Who’s Up for An Honest Reading? John 6:37-40

image Theological discussion in various venues often pits one position of belief against its opposites. Supporters of one position or another like to issue proposition statements of the form ‘If they would give _____ an honest reading’, ‘once I gave ______ an honest reading’,’ you can’t read _________ honestly and still believe’ or various other permutations that are meant to couch the idea that your position is unsupportable in the light of clear interpretation. In other words, the veiled inference is that theological presuppositions have colored your interpretation of the text and if you would put them aside and engage an honest reading of the text, you would certainly see the validity of the opposing position. Let’s see if that’s a valid argument…

All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.”  (Jn 6:37–40)

Given the earlier promise of Jesus recorded by the Evangelist John in 3:16-17, the power of the good news that brought many to believe in Samaria recorded in 4:39, and his repetition of the earlier promise for any who believe spoken in 5:24, an honest reading of this passage leads the reader to two conclusions.

First, it is the Father’s will that everyone who believes in Jesus shall have eternal life and two, that he shall hold them secure. This fits within the stated purpose of the author of the gospel who clearly states his intentions near the end of the book in 20:31: But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. 

So What Is An Honest Reading?

The definition of what comprises an ‘honest reading’ is more than likely defined by the theological framework with which you identify. A Christian with no theological training and a passing familiarity with the creedal foundations of his or her church is going to read the Bible and interpret it at face value. We might say that his interpretive guiding principles are formed by the ideas ‘Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.’ (Ps 119:105) and ‘Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what is says.’ (James 1:22). They believe, quite directly, that they can grow in their relationship with God and become more spiritually wise disciples by believing and following God’s instructions in the Bible. If they had one their axiom would be that the Bible can be read by most people as-is and understood without reliance upon scholarly interpreters or knowledge of Gnostic hidden decrees that are extra-biblical.

This reader will also approach the text in its context rather than engaging in the proof-texting practice in which a verse or passage is lifted out of its context as definitive proof of a theological point. To do so is to do violence to the text since the context of a verse/passage is so critical to its proper interpretation. For example, here is the last paragraph of the Gettysburg Address:

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate…we can not consecrate…we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Proof-texting elevates a small portion of the text from its surrounding words because, in its edited form, it proves a theological point. If a presidential historian wanted to propose the point that Lincoln believed in an eternal world, he might quote just a small portion of that paragraph, lifting it as shown here:

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate…we can not consecrate…we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Of course this is absurd. The sentence, placed back in its context, refers not to people but to the government of the republic. Even more important to understanding this idea is the greater context in which it appears; the complete sentence, the paragraph, the moment in history, and the author and his speech patterns and usage of the language. Lincoln did not pen this clause as an independent thought unit nor are we readers free to create one in order to substantiate a theory we might have.

There is a more subtle form of this practice that assumes that speakers and writers will litter their corpus with random and sudden thoughts. In other words, in a discourse on topic A, the writer/speaker is suddenly moved to insert a statement on topic B having nothing to do with her current unit of thought. To continue our ad absurdum example, it would be as though Lincoln’s address read as follows:

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate…we can not consecrate…we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. I wish McClellan hadn’t been such a failure. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

With the exception of the fevered writings of Charles Bukowski or William Burroughs, few authors insert random thought units into their writings. One sentence can assume to flow from the previous and lead into the next. The same can be said for paragraphs and chapters. To identify independent units of thought in any text, let alone the holy Scriptures requires a full understanding and application of context.

Interpreting a portion of the Scriptures requires that we consider the ever widening circles of context in which the passage or verse comes to us. At the center of these circles is the immediate context, the sentences and paragraphs around the unit. The next circle of context is the book in which the unit appears. The books of Bible can be defined in terms of their purpose and genre and these play an important role in correctly interpreting the intent of the author in conveying God’s word. This circle is further surrounded by the corpus of that author. John may use the word ‘world’ differently from the prophet Joel but it is likely that he is consistent throughout his gospel, his epistles, and his apocalypse. We don’t say that there is not flexibility in usage but, in general, there is consistency. Finally, we must locate our verse or passage in the context of the Testament in which appears and in the unity of the entire Bible. While there are sixty-six separate books comprising the whole of the Bible, there is a unity in the story that God tells through these books that contributed to their inclusion in the bible that we read today.

Part II Tomorrow.. we’ll resist the proof text temptation and examine our passage in context.

image by Alemush

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