Does the Bible interpret itself?

ImageI was recently passed a very large and heavy volume, beautifully bound in leather-covered boards, by friends clearing out their late father’s library. On opening the weighty cover, I was confronted with the bold declaration:




I’ve done no research to establish who this John Brown was, and whether he was known for this work (or for others); the Bible dates from the mid-nineteenth century. But the title itself is enough to raise some key questions. Can a Bible be ‘self-interpreting’? What would it need to achieve that? It turns out that this volume, substantial though it is, is not dissimilar to modern-day ‘study Bibles’, where the editor explains the meaning and significance of the text, verse by verse or paragraph by paragraph, in order to avoid any doubt as to the implications of this passage for the reader.

Study Bibles have a long and (mostly) illustrious history. The first in English was the Geneva Bible of 1560, and it was revolutionary in including maps, tables, diagrams and illustrations, as well as cross-referencing links from one verse to another, and comments on doctrine explaining and summarising biblical teaching. It was so successful that it displaced the Great Bible (produced by Coverdale under the commission of Thomas Cromwell for Henry VIII) in popularity, and, because of disagreements about both translation and doctrine, it provoked the production of the Authorized (King James) Bible 51 years later, which ‘corrected’ some of its more Calvinist and Puritan choices in translation and notes.

But one of the most influential (notorious?) study Bibles was the Scofield Reference Bible of 1909. It popularised the previously obscure teaching of J N Darby and his ‘dispensationalism’, which remains the most common—and problematic—reading of NT eschatology in the English-speaking Christian world—and was the first printed Bible since the Geneva Bible to put notes and comments on the same page as the biblical text. This shows the power of such a strategy—both its benefits and its dangers. It is very hard for the reader to separate the authority of the biblical text from the authority of the commentator who writes the notes. That is why I have generally been very wary of study Bibles of any form.

And this raises the key question: what does it mean to trust in Scripture alone? The Reformation slogan of sola Scriptura is often misinterpreted on both sides to mean ‘read nothing other than Scripture’, in one direction representing an obscure pride in the neglect of wider culture, and in the other direction holding up the supposed impossibility of Reformed theology. But sola Scriptura does not mean reading Scripture alone (which would be better expressed by the phrase nuda Scriptura); it means taking Scripture alone as the final authority in matters of faith and doctrine, in particular as a reforming force for the Church’s own teaching.

You do not have to know very much about the process of translation to realise that it is a logical impossibility to take the text ‘alone’, without reference to other information about language, culture and background. How else can we know what words mean and how they are used, and therefore how we ought to translate them? This takes us back to the conflict between the Geneva and King James Bibles: should ekklesia be translated ‘congregation’, with its local and relational overtones, or ‘church’ with its institutional and organisational implications? Are episkopoi overseers or bishops?

Engaging in these questions raises another key issue for evangelicals—and indeed anyone who wants to take the Bible seriously. What is the status of those who unearth this background information, particular if and when some of it is contested? How does their work relate to the ministry of those who are forming the Church’s teaching position, either nationally or locally? It is not difficult to see that control of such information involves the exercise of power in a range of ways. Do such experts in background knowledge stand between us and the text as we read it, telling us what it can and cannot mean? Or do they stand alongside us, offering us information to empower our own reading and our hearing of what God has to say to us through these texts?

In the end, the question we need to ask is not: can the Bible interpret itself? but: Can I interpret the Bible on my own, without anyone else to help me? The answer to this question is clearly ‘no’, but this says more about me and my adequacy than it does about the Bible and its sufficiency!

91oXkrAgAQLBecause of these kinds of questions, I have been very impressed by the new NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. Its major difference from many other study Bibles is that, instead of standing between the text and the reader and offering interpretation and application, its stand behind the text in offering cultural and contextual information. Part of the blurb explains this:

The Bible was originally written to an ancient people removed from us by thousands of years and thousands of miles. The Scriptures include subtle culturally based nuances, undertones, and references to ancient events, literature and customs that were intuitively understood by those who first heard the Scriptures read. For us to hear the Scriptures as they did, we need a window into their world.

