Reading Between the Bible’s Lines

Posted: May 23, 2011 in bible, exegesis

As any good Protestant, I proudly adhere to the five solas of the Reformation: sola scriptura (scripture alone), sola fide (faith alone), sola gratia (grace alone), solus Cristus (Christ alone), and soli Deo gloria (glory to God alone).  As a conservative evangelical, perhaps the most foundational of these doctrines is sola scriptura – Scripture, the inspired and perspicuous (understandable) Word of God, alone is the highest rule and authority for life and godliness.  However, this doctrine is often misunderstood and misapplied, leading to bad theology and practice.

One such practice is the common tendency to use and demand “proof texts” in support of various theological issues.  While the desire to base all doctrines on the actual words of the Bible is admirable, this practice is often accompanied by an over-simplified understanding of the biblical text and a lack of solid exegesis.  You’ll often hear, “If the Bible says it, I believe it.” The emphasis on following the clear teaching of Scripture is right, however the obvious question is, “Well, what is the Bible trying to ‘say’?”  That is where things get more difficult.

One type of difficult situation arises when the biblical writers write laconically – that is, with very few words.  This style of writing often shows up in narratives and is usually paired with an emphasis on showing versus telling.  One such example is the story of Lot’s incestuous relationship with his two daughters in Genesis 19:30-38 (check out my pastor’s recent sermon on this text).  The author of Genesis never explicitly condemns this illicit rendezvous as sinful or immoral, which has led some people to conclude that it was not sinful nor immoral, at least not at that time.  However, when one considers how this episode fits in with the overall narrative of Genesis, especially in its recapitulation of Noah’s similar sin in Genesis 9:20-27, it becomes clear that the biblical writer intended this story to be seen as a shameful event, eventually leading to the creation of a people (the Moabites) that would ultimately mistreat Israel (Num. 22:4-20; Deut. 23:4).

Although this is an extreme example, these types of situations – where the biblical author isn’t explicit about his main point, often choosing to show rather than tell what he means – crop up fairly regularly in the Bible.

Old Testament scholar, C. John Collins (Covenant Theological Seminary) has some helpful comments regarding this issue:

…if we want to be good readers of the Old Testament narratives, we will pay attention to, for example, the way people speak: we will look for the relation between what they say and what they do, or between what the narrator has reported and what the character reports (if the character adds or deletes things, how does this reflect “spin”?), or between what someone says (or is told) he will say and what he does say.  The Biblical narrators are fully aware that humans are sinful, and that even the best of us have mixed motives and imperfect morality.  No everyone who is aware of these literary features will agree on just what they mean in a particular passage, and thus we cannot avoid the kind of discussion that evaluates proposed ways of reading.  We must offer reasons for our preferences…  All of these factors will help us when we ask what a Biblical author is “saying” in his text: we are not limited to the actual words he uses. (C. John Collins, Did Adam and Eve Really Exist?, p. 24-25)

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