Exegete the passage in front of you, don’t flatten it by exegeting other things

I have written in recent weeks about the need for careful Bible reading. First, I talked about a basic question of biblical exegesis: where do you get that from the text? Then I spoke about the danger of rejecting legitimate observations of the text because we don’t like the quarters they emanate from or what those people then do with those observations. I suggested that rejecting observations because we don’t like the people who make them or the arguments they make with those observations can lead to us defending right doctrine in essence but in squiffy, sometimes quite damaging, forms of that same doctrine. Finally, I addressed why the common retort of biblicism to the key question about the text is not valid. In the end, it is not biblicism to ask for biblical grounds, actual textual evidence, of the position being advocated.

Today, I wanted to look at another common issue. It can come in different forms. Sometimes, it is over-application of our (legitimate) biblical framework to a particular text so that we do not allow the text to say what it does. Otherwise, it comes about because a particular text might lead some to (what we consider to be) errant interpretation so we appeal to other verses outside of our passage to make our case. This, of itself, is perfectly legitimate. Unfortunately, many than start to effectively exegete these other texts to insist on what the actual text in front of us means. These things can also lead us to some crooked interpretative conclusions.

Let me take a nice, clear and (hopefully) uncontroversial example. At least, uncontroversial in my circles and for, I imagine, the majority of my readers. I will pick up the example because it is fairly obvious, well known and because I had some Jehovah’s Witnesses knock on my door recently so it is fresh in my mind as they landed on this very thing (keep your eyes peeled for an upcoming podcast episode for how that discussion went and some lessons we might draw from it).

We all know, and I’m sure you’ve heard countless times before, when James says ‘faith without works is dead’ he is not disagreeing with Paul or rejecting the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Despite Martin Luther’s protestations that it might be an epistle of straw, most Protestants have recognised there is no contradiction here. James is not arguing for works-righteousness. We know this, at least a little bit, because scripture doesn’t contradict itself and the New Testament is pretty clear on this point over and over again.

Of course, appealing to Paul’s letters or Jesus in the gospels to insist that James cannot be arguing for works-based righteousness is perfectly right and proper. Those other things need to be understood and synthesised with what James says. It is the clear witness of scripture that James is not arguing we are saved by works. So far, so straightforward and obvious.

The problem comes when, in referencing Paul or the gospels to guard against some errant interpretation, many seem content to simply exegete the clearer texts elsewhere. The problem here is not that they then misinterpret the witness of scripture as a whole; the Bible does teach justification by faith alone. The problem is that does very little to tell us what this text is saying. It might tells us that the gospels and Paul are clear about justification by faith alone, and scripture will not permit an interpretation that leads us to works righteousness, but that does nothing to actually tell us what James really is saying. All it has done is told us what he cannot be saying, not what he is actually saying and, therefore, why this passage is in scripture at all. We still have to ask the question, what is this text saying? We might have some guardrails from Paul and the gospels, but if we basically content ourselves with exegeting them, we are effectively discarding from scripture something God wants us to know, something the Holy Spirit inspired.

I think this is one of the subtle ways Reformed Protestants do what Deuteronomy 4:2 and Revelation 22:18-19 warn us not to do. We (rightly) emphasise what is clear and obvious over what is less clear. But we (wrongly) content ourselves with simply exegeting the clear and then flattening out anything else that doesn’t readily fit with it. Whatever James is saying when he says ‘faith without works is dead’, it should be clear enough by a simple and plain reading of the text on its own terms he is not arguing for justification by faith alone there. That isn’t to say he contradicts the rest of the New Testament, just that whatever he is arguing at this precise point which is perfectly consistent with the rest of scripture, it is not specifically the doctrine of justification by faith alone.

We can also get this issue when it comes to some of Jesus’ parables. Again, this is in my mind as I was just preaching on one this Sunday. In most parables, Jesus is making a particular point. But because he doesn’t say everything, we may want to jump in with other bits of scripture to make sure we don’t run a mile with the text. The problem is when we don’t come back to the text in front of us. Jesus might have a totally different point in mind, but because we are so scared of what some might do with this text, we end up effectively exegeting another text. And though we might have protected a particular doctrine from being demolished by someone so inclined to do wrong things with this text, we simultaneously end up misunderstanding exactly what Jesus (or James, or anyone else) is actually saying here. I am staggered by how regularly this sort of thing happens in Bible studies and sermons.

