Textualism is adherence to the text of a document—the practice of taking the words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs as they appear. Textualism can be applied to any type of document and is particularly seen in legal practice.
Biblical scholars use textualism as a way to study the Bible. Textualism is an appropriate approach in biblical hermeneutics. Conservative scholars sometimes say "When the plain sense makes common sense, seek no other sense." For lay-people, that means that Scripture means what it says. The words of the Bible have primary meaning, ordinary understanding, and literal and historical significance on their own. Application of Scripture comes with understanding and interpretation.
Textualism forms the foundation for exegesis—seeing into Scripture what it is saying, as opposed to reading into Scripture what we want to find (referred to as eisegesis).
Jesus repeatedly directed people's views back to Scripture, indicating that what it actually says is important (Matthew 5:18; Mark 2:25–26; 12:10–11, 26; Luke 10:26). Paul instructed Timothy: "Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth" (2 Timothy 2:15).
As a point of clarification, textualism does not mean to be simplistic about Scripture. We can and should seek to understand the original language it was written in, the historical and cultural contexts, and the perspective of the author and audience. But we should also guard against wedging our own understanding and desires into the Scripture we read.
One pastor puts it this way: "When we read the Bible, we often see what we know rather than know what we see." Seek to allow the Bible to speak to you, rather than seeking to speak your views into the Bible.
Here's an example. When we read that Jesus told Nicodemus to be born of water and the Spirit (John 3:5), we cannot read into it a command for baptism. The author did not use the word for baptism when he wrote "water," and "baptism" is not mentioned elsewhere in the narrative of the conversation. We look at what the text actually says, and use other biblical and historical information, to determine what Jesus meant and what Nicodemus would have understood in the reference to water. Most scholars conclude that Jesus was talking about natural birth (water) and spiritual birth (Spirit). This conclusion agrees with the rest of Scripture and means what it says, so to speak. (For a more complete explanation of John 3:5, see our article "Is baptism necessary for salvation according to John 3:5?").
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