Explicit vs. Implicit
“Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Cor. 10:11).
Previously we have studied some of the literary forms that we must take into account when interpreting the Bible. Recognizing these different literary forms leads us to understand exactly what a text may be teaching us and helps us to defend the Bible from its critics. Today we will examine a hermeneutical rule that is very important in order to avoid overly esoteric interpretations of the Bible.
Many different literary genres are represented in Holy Writ. Some genres tend to be more doctrinally explicit than others, like, for example, the New Testament epistles and other more didactic (explicit teaching) portions of Scripture. Narratives and poems tend to be less explicit and didactic, and thus we rely more on implicit inferences in order to determine how they contribute to our understanding.
When reading the Bible, we must let the explicit passages of Scripture clarify the implicit ones. A doctrine that we infer from a text cannot be true if it contradicts the explicit teaching of another text.
The controversy over open theism (the heresy that contends that God does not know the future) illustrates this point well. Many Scripture passages (e.g., Ex. 32:14; Jonah 3:10) indicate that sometimes God “relents” (some versions: “changes His mind”) and does not bring promised disaster upon a people. When human beings change their minds, it is usually due to some unknown future event or unforeseen circumstance. Open theists take this fact about human beings, combine it with texts that speak of God changing His mind, and then infer that God must not know the future because if He did, the Bible would not say that He changes His mind.
This inference, however, denies many explicit portions of Scripture. Numbers 23:19 tells us that “God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man that he should change his mind.” This explicit, didactic statement tells us clearly that God does not change His mind like men do. Men change their minds because they do not know the future. God, however, knows the future exhaustively (Isa. 42:9; 44:7; Jer. 1:5; Matt. 26:34), and thus any change of mind of which the Bible speaks must be a change that God knew He would make in advance. Open theism demonstrates that when we do not allow the explicit to govern our interpretation of the implicit, we end up with heresy.
Sometimes we downplay the importance of narratives for determining doctrine because they are generally less explicit than other portions of Scripture. Numbers 23:19, however, shows us that even narratives contain didactic statements. As you read biblical narratives, look out for those portions that are explicitly didactic.
Passages for Further Study
Deut. 4:15–24 Neh. 8:1–8 Mark 4:1–20 James 3:1
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