Interpreting Scripture with Scripture
We cannot properly interpret what God does, as He has recorded it for us in Scripture, unless we know something about the God who effects what is recorded for us in Scripture. In other words, there must be a hermeneutical (i.e. interpretive) dialogue between the text which confronts us (e.g., Gen. 1:1, 2, 3, and 26) and texts which inform us about who the God of those texts is and how he works. There must be a hermeneutical circle that not only helps us recognize and respect but consistently employ, if we are to speak of God as God has revealed himself to us in his written Word. Done properly, this will keep interpreters from making statements which contradict Scripture, such as concluding God must have vocal chords, a larynx, or voice box, and a mouth due to the words of Genesis 1:3 (i.e., "Then God said..."). Moses tells us that God spoke, yet we are told elsewhere in Scripture that God is invisible (e.g., see 1 Tim. 1:17 and 6:16). We must account for both, and accounting for both often requires hearing from God from other texts different from the ones under consideration. Prioritizing ontological affirmations about God (i.e. statements about who He is in Himself) will keep us from becoming neo-anthropomorphites. This, in turn, will help guard us from the naive biblicism that is present and becoming more prevalent in our day.1
Consider Genesis 1:2: "And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters." Assuming the translation is accurate, how should we explain this statement? What or who is the Spirit of God and how can we best account for the fact that Moses asserts he was "hovering over the face of the waters?" Is this some sort of primordial, quasi-divine, pneumatological hover-craft given creative power? Or is this an operation of the Holy Spirit independent of the Father and the Son? How should we account for these things? What is the most important written source outside Genesis 1:2 that we ought to consult for help? The answer ought to be obvious. We should consult Scripture, for Scripture interprets divine acts for us and explains who and what the divine agent who act is.
Since Scripture is the written Word of God, infallible and inerrant, when it interprets previously recorded divine acts, it does so infallibly. In other words, there are places in Holy Scripture where we have the Word of God on the Word of God. We have "divinely inspired and infallible interpretation by the divine author himself. 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."2 The Bible's interpretation of itself is infallible. When it utilizes itself in any fashion, it is God's interpretation for us and, therefore, the divine revelation of how texts should be understood by men. This often means that later texts shed interpretive light on earlier texts, and upon the divine acts contained in those texts. This occurs not only when the New Testament consults the Old Testament, but it occurs in the Old Testament itself. We could put it this way: subsequent revelation often makes explicit what is implicit in antecedent revelation. In the words of Vern S. Poythress, "The later communications build on the earlier. What is implicit in the earlier often becomes explicit in the later."3
Taking these things into consideration, let's consider Genesis 1:2 once again. While Genesis 1:2 says, "And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters," Psalm 104:24 says, "O LORD, how manifold are Your works! In wisdom You have made them all. The earth is full of Your possessions--" and in verse 30 we read, "You send forth Your Spirit, they are created; And You renew the face of the earth." In Job 26:13 we read, "By His Spirit He adorned the heavens." These texts outside of Genesis (and there are others like them) echo and further explain Gen. 1:2 to us. These are instances of inner-biblical exegesis within the Old Testament.
When the Bible exegetes the Bible, we have an infallible interpretation because of the divine author of Scripture. Scripture not only records the acts of God, it also interprets them. If we are going to explain the acts of God in creation, God's initial economy, with any hope of accurately accounting for those acts, we must first know something of the triune God who acts. And the only source of infallible knowledge of the triune God who acts in the Bible is the Bible alone.
1. For a more informed discussion on biblicism see James M. Renihan, "Person and Place: Two Problems with Biblicism," in Southern California Reformed Baptist Pastors' Conference Papers, Volume I (2012), ed. Richard C. Barcellos (Palmdale, CA: RBAP, 2012), 111-27 and Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain, Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015), 84ff. and 117-41.
2. 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.
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.
Richard C. Barcellos, is pastor of Grace Reformed Baptist Church, Palmdale, CA, and Associate Professor of Exegetical Theology at IRBS Theological Seminary. He is the author of Getting the Garden Right: Adam's Work and God's Rest in Light of Christ and The Covenant of Works: Its Confessional and Scriptural Basis.