The ancients wisely declared, “Scriptura scripturam interpretatur,” or “Scripture interprets Scripture.” If the Bible is God’s word, then it must be consistent with itself. Actually, one divine Author—the Holy Spirit—inspired the entire Bible. Thus, it is not possible it could contradict itself. An essential rule of Bible study (let’s call it the “synthesis principle”) puts scripture together with scripture to arrive at clear, consistent meaning. In 2 Peter 1:19-21, Peter said: “We also have the prophetic word made more sure, which you do well to heed as a light that shines in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts; knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation, for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.” In other words, there’s never any place in Bible study for, “To me, this passage means…” On the contrary, the Bible cannot have one meaning for you and another meaning for me. Whatever Scripture is saying, it is saying the same thing to both of us. Consequently, the best way to interpret Scripture is to let it interpret itself.
Thinking Of The Bible As A Symphony Orchestra
If the Bible is thought of as a symphony orchestra, and the Holy Spirit as its Arturo Toscanini (a great conductor of the past), then just as the orchestra played the notes the great Italian conductor desired, so the Bible, with its great assortment of instruments, produced the message the Holy Spirit wanted—remember, “no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation” (2 Peter 1:20). When synthesized, or put together, we have the entire symphony or word of God, as the case may be. Just as each instrumentalist’s part becomes fully clear when played in relation to all the other parts, so any one passage of the Bible becomes clear only when compared to all other passages. This means that if we hold an interpretation of one passage that contradicts another passage, at least one of these passages is being interpreted incorrectly. The Holy Spirit does not—indeed, cannot—disagree with Himself. For example, one passage cannot be saying we are saved by faith alone (cf. Romans 3:28) if there is another clear passage that says we are not saved by faith only (cf. James 2:24). Passages where the obvious meanings are clear help us to understand passages that are less clear. The prudent Bible student is careful not to build a doctrine on a single obscure or unclear passage of Scripture. Some otherwise intelligent men have done this to their own detriment.
Comparing Scripture with Scripture helps us to understand that one passage can actually amplify, clarify, modify, and qualify another passage. By qualify, I mean one passage can limit or restrict another. In this study, we’ll focus solely on the qualifying principle. Although a qualification may, at first, appear to be a contradiction or denial of a scripture, it really isn’t. A qualification merely sets the particular passage in perspective by applying additional information about the topic under consideration. As we shall see, a qualification may occur in the immediate, general, or remote context.
The Immediate Context
Sometimes a qualification is found in the very passage itself. In Matthew 19:9, the “except for sexual immorality” phrase qualifies “And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife…and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery.” Without this exception clause or qualification, divorcing one’s mate and marrying another would always be wrong.
Another example is found in 1 Corinthians 5:9-10, where Paul writes:
9 I wrote to you in my epistle not to keep company with sexually immoral people. 10 Yet I certainly did not mean with the sexually immoral people of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world.”
Verse 10 immediately qualifies what Paul wrote in verse 9.
Yet another example is found in 1 Corinthians 10:23-33, where Paul mentions not doing some things “for conscience’ sake” (verses 25,27,28). It’s not until we get to verse 29 that we hear him say: “‘Conscience,’ I say, not your own, but that of the other. For why is my liberty judged by another man’s conscience?” Without this immediate qualification, we would not know that this passage was actually referring to another man’s conscience rather than our own.
Immediate, clear-cut qualifications of Scripture are very rare. Imagine what the Bible would read like if, after every bit of instruction in the Bible, God would have explained what the passage did not mean. Such a list of seemingly endless qualifications would surely cause us to lose the crucial point under discussion. Nevertheless, the principle of qualification is an extremely important concept to understand when trying to discover the correct meaning of any Bible passage.
Finally, the interpretation of a verse in its immediate context is actually the foundation of Bible interpretation and serves as a precedent for how the process should be employed in the larger context of Scripture. Therefore, understanding how the principle of qualification is to be employed, we are ready to examine some passages that are qualified by their general contexts.
