In preaching, clear interpretation is paramount. After all, we want to be able to say with authority, “This is what God is saying to us!” But how do we clearly interpret Scripture when some passages are less than clear to our understanding? How do we move forward when there are gaps in our understanding of a passage?
In addition to all the other tools of interpretation available to us, one bedrock principle that has given me much confidence and clarity over the years is the “analogy of Scripture.” The simplest explanation of this is to say that Scripture itself is the best interpreter of Scripture. Any passage I may struggle to interpret accurately may be more clearly understood by studying what other verses of Scripture may say about that subject.
Behind this idea is the understanding that all parts of the Bible are equally inspired by God and produces a non-contradictory and unified message to the reader. As Thomas Howe says in an article called The Analogy of Faith, “In other words, when multiple passages say something about a topic (either explicitly or implicitly), then what those passages say about that topic will be consistent and will not be contradictory.” And, further, they will at times fill in our gaps of understanding.
One of my favorite passages of the Bible is the account of Jesus walking toward the disciples on a stormy sea. He’s told them to get in the boat to go to the other side, and then allows the storm to descend. In Matthew’s account of this event, we read this about Jesus. “And in the fourth watch of the night, He came to them, walking on the sea.” (Matt 14:25) It’s an amazing passage about faith—and about the lessons he wanted His disciples to learn. Mark’s account, however, goes further: “…at about the fourth watch of the night He came to them, walking on the sea; and He intended to pass by them.” (Mark 6:48) By reading both accounts, and laying them down side-by-side, I can see greater detail and purpose in the incident. It makes for thrilling exposition and more complete insights as to what unfolded on the seas that night.
A fuller picture of a narrative is important, and comparing Scripture with Scripture helps us do that. Even more critical to the preacher/teacher, however, is having a clear doctrinal understanding of a passage. Most misinterpretation comes from inadequate observation. We sometimes simply do not examine texts and ideas thoroughly enough to be clear in our theology. Allowing Scripture to interpret Scripture will rescue us from shallow and incomplete observations.
One famous example is the widely misunderstood meaning of baptism, based on a quick reading of Acts 2:38. At Pentecost, Peter proclaims to those under conviction, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” If I read this text by itself, and if I make my observations in isolation, I can easily misunderstand several key theological truths. Various groups have based their theology on this verse. Some have said that this text teaches that baptism is essential for salvation. Others have said that it teaches that the gift of the Holy Spirit comes sometime after salvation and baptism.
If all Scripture is inspired, and if the Bible is a unified message that is non-contradictory, any casual observations of this verse can be corrected by reading what the rest of Scripture says. The gospels (in particular the passages where Jesus calls people to salvation) make it clear that our call is to repent and believe in Christ. On the other side of Acts, Paul’s letters also emphasize the same. “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Eph 2:8–9) Clearly, baptism does NOT save, and we know that because of the message of all Scripture.
Understanding the most misunderstood passages of the Bible comes from letting the clear things of Scripture interpret the things that are unclear. It comes from reading all God’s Word says about matters, and trusting the Holy Spirit to make clear to us what He certainly communicated without error.
When I practice allowing Scripture to interpret Scripture, I can stand before my people and say with confidence, “This is the word of the Lord.”
John Meador is Lead Pastor of Cross City Church in Euless, Texas.