19 Rules of Interpretation

Text: 2 Timothy 2:15 “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.”

We actually dishonor the Holy Spirit when we are lazy in interpreting the Bible. Here are 19 rules of interpretation, that when implemented, show Him honor.

The testimony of Jesus and of the Bible is that “All Scripture is God breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16). Therefore, when we open up a page in our Bibles, we are treading upon holy ground. The Bible, although a book, is also unlike any other book. It is not simply a book giving facts about God. The Bible is a book written by God. Certainly, human writers were involved, but the text of Scripture is inspired or breathed out by God Himself.

Just having this concept in place would greatly help us in our Bible studies. What do I mean by that? Well, many people view the interpretation of God’s Word as “no big deal” really. To them it is nothing more important than the reading of any other book, at least in their methodology.

The Jews would wash their hands before touching the sacred scrolls, because these scrolls were seen as Divinely inspired. Though we do not need to become superstitious about the physical book called the Bible, so as to wash our hands before picking up or opening the book, the text of the Scripture is the very word of God Himself. We should approach the Word of God humbly, and with the utmost reverence and respect.

And that leads us to talk about how we interpret the Bible. When we recognize that we are handling the very truth of God, we should not be quick to come to conclusions about what it means. That is because if the Bible is God’s holy word, we should seek to gain the correct meaning before we attempt to speak for God.

I can’t think of a more holy assignment that to be called to preach or teach the Word of God to the souls of men. I feel the weight and privilege of this calling immensely. Scripture in fact tells us “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” (James 3:1)

It is actually a scary business, and it is meant to be. Therefore, before someone stands in a pulpit to preach or teach the Word of God, he needs to make sure he has interpreted the text correctly. The preacher’s job is not to merely entertain the crowd or to tell a few stories that will connect with people. Don’t misunderstand me, God gives no prizes to boring preachers who can’t connect with people! But we must always remember that the goal of preaching is the honor and glory of God in accurately proclaiming the word of truth. It is a serious and holy thing to be responsible to proclaim God’s truth and it should never be done lightly, whether heard by thousands, or simply by one precious human soul.

But what is true for the preacher is also true for every Christian. When we sit down and start reading the Bible for ourselves we need to remember that though there may be a thousand applications of Scripture, there is only ONE correct interpretation – the one the Holy Spirit meant when He inspired the sacred words of the Bible. We should be prepared to do some serious study to seek to understand what the Holy Spirit was and is communicating to us.

I agree wholeheartedly with Dr. James White when he writes,
“Remember when you were in school and you had to take a test on a book you were assigned to read? You studied and invested time in learning the background of the author, the context in which he lived and wrote, his purposes in writing, his audience, and the specifics of the text. You did not simply come to class, pop open the book, read a few sentences, and say, “Well, I feel the author here means this.” Yet, for some odd reason, this attitude is prevalent in Christian circles. Whether that feeling results in an interpretation that has anything at all to do with what the original author intended to convey is really not considered an important aspect. Everyone, seemingly, has the right to express their “feelings” about what they “think” the Bible is saying, as if those thoughts actually reflect what God inspired in His Word. While we would never let anyone get away with treating our personal writings in this manner, we seem to think God is not bothered, and what is worse, that our conclusions are somehow authoritative in their representation of His Word.”

To some people it would seem to be “un-spiritual” to invest time in studying the historical backgrounds, the context of a text or passage in Scripture, or the original language… no, many today want to “feel” something about a passage… or better still, just want the Holy Spirit to whisper His interpretation in their ears supernaturally. This tends to become highly subjective… and the hard labor of study of the Scriptures is thrown out of the window. Every impression, vision, prophecy, needs to be subject to Scripture, and we are not permitted to subject the Word of God to our impressions or feelings about it.

It is fine to play marbles with marbles, but not with diamonds. Handling the word of God is a priceless duty and delight, not a trivial passion or pursuit.

We would never consider someone qualified to practice as a medical physician after reading just one paper containing a dozen or so rules on being a good doctor. Though knowing these rules would be helpful, I’m sure we would agree that there’s far more that is needed. Certainly, before a Medical Board would certify a person as competent to practice medicine they would need to know far more than a few rules for good health. In the same way, there’s so much more that could and should be said about how to study the Bible.

Yet, with this qualifier, here are some simple rules of interpretation (hermeneutics) which should at least get us started. May God use these brief words to encourage you as you search out the truths of God’s word, for His glory:

1. Consider the Author – who wrote the book? (what was his background, language, culture, vocation, concerns, education, circumstance, what stage of life?)

2. Consider the Audience (why was the book written? who was the audience? what would these words have meant to its original recipients?)

3. The Meaning of Words (this has become a lot easier in our day with all the information and technology at our disposal. The computer program Bibleworks is especially recommended).

