaration of Barmen, 8.10-12; Confession of 1967, 9.27-30.)

Scripture interprets itself. When we encounter difficult passages of scripture or passages the interpretation of which is controversial, we must compare them with other passages (II Helvetic: “like and unlike” passages) that throw a different or more light on the question at hand; and we must seek to understand them in light of the total message of scripture, including parts that may not deal with the specific issue at hand. This is a safeguard against the tendency of all Christians (conservative and liberal alike) to see and quote only passages that confirm what they already think and want the Bible to say, and to ignore other passages. It is also a warning that if it really is the word of God we seek to hear and not just the echo of our own opinions and wishes, we must listen to the interpretation of Christians who are different from us in all the ways we have mentioned, and who may be able to see things in the Word of God we have been reluctant or unwilling to hear because of the limitations and self-interest of our particular perspective.

The Christological principle. Scripture is to be interpreted in light of the central revelation of God in Jesus Christ, what he said and did, and God’s liberating and reconciling work in his life, death and resurrection. This rule has proved helpful as Reformed churches have struggled with contemporary issues such as that of women’s place in church and society, justice for the poor and oppressed, and treatment of others who have been forgotten or excluded.

The law of love. I take this as a warning that no interpretation of scripture that shows hostility, contempt or indifference toward any person or group can be a right interpretation of the Word of God whose will for human life is summarized in the often repeated Biblical command to love God and our neighbors as ourselves.

The rule of faith. Scripture is to be interpreted with respect for the church’s interpretation of it. Whether old or new, the church’s interpretation is always subject to criticism and correction in light of further study of scripture itself. But we are more likely to interpret it rightly and avoid confusing the guidance of the Spirit with our own personal and social biases, when we first listen carefully and respectfully to the past and present consensus of the church concerning what scripture leads us to believe and do, and do not too quickly assume that a few of us know better than all the rest.

Respect for literary and historical context. Scripture is to be interpreted in light of the various literary and the social-historical contexts in which it was written. This principle of interpretation encourages us to seek to discern the word and work of God in our time in a book written by and for ancient near Eastern people who had a predominantly patriarchal, hierarchical understanding of God and human society, who bore witness to the word and action of God with a pre-scientific worldview, and who did not even dream of many of the problems we have to face in a modern technological society. The rule also invites Reformed Christians to distinguish in the Bible between what the will of God is for the life of all people in all times, and what, although it may have once been the will of God for people in another time, no longer applies to us.