Braving Hard Passages: The Analogy of Scripture

I recently read of one man’s experience as a student in the classroom of a famous professor. One student asked the professor, “What one trait separates the great scholar from all the rest?” The students sat in anticipation.  Would it be pedigree, proclivity for languages, resilience, intelligence, work ethic or a host of other good choices?  What would the good doctor laud as the distinguishing characteristic of a stand out scholar?

Creativity. The one trait that makes a man stand out from an already extraordinary crowd is creativity, said the professor.  Now, that was the end of the article. But it’s that sort of ending that allows the reader to argue a bit with the claim in the story. Yes, creativity can be a help. It can make a scholar stand out. But creativity is not always the best virtue to rely upon when it comes to interpreting a hard passage.

Let me give you an example. Find your Bible and read Matthew 6:19-24.  Now, focus on verse 22-23, “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness.” The eye in this passage has been interpreted in a plethora of ways. But what may appear hard is actually not all that difficult if we apply a simple interpretive rule called the analogy of Scripture, which simply states that Scripture is Scripture’s best interpreter.

So, let’s look at some Scripture that might help us. Let’s first notice Deuteronomy 15.  Moses is giving laws concerning indebtedness and generosity toward the poor.  He says in v. 9, “Beware lest there be a wicked thought in your heart, saying, ‘The seventh year, the year of release, is at hand,’ and your eye be evil against your poor brother and you give him nothing, and he cry out to the Lord against you, and it become sin among you.”  In other words, the wicked and ungenerous man is described as having an evil eye.

Now look at Proverbs 28:22, which is similar, “A man with an evil eye hastens after riches…”  Again the evil eye is associated with greed.  Or look at Proverbs 23:6, which says, “Do not eat the bread of a selfish man…”  Now, rendered literally, we are not to eat the bread of an “evil eyed man.”  Again, the greedy person or the man lacking in generosity is the man with an evil eye. 

Let me give you one more text.  Look at Matthew 20.  It is the familiar story of laborers in the vineyard.  A landowner went to the market place in the morning and hired laborers to work his vineyard for a denarius.  About the third hour or 9 AM he hired more for the same amount.  He also went at the noon hour and even as late as three O’clock in the afternoon.  But he wasn’t finished even then.  He went at the 5 O’clock hour and hired more laborers! 

At the end of the day all the laborers came for their pay.  And it was then that those who had worked all day discovered that they were getting paid the very same amount as those who had started working at the end of the day.  Complaining erupted.  But the landowner responded saying (v. 15), “Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own?  Or is your eye envious (evil) because I am generous (literally “good”)?”    

Having this understanding under our belt let’s apply what we have learned to our text.  Jesus says, “The eye is the lamp of the body; so then if your eye is healthy (the word can be translated generous) your body will be full of light.”  Jesus goes on, “But if your eye is bad (evil) your whole body will be full of darkness.”  Now, do you see what Jesus is saying?  If your eye is good, in other words, if you have been generous you are full of light.  You have been storing up treasure in heaven (v.20-21).  But if you eye is evil, if you lack generosity, then you may have earthly treasure but you are spiritually poor (v. 19). 

Notice how this plays into a proper understanding of verse 24.  It says, “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other.  You cannot serve God and wealth.”  The point?  You must decide between Jesus and your money.  In other words, who or what is your God?  Rather than build your heaven on earth, Jesus is calling you to be generous and so store up treasure in heaven.  Or to put it another way, have a good eye rather than an evil one.  So, the simple lesson is, the ability to apply the analogy of Scripture trumps creativity, though, or course, the two aren’t mutually exclusive.  

Jeffrey A. Stivason is the pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA. He also holds a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA.  Jeff is the author of From Inscrutability to Concursus (P&R), he has contributed to The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans) and is the Executive Editor for Place for Truth.


Jeffrey Stivason