On a recent trip* I entered a city filled with billboards and posters advertising religious events. One especially caught my eye. The bright red headline screamed, "Rapture or Rupture: Your Choice!" It included the time and place of teaching on biblical prophecy. I was intrigued. I realize the rapture is often taught in the context of biblical prophecy. But though I know what "rupture" means, I had no idea what that conference on biblical prophecy would teach.
That poster highlights a problem between Christian faith and our Scriptures, the Bible. Faithfully confessing the inspiration and the authority of Scripture does not protect us from the questions that rise from its interpretation. How we receive, understand, and interpret the words of Scripture is as critical to its purpose as the divine inspiration that sends it our way.
Lessons from Church History
From early days, the community of faith has dealt with the problem of how we interpret Scripture. After noting that Paul's letters contain "things difficult to understand," Peter basically declares in 2 Peter 3:16, "The unlearned and unstable distort these things, as they do the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction."¹
By the end of the second century the church became embroiled in controversy over how to interpret Scripture. Not only does the devil quote and misinterpret Scripture, so do false teachers. The second and third century battles with heretics on both the right and the left of the church's teachings were over the Bible's correct interpretation.
The primary weapon the church developed in these battles came to be called the rule of faith. The rule of faith summarized the theological truths that all orthodox teachers taught from the days of the apostles. Individual authors from the second and third centuries did not give identical expression to the rule of faith, but certain themes were common. The rule of faith included a belief in the Trinity, emphasized Jesus' incarnation, affirmed the unity of the Old and New Testaments, and confessed the hope of a physical resurrection at the end of time. Interpretations of Scripture that undermined these teachings were declared illegitimate and were not accepted in the Church.
Some might see the rule of faith as the first step of a journey toward using Church tradition, instead of the Bible, to determine the Christian faith. However, many times in history the Church has found it necessary to turn to the rule of faith to remind us of the boundaries protecting Scripture interpretation. John Wesley called this theological core of the Bible the analogy of faith. He once defined that analogy of faith as "the connected chain of scripture truths, and their relation to each other-namely, the natural corruption of man, justification by faith, the new birth, inward and outward holiness."² Perhaps we live in a period of history when we need to revive this understanding of a theological core that must stand at the heart of interpreting Scripture.
The Problem We Face
Today thousands of Bible studies and Sunday School classes ask their members, "What does this passage mean to you'"
Questions like this invite the private interpretation of Scripture forbidden in 2 Peter 1:20. It indicates that we need to rediscover the theological core that guides correct interpretation of the Bible.
When biblical illiteracy is as rampant as it is today and the Bible is twisted to support every conceivable pattern of sin and self-centeredness, we need to revive an understanding of the theological core of the Bible.
Not only do we need a theological interpretation of Scripture, Church experience also shows that we must live with a tension between different ways of understanding the Bible. Some describe that tension as a polarity between literal and allegorical (or figurative) interpretation. Others say it is a tension between historical and literary interpretations of Scripture. A person might even describe it as a spectrum from too little to too much theology as the guiding principle of interpretation. The truth is that the Bible is both a theological and a historical book.
The Theological Aspects of the Bible
The Bible is a theological book. It is not designed to provide us with data about ancient history. Its purpose is to show us the way to heaven, as John Wesley put it. Its function is to reveal "the will of God concerning us in all things necessary to our salvation,"³ as Article IV of the Manual of the Church of the Nazarene states. This means we must interpret Scripture from a theological angle.
We must put together what the Bible teaches about God, about humankind, about sin, about salvation, about Christ and the Holy Spirit, about the Church, and about the end of time. This requires a constant process of moving from individual passages to the overarching biblical truths. It also requires applying those great truths as we interpret individual passages. This means Scripture is the best interpreter of Scripture. Passages where truth is clear are the resources we turn to when we are trying to understand passages where the message seems uncertain. What we learn from those unambiguous passages is the theological core of Scripture, often summarized in the Church's creed and articles of faith.
Part of what this theological interpretation of Scripture means is that we interpret Scripture from its center to our concerns. Much of the faulty reading of the Bible arises from people who come to it with their questions and issues of life as the determining factor. When you want to justify a lifestyle, defend a political agenda, or want a guide to personal success, you will fairly easily find scriptures that will say what you want to hear. But when you start with what the Bible says about God, sin, and salvation and work your way from those central truths to their application in your life the outcome is quite different.
The Historical Context of the Scriptures
We should also remember that the Bible is a historical book. Its great narrative is set on the stage of human history. The Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans mentioned in the pages of the Bible are the same people we discover on the pages of ancient history and in the work of archaeologists.
At the heart of the New Testament is the truth that the Word became flesh and lived in a real place at a real time dealing with real people. This means the theological truths of Scripture need to be understood and grounded in careful historical study. This balance of theological and historical interpretation of Scripture was first affirmed in the second and third centuries by the rule of faith.
This need for a balance of theological and historical study of Scripture points us toward another important truth. There is also a proper balance between private and corporate study and interpretation of the Bible.
If we never read or study the Bible privately, we are not likely to seek to conform our life to its teaching. On the other hand, if we only study the Bible privately we rob ourselves of the wisdom of the Church, both in its present rich diversity and in its historical sense of center.
The Church has been the primary guardian of the theological core of the Scriptures. However, we will probably not adhere to that core if we do not participate in the corporate interpretation of Scripture through its preaching and teaching in the Church.
During the past two hundred years many people have tried to separate the Bible and theology. Some have expressed the separation as a desire for the simple truths of Scripture without the complexity of theology and its arguments. We must reject this appeal to separate the Bible and theology. The two are inextricably intertwined and we can never understand one without the other.
Roger L. Hahn is dean of the faculty and professor of New Testament at Nazarene Theological Seminary in Kansas City.
¹All Scripture translations are by the author. ²Sermon 116 (Paragraph 6), Wesley J. (2000). The Works of John Wesley: Sermons (electronic ed.). Albany, OR: Ages Software. ³Article IV, Manual, Church of the Nazarene.
*This article was written in 2006.
Holiness Today, May/June 2006
Please note: This article was originally published in 2006. All facts, figures, and titles were accurate to the best of our knowledge at that time but may have since changed.