Context is King

In this blog post, I hope to point people to the kind of Bible teacher that is accurate and sound while exposing those who are neither. Furthermore, I hope to shed some light on methods of Bible study, so that one can study the Bible for himself/herself.

The Bible may be taught in a way accurate to itself or in a false fashion. In the latter case, abuse of the audience’s faith is the result… if not also the perpetual blindness of the one teaching. I certainly don’t claim to have all knowledge. I am still learning myself from the Bible and how to honestly and properly interpret it without the distortions of denominational tradition, personal/cultural bias, and theological bent. But, I do look back with personal shame on a time when I made the text fit my homiletical outlines and my theology rather than the opposite. What is worse, in times past, I would choose a topic and then lift verses out of context to prove my points. [One can “proof text” but he must be sure the passage (in context) actually communicates what it seems to be revealing.]

It is easy to lift a verse or two out of their immediate and book and canonical (entire biblical) context, and as a result, entirely misinterpret what it originally meant to the original audience. This also leads to improper application of Bible principle and command and results in yet more abuses. But, perhaps the worst kind of Bible teacher is one who places his own theology into the text and then uses it as a proof for his theology. Not only is this circular method of interpretation unfair to the Bible, it is also unethical and condemnable. Doing so places one’s system and philosophy above the objective contextual data. Systematic study of the Bible by themes and topics is not wrong. In fact, that discipline is extremely helpful. But, only when each passage is taken into account by measure of its own contexts (biblical theology) can one claim to have accurate data for systematic theology. Historical Theology (how Jews / Christians of the past interpreted certain passages in their day) is only relevant when those historical figures themselves employed an accurate biblical theology to arrive at a more nearly unbiased system.

Therefore, context is king! The following contexts must be included in one’s exegesis of the text:

  • Historical — Before approaching the interpretation of a book or passage within a book, one must study the historical context. Historical context has to do with answering questions like: who was the human author, where did he live and when, to whom was he writing/ministering and why; what was the situation of that era in both the native civilization and the surrounding nations. When one understands the answers to these sort of questions, only then can he understand why, for instance, Paul would tell the Thessalonians to “respect those that labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you” (1 Thess. 5:12 ESV). Without knowing that this fledgling church had been left without a mature pastor due to Paul’s need for speedy escape from pursecuters, and that the people might doubt the abilities of such novices, the mandate given in the passage might seem like a proof text for a “strict-hierarchy” type of church organization. Knowing the context provided by external witness (Acts) and other accounts, helps the reader take the meaning in its original “color.”
  • Biblical Canonical — The most stunning fact about the Bible, besides its revelation of Jesus Christ as its Centerpiece, is that all of the books of the Old Testament and the New Testament present together a progress of revelation. That is, each book of the Bible is integral to the whole Bible as it presents a continuum of overarching narrative and Divine thought and various lesser but essential themes. Not every book was written at once. But, the books which follow after the earlier ones dovetail nicely together with one another, due to God’s orchestrating both the writers of the inspired, sacred texts and using later-coming, inspired writers to organize the before-written material. Because of this phenomenon, if one ignores what place a book holds within the entire body of the biblical canon, then he runs the risk of mis-interpreting from the start.
  • Book — Most biblical books are themselves gospels or letters (mainly New Testament) or are collections of Divinely inspired sermons, addresses, songs, prophecies or accounts of law and history (mainly Old Testament). Each book and section of a book should be taken as it presents itself. Just as one would interpret a modern-day poem by its style and elements of composition, so one should interpret an Hebrew poem by the mode of its day. When one takes genre into account, then many mystical allegorical interpretations become uneccessary. What is more, one must trust that a given book presents itself by its own innate contours of literary structure. It is, therefore, the student’s responsibility to discover that innate structure and adhere to it, whether it is theme based, sectioned, or genre specific.
  • Immediate — When one does discover a theme, a section, or notices a specific genre, then he is duty-bound to attempt interpretation of that immediate context based upon its surrounding contexts. If it is a Psalm or a proverb, then the surrounding context may be of no import directly. But, if the kind of text at hand is a letter, then the preceding sections are most definitely determinate upon the immediate context. If one overlooks this interconnectedness, then he runs a grave risk of putting into the text what is not originally there, whether it is his honest but misinformed assumption of the meaning or his own theological bent to blame.
  • Grammatical / Verbal — Last of all, not first, one must note the specific words and their grammatical interrelation. This process is done lastly, so as not to miss the forest for the trees. It is true that sometimes whole passages or immediate contexts can be decifered only by proper designation of points in grammar. But this case comes few and far between. Most of the time, if one notes the other contexts, then the unclear becomes clear immediately… as if one has read the entire letter or body of text instead of just one section of it. In certain instances, though, a single word can affect the proper meaning. For example, Hebrews 13:17 commands the believer to “obey your leaders and submit to them,” but on further examination, the singular word for obey does not denote one’s taking commands as in a militaristic or parent-child relationship. Rather, one can properly understand it as “to follow as a result of being convinced or persuaded [based on the Word of God].” Without doubt, one can see how such a verse can be misinterpreted and abused.

