A MAN found a pamphlet on the floor of a railway car bound for New York City. ‘The human soul is mortal,’ said the pamphlet. Intrigued, the man, a minister, started to read. He was amazed because he had never before doubted the teaching of the immortality of the soul. At the time, he could not tell who had written the pamphlet. Still, he found the argument plausible and Scriptural and the material worthy of serious study.
The minister was George Storrs. The incident took place in 1837, the year that Charles Darwin first recorded in his notebook thoughts that would later develop into his theory of evolution. The world was still religious, and most people believed in God. Many read the Bible and looked up to it as having authority.
Storrs later found out that the pamphlet was written by Henry Grew of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Grew held fast to the principle that “the scripture . . . is its own best interpreter.” Grew and his associates had been studying the Bible with the aim of conforming their lives and activities to its counsel. Their studies revealed some beautiful Scriptural truths.
Stimulated by Grew’s writing, Storrs carefully looked into what the Scriptures had to say about the soul and discussed the matter with some of his fellow ministers. After five years of serious study, Storrs finally decided to publicize his newly found gem of Scriptural truth. At first, he prepared one sermon to give on a Sunday in 1842. However, he felt the need to give a few more sermons to do justice to the subject. Eventually, his sermons on the mortality of the human soul numbered six, which he published in Six Sermons. Storrs compared scripture with scripture in order to uncover the beautiful truth buried beneath the God-dishonoring doctrines of Christendom.
Does the Bible Teach the Immortality of the Soul?
The Bible speaks of Jesus’ anointed followers putting on immortality as a reward for their faithfulness. (1 Corinthians 15:50-56) If immortality is a reward for the faithful, Storrs reasoned, the soul of the wicked cannot be immortal. Instead of speculating, he went to the Scriptures. He considered Matthew 10:28, King James Version, which reads: “Fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” So the soul can be destroyed. He also referred to Ezekiel 18:4, which says: “The soul that sinneth, it shall die.” (KJ) When the whole Bible was put into perspective, the beauty of the truth stood out. “If the view I take of this subject be correct,” wrote Storrs, “then many portions of Scripture, which have been obscure on the common theory, become clear, beautiful and full of meaning and force.”
But what about scriptures like Jude 7? It reads: “Even as Sodom and Gomorrha, and the cities about them in like manner, giving themselves over to fornication, and going after strange flesh, are set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire.” (KJ) Reading this text, some may conclude that the souls of those who were killed in Sodom and Gomorrah are tormented by fire forever. “Let us compare Scripture with Scripture,” wrote Storrs. He then quoted 2 Peter 2:5, 6, which reads: “And spared not the old world, but saved Noah . . . , bringing in the flood upon the world of the ungodly; and turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrha into ashes condemned them with an overthrow, making them an ensample unto those that after should live ungodly.” (KJ) Yes, Sodom and Gomorrah were turned into ashes, destroyed forever with their inhabitants.
“Peter throws light on Jude,” Storrs explained. “Both together show most clearly what displeasures God has manifested against sinners. . . . Those judgments inflicted on the old world, Sodom and Gomorrah, are a standing, and perpetual, or ‘eternal’ admonition, warning, or ‘example’ to all men to the end of the world.” So Jude referred to the effect of the fire that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah as eternal. That in no way alters the fact that the human soul is mortal.
Storrs was not putting together scriptures that supported his view while ignoring others. He considered the context of each text as well as the overall tenor of the Bible. If a verse seemed to contradict other scriptures, Storrs looked into the rest of the Bible for a logical explanation.
Russell’s Studies in the Scriptures
Among those who became associated with George Storrs was a young man who was organizing a Bible study group in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His name was Charles Taze Russell. One of his first articles on Scriptural themes was published in 1876 in the magazine Bible Examiner, edited by Storrs. Russell acknowledged that earlier Bible students had an influence on him. Later, as the editor of Zion’s Watch Tower, he appreciated Storrs’ giving him much assistance, by both word and pen.
At the age of 18, C. T. Russell organized a Bible study class and established a pattern for studying the Bible. A. H. Macmillan, a Bible student associated with Russell, described this method: “Someone would raise a question. They would discuss it. They would look up all related scriptures on the point and then, when they were satisfied on the harmony of these texts, they would finally state their conclusion and make a record of it.”
Russell was convinced that the Bible, when taken as a whole, must reveal a message harmonious and consistent with itself and with the character of its Divine Author. Whenever any part of the Bible seemed difficult to understand, Russell felt that it should be clarified and interpreted by other parts of the Bible.
