Whole Counsel Theology

Thursday, May 25, 2006

The Hierarchy of Context, Part I

The issue of context in interpreting Scripture is of highest importance. We simply cannot understand how to interpret Scripture properly without seeing a particular verse in its context.

There are a lot of different kinds of contexts, but I'm going to address the issue of what I'll call "textual context" in this post, as opposed to say, historical context.

The context of a passage is how it fits in the development of the words, paragraphs, etc. around it. A classic example that I've often heard that fails to take context into account is to grab three Bible verses that are completely unrelated and stick them together like this:

"Judas went and hanged himself."
"Jesus said, 'Go and do likewise.'"
"Jesus said, 'What you are going to do, do quickly.'"

So, we should quickly go and hang ourselves! Of course, these passages are not related to each other like that, and this might be considered an extreme example. However, abuses of context are rampant, and they are usually much more subtle than the above nonsense.

Why should we take context into account? Can't we just quote a Bible verse here and there, and be sure we're right in our theology? Hardly. The Bible DOES give us an example of the improper use of context, and it shows how dangerous it can be if we don't know the larger contexts. Let's have a look at Matthew 4.
Matthew 4:3 And the tempter came and said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread." (4) But he answered, "It is written, "'Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'" (5) Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple (6) and said to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, "'He will command his angels concerning you,' and "'On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.'" (7) Jesus said to him, "Again it is written, 'You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.'" (8) Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. (9) And he said to him, "All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me." (10) Then Jesus said to him, "Be gone, Satan! For it is written, "'You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.'"

Can you see it? What was Satan doing when he was tempting Jesus? He quoted a Scripture to Him, right? However, was he using that Scripture properly? NO! Jesus corrected Satan, rebuking him for that (and in two other cases), because Satan failed to use the WHOLE COUNSEL of God as the largest context for understanding. Jesus used the Bible properly, and was able to refute the misuse of the Bible that the devil threw at Him.

Of course, Satan was misusing the Bible intentionally. However, I would submit this to you all for consideration: even if we do it unintentionally, we are still guilty of the sin, are accountable to God, and the people who we are talking to won't have quite the same knowledge of the Bible as Jesus and might be led astray.

We cannot afford to do that! God forbid that we would be so careless as to take a verse of the Bible, ignore the context, and tell someone that it says something it doesn't. Understanding the context is THE most important interpretive principle that there is, and we cannot afford to ignore it, no matter how and where we use the Bible.{1}

Context exists in a kind of pyramid or chain, going from most narrow to most general. It looks like this:

Word
Phrase
Sentence/Verse
Paragraph
Chapter
Book
Author: Audience
Author: General
Testament
Bible


I'll break each of those down a bit in my next post, and yes, I'll finish my book review at some point. :)

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1. This is not to say that we can never quote a single verse and make an accurate point. Jesus did just that when He responded to Satan, and Paul frequently did so too. However, when we do cite a single verse, we need to be sure we've done our homework and know that what we're saying about it is an accurate representation of its teaching in the context where it came from.

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