This is the third post in a series on principles of Biblical interpretation for the previous entry please click HERE.
Clear Governs Unclear
I have found this is among the most useful tools for interpretation of scripture. The Bible is the Word of God and I accept this means there are no contradictions or errors. That said some verses can be juxtaposed and reasoned against each other when terms are undefined or unclear. It has been my experience that when I exam scripture in these cases closely I find that some of these passages are more clear than others. So until I fully understand what is going on I rely on the clear passages. Before breaking down my understanding of how this works I am going to quote a professional, he uses the words “incidental” and “systematic” instead of clear and unclear but I think the principle is the same. You can find this entry in its fullness in Present Truth Magazine, Volume 12 Chapter 2.
“This rule applies to the proper reading of any literature. It is common sense, but how hard it is to use common sense when we are so anxious to prove our point!
For example, the heart of all Bible doctrine is the great doctrine of justification by grace, for Christ’s sake, through faith. There are two books in the Bible (Romans and Galatians) which present this doctrine systematically, and they do it also in the perspective of sacred history—the promise to Abraham, the giving of the Law, etc. Common sense should teach us to build our understanding about justification by going to the places where the subject and all the ramifications of it are treated systematically.
Now there are places where Paul touches on justification incidentally, like in Titus 3:5-8. He is writing to a fellow minister and has no need to speak in detail. Some have used the incidental passage in Titus (i.e., the Roman Catholics at Trent) in an effort to substantiate the doctrine of justification by infused righteousness (inward renewal). Now let us grant the point that it is possible to get that idea out of Titus 3:5-8. Then there is the book of James, a wonderful place where some go to build a prima facie case for justification by works.
Major heresies are often the result of turning minors into majors. In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul incidentally makes some reference to “baptism for the dead,” and most scholars will admit that Paul’s meaning here is obscure. But the Mormons use this as the basis of a whole doctrine on baptism for the dead. And while we are talking about the dead, how hard it is for us humans to think rationally when we are governed sentimentally. If we want to prove something about the intermediate state badly enough, we will find a text somewhere to support it, but the chances are that we will build a great edifice on an incidental passage. Rather, we should honestly go to where the subject is treated in a systematic way. Do not interpret the systematic passage in the light of the incidental one, but the incidental must be interpreted by the systematic. It is positively foolhardy to build a doctrine on an incidental passage.”
What defines a clear passage?
The clarity often depends on the definition of terms with regards to the topic in question. I am not saying that one simply writes off verses as not being in scripture, it just depends on what it is that you are studying. This is because sometimes a verse might offhand mention a doctrine even though the context is directed on something else entirely. When this happens I simply don’t rely on that verse for the doctrine I am studying. How is such a principle applied to practice? To answer that I am going to put forward three practical examples.
Practical Example #1
As I was leaving SDA one of the doctrines I chose to study was Hell. SDA teach a form of annihilationism and most other Christians teach that Hell is a place of eternal conscious torment. To discern who was correct I pulled every passage that I could find on the topic and read each carefully, then categorized them.
As I demonstrated in my post on Hell the two verses below are extremely clear on this topic:
“And the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever: and they have no rest day nor night, who worship the beast and his image, and whosoever receiveth the mark of his name.” Revelation 14:11 KJV
“And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are, and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever.” Revelation 20:10 KJV
Some may wonder though why I chose not to even bring this next verse up at all:
“For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Romans 6:23 KJV
This verse is used by annihilationists to argue for the destruction of body and soul in hell rather than its persistence. I would agree that for other doctrines this verse is very clear and should be quoted. However it’s not teaching on the topic of Hell where as the passages from Revelation that I listed are.
When I first discerned this I didn’t know what was meant by “death” in Rom 6:23, and though I felt uncomfortable passing it by I had to trust that in time maybe I would learn what God the Holy Spirit was saying here. Today I would argue that the death in view is the spiritual death that we are all cursed with by original sin, once regenerated by Grace through Faith in the atoning sacrifice of Christ we are no longer spiritually dead and receive the gift of eternal life spoken of in this passage.
To interpret “death” in the above verse as annihilation of body and soul in hell has to bend and twist very clear passages which teach to the contrary. Thus clear passages should always govern unclear.
Practical Example #2
Another example that is even more obvious but highly controversial is that of women’s ordination. The traditional teaching of the Church is that a woman cannot hold the Biblical office of pastor. Reason being is that there are very clear verses that say things like this:
“But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.” 1 Tim 2:12 KJV
“This is a true saying, If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work. A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, ….” 1 Tim 3:1-7 KJV
To be fair that second passage goes on listing a whole host of additional requirements a pastor must meet besides just being male. Also both passages are addressing the biblical office of pastor only not household hierarchy.
That said, with regards to the qualifications for the Biblical office of pastor it is clear that one must be a man. Obviously this is not a popular truth taught or practiced today. Many Churches are in open rebellion to this. They will use verses like below to argue that women can be pastors:
“Salute Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen, and my fellowprisoners, who are of note among the apostles, who also were in Christ before me.” Rom 16:7 KJV
The argument generally goes that since Junia sounds like a feminine name that means women can be Pastors today. First problem with this is that the verse is not teaching on the Biblical office of pastor and the above passages from 1 Timothy are. Second, we actually don’t know what sex Junia was. The text doesn’t say, which defacto renders this text unclear to the subject matter at hand.
Practical Example #3
Lastly I am going to address how I used this technique in my post on the State of the Dead. SDA and Jehovah’s witnesses use similar proof-texts to argue for their position on soul sleep, which is the belief that there is no soul but rather just flesh. Furthermore they believe that when one dies they simply cease to exist altogether until the resurrection. The problem is that they ultimately end up governing clear text with unclear text when we are supposed to do that the other way around.
“Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Believest thou this?” John 11:25-26 KJV
“1 For we know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens….6 Therefore we are always confident, knowing that, whilst we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord: 7 (For we walk by faith, not by sight:) 8 We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord.” 2 Cor 5:1,6-8 KJV
The above texts are very clear and on the topic of the human soul, its existence, and disposition after death. In an attempt to overwrite this some will use verses like Ecc 9:5.
“3 … under the sun…. 5 For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten. 6 … under the sun.” Ecc 9:3-6 KJV
In the above passage I condensed to point out that the context is under the sun. For a full examination of all of these verses please read my post on the state of the dead. The point is it is irresponsible and misleading to use Ecc 9:5 to delete the obvious meaning from clear texts such as 2 Cor 5:1-8 and John 11:25-26 when in fact it is much more logical to accept that the context of Ecc 9:5 limits the teaching to events transpiring under the sun. Since souls go to heaven or hell upon death this simply is not a contradiction as such places cannot be visited “under the sun”.
My overall point is that it is a good Biblical principle to govern unclear verses with clear ones. Unfortunately this principle will lead you to believe doctrines that you might personally find distasteful. However, in the end you actually have your bible governing you rather than a puddy of passages you are free to bend any way you like to suit your worldview.