(Your baby is very cute) – the word “cute” has undergone a vast change in meaning in recent decades. A hundred years or so ago, the word “cute” meant “bow legged.” If a doctor told you that your baby is “very cute” it was not good news at all. Perhaps it might even mean extensive surgery was needed on the baby’s legs!

Today, it means no such thing! It is a compliment – meaning “attractive in a pretty or endearing way.” Synonyms: endearing, adorable, lovable, sweet, lovely, appealing, engaging, delightful, dear, darling, winning, winsome, attractive, pretty.

4. Historical Setting (avoid anachronism – trying to understand the past while viewing it wearing 21st century glasses – will not help toward understanding the original meaning of the author). Continue reading

The New Interprets the Old

John Fonville:

In his famous statement, “The New is in the Old concealed; the Old is in the New revealed,” Saint Augustine expressed the priority of the New Testament over the Old Testament- the New Testament explains the Old Testament.

My seminary denied this key hermeneutical principle. For example, it is claimed that to make “the New Testament the final authority on the Old Testament denies the perspicuity (“clarity”) of the Old Testament as a perfect revelation in itself.”

This is an incredible (not in the good sense) statement that simply fails to properly recognize the nature of the progressive unfolding story (revelation) of the Old Testament. The Old Testament itself witnesses to the fact that it is a story that doesn’t stand on its own-that it is incomplete and begs for fulfillment. Old Testament scholar, Graeme Goldsworthy (not loved by my seminary), observes that it is impossible from the Old Testament alone to understand the full meaning of God’s acts and promises that it records.

Jesus says that He gives the Old Testament its meaning. Thus, Jesus Himself affirms that we need the Old Testament to understand what He says about Himself. And Jesus drives us back to the Old Testament to read and understand it through “Christian eyes.” He teaches us that the Old Testament leads us to Him (John 5:39, 46).

Thus, Goldsworthy notes that in seeking to understand the Scriptures, we do not start at Genesis 1 and work our way forward until we discover where the story is leading. Instead, we start with Christ-the gospel-and He directs us to read and understand the Old Testament in light of the gospel.

The gospel interprets the Old Testament by showing us its meaning and goal. The Old Testament increases our understanding of the gospel by showing us what Christ fulfills for us.

Perhaps Saint Augustine was right after all?

The Letter Kills But The Spirit Gives Life

Charles Hodge on 2 Corinthians 3:6:

An Exposition of the Second Epistle to the Corinthians. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, n.d., 56-58 (Language modernized by Nate Milne where necessary).

For the letter (i.e., the law) kills, but the spirit (i.e., the gospel) gives life. This is the reason why God has made Paul the minister of the Spirit. “God had made us able minsters not of the law but of the gospel, for the law kills, but the gospel gives life.” This passage and the following context present two important questions. First, “In what sense does the law kill?” And second, “How is it that the apostle attributes to the Mosaic system this purely legal character, when he elsewhere so plainly teaches that the gospel was witnessed or taught both in the law and the prophets?”

As to the former of these questions, the answer furnished by the Scriptures is plain. The law demands perfect obedience. It says, “Do this and live” (Rom. 10:5; Gal. 3:12), and “Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things written in the book of the law to do them” (Gal. 3:10). As no man renders this perfect obedience, the law condemns him. It pronounces on him the sentence of death. This is one way in which it kills.

In the second place, it produces the knowledge or consciousness of sin, and of course of guilt, that is, of just exposure to the wrath of God. Thus again it slays. And thirdly, by presenting the perfect standard of duty, which cannot be seen without awakening the sense of obligation to be conformed to it, while it imparts no disposition or power to obey, it exasperates the soul and thus again it brings forth fruit unto death. All these effects of the law are systematically presented by the apostle in Romans 6 & 7, and Galatians 3.

The second question is more difficult. Every reader of the New Testament must be struck with the fact that the apostle often speaks of the Mosaic law as he does of the moral law considered as a covenant of works; this is, presenting the promise of life on the condition of perfect obedience. He represents it saying, “Do this and live;” as requiring works, and not faith, as the condition of acceptance (Rom. 10:5-10; Gal. 3:10-12). He calls it a ministration of death and condemnation. He denies that it can give life (Gal. 3:21). He tells those who are of the law (that is, Judaizers) that they had fallen from grace; that is, had renounced the gratuitous method of salvation, and that Christ should profit them nothing (Gal. 5:2, 4).

In short, when he uses the word law, and says that by the law is the knowledge of sin, that it can only condemn, that by its works no flesh can be justified, he includes the Mosaic law; and in the epistle to the Galatians all these things are said with special reference to the law of Moses.

