Over the past several weeks I’ve taken up a research topic that I haven’t worked on directly in several years, namely, theological interpretation of Scripture. My specific focus has been the place of the “rule of faith” in biblical interpretation.
Since at least the second century, the rule of faith has functioned, among other things, as a “hermeneutic” for the reading and interpretation of Holy Scripture. Irenaeus and Tertullian, Origen and Augustine appeal to the rule of faith as a reliable key for unlocking the true meaning of God’s Word. At the time of the Reformation, when the interpretation of Scripture was highly contested, Protestants affirmed the rule of faith as a trustworthy guide for biblical interpretation as well. Indeed, because he believed the rule of faith to be a faithful summary of scriptural teaching, Heinrich Bullinger argued that, to expound Scripture by means of the rule of faith was to expound it “by the very word of God itself.”
In its broadest sense, the rule of faith includes three elements: the Creed, the Ten Commandments (or their summary in the double command to love God and neighbor), and the Lord’s Prayer. These three elements present to us the great subject matter of the Christian faith–God and all things in relation to God–under the aspect of faith, love, and hope, the three “theological virtues” that, according to Augustine, mark the beginning, course, and goal of the Christian life.
Why should Christians today have any interest in using the rule of faith for biblical interpretation? Don’t we have better approaches such as literary genre analysis, biblical theology, etc.? Isn’t the rule of faith an ecclesiastical invention, a pious but not finally reliable guide to the meaning of Holy Scripture?
Without wishing to deny the value of other tools for biblical interpretation, I believe the rule of faith continues to commend itself to us for at least three reasons, the latter two of which I will elaborate on a bit.
First, the rule of faith has an ancient pedigree that, as noted above, is both catholic and Protestant.
Second, the rule of faith has dominical warrant. The Lord Jesus himself commanded us to baptize in “the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt 28:19; cf. Eph 4:4-6). As scholars note, early versions of the Creed seem to be built on the framework of Jesus’ trinitarian baptismal command, fortified by other creedal statements in Scripture (e.g., 1 Cor 8:6) and the narrative sequence of the gospel as summarized in apostolic preaching (e.g., Acts 10:34-43; 1 Cor 15:3-4). The Lord Jesus himself summarized the moral teaching of “all the Law and the Prophets” in the double love command (Matt 22:37-40). The Lord Jesus himself taught us to pray the Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:9-13).
Third, and perhaps most directly relevant when it comes to warrants for using the rule of faith as an interpretive key, the rule of faith itself reflects attempts within Scripture to summarize the teaching of Scripture. The trinitarian baptismal command, which presents to us the object of faith (Eph 4:5), summarizes Matthew’s long narration of the fulfillment of Israel’s Scriptures in the coming of the Son of God at the Father’s behest. The double love command summarizes the entirety of the Bible’s moral teaching by ordering our loves first to God and second to our neighbors. The Lord’s Prayer orients Christian hope to that which is eschatologically ultimate–the hallowing of the Father’s name, the coming of the Father’s kingdom, and the accomplishment of the Father’s will, while teaching us to order our other desires and requests–for our daily bread, for the forgiveness of sins, for deliverance from trial, below that which is eschatologically ultimate.
In sum, the rule of faith provides a summary of scriptural teaching that follows Scripture’s own lead in summarizing and organizing its teaching according to its own internal priorities. According to the rule of faith, Scripture is best read when we read with a view to its triune object, the blessed Trinity, our maker, redeemer, and sanctifier, when we read it as a guide to the love of God and neighbor, and when we read it as a promise that God will not only meet our daily needs, but, above that, that God will satisfy our ultimate need by manifesting his transcendent glory, by consummating his kingdom, and by causing his will to be done, fully and finally, on earth as it is in heaven.
The rule of faith tells us how Scripture itself wants to be read. Better: it tells us how the Lord and author of Scripture wants Scripture to be read. Reading Scripture with the rule of faith, therefore, is a matter of reading as disciples of Jesus, of sharing the mind of Christ.