Scripture interprets itself in the verse, in the context or where it has been used before. The large number of statements concerning scripture is evidence of Christian 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.
Many Christians and theologians alike 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 the Unitarian faith 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 Christians and their churches need to reclaim the rules for the interpretation of scripture that comes from their own confessional heritage.
Scripture Interprets Itself:
a) in the verse,
b) in the context, or
c) where it has been used before, and
d) in light of the social-historical contexts in which it was written.
When we encounter difficult passages of scripture or passages in which the interpretation of is controversial, we must compare them with other similar and related passages that throw more light on the question at hand; and we must seek to understand them in light of the total message of scripture (the total context), 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.
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 subsequent resurrection. This rule has proved helpful as various 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.
Scripture is to be interpreted in light of the social-historical contexts in which it was written.
Respect for Literary and Historical Context
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 world view, and who did not even dream of many of the problems we have to face in a modern technological society.
The rule also invites 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.
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