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Principle 6. Rationalizations

We have to distinguish in Scripture substantial statements from popular reasonings in which authors express their own human opinions.

Rationalizing is very much a human trait. Could Sacred Scripture be so human that it also contains ‘popular, spurious, reasonings’? The answer is: yes. Because nothing human is foreign to Scripture.

There is a big difference between reason and rationalisation. We may have good reasons for our attitudes and actions. But at times we fool ourselves. We do not want to admit that our real motives or arguments are irrational. So we invent spurious reasons. This is called ‘rationalisation’, namely: the provision of plausible reasons to explain to ourselves or to others why we think or behave in a particular way.

Interpreting Scripture Correctly





Paul often uses rationalizations, usually when he wants to argue a point and adduces all kinds of reasons that come to his mind, some more appropriate than others. It is clear from Paul's own way of speaking in such cases that he does not want to teach these reasonings for their own sake: they are just ‘thoughts’ to underline a point.

We will study some examples from Paul's Letters. We always find the structure: (a) main point, (b) reasons and rationalizations.


Proof that also the Jews are guilty and in need of salvation

When Paul wants to prove that also the Jews are in need of salvation and not only the pagans, he employs a so-called rabbinical chain argument which strings together various quotes from the Old Testament.

The quotes express that all people are sinners.

Paul then argues that all these texts come from 'the law' = from the Hebrew Scriptures and so are addressed to the Jews. Therefore, he argues, these texts apply to all Jews.

The argument is clearly a rationalization because the persons spoken of in these texts vary conserably.

Letter to the Romans chapter 3
"Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all! For I have already charged that all people, Jews as well as pagans, are under the power of sin, as it is written:"
vs. 9
what Paul wants to prove
Psalms 14,1-3; 53,1-3
"None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands, no one seeks for God. All have turned aside, together they have gone wrong; no one does good, not even one."
vs. 10-12
said of 'the children of men' [= human beings] who exploit the Jewish people
Psalm 5,9
"Their throats are an open grave, they use their tongues to deceive. " vs. 13a
said of persons who accuse the supplicant in court of having committed a crime
Psalm 140,3
"The venom of asps is under their lips." vs. 13b
said of enemies who plot the downfall of the person praying the psalm
Psalm 10,7
"Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness." vs. 14
said of powerful people who rob the poor
Isaiah 59,7-8

"Their feet are swift to shed blood, in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they do not know." vs. 15-17

said of evildoers among the Jewish people
Psalm 36,1
"Their is no fear of God before their eyes."
vs. 18
said of all wicked people
"Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped . . . " vs. 19
So all Jews are guilty of crimes!

Elsewhere Paul clearly acknowledges that each individual will be judged 'according to their works' (Romans 3,6-11).

Here his generalised quotations from Scripture clearly serve a purpose in his theological argumentation. Paul rationalizes.


Case study: women should veil their heads

In 1 Corinthians 11,2-16 Paul's main point is that he wants women to cover their hair with a veil when they attend the Christian assembly. To drive home this (rather trivial) point he adduces many rationalizations:

  1. “The head of every man is Christ, the head of every woman is her husband, etc. ” (verse 3)
  2. “A woman who prays with her head unveiled dishonours her head - it is as if she were shaven bald, etc.” (verses 4-6).
  3. “For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but women is the glory of man” (verse 7).
  4. “For man was not made from woman, but woman from man” (verse 8).
  5. “Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man” (verse 9).
  6. “That is why a woman ought to to have a veil on her head, because of the angels” (verse 10). Pauline correction: man and woman are created equally (verses 11-12).
  7. “Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray with her head unveiled? Does not nature itself teach you that for a man to wear long hair is degrading, but if a woman has long hair it is her pride . . . etc.” (verses 13-15).
  8. “If anyone is disposed to be contentious, we recognise no other practice, nor do the churches of God!” (verse 16).

It is clear that Paul is just piling reasons on top of each other which he himself realises are rationalizations. That is why it is unjustifiable to take some of these rationalizations, especially nos 3-5 , to imply inspired teaching on the submission of woman to man. Yet this was done by the Fathers of the Church, canon lawyers, theologians and is even repeated implicitly in the latest documents from Rome regarding the priestly ordination of women!

Begin by looking at this video (click on start arrow):

Then go here for a more detailed discussion.


Exercise. Rationalizing about God's punishments

In olden times the Israelites were firmly convinced that every disaster should be explained, somehow or other, as a punishment for a specific crime.

We read, for instance, that a famine occurred during David’s reign. A divine oracle was consulted, which stated: “Saul and his family are guilty of murder; he put the people of Gibeon to death.” David made further enquiries and found that Saul, some 10 years previously, had put some Gibeonites to death. David then approached the Gibeonites and asked them what they wanted him to do.

“Hand over seven of his male descendants, and we will hang them before the LORD at Gibeah, the hometown of Saul, the LORD’S chosen king” (2 Sm 21,6).

David agreed. He arrested seven of Saul’s sons and handed them over. The Gibeonites hanged them and left their corpses to rot in front of the sanctuary at Gibeah. After a few months the bodies were taken down and buried. “And after that, God answered their prayers for the country” (2 Sm 21:14).

Try to answer the following questions:

1. Do you think that God personally agreed with punishing Saul's offspring for their father's sins? Why not?

2. How then do you explain what is described in the book of Samuel?

After working this out for yourself, go here for further clarification.

John Wijngaards

course overview


The texts in our course Interpreting Scripture Correctly were written by John Wijngaards in 2009. Part of the contents is based on his earlier publications, in particular:

  • Background to the Gospels (New Delhi 1970),
  • God's Word to Israel (Ranchi 1971),
  • Handbook to the Gospels (Ann Arbor 1980),
  • Historicity in the Old Testament (Bangalore 1983)
  • and Together in My Name (London 1991).

Illustrations in the video clip by Jackie Clackson.

Correct Interpretation. Principle 1 Correct Interpretation. Principle 2 Correct Interpretation. Principle 3 Correct Interpretation. Principle 4 Correct Interpretation. Principle 5
Correct Interpretation. Principle 6

Correct Interpretation. Principle 7   Correct Interpretation. Principle 8   Correct Interpretation. Principle 9   Correct Interpretation. Principle 10