Should We Let the Bible Interpret the Bible?

How often I've heard growing up: “Don't interpret the Bible! Let the Bible interpret the Bible!”

This is not unique to my background. It's a common refrain in Fundamentalist Christian circles. Yet few seem to catch the irony that, amongst all who say this, there are so many different, contradictory beliefs about what Scripture means.

The statement is absurd on its face, of course. The Bible interprets the Bible? That's like saying a book reads itself. But we all know it takes a reader to read a book. Books don't read themselves. Which is another way of saying books don't interpret themselves.

To “interpret” something is to explain its meaning. If something needs to be explained, then it can't do its own explaining, or else it wouldn't need to be explained to begin with.

I don't know how to put it more simply.

Good intentions

But I do understand the intent of “Let the Bible interpret the Bible.” It's supposed to mean we shouldn't insert our own ideas into Sacred Scripture. That is called “interpolation” — when we read something into the text that does not belong or was not intended by the writer. Also, we understand we should consider the meaning of a scriptural passage in light of its immediate context and the wider context of the entire Bible.

A better approach

Better than “Let the Bible interpret the Bible” is the axiom, “A text without a context is a pretext.”

If we take verses here a little, there a little, and string them all together, we can “prove” nearly any doctrine we want. So to make sense of scriptures, we have to understand them in their fullest context.

But we mustn't limit “context” to mean only the context of Scripture. There is also the context of history and the context of the Church's perennial teachings.

The context of “Born Again”

For example, in some circles there is a big hubbub over what Jesus really meant when he told Nicodemus that “unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).

Immediate textual context

We can look at the immediate textual context and reasonably conclude he's contrasting being “born of water and the Spirit” (3:5), perhaps indicating the watery birth in which we were born of our uterine mothers versus a different kind of birth in which we can be born as spirit (cf. 3:6).

Broader textual context

Stepping back for a broader view, however, we notice that John the Evangelist wrote the account of John the Baptizer with Jesus just two chapters earlier:

And John bore witness: “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit’” (1:32-33).

This might indicate that when the writer mentions being “born of water and the Spirit,” he is linking it to the baptism of Jesus, a scene where water and the Spirit were prominent. Could this mean that to be “born again” is to be baptized?

Moreover, immediately after Jesus' conversation with Nicodemus, the Gospel writer records,

After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he remained there with them and was baptizing (3:22).

So what are we to make of the “born again” statement? Do we let the Bible interpret the Bible? If so, how? Or rather, the better question is: Which context best helps us properly understand what it means to be “born again”?

Context of the Church's historical witness

Not all, but many Protestant churches tend to ignore the context of how the Church has always understood something, which conveys her tradition.

With regard to this particular question about “born again,” to my knowledge, there is no disputation in all of the early centuries of the Church about what Jesus meant when he spoke of being “born again.”

Just a few examples...

Justin Martyr, A.D. 151

As many as are persuaded and believe that what we [Christians] teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly, and instructed to pray and to entreat God with fasting, for the remission of their sins that are past, we pray and fast with them. Then they are brought by us where there is water and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated. For, in the name of God, the Father . . . and of our Savior Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit [Matt. 28:19], they then receive the washing with water. For Christ also said, “Unless you are born again, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven” [John 3:3] (First Apology, 61).

Irenaeus, A.D. 190

“And [Naaman] dipped himself . . . seven times in the Jordan” [2 Kgs. 5:14]. It was not for nothing that Naaman of old, when suffering from leprosy, was purified upon his being baptized, but [this served] as an indication to us. For as we are lepers in sin, we are made clean, by means of the sacred water and the invocation of the Lord, from our old transgressions, being spiritually regenerated as newborn babes, even as the Lord has declared: “Except a man be born again through water and the Spirit, he shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Fragment 34).

Tertullian, A.D. 203

When, however, the prescript is laid down that without baptism, salvation is attainable by none (chiefly on the ground of that declaration of the Lord, who says, “Unless one be born of water, he has not life”)... (On Baptism, 12)

So we see how just looking at what the Church of the first few centuries believed helps us with our understanding of Scripture. When it comes to biblical interpretation, it's not just every man (and his Bible) for himself.

Context is important, but that includes more than the couple verses before and after the one in question. Since Christianity is not just a “religion of the book,” we can look to the Church for guidance.

I hope we can all agree that the solution is not to merely “let the Bible interpret the Bible.”

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