I think John Piper powerfully makes this point, albeit in a slightly different way, referencing another part of James. When speaking about the text ‘you do not have because you do not ask’, Piper is quite clear that the text cannot mean ‘you will get stuff anyway because God has a sovereign plan’. He very strongly (and, in my view, entirely rightly) says the text cannot mean the opposite of what it says. Just because other passages of scripture tell us God is sovereign and he has a plan does not mean that this text must be saying something it does not. Those other passages about God’s sovereignty tell us what this text cannot mean.

Our prayer cannot derail God’s sovereign plan or overrule God’s sovereignty. But, nevertheless, the text must be saying what it evidently says: there are things you would have, that you do not have, because you have not asked for them. What we have to do is synthesise what it is saying with other texts that appear to say something else that might put some guard rails up for us. But what is not legitimate is to take other bits of scripture and basically dump them on top of this text and say, because they’re pretty clear to us, this text can’t really mean what it says. Nor can we just exegete other texts, focus on those and effectively ignore this one. That will not do. In much more colourful language, Dale Ralph Davis helpfully shows how we may do this with the Old Testament by (in his words) ‘pouring cow urine all over the text’ (you’ll have to read this one to understand what he is going on about, but it is essentially this point).

When we exegete the text in front of us properly, what we may find is that apparent contradictions melt away when we realise they are addressing an altogether different point. James’ faith without works doesn’t contradict Paul’s justification by faith alone because they aren’t, ultimately, talking about the same thing. Paul is talking about legal justification whereas James is speaking about being seen to be justified. Paul is talking about righteous standing before God, James is talking about evidence that is seen. One is talking about the means of salvation, the other the fruit of regeneration. But we don’t figure that out by insisting that Paul must control what James says. After all, all scripture is God-breathed, not just the Pauline bits, the parts we prefer or the bits that seem most obvious to us because they fit our framework.

What can be subtly difficult about these things is that much of what we want to say about the text in front of us might be broadly true. We might want to argue that James isn’t rejecting justification by faith alone. That much is evidently true. But he isn’t rejecting churches led by elders either. That is true too. But clearly, the latter has absolutely nothing to do with the point James is making. The problem is, many of us cannot see the former doesn’t have a great deal to do with the point he’s making either! If we read James, get scared he might be arguing to works-righteousness, so get Paul onto the case to sort it all out so we can be safe from any sort of problematic legalism. The problem is, we’ll have just ignored what James is trying to say about the evidence of faith and how a lack of works suggests your faith is a bit pointless. We might avoid legalism, but James is trying to help us avoid antinomianism. But if we get scared and refuse to exegete him and just flatten it with Pauline justification by faith, we actually push towards the very thing that James is specifically encouraging us to avoid; a dead, licentious faith that says do what thou wilt because it’s all of grace. And it’s not as if we think Paul thinks otherwise!

This is the problem with exegeting other texts to avoid potential issues we perceive with this text. We can end up arguing the opposite of what this text is trying to teach and help us with because we are so scared that, if we just let the text be read on its own terms, someone might run a mile in the other direction. But in trying to help the Bible out this way, we miss the particular point that is being made. Indeed, we potentially undo the very balance on these questions God is offering and, in so trying to rescue the Bible from itself, end up actually butchering the very doctrines and texts we claim to cherish and hold in high regard.

There is lots more we could say, but I do think there is a particular culprit that causes us to do this. Instead of asking that important question – what does this text actually say? – we start asking, what might somebody do wrongly with this? Again, not a terrible question. But that can lead us to start bringing all sorts of texts to boot. And rather than focusing on the actual text in front of us, we can end up spending our time ensuring we don’t go down the wrong line we want to guard against. Which is all well and good and probably means we won’t buy into that wrong way of thinking, it just means we might miss the actual point of the text in front of us altogether.