On the other hand, however, he teaches that the plan of salvation has been the same from the beginning; that Christ was the propitiation for the sins committed under the old covenant; that men were saved then as now by faith in Christ; that this mode of salvation was revealed to Abraham and understood by him, and taught by Moses and the prophets. This view is presented repeatedly in Paul’s epistles, and is argued out in due form in Rom. 3:21-31; Rom. 4; & Gal. 3.

To reconcile these apparently conflicting representations it must be remembered that the Mosaic economy was designed to accomplish different objects, and is therefore presented in Scripture under different aspects. What, therefore, is true of it under one aspect, is not true under another.

1. The law of Moses was, in the first place, a re-enactment of the covenant of works. A covenant is simply a promise suspended upon a condition. The covenant of works, therefore, is nothing more than the promise of life suspended on the condition of perfect obedience. The phrase is used as a concise and convenient expression of the eternal principles of justice on which God deals with rational creatures, and which underlie all dispensations, the Adamic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, and Christian. Our Lord said to the lawyer who asked what he should do to inherit eternal life, “‘What is written in the law? What do you read?’ And he, answering, said, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.’ And he said unto him, ‘You have answered rightly, do this and you shall live’” (Luke 10:26-28). This is the covenant of works. It is an immutable principle that where there is no sin there is no condemnation, and where there is sin there is death. This is all that those who reject the gospel have to fall back upon. It is this principle which is rendered so prominent in the Mosaic economy as to give it is character of law. Viewed under this aspect is is the ministration of condemnation and death.

2. The Mosaic economy was also a national covenant; that is, it presented national promises on the condition of national obedience. Under this aspect also it was purely legal.

3. But, as the gospel contains a renewed revelation of the law, so the law of Moses contained a revelation of the gospel. It presented in its priesthood and sacrifices, as types of the office and work of Christ, the gratuitous method of salvation through a Redeemer. This necessarily supposes that faith and not works was the condition of salvation. It was those who trusted, not those free from sin, who were saved. Thus Moses wrote of Christ (John 5:46); and thus the law and the prophets witnessed of a righteousness of faith (Rom. 3:21). When therefore the apostle spoke of the old covenant under its legal aspect, and especially when speaking to those who rejected the gospel and clung to the law of Moses as law, then he says, it kills, or is the ministration of condemnation. But when viewing it, and especially when speaking of those who viewed it as setting forth the great doctrine of redemption through the blood of Christ, the represented it as teaching his own doctrine.

The law, in every form, moral or Mosaic, natural or revealed, kills. In demanding works as the condition of salvation, it must condemn all sinners. But the gospel, whether as revealed in the promise to Adam after his fall, or in the promise to Abraham, or in the writings of Moses, or in its full clearness in the New Testament, gives life. As the old covenant revealed both the law and the gospel, it either killed or gave life, according to the light in which it was viewed. And therefore Paul sometimes says it does the one, and sometimes the other.

But the spirit gives life. The spirit, or the gospel, gives life in a sense correlating to that in which the letter (i.e., the law) kills.

1. By revealing a righteousness adequate to our justification, and thus delivering us from the sentence of death.

2. By producing the assurance of God’s love and the hope of his glory in the place of a dread of his wrath.

3. By becoming, through the agency of the Holy Spirit, an inward principle or power transforming us into the image of God; instead of a mere outward command.

Hermeneutics & Preaching Resources

In expository preaching, the meaning of the passage is the message of the sermon. To understanding the meaning of a passage or text it is necessary to be engaged in exegesis (drawing out of the text what is actually in the text). To do this with accuracy involves hermeneutics (the science of biblical interpretation). Here are 4 teachings I did on Dr. James White’s Dividing Line show which give a basic introduction to the subject:




We started with Rich Pierce providing commentary about PC&D’s new song ‘Jesus, Only Jesus,’ and how this song exposes the Oneness views of this group. Then the rest of the show was the continuation of my teaching series on ‘rules of interpretation’ discussing the end times, the book of Revelation and why we need to avoid hyper allegorical methods of interpretation.

Rich Pierce started off today’s Dividing Line show with a brief (approx. 10 minutes) follow up regarding his comments from Tuesday regarding PC&D and the song “Jesus, Only Jesus.” Then I concluded the series on biblical interpretation by taking the rules we have discussed and applying them to John chapter 3.


From the Master’s Seminary:

Dr. John MacArthur and Dr. Steve Lawson: The Fundamentals of Expository Preaching (10 lectures) – at this link.

Dr. Steve Lawson: The Mechanics of Preaching (13 Lectures) – at this link.

Dr. Steve Lawson: Expository Preaching of the Psalms (12 Lectures)
at this link.

