Few maxims are as well-known as “actions speak louder than words.” It is one of the most widely acclaimed principles of proper ethical conduct for any realm of life. As one might expect, it is even woven into several of the ancient fables of Aesop (c. 620-564 BC), including that of “The Boasting Traveler”:

A certain man who visited foreign lands could talk of little when he returned to his home except the wonderful adventures he had met with and the great deeds he had done abroad. One of the feats he told about was a leap he had made in a city called Rhodes. That leap was so great, he said, that no other man could leap anywhere near the distance. A great many persons in Rhodes had seen him do it and would prove that what he told was true. “No need of witnesses,” said one of the hearers. “Suppose this city is Rhodes. Now show us how far you can jump.”

Yes, actions speak louder than words.

The maxim, of course, is biblical. As the Apostle John simply stated, “Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth” (1 John 3:18). The apostle Paul communicated this same principle at the outset of his great discourse on Christian love: “If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Cor 13:1). James, the half-brother of Jesus, stated it most starkly: “Even so, faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself” (James 2:17).

Overlooked neglect

Yet as widely-acclaimed and biblical as this maxim is, there is one realm where it is often overlooked. “Action”—or what can be better called “obedience”—is all too often neglected in the study of Scripture. We profess our interpretations, sometimes very passionately. But sadly, such assertions regularly speak louder than our obedience. Once again, James described the problem vividly:

But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was. But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man will be blessed in what he does. (James 1:22-25)

With respect to the average reader, this neglect can be caused by a host of factors. In some cases, especially in those where the reader works hard at exegesis, it is tempting to treat “interpretation” as synonymous with “application.”


Understanding the author’s intent is deemed tantamount to obeying the author’s intent


In other cases, the reader settles for a kind of superficial application—a kind that produces just enough change to give him confidence that he is a “doer of the word and not a hearer only,” but not enough to require the high price of placing his whole self under the text’s full authority. Other factors could be cited, but all told, true obedience is hard work. Its costs are enormous. In fact, it can be confidently stated that it is easier to apply sound principles of interpretation to a text than it is to apply the results of that interpretation to one’s own life. It is easier to be more industrious in the study of a text than in its application.

Neglect in Christian Scholarship

But the failure to live out this maxim is not limited to the private Bible reading of average Christians. In fact, this failure is a clear and present danger in the most educated and refined circles of biblical academia.

In the broader circle of scholarship, the common approach is to treat the Bible as a purely historical document. Such an approach voids the Bible of any meaningful authority. Consider one scholar’s proposed approach and the implications it has for obedience:

In academia, we cannot under any circumstances talk about God’s word, what God has said or done, or what are his characteristics. In academia, we must limit ourselves to talking about what the Bible—or other traditions (e.g., dogmatic traditions)—say about God. Every time we talk about the authority of the Bible we honestly should add that this is not an authority that comes from God; the authority of the Bible is something assigned to these texts by humans. Should we, then, stop talking about God with a capital “G” in the field of biblical studies? I think that it would be at least a good exercise in academic self-discipline.[1]

The consequence of such an ideology is inevitable: all talk, no action. By treating the text of the Bible as a mere artifact of history, the need for obedience is repudiated. Perhaps the Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard summarized the issue at stake here best: “Christian scholarship is the human race’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the New Testament, to ensure that one can continue to be a Christian without letting the New Testament come too close.”[2]

Neglect in Conservative Circles

Even in more conservative scholarly contexts, where the Bible is viewed as the word of God, our maxim can be woefully neglected. For example, this happens when the decision is made that it is best to refrain from reaching any conclusion at all regarding the meaning of a biblical text, especially out of respect for those who might disagree. In other cases, the sheer volume of exegetical resources available for study leads scholars to “analysis paralysis,” where conclusions are indefinitely delayed even after lengthy investigation. Indeed, proper exegetical procedure must be stressed.


But the failure to arrive at meaning keeps the text’s authority over the interpreter at arm’s length


While the hermeneutics of humility may be claimed, it is only to the detriment of the hermeneutics of submission.

Neglect Among Those with a High View of Scripture

But the failure to apply our maxim faithfully can be seen much closer to home, even among those who make the strongest professions of a high view of Scripture. The reality is that it is fairly easy to make a strong profession about the nature of the text of Scripture—professions relating to such qualities as inerrancy and sufficiency—while still avoiding the authority of that text. We must not deceive ourselves. We can make eloquent and powerful arguments in response to Scripture’s critics, but still be “hearers only.” We can win the battle for the Bible as the inerrant word of God, but easily fail to fashion our lives and churches under the authority of that word. This is what J. I. Packer pointed to when he wrote,

It will not be enough to fight and win the battle for biblical inspiration and infallibility if we are then going to lose the battle for understanding the Bible and learning to live under its authority. We must be clear therefore on the rules of biblical interpretation and with that work constantly to get the blinders off our spiritual eyes so that breadth and depth of practical insight may be ours at all points.[3]

Affirming belief in the inerrancy of Scripture is no substitute for living out the authority of Scripture. While we do well to continue refuting the skeptics of Scripture, our ultimate aim must always be obedience. This, after all, is what true scholarship is about—knowledge so well understood that it cannot be help influence life. The alternative is an annoying hypocrisy. To borrow from the language of the apostle Paul, “If we speak about the inerrancy of Scripture with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not obey, we have become noisy gongs or clanging cymbals.”

 

[1] Else K. Holt, “Word of Jeremiah—Word of God,” in Uprooting and Planting: Essays on Jeremiah for Leslie Allen, Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies, 459 (New York: T & T Clark, 2007), 188.

[2] Søren Kierkegaard, Søren Kierkegaard’s Journals and Papers, ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1974), 3:270; cited by Robert L. Plummer, Forty Questions about Interpreting the Bible (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2010), 189.

[3] J. I. Packer, “Give Me Understanding,” in Truth and Power: The Place of Scripture in the Christian Life (Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw, 1996), 118.