The Interpretation of Scripture – J.I. Packer

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I am looking at the way to properly interpret Scripture. I don’t necessarily buy into the ‘Scripture interpret Scripture’ thing. I have a few posts which looks at this, sorta, and would always appreciate your views and suggestions. Here’s where I’m at: I don’t buy into the whole ‘let the Spirit guide you but’ because everyone, in every sect, says the same thing. Lots of circular logic there. I don’t do S-I-S well, except for understanding the Old Testament through Christ. I mean, if we have to learn from theologians, why not the first ones, right? But, when it comes to understanding the original (con)texts, this is where I believe scholarship comes into play.

First up is J.I. Packer’s essay from 1958:

The Word of God is an exceedingly complex unity. The different items and the various kinds of material which make it up—laws, promises, liturgies, genealogies, arguments, narratives, meditations, visions, aphorisms, homilies, parables and the rest—do not stand in Scripture as isolated fragments, but as parts of a whole. The exposition of them, therefore, involves exhibiting them in right relation both to the whole and to each other. God’s Word is not presented in Scripture in the form of a theological system, but it admits of being stated in that form, and, indeed, requires to be so stated before we can properly grasp it—grasp it, that is, as a whole. Every text has its immediate context in the passage from which it comes, its broader context in the book to which it belongs, and its ultimate context in the Bible as a whole; and it needs to be rightly related to each of these contexts if its character, scope and significance is to be adequately understood.


The second basic principle of interpretation is that Scripture must interpret Scripture; the scope and significance of one passage is to be brought out by relating it to others. Our Lord gave an example of this when he used Gn. ii.24 to show that Moses’ law of divorce was no more than a temporary concession to human hard-heartedness. (4) The Reformers termed this principle the analogy of Scripture; the Westminster Confession states it thus: “The infallible rule of interpretation of scripture is the scripture itself; and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any scripture, it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.” (5) This is so in the nature of the case, since the various inspired books are dealing with complementary aspects of the same subject. The rule means that we must give ourselves in Bible study to following out the unities, cross-references and topical links which Scripture provides. Kings and Chronicles throw light on each other; so do the prophets and history books of the Old Testament; so do the Synoptic Gospels and John; so do the four Gospels and the Epistles; so, indeed, do the Old Testament as a whole and the New. And there is one book in the New Testament which links up with almost everything that the Bible contains: that is the Epistle to the Romans, of which Calvin justly wrote in the Epistle prefacing his commentary on it: “If a man understands it, he has a sure road opened for him to the understanding of the whole Scripture.” In Romans, Paul brings together and sets out in systematic relation all the great themes of the Bible—sin, law, judgment, faith, works, grace, justification, sanctification, election, the plan of salvation, the work of Christ, the work of the Spirit, the Christian hope, the nature and life of the Church, the place of Jew and Gentile in the purposes of God, the philosophy of Church and of world history, the meaning and message of the Old Testament, the duties of Christian citizenship, the principles of personal piety and ethics. From the vantage-point given by Romans, the whole landscape of the Bible is open to view, and the broad relation of the parts to the whole becomes plain. The study of Romans is the fittest starting-point for biblical interpretation and theology.

The Interpretation of Scripture, by J.I. Packer.

See, here’s the thing. I’m not sure I can rightfully agree that Kings and Chronicles are throwing light upon one another. I think that they are arguing with one another, just as Ruth is with Ezra-Nehemiah. Yes, Romans, all of it.

Of course, people may be confusing interpretation and theological speculation (canonical interpretation/theism) with scholarship, but since others are conflating it, I might as well too. So, what do you do? How do you handle Scripture?

Packer, to this end, I think writes something that I can nearly agree with,

The scientific study of Scripture is a complicated and exacting task. The biblical languages have their own distinctive idioms and thought-forms. Each writer has his own habits of mind, vocabulary, outlook and interests. Each book has its own character, and is written according to stylistic conventions which it is not always easy to see. Each book has its own historical and theological background, and must be interpreted against that background; thus, we should not look in the Old Testament for clear statements about the Trinity, or the believer’s hope of a future life, for these things were not fully revealed till Christ came. All these factors must be borne in mind, or we shall misinterpret Scripture.


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3 Replies to “The Interpretation of Scripture – J.I. Packer”

  1. I am grappling with all this, too. I think saying Scripture interprets Scripture is glib–often it does not seem to. And yet I believe there is a unity. Perhaps it can help to see that things were written in a context-specific way. What was right for one time was different in another situation. What might be the over-riding message? That God leads us righteously when we seek Him, not that X is always right.

  2. Interesting thoughts Joel. I believe that we should and shouldn’t allow Scripture to interpret Scripture.

    We should allow it to interpret within a contextual manner and not within a proof texting basis. Far to many people use the SIS formula as the basis for their proof texting…far to simplistic.

    One area I see lacking is interpreting Scripture through the heart intention of what is meant. What was Jesus heart towards the lost. What was Paul’s heart for the lost and the church. If we don’t look deeply into the humanity of Scripture, we will miss God’s heart for humanity and his creation…and therefore will create a sterile view of God.

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