The Bible as Literature

including The Word of God in English, the Christian Guides to the Classics series, J. I. Packer: An Evangelical Life, A Complete Handbook of Literary Forms in the Bible, and Literary Introductions to the Books of the Bible. He is a frequent speaker at the Evangelical Theological Society’s annual meetings and served as literary stylist for the English Standard Version Bible.

Part 1: The Old Testament –
(Original source here)

The Importance of Form

It is natural to ask whether the literary forms of the Bible deserve a lot of attention. The answer is yes. The primary principle of literature is that meaning is embodied and communicated through form.

There is no content without the forms in which that content is packaged. We have misled the Christian public by acting as if a summary of the ideas in a book of the Bible is an adequate account of the book. A summary of ideas leaves readers without a picture of what they actually encounter when they read a book of the Bible.

It is no wonder that many Bible readers do not know how to interact with the texts of the Bible. They have not been given the tools that will allow them to see what is actually in the text. We can deduce ideas from any text in the Bible, but no book of the Bible consists of a list of ideas. It consists of a myriad of literary techniques and forms. Readers need to be coached to see the forms that comprise each book of the Bible, accompanied by the rules that govern our assimilation of those forms.

The individual entries listed below highlight the most important literary forms in the individual books of the Bible. They are a gateway only, but a gateway is a necessary and helpful point of entry.


A preponderance of narrative, so the book becomes an anthology of stories. The narrative subtype that dominates is hero story. As the title “book of beginnings” hints, Genesis embodies foundational principles that range all the way from the nature of the world and humanity to the history of God’s covenant dealings with the human race. The gallery of characters is large, but eight characters stand out: Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph.


The unifying motif is announced in the title: the departure of the Israelites from oppression in Egypt, followed by a journey through the desert to the Promised Land. Three distinctly different genres appear—narrative (1-18 and 32-34), lawgiving (19-24), and architectural information about the building of the tabernacle (24-31 and 35-40). Each of these genres has its own focus—deliverance, covenant, and holiness, respectively. Moses is the unifying human hero.


The primary genre is the rulebook, which is at the same time a guidebook for living the religious and moral life that God intended for his people. The main literary principle at work is that literature uses particulars to embody universals; we look not only at the details of the text but through them to principles that apply today. The book is also a utopia that paints a picture of the good society and the institutions and practices that produce it. Realism abounds, including references to bodily functions. Continue reading

Four Principles of Hermeneutics

Bible02From: http://www.rbap.net/

#1 The Holy Spirit is the Only Infallible Interpreter of Holy Scripture.

As an example of this principle, John Owen says, “The only unique, public, authentic, and infallible interpreter of Scripture is none other than the Author of Scripture Himself . . . that is, God the Holy Spirit.”[1] Nehemiah Coxe says, “. . . the best interpreter of the Old Testament is the Holy Spirit speaking to us in the new.”[2] This meant that they saw the Bible’s interpretation and use of itself as infallible and with interpretive principles embedded in it. When the Bible comments upon, or utilizes itself in any fashion (e.g., direct quotation, allusion, echo, or fulfillment in the OT or NT), it is God’s interpretation and, therefore, the divine understanding of how texts should be understood by men. This often means that later texts shed interpretive light on earlier texts. This occurs not only when the New Testament uses the Old Testament, but it occurs in the Old Testament itself. Or, we could put it this way: subsequent revelation often makes explicit what is implicit in antecedent revelation.[3]

[1] John Owen, Biblical Theology or The Nature, Origin, Development, and Study of Theological Truth in Six Books (Pittsburgh, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1994), 797.

[2] Coxe and Owen, Covenant Theology, 36.

[3] See Vern S. Poythress, “Biblical Hermeneutics,” in Seeing Christ in all of Scripture: Hermeneutics at Westminster Theological Seminary, ed. Peter A. Lillback (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Seminary Press, 2016), 14, where he says: “The later communications build on the earlier. What is implicit in the earlier often becomes explicit in the later.”

#2 The Analogy of the Scriptures (Analogia Scripturae)

Here is Richard A. Muller’s definition of analogia Scripturae: “the interpretation of unclear, difficult, or ambiguous passages of Scripture by comparison with clear and unambiguous passages that refer to the same teaching or event.”[1] An example of this would be utilizing a passage in Matthew to help understand a passage dealing with the same subject in Mark. This principle, as with the first one, obviously presupposes the divine inspiration of Scripture.

The principle of analogia Scripturae gained confessional status as follows: “The infallible rule of interpretation of scripture is the scripture itself . . .” (2LCF 1.9).

[1] Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1985, Second printing, September 1986), 33; emphasis added.

