Interpretation of Scriptures (Mennonite Brethren Church, 1978)

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Interpretation of Scriptures (MB, 1978)


  1. The interpreter must seek to understand the original author's intent
  2. The Old and the New Testament need to be seen as an organic unity
  3. The interpretation of the Scriptures needs to take account of revelation as progressive
  4. Interpretation of the Scriptures and response to them requires the illumination of the Holy Spirit
  5. Interpretation of the Scriptures needs to be done with a right attitude within the believing community

Our interest in .the crucial contemporary issue of Biblical interpretation (hermeneutics) is to permit God through His Spirit to speak clearly and powerfully to us in our present situation. Our concern is to grasp the message of the Bible so that we might grasp the living God to the fullness of His self-revelation. Biblical authority, therefore, is fundamental to our understanding of God, His redemptive purpose in Christ and our task and mission in the world. Because our God is a speaking God, His revelation is both propositional and personal.

We regard the Bible's affirmations about itself as determinative for our understanding of the origin and nature of the Scriptures (cf. 2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:21). To accept Christ as Lord is to accept the Old Testament Scriptures as God's word as He did, and to acknowledge the New Testament as His word. As the inspired Word of God the Bible is the infallible and inerrant rule of faith and life for us and for all mankind. This principle of Biblical authority (Sola Scriptura) is to control our hermeneutics! We commit ourselves to, the following principles of interpretation.

1. The interpreter must seek to understand the original author's intent.

Because God revealed Himself in history to men with varied personalities rooted in different cultures, a proper interpretation of the Scriptures requires a thorough going grammatico-historical exegesis.

Our understanding of the cultural context there fore, is helpful--the language and concepts of the day, the literature and literary forms. Biblical writers did not abstract themselves from their culture. Paul quotes pagan authors (eg. Acts 17:28); Jude refers to contemporary religious writings. One must not presuppose that they merely echo these writings; they use or transform them for their own purposes. Therefore, a study of extra-Biblical writings may throw some light on certain Biblical words, expressions, or references.

However, while we want to discover all we can of the Biblical background to help us understand the Biblical author's intention, we assert the primacy of the Biblical text. The Bible is its own best interpreter. We believe in the clarity (perspicuity) of the Scriptures and that every believer can understand and respond to its message. Therefore, painstaking Biblical studies and meditation should go together.

This means, for example, that we ought not to bring to the Bible a preunderstanding of man's need based on current philosophical, psychological or sociological perspectives--as a hermeneutical principle--in order to understand the Gospel message in that perspective. Our understanding of man, for example, and his need before God is to be derived from the Scriptures and be under the Scriptures' control, and in that light we understand the wonderful redemption wrought by God in our Lord Jesus Christ.

2. The Old and the New Testament need to be seen as an organic unity.

Because all Scriptures are inspired of God, we look for and expect harmony in all of its parts. There is rich diversity and a complementarity, without contradictions.

However, Biblical harmony must not be confused with mechanical or wooden conformity. We need to recognize and search for the distinctive emphases of the various Biblical writers. For example, the Gospel authors organized similar events in different chronological order or selected aspects of the same events for different purposes. All agree on the central aspects of the accounts, but each at times approaches the event with a different interest.

Because of the rich diversity in the Scriptures, it is understandable that in interpreting Biblical teaching on some doctrines, such as eschatology, we may arrive at variant conclusions on details. This arises out of our own imperfect understanding of the Scriptures, as well as out of the fact that "the perfect" has not yet come: "Now we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, that which is in part will pass away" (1 Corinthians 13:9). Nevertheless, we should diligently pursue our Biblical studies guided by the principle that the more evident and plain assertions of Scriptures help us understand the more difficult, more symbolic and problematic portions.

3. The interpretation of the Scriptures needs to take account of revelation as progressive.

God's redemptive acts are a chain of events spanning thousands of years culminating in the incarnation, death and resurrection of our Lord and the accompanying interpretations of the New Testament.

From the Old Testament to the New there is evident an expansion of God's self-revelation, a development of His redemptive plans, and an increasing clarity of His purposes. Within the Old Testament the prophets and psalms provide a further understanding of God's will than the Pentateuch; the New Testament goes beyond the Old. There are promises and fulfillment; types and anti-types; shadows and reality. Both Testaments find a central focus and finality in Christ. This Christo-centricity is to guide our interpretation of the whole Scriptures, even as our Lord taught us (Luke 24:44 ff).

Old Testament texts or events are referred to in the New Testament in continuity with their significance in the Old, but also with an expanded meaning not readily apparent in the earlier context.

4. Interpretation of the Scriptures and response to them requires the illumination of the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit through whom the Scriptures come gives illumination to the mind and heart of man enabling him to understand them; "Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things fully given us by God .. . but a natural man does accept the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them (1 Corinthians 2:12-14). It is the Spirit of God who authenticates the Word in our hearts, "for our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with conviction" (1 Thessalonians 1:5). Of particular significance is the need to seek the help of the Spirit in order to apply rightly the Word of God to the life situation we are in: ". . . that you may be filled with the Knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding so that you may walk in a manner worthy of the Lord" (Colossians 1:9-10).

5. Interpretation of the Scriptures needs to be d one with a right attitude within the believing community.

The Bible encourages us to hunger intensively after the Word (1 Peter 2). Seeking the face of God, hungering and thirsting after righteousness, meditating on the Word of God, seeking Him in prayer, responding in obedience to His voice--all are basic attitudes we need to cultivate in our personal and corporate lives. Insights into God's Word and the right application of it to our lives are not apart from spiritual struggle in His presence (Psalm 1; 1 Peter 2; Psalm 27; 2 Timothy 3:15-17).

The Bible also underscores the interdependence of the members of the body of Christ. We are to contribute to each others' growth to maturity (Ephesians 4), This calls for an interest in the understanding of Scriptures God has given to other members of the body of Christ--those who in past history have served Him faithfully, and those who today love Him and seek to bring every thought captive to Christ. Within the Priesthood of believers we acknowledge the words of the Scriptures: "And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets and some as evangelists and some as pastors and teachers for the equipping of the saints . . ." (Ephesians 4:11, 12) We may, therefore, speak of the validity of n "congregational hermeneutics."


Yearbook, 54th session, General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches, August 3-6, 1978. Winnipeg? : Kindred Press?, 1978: 12-15.