THE SCRIPTURE PRINCIPLE
So, here we are, reading the Bible like Lutherans. We expect to hear God’s word. We are prepared to encounter Jesus. We are keeping the distinction of Law and Gospel firmly in mind. We are reading the text for its plain meaning, and suddenly we hit a speed bump.
The meaning of the text sometimes is just not that plain.
It is for cases like this that Martin Luther formulated the Scripture Principle. In brief, the Scripture Principle means that when a passage of Scripture is difficult to understand, contradictory or confusing, we interpret it in the light of those parts of Scripture that are clear. Sometimes the Scripture Principle is stated thus: “Scripture interprets Scripture.”
Now many Christians proclaim the Scripture Principle but have gone beyond what Luther meant. For some Christians the idea that Scripture interprets Scripture is used to build elaborate schemes of interpretation that gloss over the differences between books of the Bible. Some have used the Scripture Principle to construct minutely detailed timetables for the end of the ages which are far from the original meaning of the texts.
What Luther had in mind was more along the lines of attending to the grand themes of Scripture. For Luther, the Scripture Principle meant that when we encounter a troubling verse like Psalm 137:9 “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” we should read it over and against Jesus' words in Matthew 5:44 “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
Martin Luther was well aware of the inconsistencies in the Bible. Biblical authors do not always agree with one another. He also knew that there are some harsh passages in Scripture. Using the Scripture Principle, Lutherans are able to understand these difficult passages in the broader scope of God’s word.
Next time: Sola Scriptura.