For Instruction, Doctrine, and Morals: The Analogy of Scripture
Panel discussions are great. I love the unscripted “off the cuff” format because it is in those moments that you often get the best help from a speaker. I remember listening to one such discussion and the speakers were asked what three or four books in addition to their Bible they would take to a desert island. As each speaker listed his books the lot finally fell to the man from whom I eagerly awaited an answer. What were his favorite books? What books helped to form his piety? What reading shaped his theological demeanor? What was his answer? A simple concordance is what he would take.
If memory serves, I think one of his fellow panelists jabbed him saying, “You already get to take a Bible!” But apparently the speaker had more in mind than simply reading through His Bible, which is obviously a godly and spiritually productive exercise. This speaker had a mind to study the Bible using what has been historically described as the analogia scripturae or the analogy of Scripture.
Now, that obviously prompts a basic question. What is the analogy of Scripture? It is a hermeneutical principle or a basic principle of Biblical interpretation which re-emerged within the Protestant Reformation. The principle is founded upon the belief that the Scriptures have one primary author, the Holy Spirit, who inspired Scripture. Identifying the Holy Spirit as the primary author does not reduce all other human authors of the Bible to mere automatons but it does place them under the Spirit’s superintendence. Obviously, more could be said of the mode of the Spirit’s inspiration but for now let’s think about the principle that arises from the Spirit’s work.
Think for a moment about academic work. When an academic sets out to study the thought of a particular individual the academician must read all of that person’s work. And he must read every word in the context of that man’s body of work in order to understand the man’s thought. So, it is the case with Scripture. If the Spirit is the primary author of the Bible then we must conclude that a difficult Scripture passage can be best understood when it is studied in light of the whole Bible. Sometimes this principle is described as that practice whereby less clear texts in the Bible are understood in light of clearer passages. For example, the millennium of Revelation 20 requires the interpreter to look at other passages in order to determine its meaning.
However, it is at just this point that we must make a distinction. The analogy of Scripture can and must be applied antecedently and subsequently. In other words, if we are interpreting Isaiah 53 and the substitutionary atonement found therein, then we must use all textual antecedents prior to Isaiah 53 in the interpretive process. In other words, all texts written chronologically prior to Isaiah are important when interpreting Isaiah. However, we must not stop at that point. If we really believe that the Spirit is the primary author of Scripture, then we must also use all subsequent texts. In other words, I must read Isaiah 53 in the interpretive light of II Peter 2:24-25, Matthew 8:17, John 12:38 and other New Testament texts which cite and explain Isaiah 53. To fail to apply the analogy subsequently would be to treat Scripture as if it were not a unity written by one primary author, the Holy Spirit.
So, the next time you are packing for a cruise grab your concordance. You may just find yourself on a deserted island with plenty of time to practice the analogy of Scripture!
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.