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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
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
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.
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: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Oe-tDFwqWA
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