The General Context
An example of a qualification in the general context is Solomon’s frequently misinterpreted statement, “The dead know nothing” (Ecclesiastes 9:5). He is not denying continuing existence or consciousness after one experiences physical death, as many think, as this would be a contradiction of the necessary inference of Exodus 3:6, where God stated, “I am the God of your father—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” The necessary inference, according to Jesus (cf. Mark 12:18-27), is that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, although physically dead, remain in a state of conscious existence. Of course, the Sadducees did not believe that a human being survived physical death (cf. Acts 23:8). Failing to make the necessary conclusion of Exodus 3:6, Jesus said they were “greatly mistaken” (Mark 12:27). One might suspect that the Sadducees may have even cited Ecclesiastes 9:5 as their proof-text. Yet, when we consider the story—notice, I did not say parable—Jesus told of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31, we realize that Solomon’s statement could not be referring to one’s lack of consciousness beyond the grave.
Now, there’s the possibility that Solomon could have been mistaken about what he wrote and the Holy Spirit permitted his misunderstanding to be recorded in Scripture. This happens occasionally in the Scriptures. However, when one considers the surrounding context of Solomon’s statement, this possibility is eliminated. In the general context, Solomon is referring to life “under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 9:3,6,9). In fact, much of what Solomon says in this book should be viewed within the “under the sun” context. There are twenty-seven occurrences of this phrase in the book, beginning in Ecclesiastes 1:3 and ending in Ecclesiastes 10:5. Thus, Solomon’s “the dead know nothing” statement is restricted and limited to an ongoing knowledge of the earthly affairs experienced by those who are still physically alive. As such, it does not extend to those who are “alive” in the spirit.
Another example of a general context qualification is found in 1 Corinthians 10:23, where the apostle Paul writes, “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful; all things are lawful for me, but not all things edify.” Some have taken this passage to mean that those in Christ are no longer subject to law, but this view is clearly wrong. Although it is true that a Christian is not dependent upon a system of perfect law-keeping for justification (thank God!), he is, nevertheless, under law to Christ (1 Corinthians 9:21; Galatians 6:2). Paul, who is speaking by inspiration, is not saying everything (viz., fornication, adultery, lying, theft, etc., which are clearly condemned in other passages) is lawful, which would make the Scriptures contradictory. Instead, the general context indicates that what he’s saying is that within the category of things that are lawful, there are some things that are not helpful or expedient. The context informs us that whatever the Christian does must glorify God (v. 31) and that even our liberty (viz., the “all things” that “are lawful”) may be limited by another person’s conscience (vv. 27-29). In other words, even when something is lawful for me, I should usually refrain from doing it if it will give “offense either to the Jews or the Greeks or to the church of God” (v. 32). I say “usually,” because even this doctrine is qualified. Paul is not writing in this passage of things that are required. For example, if my devotion to Jesus Christ offends a Jew or Muslim, (e.g., invoking His name in prayer), then so be it—I must “obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). On the other hand, I will not offend my Muslim or Jewish dinner guest by serving him pork, which, as a Christian, I am at liberty to eat. And, in the case under consideration in this passage, I need not be overly scrupulous about eating meat, whether selecting it in the marketplace or eating it when it is set before me at an unbeliever’s table. On the other hand, if I am informed that the meat has been sacrificed to an idol, which, in and of itself, does not affect the edibility of the meat, I will, nevertheless, refrain from eating it, not to appease my conscience, but so as not to embolden the conscience of another.
Furthermore, 1 Corinthians 10:23-33, along with 1 Corinthians 8:8-9, effectively qualify the commandment given elsewhere to “abstain from things offered to idols” (Acts 15:29). This last example is an illustration of a qualification that takes place in the remote context. It is to this subject we now turn our attention.
The Remote Context
In Matthew 19:26, Jesus says: “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” When we contemplate God’s omnipotence, this is exactly the idea we have in mind. In fact, if one were to ask a class of Christians to define God’s omnipotence, they would probably answer that omnipotence means God can do anything and everything. Even so, this is not what the Scriptures teach!
