Many are surprised to learn the allegorist, Origen, held (rather loosely) to two interpretational parameters: (1) the analogy of Scripture (analogia scriptura) and (2) the rule of faith (regula fidei). Regarding the former, he advocates “‘comparing spiritual with spiritual,’ and interpreting each passage according to the usage of Scripture writers.” Regarding the latter, he plainly states the teaching of the Church “alone is to be accepted as truth which differs in no respect from ecclesiastical and apostolical tradition.” Augustine (also loosely) followed suit. Later, both Luther and Calvin appealed to Romans 12:6 to support the “rule of faith.” Henry Blocher’s older but excellent article traces how, for the Reformers, the “rule of faith” became synonymous with “Scripture interprets Scripture.” My next article will tighten the screws further—suggesting we first employ the analogy of antecedent Scripture before consulting subsequent revelation—but for now, here is the idea: If you encounter a word or phrase you don’t understand, sometimes another verse of Scripture might cast light on it. However, “proof-texting” or appealing to “parallel passages” can be a dangerous game in which eisegesis quickly creeps in.
We need a controlled process when we appeal to other texts for clarity.
Analogy of Scripture: The Process
Try this controlled process when appealing to parallel passages or proof-texts (similar to the word study process I wrote about earlier).
- Consult clearer verses written in the same book you are studying. If a verse in Romans is unclear to us, does Paul address the same subject elsewhere in Romans?
- Consult other biblical writings by the same author. Let’s say that same verse in Romans remains unclear to us. Does Paul broach the subject with more clarity in another of his letters?
- Open-up your investigation to parallel passages written by other Scripture writers. If you are in Matthew’s Gospel, does Mark or Luke or John mention the same situation? Here, we must be careful of a host of other exegetical considerations: different author, different audience, different situation, etc. At the same time, we would be remiss to neglect consulting the whole counsel of God.
Jesus, the “Firstborn?”
Colossians 1:15 states, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” The term, “firstborn” (πρωτότοκος), created quite a stir for about 55 years between two men in church history: (1) Arian, a priest and (2) Athanasius, a deacon (who later became bishop of Alexandria). Both were located in Alexandria, Egypt in the 4th century. Their conflict was over the nature/deity of Christ, and it all came down to a single word, “firstborn.”
Arian believed Jesus was finite. To him, Jesus was the “firstborn” in this sense: He was “created” as the first act of creation. Arian (as recorded by Socrates) famously opined, “If the Father begat the Son, then He Who was begotten had a beginning.” It follows that the Son is subordinate, not co-equal, with God the Father, a view known as subordinationism.
Athanasius believed Jesus was an infinite Person in the Godhead. To him, Jesus was the “firstborn” in this sense: He held supremacy in rank. In Bible times, the firstborn son was held in great honor. Athanasias believed Christ is eternal, co-equal with God, and the “firstborn” Who outranks all other created beings.
For 55 years, the debate kept going. Finally, in 325 AD, the first ecumenical church council was convened, the Nicene Council, to settle the matter. Athanasius won the day, and the doctrine of the Trinity became codified in the Nicene Creed. However, Jehovah Witnesses today still hold Arian’s heresy, which is why they deny the Trinity . . . and it all came down to one word, “firstborn.”
Had they followed our controlled process, we could have saved them 55 years and much turmoil.
- Does Paul use this word anywhere else in Colossians? No, so we have a dead-end there.
- Does Paul use the world anywhere else in his other letters? Yes, twice. He uses it in Colossians 1:18 in the same context. The only other time he uses it is Romans 8:29: For those whom He foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, in order that He might be the firstborn among many brothers. Here, Paul clearly is speaking in spiritual terms. He is not speaking of one “born first” physically. Rather, he was declaring that Jesus was the “first in rank” among all creatures.
- Does any other NT writer use the term? Yes; Luke, John, and the author of Hebrews used the term. Luke 2:7 uses it in a physical sense: Jesus was Mary’s “firstborn” son. The writer to Hebrews uses it three times: twice as “first in rank” (Heb 1:6, 12:23) and once as physical “firstborn” (Heb 11:28), referring to the death of the “firstborn” at Passover. Finally, John uses it in Revelation 1:5 as “first in rank:” Jesus was “firstborn” from the dead. Jesus wasn’t the first to rise from the dead (Lazarus, Eutychus, Jairus’ daughter, etc.). He was the “first in rank” to rise and never die again.
Having completed this simple exegetical process, we must have the intellectual honesty to admit the word can mean “firstborn” physically. However, it is rare, and the context makes it explicit when it does. We feel confident in this context, Paul meant “first in rank.” The surrounding context and the grammar evidence supports that assertion. We agree with Athanasius: The glorious, historic doctrine of the Trinity stands.
“Hate” My Family?
Walt Kaiser offers another example. Luke 14:26: If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple. The word, “hate” (μισεῖ), a strong word in Greek, is troublesome because it seems to contradict the 5th commandment. A word study reveals the term, indeed, means “to detest.” Do other parallel passages cast light on this dilemma?
- Does Luke use it anywhere else in his Gospel? He uses it 6 other times, all in terms of the world’s hatred for Christ and His followers. Luke’s other uses don’t help us much on this issue.
- Does Luke use it in his other writing, Acts? No.
- Do any other NT writers use it? Yes, it’s used 33 times by various NT authors, but none offer much clarity for us. However, one other parallel passage might help. Matthew 10:37: Whoever loves father or mother more than Me, is not worthy of Me. And whoever loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. Matthew is making the point to a different (Jewish) audience, but his description his revealing. It does aid us in understanding Luke’s intent more precisely: Your love for Jesus must be so overwhelming that your love for your family (or yourself) pales in comparison.
Try this little 3-step process as you go. It will keep you on the right track, as well as keep you from falling into Arian or other heresies.
Origen, Contra Celsus 7.11 (ANF, 4:615).
Origen, De Principiis Praef., 2 (ANF, 239).
Augustine’s views essentially are the same as Origen’s. For his view on the analogia scriptura, see Augustine, On Christian Doctrine 3.26, 27, 28; for the regula fidei, see 3.2, 5.
Likewise, we mustn’t forget the 1689 London Baptist Confession states, “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself; and therefore when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched by other places that speak more clearly” (1.9).
Socrates Scholasticus, “Ecclesiastical History,” Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, series 2, vol. 2 (1957), 3.
Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Toward an Exegetical Theology, 126.
Bauer, Danker, Arndt, and Gingrich (BDAG), A Greek-English Lexicon . . ., 3rd ed.
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