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Interpretation of Scripture as Revelation

The most authoritative way in which God reveals himself to us is through Scripture. Nature, the conscience, and non-canonical prophets are also important channels through which God communicates with us. Because of God’s irrepressible desire to communicate with us, however, his revelation confronts us constantly, in almost every situation. People have reported hearing God’s voice speak to them as they faced difficult decisions. Others have reported hearing God speak to them as they opened the Bible and their eyes fell upon verses that gave them immediate peace and comfort in their hour of need. In short, there is abundant evidence that that God seeks to reach out to humans with his message of love and concern in almost anyway he can.

Yet, the most important and frequent way in which God desires to communicate with humans is through the interpretation of Scripture. It is unclear why this important source of divine revelation is often overlooked.1 Perhaps, it is because revelation is often viewed as something that God communicates directly and mystically to his inspired messengers, rather than as what one can learn by interpreting Scripture. Such a mystical view of revelation, however, cannot be sustained in light of the Bible, because so much of Scripture, especially the New Testament, is actually an interpretation of previously written Scripture. If we were to limit revelation strictly to God’s direct and mystical communications to his messengers, we would need to reduce the Bible to a fraction of its present size. For example, Romans 4 is a sustained interpretation (known as midrash) of the story of Abraham in Genesis 12–21. Much of Hebrews is also an interpretation of various passages of the Old Testament. Even Revelation, a book based on visions, is composed largely of allusions and echoes of the Old Testament. Anyone who holds the view that revelation is primarily either a panoramic vision or a word-for-word communication of some mystical message from God will be disappointed with the Bible, for a significant portion of it is an interpretation and application of earlier parts.

Throughout history, God has spoken to his human subjects as they opened Scripture and sought to interpret it. Perhaps the clearest description of such incident is found in Luke 24:13–32. According to this story, the resurrected Jesus met his two discouraged disciples, Cleopas and his companion, walking to Emmaus, and tried to explain the meaning of his suffering and resurrection to them. What is remarkable about this story is that Jesus revealed the meaning of his death and resurrection through the process of interpretation. Verse 27 states: “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, [Jesus] interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” (RSV; italics supplied). Then, in v. 32, the disciples ask: “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?” (RSV; italics supplied). A similar incident is found in Acts 8:26-39, in which God revealed himself to an Ethiopian eunuch as Philip tried to explain of the meaning of Isa. 53:7ff. to him (Acts 8: 35).

The history of Christianity is replete with evidence that God reveals himself to his people as they interpret Scripture. For example, the Protestant Reformers discovered the revelation of God through exegesis, or careful reading, of Scripture. Early Adventist pioneers also discovered much of their revelation as small bands of disappointed former Millerites got together and tried to understand Scripture. It was by no means Ellen G. White’s visions alone that communicated God’s revelation to the early Advent movement. It was as ordinary people opened the Bible and tried to dig into its rich deposits of truth that they came away with a clear sense of God’s revelation and presence.

Perhaps the strongest evidence that God speaks to us through the interpretive process is the concern and even anxiety expressed over the dangers of subjective and individualistic interpretations of Scripture. The Roman Catholic position on biblical interpretation perhaps best expresses such concern. According to the decree of the Council of Trent, the ecclesial authority of the Roman Church reserves the right “to judge regarding the true sense and interpretation of the holy Scriptures.”2 This resolution of Trent betrays how easy it is for people to hear the voice of God speaking to them when they study Scripture and how concerned the church was that the new revelations emerging from the interpretative process might be at odds with its teachings.

In spite of its sola scriptura position, Protestantism has also fallen victim to the same anxiety over biblical interpretation. The plethora of methods and tools, many of which were devised by Protestant scholars to ensure accurate interpretation of Scripture, often betray the desire to control the interpretive process. The original languages, archeology, historical, and cultural information about the backgrounds of the biblical books, analysis of the socio-economic situation of the original readers of the Scriptures, and the various methods of literary analysis are some of the tools that have been used to safeguard against subjectivity and individualism. There is no question that these tools have produced impressive results, as seen in the books, commentaries, and learned articles on the Bible pouring forth from the presses. But sometimes it is almost as though scholars are afraid that people might actually hear the voice of God speaking to them from the pages of the Bible they are reading.

The most unfortunate aspect of this modern preoccupation with methodology is that it has given the impression that the interpretation of the Bible belongs to a specialized domain of experts. Most people do not have the time or skill to master the original languages or to keep up with the avalanche of literature pouring forth from the presses each year. I am convinced that, in spite of all the dangers, the Bible is safe in the hands of common people who lack these resources. Throughout history, God has been pleased to reveal himself to countless people, often with little formal theological education, as they applied their minds to interpreting the Bible. Biblical interpreters of the past did not have the modern tools of interpretation available to them. Yet it did not prevent God from communicating with his human subjects who prayerfully studied the Scriptures to understand and follow his will.

One safeguard that all interpreters of the Bible—both modern and ancient—have used to insure the accuracy of their interpretation is collaboration and dialogue with the wider community of believers. Paul explains how the community functions in biblical interpretation when he writes: “Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others judge” (1 Cor. 14:29). The worshippers in the early church received various types of revelation from God (compare 14:26), as the interpreters of Scripture (described as “prophets” in v. 29) engaged in an interpretive process that allowed them to challenge or affirm each other’s reading of Scripture. God’s voice was heard as the congregation listened to and participated in such lively exchanges. The early church believed that Scripture was its own self-correcting interpreter. History has proven time and again the truth of this claim. The church has never failed to hear God speak in its midst when it interpreted the Scriptures prayerfully, honestly, vigorously, and openly.

Notes and References

1. For example, this week’s lesson study does not have a section on scriptural interpretation.

2. Heinrich Denzinger, The Source of Catholic Dogma, trans. Roy J. Deferrari (St. Louis, Mo.: Herder, 1957), section 786; quoted in G. C. Berkouwer, Holy Scripture, trans. and ed. Jack B. Rogers (Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 1975), 115.

P. Richard Choi is associate professor of New Testament at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

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