Bible Verse Numbers and Authority

Overreliance on verse fragmentation in the Bible for study: what does it do? I shall pass over the obvious pitfall of coming to use verse numbers as near-canonical aids, since every sound instructor of exegesis, no doubt, points this out: I assume, then, that those who hear this word of caution take it to heart that verse numbers cannot be used for interpretation. But relying too heavily on man-made verse numbers – vastly more than what some fear of systematic theology itself – puts us, the mortals, in the place of judgement over the text, for us to appraise it as we seek to find what we think we need at the time convenient for us.

This is a danger to be most jealously guarded against, lest in our zeal to find fodder for our points and our polemics we forget the whole counsel of God’s word as the whole canonical books. Of course, verse numbers can be immensely useful for referencing and thus for being on the same page as we talk about the word that God has revealed to us, but I contend that we need to be keep watch on ourselves against slipping into submission to the devices of our own hearts rather than God’s heart.

Scott Schultz says in a discussion about hearing God’s word with the ears versus reading it with the eyes,

Reading is work, labor – the product of much learning, even – but even an infant hears its mother’s voice, whether it wants to or not. Much more, reading entails the use of the eyes placed over the text. It, to some extent, reduces the force of the text, placing the reader into somewhat of an evaluative role. Consider the role of vision in the Creation narrative: God ‘saw’ and said it was good.

Whether we intend it or not, whenever we read the Bible (or anything for that matter) we are poised to subject it to a much more interpretive faculty, one which is far more vulnerable to any number of psychological agendas. This is most obvious in that it is in the nature of reading that we must first choose to read, before we begin to read. Any number of motives might underpin our decision to read something, but this element of selection, choosing what to read, what not to read, when to start, when to stop, should have some pretty clear effects.

[Peter Leithart makes some related comments.]

The texts that together make up the holy Scriptures are Canon as whole texts: their authority is first and foremost as they were written, in the right context of the original writing, though it is true too that all the words have been inspired by the Holy Spirit. Jumping around without trying to understand a whole text, because we ourselves decide what to read and when, can undermine our respect for the nature of authority and canonicity – that these are to be received as is, and it is these whole texts that reveal God’s agenda.

[Note to self: come to think of it, this has something to do with my English research (or research-to-be) on modes of literacy in the 12c. St Albans Psalter.]

So even for those who are constantly aware that many of our modern verse numbers have come from one man, Robert Estienne, and so try their best to ignore verse numbers when the task is interpreting the text, there is more to resist and more to consider about the ubiquity of verse numbers and the result that we rely on them quite a lot.


One response to “Bible Verse Numbers and Authority

  1. Pingback: Typesetting References in the Bible « Cogito, Credo, Petam

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