#3 The Analogy of Faith (Analogia Fidei)

Muller defines analogia fidei as follows:

the use of a general sense of the meaning of Scripture, constructed from the clear or unambiguous loci [i.e., places] . . ., as the basis for interpreting unclear or ambiguous texts. As distinct from the more basic analogia Scripturae . . ., the analogia fidei presupposes a sense of the theological meaning of Scripture.[1]

This principle has not always been understood properly. For example, Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. fails to distinguish properly between analogia Scripturae and analogia fidei and advocates what he calls “The Analogy of (Antecedent) Scripture.”[2] While analyzing the principle of the analogy of faith, he says, “Our problem here is whether the analogy of faith is a hermeneutical tool that is ‘open [theological] sesame’ for every passage of Scripture.”[3] While discussing his proposal for “The Analogy of (Antecedent) Scripture,” Kaiser confidently asserts:

Surely most interpreters will see the wisdom and good sense in limiting our theological observations to conclusions drawn from the text being exegeted and from texts which preceded it in time.[4]

In the conclusion to his discussion, he says:

However, in no case must that later teaching be used exegetically (or in any other way) to unpack the meaning or to enhance the usability of the individual text which is the object of our study.[5]

This is, at worst, a denial of the historic understanding of analogia fidei and, at best, a very unhelpful and dangerous modification of the principle. This would mean, for example, that we cannot utilize anything in the Bible outside of Genesis 1-3 to help us interpret it. Since there is nothing in the Bible antecedent to Genesis 1-3, interpreters are left with no subsequent divine use, no subsequent divine explanation of how to understand those chapters. This method ends up defeating itself when we consider that Genesis (and all other books of the Bible) was never intended to stand on its own.[6] As well, the Bible itself (OT and NT) comments on antecedent texts, helping its readers understand the divine intention of those texts. Kaiser’s method seems to imply that the exegesis of a given biblical text is to be conducted as if no subsequent biblical texts exist. We must realize that, in one sense, we have an advantage that the biblical writers did not have—we have a completed canon. But we must also realize that the Bible’s use of itself (whenever and however this occurs) is infallible. If this is so, then the exegete, using tools outside of the biblical text under consideration, ought to consult all possible useful tools, which includes how the Bible comments upon itself no matter where or how it does so. If the Holy Spirit is the only infallible interpreter of Holy Scripture, then certainly exegetes ought to utilize biblical texts outside of Genesis to aid in the understanding of it. It seems to me that Kaiser’s proposal would give warrant for exegetes to consult fallible commentaries on Genesis to aid in its interpretation, but deny the use of the Bible itself (which contains inspired and infallible commentary) to that same end.

An example of the proper understanding and use of the analogy of faith would be identifying the serpent of Genesis 3. We can say with utter certainty that the serpent is the devil and Satan. We know this because God tells us via subsequent Scripture in Revelation 12:9, “And the great dragon was thrown down, the serpent of old who is called the devil and Satan” and 20:2, “And he laid hold of the dragon, the serpent of old, who is the devil and Satan.” So, according to the analogy of faith, we can affirm that the serpent of Genesis 3 is the devil and Satan.

The inspired and infallible rule of faith is the whole of Scripture, whose textual parts must be understood in light of its textual-theological whole. This insures that the theological forest is not lost for the individual textual trees. It should keep us from doing theology concordance-style, doing word-studies as an end-all to interpretation, and counting texts that use the same words and drawing theological conclusions from it. These methods often do not consider the meaning of the text (or word) under investigation in light of the various levels of context (i.e., phrase, clause, sentence, pericope, book, author, testament, canon) in which it occurs. The principle of the analogy of faith also warrants that, when we are seeking to understand any text of Scripture (e.g., Gen. 1-3), all texts of Scripture are fair game in the interpretive process. Or it could be stated this way: the context of every biblical text is all biblical texts.

The principle of analogia fidei gained confessional status as follows:

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, (which is not manifold, but one,) it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly. (2LCF 1.9)

[1] Muller, Dictionary, 33.

[2] Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Toward An Exegetical Theology (1981; reprint, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, Sixth printing, January 1987), 134ff.

[3] Kaiser, Toward An Exegetical Theology, 135; bracketed word original.

[4] Kaiser, Toward An Exegetical Theology, 137.

[5] Kaiser, Toward An Exegetical Theology, 140; emphasis original.

