As mentioned in previous posts, having an appreciation for history is an important factor in understanding the Bible. However, the biggest stumbling block for most English speakers/readers is not our knowledge of history, but our inability to read well. Most writing today takes the form of the business proposal, personal self help, or technical manual. These styles have their place, although none of them are particularly good at argument development, story telling, truth telling or simply engaging the reader/hearer. None of these styles help us to follow argument development over the course of even several sentences, let alone several paragraphs or pages. Our culture’s most enduring English translation (the King James Version), while a very fine translation for its time (and still quite useful), complicates things for today’s readers due to its presentation style. In the King James, every verse is its own paragraph. Doesn’t matter if the literary style in view is epic story, poetry, proverbial couplet, history, gospel, epistle, etc – each verse stands alone. Now one may argue that ancient Greek, Aramaic & Hebrew had no paragraph markings – and that’s fair enough (but there were no chapter or verse markings, either). However to modern English readers, a new paragraph indicates a new thought or idea. Now when every verse is its own paragraph the tendency is to consider each verse on its own rather than connecting the phrase/sentence to the context surrounding it. As a result, phrases (let alone ‘paragraphs’) that form the premise of an argument are held up as ‘ends’ in themselves when Paul is simply using them as steps to a later conclusion. This doesn’t make the steps ‘less true’ or simply ‘throw-away’ lines, but it does change the degree of emphasis that we place on that portion of the passage – the light in which we view it.
Many in my church tradition used to get very nervous when this kind of reading is suggested for Scripture (and some still do). Its at times viewed as a challenge to the (verbal plenary) Inspiration of Scripture – as if a truly contextual reading of a passage somehow diminishes the value of the particular words in question. Let me say plainly, a view of Inspiration that reduces the transmission of the Scriptures to mere dictation or ‘Spirit possession’ is not, nor ever has been, a Christian understanding of inspiration – it mirrors closely what some schools of Islam teach, but never what orthodox Christianity has taught – no matter what some well meaning church members (or leaders) may have suggested. If a portion of Scripture bears a resemblance to a particular literary style of a particular time, and, if I believe that God is interested in people understanding what is being said, then I must believe that, somehow, God has inspired the use of the style/genre in view as well as the words contained therein – with the assumption that all the normal (human) rules employed for understanding that style are to be used (how else would anyone be able to understand what is written).
Why do I spill so much virtual ink on all this? Because one cannot simply pull a phrase/passage out of Romans (or any other Biblical text) and suggest flatly that this is God’s mind on a subject without carefully considering how the bit plays in with the whole. You can do that to some degree with a simple instruction manual. You can do that with portions of a business proposal (assuming one pulls from the right portion of the document). However, you can’t do that easily with most of the kinds of writings presented in the Bible – not even Romans (despite its famous ‘road’ and supposed denunciation or support of certain behaviors and lifestyles). Its because of this sort of reading that many Christians find themselves trying to defend arguments that the writers of their books never intended to make (why waste energy defending, in the name of Christ, what the Bible doesn’t really present). Countless Christians (and genuine seekers) have had their spirits crushed by this kind of Biblical abuse. This sort of thing has led to countless, unnecessary church splits – the kind of splits that irreparably damage the church’s standing in the world (which is a REALLY big deal).
So, now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, we’ll look more closely at the leading argument of Romans next time. In the meantime, when you read the Book keep in mind that while indeed the parts are vitally necessary in order to see the whole, it is just as true that the parts cannot be understood apart from the whole. Without context, there is no meaning.
– pastor Jim Kushner