Everyone knows that biblical verses should not be taken out of context, and most people can probably name a few examples of verses that are often abused in this way. I would like to suggest that one of the most commonly quoted verses in popular piety today is abused in this way, and hardly anyone seems to have noticed. The verse to which I refer is Romans 8:28. I quote it in the King James Version because that is how it is most often interpreted:
And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.
I have yet to see anyone draw attention to the fact that Romans 8:28 has been read as a free-floating logion for years (at least in the American Bible culture), divorced from a context that would, if properly respected, lend it a much more limited meaning. I have probably heard this verse quoted hundreds of times, but never in agreement with its original function within Paul’s discussion. Placed back into the eighth chapter of Romans, a different meaning emerges from that which is commonly attributed to it.
Romans 8:28 is most often quoted in a spirit of resignation—albeit hopeful resignation—following some unfortunate turn of events. The worse the tragedy, the more likely that someone will quote this verse in response. If a Christian is hospitalized from an automobile accident, loses his or her home to fire, or contracts some debilitating disease, one of his or her friends will inevitably attribute the misfortune to God’s providence, citing Paul’s assurance that “all things work together for good” for the believer. Whatever happens must be God’s doing, and we can trust that it has a role in some higher plan. (We may call this a “Calvinist” reading, although Calvin did not invent it. In his Commentary on Romans , Calvin explicitly approves of taking this verse out of context: “If any one prefers to read this verse by itself… I do not object” [trans. Owen].) The strength in which one reads this sort of thoroughgoing determinism into Romans 8:28 will of course depend upon one’s own theological leanings, but, as so often happens, the ability to cite a verse in the belief that it supports those leanings can have the unhappy effect of confirming one in his or her error. Others who quote this verse don’t think that it attributes everything to the hand of God—rather, the verse only promises that God’s intervention is guaranteed, no matter how bad things get. This, to me, is a great improvement over the Calvinist reading—that is, it is theologically agreeable—but it is still a departure from the true meaning of this verse.