The Implicit Text

Once a student has the notion of Bible translation settled to their satisfaction then the next question they need to ask themselves is how much weight they wish to attach to the implicit text. The implicit text is the name given to those facts that are not explicitly contained within the words the Bible uses but which 'certainly' be inferred from the narrative. There are some that claim this 'obvious' extra information is as significant as those things that the text itself states. The contention of this paper will be that whilst the implicit text may be as significant as the explicit text it is also less authoritative.

The implicit text is essentially a small step from translation towards exegesis. In fact many of the more dynamic translations will have actually taken some of the implicit text and burnt it into the translation thus making it explicit. In this case the implicit text became as significant as the explicit text because the translator was certain his deductions were correct. Deeming a deduction made from the explicit text to be part of the implicit text is essentially stating that you believe your interpretation of it to be certain.

In one sense the implicit text may be viewed as a first approximation to the literary context. If the Psalmist states that he is lying down to sleep then the implicit text tells us that it is night time (or at least late evening). Thus we have a context in which to set the Psalm. However even this example shows that a thorough understanding of the full context is required for the implicit text to have any validity. Had the surrounding verses stated that David was in a dessert exhausted and had found shelter and was lying down to sleep then we may not wish to assert that we know it is nighttime.

Unfortunately there are other examples where a wider context shows that a na´ve implicit text can be entirely false. Reading Numbers 22:5-13 shows us that Balaam is a prophet of God that speaks with God listens to God and is obedient to God. Of course that is all entirely wrong but that is what the implicit text would tell us in the absence of the narrative following. That case is not too worrying as the information you needed followed in the same chapter. Consider however the case of Lot; one can read the entire Old Testament and feel pretty confident that the man was a weak minded incestuous drunkard. Of course if you then read 2Pe 2:7 you find he was a just man.

The foregoing has been almost entirely negative and deliberately so. The forming of the implicit text is the first stage in applying human logic to the divine text and it is thus the first stage in introducing exegetic error and thus doctrinal error. I believe it is vital when forming the implicit text that we must always remember that what we have is at least partially our own handiwork and thus does not carry the weight or error free nature of Scripture. Certainly if two passages appear to conflict the conflict must always be resolved in favor of the explicit text. God explicitly tells us that we don't think the way he does[1] and thus we should assume that we produce a different implicit text to the one God did.

However I still believe that the implicit text is a vital thing to form. In forming an eventual exegesis of the passage we are going to have to go through stages where there is definite scope for interpretation and difference of opinion. If we try to leap directly from the explicit text to the eventual exegesis then we are essentially relying upon our minds to construct the entire context from the underlying verses with no 'audit trail' of how we got there. If instead we take a methodical and layered approach noting the explicit support we have for each one of our deductions then we know what we may need to correct if we later find that one of our initial deductions was false.

In such a layered approach the implicit text then becomes the first layer of deductive interpretation. It carries the first degree of inference from the words explicitly stated. It ought to be theology neutral and should be formed absent of any end goal of interpretation. In particular two believers with entirely opposing views of the eventual interpretation of a passage ought to still construct the same implicit text as part of their exegesis. In fact I would suggest a comparison of implicit text between two disagreeing believers may well highlight some portions that have been made part of the implicit text even though the decision was not unequivocal.

In conclusion I have probably lined myself against viewing the implicit text as anything other that the first stage of exegesis. I consider that reading between the lines is just that; I way of injecting human fallibility into the divine record. It is still necessary as ultimately the Word of God has to be interpreted into our minds; but viewing it as anything other than human interpretation is probably dangerous.

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