Wednesday with Watson: Interpreting Scripture


Richard Watson (1781-1833) was an Arminian theologican and author living in Britain. Here is an excerpt from his Theological Institutes on interpreting the Scriptures (chapter 11). The original text appears in italics but I added the bulleted formatting.

The second use of reason respects the interpretation of the [Scriptures]; and here the same rules are to be applied as in the interpretation of any other statement or record; for as our only object, after the authenticity of the revelation is established, is to discover its sense, or in other words to ascertain what is declared unto us therein by God, our reason or judgment is called to precisely the same office as when the meaning of any other document is in question.

  • Watson having argued for the use of reason in authenticating statements and/or records that are claimed to be Divine revelation goes on to explore the use and limits of reason in interpreting Scripture.

The terms of the record are:

  • to be taken in their plain and commonly received sense;
  • figures of speech are to be interpreted with reference to the peculiarities of the country in which the agents who wrote the record resided;
  • idioms are to be understood according to the genius of the language employed
  • if any allegorical or mystical discourses occur, the key to them must be sought in the book itself, and not in our own fancies
  • what is obscure must be interpreted by that which is plain
  • the scope and tenor of a discourse must be regarded,
  • and no conclusion formed on passages detached from their context, except they are complete in their sense, or evidently intended as axioms and apophthegms.

These and other rules, which respect

  • the time and place when the record was written;
  • the circumstances of the writer and of those to whom he immediately addressed himself; local customs, &c,

appear in this, and all other cases, so just and reasonable as to commend themselves to every sober man: and we rightly use our reason in the interpretation of a received revelation, when we conduct our inquiries into its meaning, by those plain common-sense rules which are adopted by all mankind when the meaning of other writings is to be ascertained.

The USE of reason, therefore, in matters of revelation, is to investigate the evidences on which it is founded, and’ fairly and impartially to interpret it according to the ordinary rules of interpretation in other cases.

Its LIMIT is the authority of God. When he has explicitly laid down a doctrine, that doctrine is to be humbly received, whatever degree of rational evidence may be afforded of its truth, or withheld; and no torturing or perverting criticisms can be innocently resorted to, to bring a doctrine into a better accordance with our favourite views and systems, any more than to make a precept bend to the love and practice of our vicious indulgences.

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