“Context!” “Context!” “Context!” says Dr. Bill Helton, my good friend and fellow professor of Bible at Clear Creek Baptist Bible College in Pineville, Kentucky.
Normally, instructors of Biblical Hermeneutics break contextual studies into two areas: a) literary and b) historical/cultural contexts. This week we will overview the need to study literary contexts.
First: A Worthy Warning:
Missing the author’s intended meaning of a passage, the interpreter may lead many others down the path of disaster and misapplication of a passage.
“As a Protestant I cherish the New Testament teaching on the priesthood of believers—that each Christian has the right to his own interpretation, but also that each Christian has the responsibility to get it right.
If an individual Christian wrongly interprets and then misapplies the Word, the scope of his error may not be very wide. But when the leaders of the church do this, the impact can be vast.
For this reason Paul tells Timothy to ‘be zealous to show yourself approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed’; and why James declares that ‘Not many of you should become teachers.’” —Daniel Wallace, “Biblical Gynecology” (2001).
Second: Practical Protests:
How many times do we hear people say, Christian and non-Christian, “I appreciate you sharing that with me, but it’s only your interpretation!” “You can make the Bible say anything you want it to say!” “No one can fully understand the Bible – I’ve heard it contradicts itself!” “This is what the text means to me!” “The Bible is just too old and too hard to understand.”
Third: A Primary Principle:
Context rules meaning! Without context the meaning of a text can be so convoluted that the original purpose and intent is ignored or totally unseen. Drs. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays, in Grasping God’s Word offers the following examples:
“Consider a young man seeking advice from God’s Word about whether to ask his girl-friend to marry him. As he dances around the Scriptures, he finds a couple of verses that provide the answer he so desperately wants, with a timetable to boot.
1 Corinthians 7:36c: “They should get married.”
John 13:27: “What you are about to do, do quickly.”
The young man sees in the first verse a direct command to get married and in the second a timetable – get married now! God has spoken!
Fourth: Wrecks the Author’s Train of Thought
When something is written is placed in the midst of other ideas. The idea of the author is placed must be understood within that framework in order to have meaning. Meaningful thought must occur in context. What comes first prepares the reader for the following statement. Each statement made must be related to those before and after to provide any kind of meaning.
Consider the following paragraph:
Prison officers were found asleep on duty and inmates were openly using and dealing drugs at a violent, squalid prison that the government has had to take over today from the private sector. Europeans will be granted the right to stay in the UK if there is no-deal Brexit under a unilateral act by the Government. Tourist found 10 hours after falling from the ship. NHS hospitals lost nearly 10,000 patient records last year, according to figures released under the freedom of information laws.
Those statements were lifted from articles that appeared in the UK Times online paper for August 20, 2018. They can be put into a paragraph, but there is no logical connection between any 2 statements. This is not how people normally communicate with one another.
Fifth: Clarifies Confusing Words:
Literary context provides for a clarification of words when used in a sentence. Suppose you hear, “That was the largest trunk I have ever seen!” What is the intended meaning of the sentence without context? What possibilities exist? The trunk of a tree? The trunk of a car? The trunk of an elephant? A type of luggage. Does the context make any difference if you are at an airport or at the zoo? – borrowed from William J. Klein et al, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 216.
If you found this article helpful, please leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you can add other areas where literary context is important and why it is, please leave a note.