Don’t let the text become the slave of your framework

There is something in us that has this tendency to end up making verses say the exact opposite of what they are clearly saying. Often, I suspect, it is our framework insisting that what appears to be the case on face value cannot be the case theologically. Which, of course, may well be true. The problem comes when we are so sure, because of our framework, these verses cannot mean a particular something, we end up absolutely butchering the text altogether in order to keep us away from the very wrong thing it definitely cannot mean. Allow me to illustrate with a few examples.

Take James’ famous comments about faith without works in James 2:14-26. There are some parts of that passage that are very troubling to those with a Protestant framework. Verses like ‘faith, if it does not have works, is dead’ and ‘You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.’ We know, theologically, what this cannot mean. So, what do we do? Take that latter verse in particular, however we resolve it, the verse cannot mean the exact opposite of what it says because our framework insists it is so. The answer cannot be, ‘a person isn’t in any way justified by works and it is only by faith alone’. Whatever our framework tells us, and it may well be right, the verse cannot mean the exact and direct opposite of what it clearly says.

What about James’ later comments on prayer? He says, in 4:2, ‘You do not have because you do not ask.’ Now, those of us who are of a reformed bent believe that we have everything God would give us. We believe in the ultimate and total sovereignty of God in all things. So what do we do with a verse that appears to say that there are things we would have, that we don’t have, because we didn’t ask for them? Again, the answer – whatever it may be – cannot be the exact opposite of what it clearly says. We cannot rely on our framework and interpret it as saying, ‘you have everything you ever might because God is sovereign and has a plan’. At some point, we have to actually let the text say what it says. That doesn’t mean a facile reading is the right one, but it definitely cannot mean the exact opposite of what the text says.

Last one. When we read 1 Kings 10, we see God’s blessings bestowed on Israel under Solomon. It is almost impossible to avoid the fact that God’s blessing comes in a particularly opulent, material form. But the text makes it clear that God has blessed, his blessing is to be enjoyed and his blessing is undeniably material. As Dale Davis (rightly) says in his commentary on 1 Kings, ‘the prosperity of the people of God is always a gift of Yahweh’s goodness, which (I think) demands of us both gratitude (lest we idolize the gifts in place of God) and joy (lest we despise God’s gifts as though they were sinful).’ But he (similarly rightly) goes on to say ‘In spite of the positive tone of the writer commentators seem convinced that all that gold can’t be good’. Rather than let the text speak for itself and say what it clearly says – it is God’s blessing on his people to give them these riches – theological frameworks lead to, probably out of fear of jumping into bed with the Prosperity Gospel, an interpretation that is the exact opposite of what the text says.

Of course, our theological frameworks are helpful. When we use them properly, they should provide us with guardrails that stop us from interpreting texts in ways that they cannot possibly mean. This is certainly a good thing. But all too often we end up making the text the slave of our framework, and in the worst cases even denying the plain meaning of the text because of our theological framework, and rather than question the theological tradition we stand in or have come to believe most adequately reflects the tenor of the scriptures as a whole, we end up rejecting the very Word of God as it has actually been presented to us. We can end up making the text the slave of our framework rather than ensuring our framework is actually drawn from the text.

Not only do I think this is wrong, I think it is thoroughly dangerous. There are some examples of exactly this in the scriptures. Here is a specific example from Mark 7:

The Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him. They observed that some of his disciples were eating bread with unclean—that is, unwashed—hands. (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, keeping the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they have washed. And there are many other customs they have received and keep, like the washing of cups, pitchers, kettles, and dining couches.[a]So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why don’t your disciples live[b] according to the tradition of the elders, instead of eating bread with ceremonially unclean[c] hands?”

He answered them, “Isaiah prophesied correctly about you hypocrites, as it is written:

This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me.
They worship me in vain,
teaching as doctrines human commands.[d]

Abandoning the command of God, you hold on to human tradition.”[e] He also said to them, “You have a fine way of invalidating God’s command in order to set up[f] your tradition! 10 For Moses said: Honor your father and your mother; [g] and Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must be put to death.[h] 11 But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or mother: Whatever benefit you might have received from me is corban’” (that is, an offering devoted to God), 12 “you no longer let him do anything for his father or mother. 13 You nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many other similar things.”

What were the Pharisees doing here? They were actually setting aside the clear teaching of the Word of God because their traditions told them something else. They reinterpreted the text in order to fit their tradition rather than making sure their tradition was drawn from the text.

The tendency to allow frameworks to drive textual interpretation is pharisaic. If ‘John Calvin says’ or ‘the Westminster Confession of Faith tells us’ (other theologians and confessions are available) drives your interpretation of the text before you, and leads you to take an interpretation that is the opposite of what it evidently says, we are doing the same as the Pharisees. We may well insist that we want to keep as far away from some heresy or error as possible. We may even be right that the thing is properly heresy or error. But we similarly err if, in a bid to ensure we keep away from one heresy we insist the text must mean the opposite of what it actually says. Such errors – just as for the Pharisees – may well mean we are actually setting aside the Word of God to hold onto our human tradition. And Jesus didn’t seem all that pleased when the Pharisees did that, so what is he likely to think when we do?

One comment

  1. Thank you for this article. I was still thinking about it this morning when I read 1 Corinthians 14:39. Some, in my own dear family, would say that “… Desire to prophecy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues.” means that we shouldn’t speak in tongues or prophesy, since they believe that era is over.

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