[6] The OT is not an end itself; it is heading somewhere and demands answers to various issues left unfulfilled. It sets the stage for God’s future acts of redemption and assumes that God will follow his redemptive acts with corresponding redemptive-revelational words. The OT cannot stand on its own; it is an open-ended book and must be interpreted as such. The NT provides the rest of the story. See Dennis E. Johnson, Him We Proclaim: Preaching Christ from All the Scriptures (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2007), 160, n. 51, where he takes Kaiser to task for claiming that the OT can stand on its own. In Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Preaching and Teaching from the Old Testament: A Guide for the Church (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 27, he claims: “The Old Testament can stand on its own, for it has done so both in the pre-Christian and the early Christian centuries.” Johnson replies: “As will be argued in Chapter 6, the preacher to the Hebrews saw in the Old Testament Scriptures themselves various indications that the Old Testament and its institutions could not ‘stand on their own[‘] but testified to a better, more ‘perfect’ order to come.” Johnson’s book is highly recommended. Reading and interpreting the OT on its own is like reading the Gospels without the Epistles, the Epistles without the Gospels, the Prophets without the Pentateuch, the Pentateuch without the Prophets, and the NT without the OT. Kaiser’s position seems to entail reading and interpreting the OT without the New. If this is the case, it would give the appearance of over-emphasizing the human authorial element of Holy Scripture. The apostle Peter informs us, concerning the writing prophets of the OT: “It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves, but you, in these things which now have been announced to you through those who preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven—things into which angels long to look” (1 Pet. 1:12). The prophets wrote with a future-oriented messianic consciousness. What they predicted happened when our Lord came and the NT interprets our Lord in light of the OT.

#4 The Scope of the Scriptures (Scopus Scripturae)

Terms such as Christ-centered and Christocentric are used often in our day. But what do they mean? The older way of naming the concept these terms point to, the target or end to which the entirety of the Bible tends, is encapsulated by the Latin phrase scopus Scripturae (i.e., the scope of the Scriptures). This concept gained confessional status in the WCF, the SD, and the 2LCF in 1.5, which, speaking of Holy Scripture, say, “. . . the scope of the whole (which is to give all glory to God) . . .”

Reformation and post-Reformation Reformed theologians understood scope in two senses. It had a narrow sense—i.e., the scope of a given text or passage, its basic thrust—but it also had a wider sense—i.e., the target or bull’s eye to which all of Scripture tends.[1] It is to this second sense that we will give our attention.

Scope, in the sense intended here, refers to the center or target of the entire canonical revelation; it is that to which the entire Bible points. And whatever that is, it must condition our interpretation of any and every part of Scripture. For the federal or covenant theologians of the seventeenth century, the scope of Scripture was the glory of God in the redemptive work of the incarnate Son of God.[2] Their view of the scope of Scripture was itself a conclusion from Scripture, not a presupposition brought to it, and it conditioned all subsequent interpretation.

William Ames, for example, said, “The Old and New Testaments are reducible to these two primary heads. The Old promises Christ to come and the New testifies that he has come.”[3] Likewise, John Owen said, “Christ is . . . the principal end of the whole of Scripture . . .”[4] He continues elsewhere:

This principle is always to be retained in our minds in reading of the Scripture,—namely, that the revelation and doctrine of the person of Christ and his office, is the foundation whereon all other instructions of the prophets and apostles for the edification of the church are built, and whereunto they are resolved . . . So our Lord Jesus Christ himself at large makes it manifest, Luke xxiv. 26, 27, 45, 46. Lay aside the consideration hereof, and the Scriptures are no such thing as they pretend unto,—namely, a revelation of the glory of God in the salvation of the church . . .[5]

Coxe said, “. . . in all our search after the mind of God in the Holy Scriptures we are to manage our inquiries with reference to Christ.”[6]

Their Christocentric interpretation of the Bible was a principle derived from the Bible itself, and an application of sola Scriptura to the issue of hermeneutics. In other words, they viewed the Bible’s authority as extending to how we interpret the Bible. Or it could be stated this way: they saw the authority of Scripture extending to the interpretation of Scripture.[7]

[1] See the discussion in Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1520 to ca. 1725, Volume Two – Holy Scripture (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003 [Second Edition]), 206-23, where he discusses these distinctions. See also James M. Renihan, “Theology on Target: The Scope of the Whole (which is to give all glory to God),” RBTR II:2 (July 2005): 36-52; Richard C. Barcellos, “Scopus Scripturae: John Owen, Nehemiah Coxe, our Lord Jesus Christ, and a Few Early Disciples on Christ as the Scope of Scripture,” Journal of the Institute of Reformed Baptist Studies [JIRBS] (2015): 5-24; and Stephen J. Casselli, Divine Rule Maintained: Anthony Burgess, Covenant Theology, and the Place of the Law in Reformed Scholasticism (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2016), 102-07.

[2] See my forthcoming The Doxological Trajectory of Scripture: God Getting Glory for Himself through what He does in His Son — An Exegetical and Theological Case Study, Chapter 5, “Christ as Scopus Scripturae — John Owen and Nehemiah Coxe on Christ as the Scope of Scripture for the Glory of God.”

[3] William Ames, The Marrow of Theology (Durham, NC: The Labyrinth Press, 1983), 1.38.5 (202).