In the comments on the Book of Revelation, there are a good number of really helpful comments and background articles, including:

  • explanation of the cultural context of seal scrolls and legal documents;
  • background to the context of Laodicea (Rev 3) and in particular its water supply, where it did not have access to either hot springs (like Hierapolis) or cold springs (like Colossae) both of which are good things, but instead lukewarm water piped to the city. This is essential for understanding the meaning of Rev 3.14–16 ‘…I will spew you out of my mouth’.
  • historical and geographical background to the location of the seven cities whose assemblies are addressed in the messages of chapters 2 and 3.
  • the mythological background of the story of Python and Leto that stands behind the narrative of Rev 12. It is quite unusual to find this (the strong consensus of scholarship on this chapter) made available in a more popular format.
  • a very good, brief exploration of the interpretation of the mark of the beast in Rev 13.18, which again includes the scholarly consensus position (of a reference to Nero) with a clear explanation of why this is plausible.
  • a good article on the background of the imperial cult, which impressively does not make the widespread mistake of labelling the head from the massive imperial statue in Ephesus as being of Domitian.
  • a lengthy article on Rome’s imports as background to the understanding of Rev 18 and its importance.
  • a very fair exploration of the issues around the interpretation of the millennium.

Evangelicals are sometimes accused of undermining their own commitment to sola Scriptura by allowing the dominant interpretive position of their tradition to mute the embarrassing challenges to that tradition in Scripture itself. I was struck by the way that this material, written by the prolific Craig Keener, refused to do this. It would have been easy to disguise some of the implications of this cultural background in order to accommodate a North American Christian audience—but the text does not flinch from taking a disciplined approach to exploring the issues fairly.

Rev John Brown’s ‘Self-Interpreting Bible’ is impressively bound, and a weighty addition to my shelves. But I have a feeling that I will be making more use of the NIV volume—and recommending it to others.

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8 thoughts on “Does the Bible interpret itself?”

  1. Worth noting that John Brown (1722-1787) was a Scottish Calvinist and self-taught scholar – apparently learning Greek, Hebrew and Latin by comparing texts, quite a feat (though I knew a wonderful scholar-priest who learnt a new language every year from a translation of the NT into that language, given to him at Christmas). His Dictionary of the Bible was much valued and the 18th and into the 19th century, and he forecast the beginning of the millennium in around 2016. Perhaps your friends’ discovery was more providential than they knew!

    Other than that, I dare say your choice of the NIV Cultural Backgrounds volume will, as you say, prove more profitable than Mr Brown’s.

  2. I take the point about the risks of “study Bibles” and particularly some of the failings of the Scofield Bible which are still with us. I have seen study Bibles where the comments are in bolder type than the Bible text! But I wonder if you are being less than fair to John Brown as I would assume he is offering an older version of what today would count as an intertextual approach. Brown took an inductive approach to study as shown in the way he learned the languages (A. T. Robertson held him up as a worthy example and no less than David Hume had a good word for him). The NIV Cultural Backgrounds volume looks good from the sample I have seen.

    • Thanks Murray. I am not sure I offer an explicit critique of Brown’s approach; my observation is that study Bibles can have a powerful influence—for good or ill! I still have concerns about the kind of study Bible which puts interpretation and application on the same page as the text of Holy Writ, simply because it is not Holy Writ, but the reader still remembers the notes on the same page and in the same way.

      One of the reasons why I think this latest from Zondervan is quite distinct is precisely that it is giving the cultural context of the world of the text, rather than culture application in the world of the reader. That makes both its hermeneutical function and rhetorical force quite different.

