Brush Strokes - A Call for Contextual Reading

When I read Scripture I like to read it in large chunks. If there is such a thing (and until this moment there is not) I am a “contextualist.” By “contextualist” I find more meaning in Scripture by reading large portions than I do concentrating on single verses. I like to identify themes and thought flow. Single verses are like brushstrokes on a canvas. They are critical and beautiful, but it is in the context of the whole picture they find meaning.

A few months ago the museum of art here in Birmingham displayed some penciled sketches from Leonardo Da Vinci. I am a less than a novice student of art having only awakened to my own personal Renaissance about five years ago, but my own impression with the few selections I saw was that Da Vinci was more than an artist; he was a designer, a scientist, a mathematician who had the ability to reproduce life on paper with precision. As we entered the gallery we were given a magnifying glass with which we could examine each drawing so closely that you could see the pencil strokes. I enjoyed that part of the exhibit simply because without the magnifying glass you could not discern whether the works were done by human hand or laser printer. It was that precise. The pencil strokes formed the intricacy of the human eye, the eye embedded in a face, surrounded by subtle wrinkles, the face of a man covered in a beard, his cheeks almost breathing, and his mouth ready to speak. Da Vinci’s drawing of a man’s face looked as if pencils were made of blood instead of lead this man would be alive. It was life in pencil. Each stroke meaningful, incredible, but standing alone not a masterpiece.

I can stroke paper with a pencil. I cannot give pencil strokes any sort of order to warrant them being displayed in an art gallery. I can’t even make the refrigerator magnet gallery in our kitchen. Da Vinci was brilliant. He did not see strokes on paper, he saw a man.

In reading Romans 9, in particular chapters 9 – 12 what did Paul see? If each verse is but a stroke, what is the picture? Chapters 1 – 8 are a definitive sequence in the picture; if you haven’t already you must read that portion as well. What is the picture? When most encounter this passage they concentrate on strokes and undoubtedly the conversation erodes into something less than beautiful. At this point theologians, pastors and laymen tend to even forget the original artist Paul and instead speak of other men, John Calvin and Jacobus Arminius. It is a subject for another day but I am not even sure these men would enjoy the spirit of our current debate. At such point the conversations surrounding Romans, I believe, begin to skew the overall picture.

So what is the picture?

For the sake of not belaboring this post and giving an opportunity for tomorrow I ask the reader of Romans only to notice this. Paul does not end his discussion of God’s election, preservation, judgment, or sovereignty with darkness, frustration, division, philosophy, or reform. In Romans 11:33 – 12:2 Paul adds a stroke of doxology that, along with all of the other strokes, must be taken into consideration. When we speak of Romans 9 – 12 and our conversations do not evoke awe, inspire us to sacrifice our very bodies, to commit the mind to renewal, to make the will of God our quest; then we speak in strokes and do a gross injustice to the beauty on the canvas.


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