In Hebrews 6:18, the Bible says “it is impossible for God to lie.” This is not, as some suppose, a denial of the truth taught in Matthew 19:26; instead, it is a qualification. God, who is holy, “cannot lie” (Titus 1:2). So, we understand that what Jesus meant in Matthew 19:26 is “with God all things [consistent with His nature-AT] are possible.” So, the phrase “all things” does not always mean all things. The “all things” in one passage may very well be qualified by something said in another passage.
We are now ready to wrestle with Jacob’s statement in Genesis 32:30, which says, “For I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.” If what God told Moses in Exodus 33:20 is true (viz., “You cannot see My face; for no man shall see Me, and live”), then Jacob’s statement in Genesis 32:30 is certainly problematic. Unfamiliar with the principle of qualification, some view Jacob’s statement as a clear-cut contradiction of Genesis 32:20 and other passages (cf. John 1:18; 1 Timothy 6:16; 1 John 4:12), which ultimately reflects on the integrity of the entire Bible. But if the Bible is what it claims to be, then it simply cannot be contradicting itself. How, then, can we resolve this apparent dilemma?
First of all, God “cannot lie” (Titus 1:2). So we can be sure that Jacob did not see the face of God in the same sense God uses this expression in Exodus 33:20. When one looks at the context of God’s statement to Moses, it seems clear He uses “My face” to mean His pure Spirit essence, “dwelling in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see” (1 Timothy 6:16). Consequently, Jacob cannot be understood to be saying he saw the pure and glorious Spirit essence of Almighty God. If so, then Jacob was mistaken, and his misperception was recorded here like other false ideas and downright untruths that are cited elsewhere in Scripture (e.g., Satan’s original lie is recorded in Genesis 3:4, as are the false theological ideas expressed by Job’s friends).
Second, when we consider what was said about this incident in Hosea 12:4, then it is clear that Jacob wrestled with a not so ordinary angel. In fact, when we examine verses 4 and 5, it appears Jacob wrestled with the Angel of Yahweh (Exodus 3:2; Judges 2:1), who is elsewhere called the Angel of God (Exodus 14:19), or the Angel of His Presence (Isaiah 63:9). Some believe this “angel” to be the pre-incarnate appearances of the Lord Himself. Others who encountered this unique angel had similar reactions as did Jacob (cf. Judges 6:22 and 13:22). On these occasions, God evidently took upon Himself human form for the express purpose of manifesting Himself to those involved. In theological parlance, these manifestations are called “theophanies,” which mean “appearances of God.” Because those who saw God in these theophanies did not see God in His true Spirit essence, they did not die as they had expected.
This interpretation is compatible with all the accepted rules of Bible interpretation and consistent with the totality of Scripture. As such, it completely harmonizes what would otherwise be contradictory passages.
Jesus’ Unqualified Endorsement Of The Principle
In his temptation of Jesus, Satan “twisted” (2 Peter 3:16) the Scriptures by neglecting the principle of qualification. In Matthew 4:5-7, the Bible says:
Then the devil took Him up into the holy city, set Him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down. For it is written: ‘He shall give His angels charge over you,’ and, ‘In their hands they shall bear you up, Lest you dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “It is written again, ‘You shall not tempt the LORD your God.’”
Satan’s citation of Psalm 91:11-12 was accurate but misapplied in that the providential care promised in this passage did not include the deliberate testing of God’s faithfulness. Jesus makes this clear in His citation of Deuteronomy 6:16, which says, “You shall not tempt the LORD your God.” This means that Jesus gave His unqualified endorsement to the principle of qualification when He made it clear that the protection offered in Psalm 91:11-12 is qualified by the Scriptures’ teaching on man’s obligation not to tempt God. What this means is that being a child of God is not a license to act recklessly. Therefore, if you can’t swim, don’t jump into water over your head to discover if God will save you.
In their misapplication of Mark 16:18, the religiously deluded snake handlers of Eastern Kentucky neglect, as did Satan, the very important principle of qualification. Although not as radical as the snake handlers, many other religious individuals and groups make the same mistake. As conscientious students of God’s word, let us be careful not to commit the same error. As we have seen, a proper understanding of this most important principle is indispensable to the correct interpretation of Scripture.