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October 29, 2011

Reading Scripture out of Context and God’s “Plan of Salvation”

This essay appears under the same title in The Fourth R 26.2 (2013): 18, 20

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Sunday morning in Baptist Bible study we were studying a passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans. The lesson in the student’s quarterly was entitled: “It’s all about God’s Plan.” The plan, of course, was God’s “plan of salvation.” The focus passage for discussion was Romans 10:1-4, 8b-14, and 11:28-32. In his argument for Christ as God’s way of salvation in Romans 10:8b-14, Paul uses three sentences from the Old Testament. I looked them up, and it appears that Paul completely ignored their historical and literary context, and misappropriated all three sentences to support his argument for Christian salvation.

     Here is the first: in Romans 10:6-7 Paul draws on a passage from Deuteronomy 30:11-13 in which Moses commands the Israelites to heed the voice of God and to keep all God’s commandments written in Deuteronomy (30:10). The “word,” mentioned in the passage (30:11), is Moses’ word of admonition to the Israelites: “The word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it” (Deuteronomy 30:14). Paul takes up this sentence from Deuteronomy into his argument is this way: “What does it (i.e., the Deuteronomy passage) say? ‘The word is near you on your lips and in your heart’—that is the word of faith which we preach” (Romans 10:8). By this fast shuffle Paul has claimed biblical authority for the gospel he preaches. The “word near you” in Paul’s argument to the Romans is Paul’s gospel, but in Deuteronomy it is Moses’ word to the Israelites. In this way Paul makes Moses’ statement reference what Paul preaches about faith in Christ.

     Here is the second: in Romans 10:11 Paul cites a sentence from Scripture, “For the scripture says: ‘No one who believes in him will be put to shame.’” This sentence comes from the Septuagint version of Isaiah 28:16 (which Paul quotes in full in Romans 9:33). In context in Isaiah the sentence refers to Yahweh’s intention to establish a foundation for a new social order based on justice and righteousness in Jerusalem. Those who believe God will share in the new order. Paul’s rendition of the sentence, however, is not an exact quote of the Septuagint Greek translation of Isaiah, which actually says “the one believing shall not be put to shame”; Paul, however, writes “the one believing in him shall not be put to shame.” The phrase “in him” is neither in the Greek nor the Hebrew text. In this way Paul ignores the historical context of the sentence in Isaiah, and hence misquotes and misappropriates Isaiah’s statement. In Paul’s mind, however, the sentence becomes a reference to Jesus—probably because of the “cornerstone,” which is generally taken by early Christians as a Christological prediction.

     Here is the third: Paul borrows a sentence from Joel 2:32 without noting the source. The passage in Joel describes the awful portents preceding the great and terrible day of the Lord (Joel 2:30-32). The sentence Paul borrows is, “whoever calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Joel 2:32a)—in the context in Joel, those who call upon the Lord will be saved from those awful experiences accompanying the day of the Lord. In Joel the “Lord” is clearly Yahweh the personal God of the people of Israel. In Paul’s argument in Romans 10:5-13 the “Lord” becomes the “Lord Jesus,” Yahweh’s future anointed in Paul’s belief. Paul’s use of the sentence subtly invokes the full authority of the Scripture to endorse his argument that salvation only comes through Christ.

     Paul’s way of using the Bible in Romans 10:8b-14 is “allegorical interpretation.” In allegorical interpretation the interpreter knows what the text plainly says, but explains what the interpreter thinks the text means, even though the text does not say what he makes it say. Allegory is the way the ancients explained texts believed to have oracular value. This method was the way ancient texts were explained in antiquity until the rise of historical criticism in the 19th century. For a clear example of allegory in Paul, see Paul’s astonishing explanation of Genesis 16:15; 21:2-3, 9-10 in Galatians 4:21-31.

     Here is my first question: how much confidence can anyone have in an argument based on sources read out of context and misappropriated to mean something they clearly do not say? And a second question: how reliable is a plan of salvation based on such a whimsical interpretation of Scripture?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Posted by Charles Hedrick at 9:54am

Thanks for this well-done bit of exegesis. And so we see that scriptural proof-texting and religious revisionism have a long and distinguished series of precedents.
Jim Weller
First Congregational Church of Santa Cruz
United Church of Christ
Posted by Jim Weller on 12/10/2011 at 8:06pm

Ironically, I mentioned the "Roman Road" (the fundamentalist proof texting list used to save we sinners from our generally happy lives) in Sunday's sermon. Let me buy you a salad this week. I'll pay if you actually watch this message:
Posted by Roger Ray on 11/25/2011 at 10:30am
This sermon, like all I have heard you preach, is delightfully literary, intelligent, and informed, but as provocative and unsettling as ever!
Posted by Charles Hedrick on 11/25/2511 at 11:41am

Dr. Hedrick,

Many of your blog entries have a narrative frame of 'In our Baptist Bible study…' or something much akin to it--and then you go on to more or less show how a traditional, faith-based interpretation of that day's study of scripture is essentially a farce, historically and intellectually.

But I have to ask the question that might be the elephant in the room: "Why do you go to Bible study at church if you find it intellectually degrading?"