However, neither Russell nor Storrs nor Grew was the first to let the Scriptures become their own interpreter. The tradition goes all the way back to the Founder of Christianity, Jesus Christ. He used a number of scriptures to clarify the true meaning of a text. For instance, when the Pharisees criticized his disciples for plucking heads of grain on the Sabbath, Jesus demonstrated from the account recorded at 1 Samuel 21:6 how the Sabbath law should be applied. The religious leaders were familiar with that account, in which David and his men ate the loaves of presentation. Jesus then referred to the part of the Law that said that only the Aaronic priests were to eat the showbread. (Exodus 29:32, 33; Leviticus 24:9) Still, David was told to go ahead and eat the loaves. Jesus concluded his persuasive argument by quoting from the book of Hosea: “If you had understood what this means, ‘I want mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless ones.” (Matthew 12:1-8) What a wonderful example of comparing a scripture with other scriptures to reach an accurate understanding!
Jesus’ followers held to the pattern of using scripture references to shed light upon a scripture. When the apostle Paul taught people in Thessalonica, “he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving by references that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead.” (Acts 17:2, 3) In his divinely inspired letters too, Paul let the Bible become its own interpreter. Writing to the Hebrews, for instance, he quoted one scripture after another to prove that the Law was a shadow of the good things to come.
Yes, sincere Bible students in the 19th and early 20th centuries were simply restoring this Christian pattern. The tradition of comparing scriptures with other scriptures continues in the Watchtower magazine. (2 Thessalonians 2:15) Jehovah’s Witnesses use this principle when they analyze a scripture.
Let the Context Speak
When we are reading the Bible, how can we imitate the fine examples of Jesus and his faithful followers? First, we can consider the immediate context of the scripture in question. How can the context help us understand the meaning? To illustrate, let us take Jesus’ words recorded at Matthew 16:28: “Truly I say to you that there are some of those standing here that will not taste death at all until first they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.” Some may feel that these words were not fulfilled because all of Jesus’ disciples who were present when he said those words died before the establishment of God’s Kingdom in the heavens. The Interpreter’s Bible even says of this verse: “The prediction was not fulfilled, and later Christians found it necessary to explain that it was metaphorical.”
However, the context of this verse, as well as that of the parallel accounts by Mark and Luke, helps us understand the real meaning of the scripture. What did Matthew relate right after the words quoted above? He wrote: “Six days later Jesus took Peter and James and John his brother along and brought them up into a lofty mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them.” (Matthew 17:1, 2) Both Mark and Luke also linked Jesus’ comment about the Kingdom with the account of the transfiguration. (Mark 9:1-8; Luke 9:27-36) Jesus’ coming in Kingdom power was demonstrated in his transfiguration, his appearing in glory in the presence of the three apostles. Peter verifies this understanding by speaking of “the power and presence of our Lord Jesus Christ” with regard to his witnessing Jesus’ transfiguration.
Do You Let the Bible Be Its Own Interpreter?
What if you cannot understand a scripture even after you have considered its context? You may benefit from comparing it with other scriptures, having in mind the overall tenor of the Bible. One excellent tool for doing this can be found in the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures, now available in whole or in part in 57 languages. This tool is a list of marginal references, or cross-references, that appears in the center column of each page in many of its editions. You can find more than 125,000 of them in the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures
Let us see how use of the cross-references can help us to understand a scripture. Take the example of the history of Abram, or Abraham. Consider this question: Who took the lead when Abram and his family went out of Ur? Genesis 11:31 reads: “Terah took Abram his son and Lot, . . . and Sarai his daughter-in-law, . . . and they went with him out of Ur of the Chaldeans to go to the land of Canaan. In time they came to Haran and took up dwelling there.” Just reading this, one might conclude that Abram’s father, Terah, took the lead. However, in the New World Translation, we find 11 cross-references on this verse. The last one takes us to Acts 7:2, where we read Stephen’s admonition to the first-century Jews: “The God of glory appeared to our forefather Abraham while he was in Mesopotamia, before he took up residence in Haran, and he said to him, ‘Go out from your land and from your relatives and come on into the land I shall show you.’” (Acts 7:2, 3) Was Stephen confusing this with Abram’s leaving Haran? Obviously not, for this is part of the inspired Word of God.
Why, then, does Genesis 11:31 state that “Terah took Abram his son” and others of his family and went out of Ur? Terah was still the patriarchal head. He agreed to go with Abram and thus was credited with moving the family to Haran. By comparing and harmonizing these two scriptures, we can see in our mind’s eye exactly what took place. Abram respectfully convinced his father to go out of Ur in accord with God’s command.
When we read the Scriptures, we should take into account the context and the overall tenor of the Bible. Christians are admonished: “We received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is from God, that we might know the things that have been kindly given us by God. These things we also speak, not with words taught by human wisdom, but with those taught by the spirit, as we combine spiritual matters with spiritual words.” (1 Corinthians 2:11-13) Indeed, we must implore Jehovah for help to understand his Word and try to “combine spiritual matters with spiritual words” by checking the context of the scripture in question and by looking up related scriptures. May we keep finding brilliant gems of truth through the study of God’s Word.