[4] John Owen, The Works of John Owen, 23 vols., ed. William H. Goold (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1987 edition), 1:74.

[5] Owen, Works, 1:314-15.

[6] Coxe and Owen, Covenant Theology, 33.

[7] See Poythress, “Biblical Hermeneutics,” 11, where he says: “We use the Bible to derive hermeneutical principles. Then we use hermeneutics to interpret the Bible.”

Hermeneutics: New Testament Priority

Tom Hicks serves as the Pastor of Discipleship at Morningview Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. At the Founders blog he writes:

newTestamentOne important aspect of biblical hermeneutics (the theory of biblical interpretation) is the principle of “New Testament priority.” At the beginning of the Middle Ages, Augustine of Hippo (354-430) expressed New Testament priority with the phrase, “The New is in the Old concealed; the Old is in the New revealed.” Augustine meant that the Old Testament contains shadowy types and figures that are only clearly revealed in the New Testament. In other words, the New Testament explains the Old Testament. The Protestant Reformers and Puritans also looked to the New Testament to govern their interpretation of the Old. An early confessional Particular Baptist, Nehemiah Coxe, agreed with the Reformed interpretive principle when he wrote, “…the best interpreter of the Old Testament is the Holy Spirit speaking to us in the new.” [1]

The interpretive principle of New Testament priority is derived from an examination of the Scriptures themselves. As we read the Bible, we notice that earlier texts never explicitly interpret later texts. Earlier texts provide the interpretive context for later texts, but earlier texts never cite later texts and explain them directly. Rather, what we find is that later texts make explicit reference to earlier texts and provide explanations of them. Moreover, the later portion of any book always makes clear the earlier portion. When you just begin to read a novel, for example, you’re still learning the characters, the setting, the context, etc., but later on, as the story progresses, things that happened earlier in the book make more sense and take on new meaning. Mysteries are resolved. Earlier conversations between characters gain new significance as the novel unfolds. Later parts of the story have primary explanatory power over the earlier parts.

The hermeneutical principle of New Testament priority simply recognizes these facts. Following the Bible’s own example, interpreters should allow later revelation in Bible to explain earlier revelation, rather than insisting on their own uninspired interpretations of earlier revelation without reference to the authoritative explanations of later revelation.

A Response to John MacArthur’s Opposition to New Testament Priority

Over and against New Testament priority, John MacArthur claims that to make “the New Testament the final authority on the Old Testament denies the perspicuity of the Old Testament as a perfect revelation in itself.” [2] Of course, MacArthur’s claim is easily reversed. One might argue that to suggest that the New Testament is not the final authority on the Old Testament denies the perspicuity (which means “clarity”) of the New Testament as perfect revelation in itself. Moreover, MacArthur doesn’t account for the fact that the Old Testament teaches that its own prophecies can be hard to understand because they are given in riddles (Numbers 12:6-8). The New Testament too acknowledges that the Old Testament is not always clear. It tells us of “mysteries” in the Old Testament yet to be revealed (Colossians 1:26). The meaning of the Old Testament “shadows” (Hebrews 10:1) and “types” (Galatians 4:24) only become clear after Christ comes. Historic Baptists understood this. The Second London Baptist Confession 1.7 accurately declares, “All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves.” That is, all of Scripture is not equally perspicuous, contrary to John MacArthur. Thus, MacArthur’s critique of New Testament priority is not consistent with what the Bible teaches about the Old Testament’s “shadowy” character. [3]

New Testament Priority: Dispensationalism and Paedobaptism

To illustrate how this principle of New Testament priority effects our theology, consider the example of Dispensationalists and Paedobaptists. Both Dispensationalists and Paedobaptists wrongly allow the Old Testament to have priority over the New Testament. Both systems of interpretation read the promise of a seed in Genesis 17:7 as a promise of physical offspring. In Genesis 17:7, God says, “And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you.”

Dispensationalists think Genesis 17:7 establishes an everlasting promise to national Israel, and they read their interpretation into the New Testament, convinced that God has future plans for national Israel. Paedobaptists, on the other hand, think the promise in Genesis 17:7 is the covenant of grace with believers and their physical offspring, which leads to the baptism of infants in the New Testament and to churches intentionally mixed with believers and unbelievers. [4]

If, however, we allow the New Testament to interpret Genesis 17:7, then we will avoid the error committed by Dispensationalism and Paedobaptism. Galatians 3:16 says, “Now the promises were made to Abraham and his offspring. It does not say, ‘And to offsprings,’ referring to many, but referring to one, ‘And to your offspring,’ who is Christ.” Note well that Galatians 3:16 explicitly denies a plural offspring. The promise is to one Offspring only, not to many. “It does not say ‘And to offsprings’” (Galatians 3:16).

