The Bible:
How Will You Slice It?

The Reverend Bryn MacPhail
Senior Minister, St. Giles Kingsway Presbyterian Church

Chapter I, IV. The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man or Church, but wholly upon God (who is truth itself), the Author thereof; and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God.

The official position of The Presbyterian Church in Canada is that the Bible is the Word of God. To abate that statement, to suggest that the Bible merely contains the Word of God, is to contradict our subordinate standards (The Westminster Confession of Faith, Chpt. I, IV; Living Faith, 5.2) and the clear testimony of Scripture itself.

Let’s assume then, for a moment, that we all agree here. Would agreement on this point eliminate points of division in matters of doctrine and practice? Not necessarily. What remains is the matter of ‘cutting straight the Word of God’.

The apostle Paul, in his final letter to Timothy, writes: “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2Tim.2:15). The Greek employed by Paul is a carpentry phrase, which literally means “cutting straight.

If we are to have any hope of agreement on matters of doctrine and practice, we must gain a measure of consensus regarding our methods for slicing God’s Word. Theologians refer to this process of interpretation as hermeneutics. Before we can jump into the fray on any given issue we must be sure that our hermeneutic is not faulty. If we do not “cut straight” the Word of God, error and confusion will inevitably follow.

The Westminster Confession of faith does not provide us with an exhaustive list of hermeneutical principles, but it does provide one principle that must guide all of the others: “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 it must be searched and known by other places (in Scripture) that speak more clearly” (Chpt. I, IX).

We also agree with Living Faith, which reminds us, “The writing of the Bible was conditioned by the language, thought, and setting of its time. (And therefore) The Bible must be read in its historical context” (5.4). We affirm this while still asserting that “All Scripture is God-breathed” (2Tim. 3:15), and that no portion of Scripture was contrived apart from the sovereign will of God. And while we strive to fully investigate the context from which a given biblical passage was born, we do so in such a manner that does not bring into question the veracity or authority of the text. For example, if Jesus, in His references to Old Testament narratives, endorses them as true and accurate, it would be the height of imprudence to allow methods of interpretation to guide us to an alternative conclusion. As the late principal of Knox College, William Caven, warns: “It is folly, it is unutterable impiety, to decide differently from the Lord any question regarding the Bible on which we have His verdict” (The Fundamentals, 226). In other words, we must never ascribe to our methods (of interpretation) the authority that belongs solely to the testimony of Scripture.

How then, shall we slice it? How do we go about “cutting straight” the Word of God?

First, we must acknowledge the Bible’s authority as being entirely God-breathed. Any method of interpretation, therefore, that undermines the veracity of Scripture must be called into question.

Second, since “all Scripture is God-breathed”, we are confident that comparing Scripture with Scripture is the best method for understanding texts where the meaning is not imminently clear.

Third, while we recognize the variety of cultures out of which Scripture is born, we deny that the meaning of biblical texts is so closely tied to the culture that understanding and applying the same meaning in other cultures is necessarily problematic.

Fourth, we affirm the legitimate use of the various critical disciplines. The study of history, grammar, literary form, the employment of logic, must be pursued. However, the critical disciplines should not be used to undermine the integrity of what has been written, but should be pursued in order to better understand the author’s meaning.

And finally, we recognize that ignoring extra-biblical material would be a mistake. Yet, we affirm that extra-biblical material must never be elevated to a level of precedence since the Bible alone is “the supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined” (I, X).

We believe it is for good reason the Reformers raised high their banner, Sola Scriptura—Scripture alone!