Textualism is the practice of adhering to the actual text of any document. Much courtroom debate centers around textualism as lawyers, judges, and juries must give heed to what the law actually says. Textualism is especially appropriate in biblical hermeneutics. As conservative Bible scholars are fond of saying, “When the plain sense makes common sense, seek no other sense.” Textualism dictates that every word should be taken at its primary, ordinary, literal, historical meaning unless the facts of the immediate context, studied in the light of related passages and self-evident and fundamental biblical truths, clearly indicate otherwise. Text without context is pretext or a disguise for deception.
Each passage of Scripture has one true interpretation, and, after that is found, we may make application, but only in view of the original context. That means we do not use the Scriptures allegorically—we do not try to spiritualize passages to change their original meaning. Words have meaning, and textualism is concerned with those exact words. “Every word of God is flawless” (Proverbs 30:5).
Jesus used textualism in His reading of Scripture. Often, He began an answer to a question with “Haven’t you read . . .?” (see Mark 2:25, 26; 12:10, 26). When asked by a lawyer what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus said, “What is written in the Law?” (Luke 10:26). In the Law of the Lord, every jot and tittle is important (Matthew 5:18); a careful reading is required.
A good example of textualism used by the biblical writers is Paul’s argument for the superiority of the Abrahamic Covenant over the Law. Referring to Genesis 12:7, Paul says, “The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. Scripture does not say ‘and to seeds,’ meaning many people, but ‘and to your seed,’ meaning one person, who is Christ” (Galatians 3:16). Notice that Paul’s argument hinges on the use of the singular versus the plural form of the word seed. Paul is concerned with the exact form of one word in the Old Testament—that is textualism.
Textualism is the basis of solid exegesis, the process of getting out of Scripture what is truly there. Textualism is not needed for eisegesis, which is the reading into the passage what one wants to find, ignoring context or the real meaning of the words used. Eisegesis is akin to “proof texting,” which is yanking something out of context and using it to bolster some personal idea.
Textualism requires us to examine the original language, the diction (the words used), the syntax, and the grammar of the passage. We must give attention to the customs and historical background of the passage, too. How did the original writer intend his words to be taken? How would the intended audience have understood what he said? Words matter.
As another example, in John 3:5 Jesus says to Nicodemus, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.” Some people try to use this verse to teach baptismal regeneration, but it is important to follow the rules of textualism here. What does the text actually say? The first thing to note is that the word baptism is found nowhere in the context. We must then determine what Jesus meant by His reference to “water” and what Nicodemus would have understood that reference to mean. (For a discussion of this verse, see our article here.)
When we open the Scriptures, our job is to diligently study (2 Timothy 2:15). We must be reverent students of the Word to dig out (exegete) the original meaning. After determining the correct interpretation of a passage, we can draw out principles and life lessons. However, losing sight of the text will open us up to immature, aberrant interpretations or unbalanced applications. Textualism helps us be vigilant and objective in our study and keep the wording of the text in plain sight. As Isaiah 8:20 says, “Look to God’s instructions and teachings!” (NLT).