      I would like to find out more about Brown, but it is clear that his Bible was influential for many generations. That will have been good, to the extent that he is enabling biblical engagement and encouraging biblical literacy. But it would also be interesting to see to what extent it has shaped a theological agenda which then becomes *resistant* to revision in the light of Scripture itself.

  3. Glad we were able to find it a good home.
    As a beginner just dipping my toe in the murky waters of theology, I have enjoyed Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes by Kenneth Bailey.

  4. Three things strike me Ian. Point one I hope you find helpful. Point two you need to be corrected on (IMHO). Point three is about the substance of the post, which may be of some interest as well

    You can read more about John Brown in the ODNB, which has a rather laudatory entry on him written by David Wright.

    I just don’t think that dispensationalism was ‘previously obscure’ before Scofield brought out his study bible. Reread Sandeen. Dispensationalism swept through the USA in the final third of the 19th century. Moody bought into the system. Blackstone’s Jesus is Coming was The Late Great Planet Earth of the 1800’s. You tend to look at dispensationalism as a crazy way of interpreting the scripture, without recognising that the idea of any-moment-coming and the rapture, for those who believe, make the return of the Lord a matter of great moment (because the prophetic clock might start again at any time) which it is in the New Testament and surely isn’t amongst evangelicals and others who today know so much better than Scofield and Darby and La Haye and their ilk. Like Brown Scofield put all the effort required into writing his study bible because he thought there was a ready made market of dispensationalists who would buy his bible and recommend it to others. And so there was.

    I am less impressed than you are with the claim of the IVP book that ‘subtle culturally based nuances, undertones, and references to ancient events, literature and customs … were intuitively understood by those who first heard the Scriptures read’. All the first hearers must have been very clever and knowledgeable people to pick up all/some/any [of] the nuances in the difficult, erudite and complicated writings that make up the Bible. Did the first hearers of the Book of Revelation really know (all of them) the details you mention above about? What about the difference between the hearers of Jesus and the hearers of the Gospels? Did the first hearers of the Gospels outside Palestine however many years after our Lord’s ministry they were written really share in the same knowledge that his original hearers would have done? And I don’t think they all understood him anyway. Kenneth Bailey would have been a great help to lots of them as well, both in the crowds who heard our Lord speak and to the readers of the Gospels when they were circulated. Often authors/speakers know a lot more than their audience and write/speak without expecting everything they communicate in terms of cultural references to be intuitively clear. Authors have always liked to have one up on their readers, and I don’t think the writers of the Bible were any different in this regard. Cultural understanding is OK I guess, but the Bible is a religious book and to grasp what it says we need divine illumination, just like the first readers of the Scripture did. In getting over this sense I believe the Self-Interpreting Bible is likely to be [have been] of more help than the IVP book to its readers for exactly the reason you are suspicious of it, because it sets out the way of salvation which the Bible teaches.

  5. Greetings, Ian. You stated in your post that, [Scofield] “was the first printed Bible since the Geneva Bible to put notes and comments on the same page as the biblical text.” Yet even the good Rev. John Brow of Haddington, whose Self-Interpreting Bible you are writing about, included massive amounts of notes and comments on the same pages as the biblical text. The first edition was printed in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1778 (with a loan from him to his printer just to make the mammoth project possible, and no requirement of royalties), so over a hundred years before Scofield’s came out. Only a few hundred copies were printed before the printer went bankrupt, and Brown passed in 1787. The first US edition was released in 1792 and was “subscribed” by then- President George Washington, whose name atop the list of about 1,200 other subscribers appears to have been used by God to help bring significant attention to Brown’s work–and it apparently became and continued as the most popular English language study Bible in nearly 30 different published versions until Scofield’s replaced it. It is a quandary to me as to why it appears to have been all but forgotten since the last edition rolled off the presses around the mid-1920s (I think). Thanks for the writeup!

    • Dale, thanks for that information of which I was entirely ignorant—and for pointing out my consequent inconsistency!

      Fascinating that these things have been so significant—which only reinforces my concern about them!


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