Therefore, in light of the clear teaching of the New Testament, we must conclude that both Dispensationalists and Paedobaptists misinterpret the Old Testament because they fail to allow the New Testament to have priority of interpretation. Both systems conclude that the promise to Abraham’s seed is a promise to physical descendants, rather than to Christ. This error leads Paedobaptists to over-emphasize a visible church propagated by natural generation in their reading of Scripture, and it leads Dispensationalists to over-emphasize Israel, when the New Testament clearly teaches us to emphasize Christ. The promise to “seed” is a promise to Christ, not to men. [5] This is not a denial of any collective aspect to seed; rather, it recognizes that the seed is Christ and that by saving union with Him, the elect are also seed in Him (Galatians 3:7, 14, 29). Thus, all the promises made to Abraham in Genesis 17:7 were made to Christ and to all who are savingly united to Him, Jew and Gentile alike. The promise is, therefore, Christ-centered, not man-centered, which is what historic Baptists have always taught.


1 Nehemiah Coxe and John Owen, Covenant Theology from Adam to Christ, ed. Ronald D. Miller, James M. Renihan, and Fransisco Orozco (Palmdale, CA: Reformed Baptist Academic Press, 2005), 36.

2 John MacArthur, “Why Every Self-Respecting Calvinist is a Premillennialist,” a sermon delivered at the Shepherd’s Conference in 2007.

3 For an extensive treatment of John MacArthur’s dispensationalism, see Samuel E. Waldron, MacArthur’s Millennial Manifesto: A Friendly Response (Owensboro, KY: Reformed Baptist Academic Press, 2008). For a short critique of Dispensationalism’s hermeneutic in general, see Kim Riddlebarger, A Case for Amillennialism: Understanding the End Times (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2003), 33-40.

4 For an excellent critique of Reformed paedobaptism, see Fred A. Malone, The Baptism of Disciples Alone: A Covenantal Argument for Credobaptism Versus Paedobaptism (Cape Coral, FL: Founders, 2003, revised and expanded, 2007).

5 To see this argument worked out more thoroughly, see Fred A. Malone, “Biblical Hermeneutics & Covenant Theology” in Covenant Theology: A Baptist Distinctive, ed. Earl M. Blackburn (Birmingham, AL: Solid Ground Christian Books, 2013), 63-87.

The Bible: From Blueprint to Building

blueprintScott Redd is president and associate professor of Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. He is the author of Wholehearted: A Biblical Look at the Greatest Commandment and Personal Wealth (Institute for Faith, Work, & Economics, 2016). He has written an article concerning the relationship between the Old and New Testaments entitled “From Blueprint to Building in Your Bible” – Original source here.

Any persistent student of Scripture soon stumbles on the problem of the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. The confusion springs from several key differences between them.

First, the scope of the testaments differs considerably. The former covers roughly a millennium and half of redemptive history (not counting the hazy period before Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) and involves a multitude of characters living in different periods and locations around the ancient Near East. The latter covers a time period spanning less than a century and involving a relatively limited cast of characters.

Second, the form of the two testaments differs greatly. The Old exhibits texts comprising diverse genres ranging from poetry to legal code, from historical narrative to apocalyptic vision, while the New is comprised primarily of a historically unique genre called “Gospel” and a list of letters, at least one of which includes an extensive apocalyptic section.

Third, the message of the two testaments seems divergent. The Old encodes the prehistory and history of an ethnic—not to mention geopolitical—entity called Israel, including its constitutional documents and great orators, while the New describes the life and times of a singular individual and the followers he commissioned to proclaim his message of salvation.

Helpful Paradigm

As an Old Testament professor I often get asked, “How does the Old Testament relate to the New?” Here’s an analogy I like to give in response: The Old Testament is the blueprint; the New Testament is the building. Continue reading

Understanding Jeremiah 29:11

“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” – Jeremiah 29:11

Voddie Baucham explains this often quoted verse in its biblical context:

Jeremiah 29:10 “For thus says the LORD: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. 11 For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. 12 Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. 13 You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you, declares the LORD, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the LORD, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.

Hijacking the Scriptures

My friend, Rich Pierce is President of Alpha and Omega Ministries. Usually, he is the man behind the scenes making everything happen, while Dr. James White is the person everyone sees and hears. However, yesterday Rich hosted the Dividing Line (a show I have had the privilege of guest hosting numerous times). He writes:

“Last May Dr. White engaged Prof. Leighton Flowers in debating the text of Romans chapter nine. Professor Flowers’ presentation has bothered me deeply since the first time that I viewed it. If we can set aside the issue of Calvinism and focus solely on his treatment of scripture along with his use of well known terms what will we find? I submit to you that if a preacher will handle himself in this manner when the subject is about Calvinism, he will do so whenever it suits him. This ought not be the case.”