Other Guiding Principles of Interpretation:

  • Clearer passages determine the interpretation of related but less clear passages.
  • Be honest about what you don’t know, and so, don’t be dogmatic about what you are ignorant or what is debatable.

RESOURCES:

Dr. Michael Heiser — The Bible in Context

Covenant Theology is Not Replacement Theology — O, Really? Please see:

Machetes, “Enough” and a Free Gospel | “Pacifist in the face of religious persecution; Proactive in averting the general suffering of others.”

The Hermeneutical Spiral by Grant Osborne

The History of Interpretation by F. W. Farrar

The Kingdom of Heaven and Its Keys

Thomas, Robert. Evangelical Hermeneutics: The New Versus the Old. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2003. (chapters 1-8 and 12)

Virkler, Henry A. and Karelynne Ayayo, Hermeneutics: Principles and Processes of Biblical Interpretation. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007.

Zuck, Roy B. Basic Bible Interpretation. Grand Rapids: Zondervan

6 thoughts on “Context is King

  1. I saw a comment you made on another blog and came to see this post. It’s well written and accurate. Many wrong doctrine of Christianity might disappear if we would only consider the context.

    There’s another context that I’ve been trying to sort out and I’m not quite sure how to describe it. I’ve noticed in scripture that the Law progressed as civilization progressed. First there was one rule (don’t eat from that tree) and it progressed from there. I don’t know if we would call it a social or cultural context, or maybe something different all together. But, it seems that the Lord made Law, prophesy, and instructions according to what mankind was able to comprehend or do at the time. The Lord did what He could with what he had to work with.

    In some ways that’s similar to the historical context, but what I’m trying to describe is different.

    Thanks

    1. Thanks for your comment!

      In order to answer your follow-up question, may I point you to two posts on this site, one called Two Gods or Two Covenants and Sin and the Unpardonable Sin. This will help you much, I hope. Eden was not about Law, it was about determination of nature. And, the Law was about a covenant nation…and about being a platform through which types of the Messiah could be made. It is all about God’s plan. We must not fall into the trap of egotistical thought, that we are somehow more advanced or better than previous generations.

      Progress of Revelation is something that theologians talk about. By it, they see that original promises and prophesies receive complementary detail by later prophets. For example, the birthplace of the Messiah was not known until Micah’s prophecy about Bethlehem. Also, the overarching message and plan of God was progressively delivered as Scripture was written down… And that came in installments over a space of 1500 years and 39 inspired writers.

      I urge you not to think of the ancients (before Moses especially) as Neanderthals, incapable of understanding the revelation given them or unable to form a complex worldview as a result. You have to remember that those who were contemporary to Adam and Eve would have known first hand report of the nature of things and the promises if God (Gen. 4). Mankind was responsible for that revelation, and some were advanced in it. For example, Job knew that his Redeemer was alive during his own days–pre-incarnate Christ–and that there would be a day of bodily resurrection as Paul mentions in 1 Cor. 15.

