Essential Sources for Biblical Interpretation: A new quadrilateral? (or, Use these sources, but don’t say “quadrilateral”)

In my response to Adam Hamilton, I suggested a move from contextual reading to canonical reading. I want to be careful to say that I don’t intend a move away from contextual reading. We need it! We just can’t leave it by itself.

I’ll propose here that we need four essential sources for good biblical interpretation. When we lack any of these, our interpretations go askew. Those four: Context, Canon, Christ, Church.


N. T. Wright has observed that some take a “skin-deep-only appeal to ‘contextual readings,’ as though by murmuring the magic word ‘context’ one is allowed to hold the meaning and relevance of the text at arm’s length.” [note]Scripture and the Authority of God, p. 111[/note]

As David Watson says in response to anyone who claims they can’t believe something in the Bible because it reflects an ancient worldview: “The whole Bible reflects an ancient worldview. There’s not one word of Scripture that doesn’t reflect an ancient worldview.” [note]See it in this excellent short video: “How Not to Deal with the Challenging Parts of Scripture”[/note] We can’t be excused for dismissing the entire Bible because of its ancient context, but neither can we overlook it.

The biggest problem with neglecting a passage’s cultural context is that we ignore our own context in the process. We forget that we may be reading into a text something entirely different from its intent.

All texts had a particular author, setting, genre, and purpose. Ignoring those can lead us to false and unnecessary conclusions. Ignore the context of Genesis 1 and you may treat it as a science textbook. Ignore the context of discussions about slavery and polygamy and you may assume that these discussions are endorsements. This is what we typically regard as fundamentalism.

God has acted in history, including in the historical writing and reception of these texts. We need to understand them in those historical contexts to understand them well.


I’ve argued for canonical reading in various forms in the previous two posts. This beautiful quote from John Wesley demonstrates a reverence for the whole scriptural canon as a word from the living God:

Concerning the Scriptures in general, it may be observed, the word of the living God, which directed the first patriarchs also, was, in the time of Moses, committed to writing. To this were added, in several succeeding generations, the inspired writings of the other prophets. Afterward, what the Son of God preached, and the Holy Ghost spake by the apostles, the apostles and evangelists wrote.

This is what we now style the Holy Scripture: this is that word of God which remaineth for ever: of which, though heaven and earth pass away, one jot or tittle shall not pass away. The Scripture therefore of the Old and New Testament, is a most solid and precious system of Divine truth. Every part thereof is worthy of God; and all together are one entire body, wherein is no defect, no excess. It is the fountain of heavenly wisdom, which they who are able to taste, prefer to all writings of men, however wise, or learned, or holy.

from Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament, Introduction, par. 10.

Some people in the UMC have since suggested that it’s unnecessary to read the biblical canon as divine revelation. They point to our Doctrinal Standards[note]rejecting any of Wesley’s Works as binding and ignoring them as informative[/note] that say only that the biblical canon reveals the Word of God, thereby giving themselves liberty to choose which Scriptures are revelation and which are not.

This won’t do. Without a view of Scripture as the Word of God, we make ourselves arbiters of truth and use the Bible when we find it helpful. We approach the Bible with an historical-critical view that allows us to stand as an authority over the text and its authors rather than to sit under their authority.

We may even make claims to a christological reading, but so long as we give ourselves permission to choose which texts are human and which divine, we’ll inevitably create a Jesus who looks a lot like us. The frequent criticism of historical Jesus scholars (those who are identifying what the real, human Jesus was like) is that they look down a deep well to find the truth about Jesus and see a very familiar face staring back up at them.

Just as dismissal of context leads to a fundamentalist reading, dismissal of canon leads to a subjective reading, where our feelings and opinions overrule anything displeasing we encounter in the Bible.

Part of Scripture’s historical context in the Church is that it has been written and read as divine revelation. To read it as anything less will surely lead us astray.


I made a more extended case for christological reading in the last post. I’ll reemphasize that when we read with Christ as our lens, it does not mean our construction of the historical Jesus is the final judge of what’s true in Scripture. Instead, we read every letter of Scripture as one directed to Christ and finding fulfillment in him.

When we read christologically, we read the Bible not as stories but as a story––the story of God’s creating, redeeming, and sustaining action in our world, and particularly through Jesus Christ. Neglect a christological reading and we’ll end up with a secular reading––one focused on good stories and morals or interesting history.


Finally, we must read Scripture in and with the Church. The Christian faith is an apostolic faith, come down to us through the proclamation of those who came before us. They met in ecumenical councils and developed creeds which served as a rule of faith, a means of reading Scripture through the lens of the Christian faith.

When we read the Bible as God’s living Word for us, we read it acknowledging that this Word has spoken to and shaped centuries of believers before us and a global population of believers around us. To read the Bible well, we can’t read alone. We need to read with the whole communion of saints––those who have gone before us and those all around us.

When we dismiss the teaching of the historic church and the reading of the global church, we risk an individualist reading. That individualist reading could be the reading of a solitary person or the reading of an isolated group. It comes whenever we only listen to the voices most like us and most in agreement with us and dismiss the rest.

Contextual, Canonical, Christological, and Communal

So I want to suggest that we must read with all of these as essential sources. That doesn’t make our biblical interpretation easy. We prefer simple explanations and easy solutions––the kind that would fit on a bumper sticker. As H. L. Mencken reminds us: “Explanations exist; they have existed for all time; there is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.”

When we dismiss whatever parts we don’t like, we can find those neat, plausible, and wrong solutions. Much more difficult is the task of holding these four together and managing the tensions they present. But when we fail to hold these in tension, our biblical interpretation falls to the control of fundamentalism, subjectivism, secularism, or individualism.

Everything should be as simple as possible, but no simpler. As simple as possible in biblical interpretation means we must engage context, canon, Christ, and Church.

If you’re interested in more, I highly recommend David Watson’s article “On the Authority of Scripture” and his book Scripture and the Life of God, which deal with many of the same themes (and many more) in much greater detail.

Two Brief Postscripts

Barth’s Threefold Word of God

You can see something similar to Karl Barth’s doctrine of the Word of God here. Barth spoke of a threefold nature of the Word of God––Scripture, Jesus, and the proclamation of the Church. These cannot be separated. Scripture is the written Word of God; Jesus is the revealed Word of God; the Church’s preaching is the proclaimed Word of God. We cannot know them apart from one another.

Barth understood these according to the Trinity: “There is only one analogy to this doctrine of the Word of God […] This is the doctrine of the triunity of God.” [note]In Church Dogmatics I.1[/note] To those who dismiss either the biblical canon or the Church’s historical teaching as Word of God, Barth would say they cannot properly understand Jesus (whom they claim as the Word of God).

By the Power of the Spirit

I didn’t include the Holy Spirit as a source for biblical interpretation. That didn’t seem the right category. But we believe the Spirit is essential for us to receive and understand God’s Word to us. Again, Barth’s treatment is profound and helpful. He spoke of Scripture as becoming the Word of God for us by the power of the Holy Spirit. Only by the inspiration of the Spirit do we receive the Bible as God’s Word. Only by the power of the Spirit can we receive Christ. Only by the gift of the Spirit do we continue to teach, proclaim, and hear the Word of God.

Some people have taken Barth’s claims as an opportunity to suggest that the Bible is less than the divinely inspired Word of God. That was not his intent and ignores his clear claim that Scripture is the written Word of God.

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