Another hallmark of the literary approach to the Bible is its emphasis on the unity of books and passages. Literary critics look for literary wholes. A pioneer in the literary approach to the Bible rightly commented that ‘no principle of literary study is more important than that of grasping clearly a literary work as a single whole.’ A literary approach to the Bible is thus characterized partly by attention to unifying patterns in biblical texts. (Words of Delight, p. 21).
Rule #1: Read each book as a whole.
There is a difference between saying we should read the whole book and saying we should read a book as a whole. The former may mean that we could read each book as disconnected unrelated parts like reading the whole encyclopedia. To say that we should read each book as a whole implies that all the parts have something to do with one another. In the latter case, we read each book as an integrated whole.
When it comes to reading the Bible, the anecdotal evidence is that we read here a little…there a little. We have favorite verses, but we do not know the context in which the verse appears.
I recall driving to worship one Sunday morning during a very challenging time. It was not a good morning. I did not like the way life was going. I did not like the demands life required of me at the time. I was overwhelmed. A passage came to mind, at least a part of a passage. All I could remember was “he that would love life and see good days, let him…”. Let him what? I would have given anything at that moment to know how that passage ended. Come Monday morning, I was on the hunt for the end of and the context of that sentence.
One of the most important lessons I have learned is to read each book of the Bible as a complete whole. We need to put an end to only remembering a verse here and there without knowing the context in which that verse is embedded. This approach tends to atomize the text and often leads to trouble.
Marshall McCluhen wrote the oft-quoted line, “the medium is the message.” Let’s consider what he might mean where reading the Bible is concerned. If the medium is the message, the medium or vehicle or means by which an author conveys the message varies. Just think of the various types of writings we find in the New Testament: narrative, epistle, wisdom as in James, and apocalyptic as in Revelation. It is the entire book that constitutes the message. (This seems so self-evident that it should not need to be said, but I have found that some of the most self-evident truths are often overlooked.) As a case in point, the message of the Gospel according to Matthew is the entire book of Matthew. The message of 1 John is the entire epistle. Statements that summarize a book are just that, summaries.
The main point here is to learn to keep the entire book before your mind to gain the most benefit from reading the book. I must admit, this is not easy, but it is most beneficial. Many valuable things in life are not easy or cheap, but the results are worth every effort.
Rule #2: Read each part of the book in light of the whole.
The second basic rule for reading is to consider every part of a book in light of the whole book. As a case in point, look at First John. First John is intent on damage control. Troublers did their damage to the recipients of this letter and left. They were no longer part of the congregation, so they are not addressed directly, but the people left behind were troubled by the false ideas, in particular, concerning the Christ.
When considering any text in the letter, we should ask questions like, “what damage was done by those who went out from among them.” And, “how does any particular text contribute to the message of the whole?” If you begin asking questions like these of First John texts that may have puzzled expositors in my lifetime can be better understood than if we disconnect the passage under consideration from the context of the whole letter. In particular, what are we to make of the “sin unto death” in the last chapter of the book? And, why does John end his letter with the admonition to “guard yourselves against idols”?
I encourage you to read First John as a whole, and in an effort to answer the last two questions of the previous paragraph, see what you conclude considering the “sin unto death” in light of the entire letter. Hint: reread the letter with a view toward highlighting those texts in which John condemns people for positions they held—in particular with reference to Jesus. Is there a connection to be drawn between the statements about Jesus throughout and the reference to the “sin unto death”?