My question brings to mind something I remember HL Mencken writing on the subject of American writers leaving the USA because they could not stomach the political climate and the relatively depraved general population of their home country. Mencken said he couldn't leave because no other country on earth could satisfy his sick sense of humor and so he would stand on NY harbor, draped in the US flag, and bid his colleagues [TS Elliot among them as I recall] good bye. Do you go to Bible study in a church to satisfy your sense of humor, for something to write about? In short, why do you bother to get out of bed on Sunday morning and go to church?

All the best while at the same time hoping to smoke you out,

Posted by Martel on 11/24/2011 at 4:06pm

Good Morning Martel,
It is always good to hear from you. I hope you had a great Thanksgiving! Is there an ex pat community there?

You are not the first to ask me this question, and I usually say the same thing. I am a member of this Bible study class because of community. I have been a member of the church for 31 years and regular in Bible study the whole time. The make up of the class(es) has changed through the years. But I know the folks in my SS department well. They accept me and tolerate my ideas. Make no mistake, however. The class is quite conservative in outlook and faith—some might even claim to be ultra conservative. But they are smart, honest, and successful in their lives. The teacher at the moment is a former university president and trained in a Southern Baptist Seminary (as a side note I was the teacher for a little over a year, but stopped when I was writing my commentary on the Gospel of Thomas).

I do not find the experience “intellectually degrading,” rather I find it intellectually stimulating. It keeps my feet on the ground to be involved with a group of men trying to use the Bible as a guide for their lives in the modern world. So what we do every Sunday morning is a serious matter. I would like to think that I occasionally raise the tenor of the conversation every now and then. But in any case, I am honored that they allow me to be a part of their quest. I get to say whatever I want; although I am the token liberal in the room, I am still given a hearing. Also I find the experience of being forced to consider the biblical text from the different existential perspective informative.

Some blogs have been stimulated by the poverty of the Southern Baptist literature that the members of the class are given and the approach to the biblical text taken by the lesson writer—both conservative in outlook, as you might imagine. Nevertheless, I always come away from the class with new questions and new ideas, and profit from regular programmatic studies into parts of the Bible I likely would seldom read. Everyone should have a Sunday school class like the one I am a member of. But of course you are only getting my side of the story. My Sunday school teacher has been known to read my blog; perhaps you should ask him the question to get the other side of the story.
Posted by Charles Hedrick on 11/25/2011 at 10:10am

Hi Charlie:
Nice post. Add to this the fact that, if you read the Old Testament passages containing what Christians have traditionally called the "prophecies" of Jesus in context, you find that it's actually hard to say that they clearly refer to Jesus the son of Joseph and Mary from Nazareth, born circa 4 C.E. For example, as I understand it, it seems more likely that Isaiah 7-8 refers to Mahershalalhashbaz and that Isaiah 53 and Hosea 11:1 refer to the nation of Israel (in the first case, see, e.g. Isaiah 44:1-2 and 49:1-3). Curiously, this was never mentioned in Sunday School or in Bible class; it took reading the Bible independently to figure this out.
Posted by Lee Penya on 11/23/2011 at 8:54pm

Dear Mr. Hedrick, This is a comment, but not about what you wrote. I was cleaning my office recently and came across a note I wrote to myself a year ago at the Jesus Seminar meeting in Santa Rosa. I would be interested in your response. If the Jesus Seminar work (research and conclusions) has become "mainstream" as I heard Bernard Brandon Scott say at the meeting, why are none of their scholars' books listed in the Christian Century (Oct. 19, 2010) list of the year's best-sellers? Thank you, Laura Wilson
Posted by Laura Wilson on 11/19/2011 at 11:27am
Hi Laura,
I have been at the JS and SBL meetings, and did not read your question until this morning. I have not read the Christian Century list of “best books” to see what the author regards as “best selling” books. In both cases, however, we are dealing with what Brandon thinks is “mainstream” and what the writer of the article thinks is a “best selling” book. In each case we would have to recognize that at bottom what you got from each of them is their opinion. You and I may have a different idea of what “mainstream” is and also what a “best” book is, or even what a “best selling” book is. So for a definitive answer we would have to ask Brandon your question.

But here is my short answer: First a “best selling book” is not the same as a “best” book. “Best selling” has to do with general popular appeal and numbers of copies sold. Critical academic books hardly ever sell vast numbers of copies so as to qualify as a “best seller.”

I suspect Brandon was talking about the “work” of the seminar, not simply the publications of Polebridge Press. The ideas the JS has put on the academic table since it began have had an influence on other scholars, and what we publish is being assigned and read in colleges and seminaries as required reading by students who are planning on ministry or teaching as a career. Since the 19th century most (huh!—probably all!) of the standard critical works in the critical academic study of the New Testament and related areas never ever made a “best seller list” and yet they remain “landmark” studies that must be negotiated by students in any critical academic program of graduate study.

I will copy this email to Bob Miller (the editor of 4th R) to suggest that he might consider commissioning an article in response to the Christian Century list. He has done something like that in the past when he asked JS scholars to reflect on the “most influential” books that have “shaped my thinking.” Cordially,
Posted by Charles Hedrick on 11/23/2011 at 12:09pm