      If God delayed revelation or styled it, it was due to His choice on how and when and to whom to reveal Himself, according to His divine plan, as He sees the end from the beginning. For example, see http://www.apologeticspress.org/apcontent.aspx?category=6&article=1051

  2. I wasn’t actually thinking of the ancients as Neanderthals as much as I was thinking of their level of socialization, have a historical perspective to relate to, ability to read write, ability to make historical records and things like that. Those things developed over a period of time and it seems that as they developed the law or commands developed as well. Not only that but look into how alters and sacrifices changed over the course of history as well.

    Eden was not about Law as Moses and the Levites knew it, but there a law nonetheless. If there wasn’t a law or a command Adam could not have sinned.

    What you said about revelation is correct, but I was looking at the wider picture.

    I have been reading you post on sanctification and will get to the others later. Thanks for your reply.

    1. About the Law, I would agree with your comment if you’ll allow me to say it like this: the Law (of Moses) accompanied the formation of the Hebrew nation.

      In the grander scheme, God’s greater purpose was that the Law would the schoolmaster, pointing us to Christ, as Galatians and Romans indicate.

      Yes, God’s law for Adam and Eve was tree related, and therefore, simple. But, again, note the context to discover the “why.” The pair were untainted by the effects of sin and a fallen nature before their Fall. So, it is actually hard for us to relate to their pre-Fall state of mind, and therefore difficult for us to understand how such a simple law could have been sufficient. But, again, the bigger picture is that from all evidence the Garden of Eden was about the determination of human nature. Moreover, as I alluded before, one who has first-hand knowledge or a direct report of the “Beginning” doesn’t have to strain at historical context as we do. That was true for Adam and those whose lives overlapped Adam’s (which was almost up to the time of the Flood).

      Speaking of the flood and those living during that era, it is not reliable for us to assume that they had no written language. The flood and time would have wiped out all such records. And, as far as socialization is concerned, those on the Tower of Babel project apparently had very advanced construction techniques and technology.

      Backing up a bit, after the Fall but before the Law, God gave mankind the responsibility of conscience, which was a necessary point in the progression of revelation to mankind–that conscience cannot save us. When theologians speak of dispensations, they mean that every noticeable era in history is a revelation from God to mankind about his own state just as much as it is a revelation of God Himself.

      The socialization, reading/writing, and historical perspective of the Hebrews and their direct ancestors (as recorded in Genesis) is probably more advanced than we give credit. Archaeology proves that the Hebrew people had writing at the same time as the Egyptians and Hittites. Is it impossible to think that Hebrew histories were written while the people underwent 400 years of slavery…Or that Moses gathered history from written accounts as well as oral tradition during Hebrew captivity in Egypt? In any case, we do know that Joseph was brought into Potifar’s house as a steward, because he could read and write not only in his own language but in Egyptian too. Not only that but Abraham was treated by contemporary Kings on the level of a peer! Which would suggest that he could read, write, and negotiate price and trade presumably by use of the kind of treaties contemporary to his era. How’s that for socialization? : )

  3. HMMM for some reason your reply to me isn’t visible here.

    But anyway thanks for the well thought out out reply. Of course you make some very valid points. I especially liked, “About the Law, I would agree with your comment if you’ll allow me to say it like this: the Law (of Moses) accompanied the formation of the Hebrew nation.” That,s exactly what I’ve unsuccessfully been trying to say.

    With respect to the rest of your reply, I formed my opinion based on the idea that Moses wrote Torah and even Job was recorded from oral tradition to paper after that. I know there are theories that Moses did not write Torah but there is plenty of scriptural evidence and I find no reason to doubt that he did.

    While I understand and agree that there were certainly Israelis who could read and write, the vast majority were shepherds or slaves. But, right or wrong I think your initial statement sums it all up pretty well.

    1. You’re welcome.

      I am not one who ascribes to theories that Moses did not write the books of Moses. While I observe others may have finished parts of it, particularly the parts that speak posthumously of Moses, I do believe that Moses was the primary inspired source.

      Would you concede that if only a few could read and write, then that would be enough for histories and trade and commerce and socialization?

      May I suggest your looking into dispensationalism? I think it would provide you with answers not only regarding the Law accompanying the formation of the Hebrew nation, but also of other noticeable “dispensations.”

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