Almost nothing is as important as it is for the minister of the word of God to give the people of God the right meaning of whatever portion of Scripture he is preaching. R.L. Dabney, in his Sacred Rhetoric, explained what a minister is doing if he does not rightly divide the word of God in his preaching. He wrote,
“The falsehood of that man is full of impiety, who, avowedly standing up in a sacred place to declare God’s message to perishing souls, says that the Holy Spirit has said what He has not said…One may ask, ‘Am I not justified, provided the meaning I give, although not actually placed in the text by the Holy Spirit, is still a Scriptural truth taught elsewhere in the word?’ I answer, ‘No; this is only a palliation.'”1
Though Dabney’s sentiments are correct–since the Holy Spirit is the author of Scripture and has breathed out every word of God in the Old and New Testament–his statement opens for us the question about how we are to handle those difficult portions of Scripture and those texts that can be understood in a number of ways consistent with the rest of the canon.
Though every word and every text in Scripture has one meaning–and though we must prayerfully and diligently labor to arrive at that divinely intended meaning–no man (our Lord Jesus excepted) will ever be able to say that he has infallibly arrived at that one meaning with every interpretive approach. This leads us to what theologians have called the analogy of faith (i.e. the analogia fidei).
Richard Muller, in the Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms, explains that the analogia fidei is “the use of a general sense of the meaning of Scripture, constructed from the clear or unambiguous loci (q.v., locus), as the basis for interpreting unclear or ambiguous texts…the analogia fidei presupposes a sense of the theological meaning of Scripture.”2
The analogia fidei is the process of interpretation by which an expositor labors to understand whatever text or verse with which he is working in light of doctrines drawn out of the canon of Scripture. It is seeking to match interpretive possibilities to established doctrinal truths as a safeguard against arriving at a false conclusion.
At times, the analogia fidei comes to bear on our interpretive labors in minor ways. For instance, John Owen, in his Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews, in taking up Hebrews 13:8, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever,” concluded that there were two possible meanings that both fit within the analogy of faith. He wrote,
“‘Yesterday,’ say some, is used here not only for all time that is past, but unto the spring of it in eternity; as ‘to-day’ signifies the whole course of time to the end of the world; and “for ever,” that everlasting state that doth ensue. Neither is this inconsonant unto what the Scripture affirms of Christ in other places. See the exposition on chap. 1:10–12.
By ‘yesterday,’ some understand the time of the old testament, that dispensation of God and his grace that was now ceased, and become like the day that is past. And a day it was, Heb. 3; and it was now as yesterday. And so ‘to-day’ denotes the times of the gospel. Neither is there anything in this interpretation that is incompliant with the analogy of faith.”3
Owen then concluded,
“There is no need to affix a determinate, distinct sense, as unto the notation of time, unto each word, as “yesterday,” “to-day,” and “for ever;” the apostle designing, by a kind of proverbial speech, wherein respect is had unto all seasons, to denote the eternity and immutability of Christ in them all.”4
At other times, the analogia fidei comes to bear on our understanding of Scripture in the most substantial of ways. Take for instance, the teaching of James on justification. In James 2:21, we read, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar?” Roman Catholics, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and almost every other sect and heretical offshoot of Christendom has taken these words to mean that God accepts a person based–at least in part–on their works. However, the Apostle Paul, in Romans 4:2-5, explained,
“If Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.”
The justification that Paul has in mind is clearly a justification before the court of God–it is a legal declaration that a man or women is counted righteous by faith alone. The Apostle could not be any clearer. He then appeals to Genesis 15:6 for a defense of this doctrine–rooting it in the earliest of Old Testament revelation. The doctrine of justification by faith alone in Christ alone is the epicenter of the truth of the Gospel of God’s free grace in Christ. It is the heartbeat of the Protestant Reformation. Since, therefore, this doctrine is taught in Genesis 15:6; Psalm 32:1-2; Romans 3:21-5:21; Galatians 2:15-16 and in many other places in Scripture, we must conclude that it is an established doctrine. When we proceded to place James 2:14-26 against this doctrine in order to determine whether or not it is consistent with the analogy of faith, we discover that James cannot be teaching that a man or woman is justified before God by faith and works. James is, in fact, using the word justified in a different manner and in a different context than did Paul. James is referring to the human court–and how one can show others, by his or her good works, that he or she truly possesses saving faith–whereas Paul was speaking of the divine court and how one is accepted by God.
These two examples–one minor and one major–serve to teach us how the analogy of faith functions in the hermenuetical process. It is vital that we learn how to employ it in order to explain two possible meanings of a passage–both of which fall within the realm of acceptable theological meaning–and in order to safeguard against theological error and heresy.
1. R.L. Dabney Sacred Rhetoric (Richmond, VA: Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1870) p. 99
2. Richard A. Muller. Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology (Kindle Locations 325-327). Kindle Edition.
3. John Owen, An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews, ed. W. H. Goold, vol. 24, Works of John Owen (Edinburgh: Johnstone and Hunter, 1854), 426–427.
4. Ibid. p, 427.