One of our main interpretive principles in the church of Christ is to speak where the Bible speaks and be silent where it is silent. I think that is a wonderful concept to try to attain. I respect our heritage and the overarching respect for scripture that our forefathers have brought to the table. We are spoiled with an incredible heritage and a wonderful ideal that has been set before us. But achieving it is often harder than it may seem at first.
In order to speak where the Bible speaks you have to know what the Bible says. That is easy enough when it comes to passages like “Jesus wept.” We get it…Jesus had physical, actual tears that ran down his cheeks. He felt the emotion of sadness and grief over the passing of his friend Lazarus and over the grief of his friends Mary and Martha. You might also say Jesus was weeping over the condition of mankind as he knew that death was not how things were intended to be for mankind in general. You can break this down very easily. It is succinct and we still weep today so we can relate to exactly what is going on here. All in all this would be a pretty easy exegesis. It is hard to disagree with and is something we all can pretty much agree on.
The plea to speak where the Bible speaks and be silent where it is silent at its core is an appeal to unity. If we would all just read the same Bible in a very simple way we would all come to the same conclusions and thus be unified in our beliefs. Again, this is quite easy when it comes to verses like the one mentioned above. But in other places this plea is very idealistic and nearly impossible to actually practice. In studying Romans over the past few months I have been primarily reading from Cranfield, Witherington and N.T. Wright. There are times they agree with each other, times when two of three agree and times when none of them agree. In my own exegesis of Romans there are times I agree with all of them and other times I agree with none of them. And we are all reading the same text and all trying desperately hard to understand exactly what Paul meant when he wrote it. In principle we should all be able to read the text and come to the same conclusion but in practice it doesn’t happen that way. Why?
We have many different interpretations of the same verse by well meaning and well intentioned people because the Bible has layers (just like ogres, by the way). The Bible has layers of time, culture, language, audience, author, style, overarching themes, context, and many other layers. When one comes to the text with only 35% of the puzzle pieces they aren’t going to be able to make out what the puzzle is a picture of as well as someone who has 85% of the pieces.
Let’s look at another, more complicated example. Romans 10:9-13 reads, “That if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved. As the Scripture says, “Anyone who trusts in him will never be put to shame.” For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
There have been many different interpretations of this passage. Here are a few options:
- You can look at this passage as a spiritual “how to” list in terms of salvation. Here Paul doesn’t mention confession or repentance. He says confess and be saved. This becomes a tool in the box of those who believe baptism is not essential for salvation to hammer their side of the argument home. Yet, this in the plainest and least digging sense is what the text says on the surface. But that interpretation would not fly because it is not consistent with other doctrines that the Bible speaks about in relation to salvation.
- You can decide in advance that baptism is essential (based on a number of good passages) and so try to continue the idea of this being a spiritual “how to” list of how to be saved but use the caveat that Paul assumes they would have already known to be baptized based on what he wrote 4 chapters earlier in Romans 6. After all, we know it takes more than confession to be saved and so to keep this verse from throwing a monkey wrench into our theology we start constructing a precariously built scaffolding to hoist these verses into the framework of that which we already believe, rather than letting them speak for themselves. So we figure Paul is talking about how to be saved but he doesn’t give the full picture here…he would expect them to piece it together from a bunch of his other letters (which they wouldn’t have had access to) and some from this letter in order to decipher just what Paul thinks needs to happen to be saved.
- The third option allows these verses to speak for themselves without throwing a monkey wrench into our theology. How? By actually looking at the context. In Romans 9-11 Paul is talking about Israel and God’s desire for them to put their faith in Christ. In 10:4 Paul wrote that Christ was the completion of the law and in 10:6-8 he wrote that we don’t have to do spectacular feats to bring about our salvation…God wants Israel to acknowledge Christ as Lord. That is what the Law was pointing to but they didn’t get it (10:1-4). So Paul is not listing a spiritual how to manual for all things leading to salvation. Instead, he is just making the point that God still desires for his people to come to having faith in Christ as Lord. What about 10:13 and the quotation from Joel about just calling on the name of the Lord for salvation? It makes perfect sense in context. Paul’s point here is not how to be saved. His point is that ALL of those who turn to Christ will be saved…”anyone who trusts” (10:11), “richly blesses all who call” (10:12), “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” So Paul is not talking about exactly how to…he is saying whether Jew or Greek…it doesn’t matter. God will be faithful to all who turn to Him to be saved. The implication is that God desires for the rest of his people to do so.
If you simply speak where the Bible speaks when it comes to Romans 10, on the surface it seems you have to preach that confession is the only basis for salvation. But when you look at the context, the historical, cultural, and political background of the epistle things start shaping up and you find yourself actually trying to figure out what Paul was trying to emphasize rather than trying to take what he said awkwardly fit what we already believe. I have seen many, many people (including myself) who try hard to speak where the Bible speak actually take the scriptures and twist them out of context to make the Bible speak the way we want it to rather than to hear it for what it actually says. Instead of doing the careful work of exegesis and finding the true consistency that lies beneath the surface we come up with interpretations that are based on assumptions rather than the text and require us jumping through dozens of theological hurdles and hoops. That is dangerous at best. So this is not an easy task and we need to be patient with those who differ with us on those things that are negotiable. Can we speak where the Bible speaks? Yes. But we have to be careful and not arrogantly believe that we have every verse nailed down with precise perfection. We have to be humble in realizing that there are probably areas where we speak when scripture is silent and we are silent where scripture has clearly spoken. We all just have to humbly do our best and trust that God is graceful to deal with our shortcomings.