Absolutes, Possibilities and Silence – how to read the Bible properly

Any doctrinal study of any kind must be thorough.  Beginning with the Old Testament, via the inter-testamental period (if necessary) and progressing through the ministry of Jesus in the Gospels, and concluding with Acts and the Letters.  Every study must work through the whole of what every text is a part!  Of course, this approach assumes that Scripture is authoritative and inspired by the Holy Spirit – the Third Person of the Trinity!  To not be convinced of this will lead to eisegesis, a form of study that merely seeks to bolster and promote a view already held – although a belief in the Trinity is no guarantee at all that eisegesis will not win the day!

Cultural and linguistic background studies must be exhausted, followed by exegetical questions about the passage in question, with whatever doctrine is in mind; this is especially true in our day when many within and with-out the Church seem to foam at the mouth regarding “the authority of women”, “women in the Church” or “homosexuality” or whatever!

I think the Bereans of Acts 17:11 are a great acid test here:  “With great eagerness [they] examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true!”  Note: if what Paul said was true!  They surely knew not of whom they spoke!  But all credit to them.  Integrity, openness, honesty and desire all the way.

Anyone engaging in exegetical study, or Bible study, must use sound principles of interpretive method and procedure.  Openness and honesty, as already stated, is primary, especially in any polarised topic or doctrine.

The exegetical student must recognise and distinguish between:

  1. What Scripture clearly states (the absolutes).
  2. What Scripture infers (the possibilities).
  3. What Scripture does not say (silence).

These categories exist in a decreasing hierarchy of certainty.  So that clear statements carry more weight than inferences, and inferences carry more weight than silences.  To assert a conclusion based on silence or inference will call into question the integrity of the motive and/or method.  A refusal to address inferences calls into question openness.

Context is also of primary importance.  Every biblical passage, all materials and commentaries through the centuries must be read in a historical, linguistic and cultural, not to mention literary and theological context.  As D. A. Carson famously says, “Context is King!”

All this to say, this is basic Bible study.  It will never do to suggest this is all irrelevant and all we need do is pray!  Heaven forbid.  How many wars have been fought on that basis!  No.  There is a task to do, a skill, an expertise, that must be harvested, before any actual crop is seen.

In this way, the Church is fed, the lambs can rest, and fruit becomes ripe.


One thought on “Absolutes, Possibilities and Silence – how to read the Bible properly

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  1. Excellent piece. Though, I would ask, in what sense does the bible (taken singularly or as a whole) invite us to read it? That is, are we invited (so to speak) to read the bible in the way that the bible interprets itself intertexually? So, for example, do biblical writers themselves use the exegetical method you have put forward?

    I only ask because the bible is an extraordinarily multilayered text which seems to elude any kind of objectivity in interpretation, however methodological. For sure, there are things of which we can be sure, like the resurrection, but even that most concrete and irrefutable claim by the biblical authors, doesn’t tell us the full meaning. I suppose that the point I am getting at, is that there are methodologies for getting from scripture what it is trying to say, and for avoiding what it isn’t saying (there are good readings and there are bad), but that even the very best reading doesn’t provide us with the full meaning of a given text from God or the author’s point of view. This is probably to obvious to mention though.

    One last point, I agree that we need to have an exhaustive understanding of cultural context to really get a text, but with the caveat that the reason why the bible is still a “living” text is because it is so open to trans-cultural/trans-historical interpretation. This means that it is more open to false readings, but if it were not the case, it would have stopped being read long ago. In this sense, it is the bible’s openness to a multiplicity of good and bad readings that makes it as interesting and inspiring as it is.

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