Whole Counsel Theology

Monday, May 29, 2006

The Hierarchy of Context, Part II

Last post I introduced the layers of context, going from the narrowest to the broadest. In this post, I will grab each of them and examine them more closely, providing some examples as to why they are important.

I. WORD
At the narrowest level is a word itself. Words always mean what they do in the context of other words around them (which is why these other levels are important). However, we do need to have a basic understanding of a particular word if we're going to make heads or tails of it. I'd recommend strongly a good Greek (New Testament) or Hebrew (most of Old Testament) dictionary (three of them are modules in E-Sword, the link to which is over on the right of this blog) rather than an English dictionary, since word meanings often change over time. Therefore, what we need to do is get to the meaning of the term at the time of the writing of those Bible books. If and when you find more than one meaning for a particular word, fear not. This is where context comes in, because even in English we have words that mean many different things. Take the word light for example. What DOES it mean? We cannot know without more information. So, we proceed to the next larger level.

II. PHRASE
All words are in some kind of a phrase, whether it ends up being a complete sentence or not. The phrase a word is in can and will define how it is used. Of those seventy uses of the word "light" I linked to a few sentences ago, only one of them will apply in this two-word construction: "bright light." So then, the word "light" here must be a NOUN, rather than an adjective (such as a light box, meaning "not heavy") or a verb (such as, "please light the candle.") In the case of "bright light," we mean a light that puts off visible radiant energy, and a lot of it in comparison to other sources of this radiant energy. Those two words together define how the word is used, and is one example of the "phrase" context level.

III. SENTENCE/VERSE
I put these two together because sometimes a verse is only part of a sentence, and vice versa. It is also important to remember that the verse divisions (as well as the chapter divisions) were not in the original texts. Because of that, we sometimes have to go beyond those mere distinctions to get the correct understanding of something. Knowing, for example, that Ephesians 1:3-14 is one sentence (in the Greek) gives us a lot better idea how to interpret it since it is really just one thought from the Apostle Paul.

Phrases get their meanings in sentences, so this would be the next logical step. In our example with the light, we now have "bright light." Well, what relevance does this have? If I were to add a few words, then it would have more meaning: "I went outside and saw the bright light of the sun." If I didn't have the rest of the sentence, we wouldn't know that it was the sun instead of say, a light bulb.

IV. PARAGRAPH
Paragraphs contain groups of sentences, often governed by a topic sentence which gives the idea of what the author is talking about in that point. This particular level becomes important when you consider the fact that chapter breaks are not inspired (I'll go into that more in the Chapter section following). If a paragraph is ongoing and there is a chapter break in the middle of it, don't let that stop you from reading the rest of the paragraph and completing the thought.

This may be seen in the middle of Isaiah 52, between verses 12 and 13. This is written in verse rather than in prose (the prophets were, by and large, poets), so it is difficult to make the distinction, but the thought changes in the middle of the chapter and begins something commonly called a "Servant Song," which continues through the end of chapter 53. A new paragraph of sorts starts, however, and the change in thought can be seen with that more clearly than if we were to rely on the chapter breaks alone.

V. CHAPTER
Chapters, for the most part, consist of multiple paragraphs. Using this level of context will often help us avoid common interpretive errors, errors which are more often fueled by our traditions than a careful study of the text of the Bible.

Generally, it is approprate to move from the beginning of a chapter to the end to understand its flow of thought. It is also helpful to look for parallels (grammatical and lexical {repetition of words and phrases}, as well as illustrative) in a chapter to help with meaning and understanding. For example, In Romans 9, Paul makes the comment about it being through Isaac that Abraham's offspring shall be named. However, not all of Isaac's offspring were counted as blessed; God chose one of the boys and not the other, selecting Jacob and not Esau so that "God's purpose of election might continue." From the same parent came one that God chose to bless with the promises of the convenant, and one who He rejected.

Now, if you haven't followed that last link, do it know and scroll down to verse 21. God chose to make one man into a nation that He loved and another into a nation He hated. He used Jacob and Esau to illustrate this point in this verse; God has the right to make out of the same lump of clay someone for honorable use and someone else for dishonorable use, just like He had the right to choose Jacob over Esau, not basing His selection on anything in them at all. This is an important verse for the Bible's teaching regarding election, and there is a parallel in this chapter. Using the chapter as our means of context helps us identify this.

Another example is from John chapter twelve. A lot of people like to latch onto John 12:32 and try to say that Jesus means by this statement that He will draw all people everywhere without distinction, meaning every person who will ever be born. The truth is, this is NOT what our Lord meant, and it becomes clear by the context. If we take a lot of the chapter into play and go back a few verses (a couple of paragraphs in the chapter) we see this pretty clearly. What Jesus is addressing in John twelve starts in verse twenty, and to get the whole idea we need to read all of John 12:20-32. What happened here is that some Greeks came to see Jesus, and apparently they had to get through Philip first. So, they tell Philip that they want to see Jesus. Jesus then goes into a short discourse, explaining that his hour has come. God thunders from Heaven that He has glorified His Name, and will do so again, here in Jesus's hour (as we know from the context). Jesus concludes the section in verse 32 saying when He is lifted up (a reference to His hour), then He will draw all people to Himself -- a reference to the GREEKS. The propitiatory death of Jesus Christ was not just for the Jews, but for Gentiles (Greeks) as well. John used this situation in the life of Jesus and the phrase "all people" to show that the Jewish mindset that the Messiah only came for them was a false belief. Jesus came for all people, that is, for Jews and Gentiles. Verses twenty through twenty-three in this chapter provide the context we need to understand verse thirty-two.

Another example is that of John 6:35-65. Verse 36 gives us the idea that Jesus is addressing in this part of the chapter: He is explaining why they do not believe, principally, and also indicates who those are who will believe.

It's important to note the parallels here in verses 39-40, 44, and 65. Furthermore, I have alluded to an execellent exegesis of this passage before, which I recommend reading if you haven't done so. Evan May over at Strange Baptist Fire has done a very good job with it, and makes excellent use of the chapter's context to explain the passage (at least a good part of it).

Most of the time, the chapter divisions help distinguish the thoughts of the writer, showing where the logical divisions of a book are. However, at times, chapter breaks need to be overlooked because the thought wasn't finished yet (such as the inappropriate break at the end of Malachi 2. Furthermore, just because there is a new chapter and a change in thought has happened, it does NOT mean that the new chapter's subject is devoid of any relation to the previous chapter(s) in the book that contains them all. With that said, we travel on to the next level of context:

VI. BOOK
Most of the time, books of the Bible are composed of multiple chapters. Understanding the book context does a couple of things for us:

1.) First, it shows how the author put the book together. Generally, there is a common theme around which the author of a particular book was writing, with a large part of the theme usually found in the first chapter of the book (though The Gospel of John and Ecclesiastes are exceptions to this; there may be others). Galatians, for example, was written by Paul to address a serious problem in the Galatian church -- they were adding qualifications to the Gospel, and apparently were wanting to please men (1:6-10). It turns out that there were Judaizers (people who were insisting on Jewish customs, most notably circumcision) among them who were insisting that the new Gentile believers be circumcised and obey the Law. Paul rebuked the Galatian Christians and speaks strongly against the Judaizers and their practices (see especially chapters three and five).

2.) Secondly, since we already know that chapter divisions are not inspired (added MUCH later than the writings of the books), it only stands to reason that the next thought of an author is not completely changed when a new chapter starts, sometimes not being changed at all. In other words, just because we have a new chapter doesn't mean we've left the previous subject.

Romans nine is an example of this (though there are many more). In Romans 8:28-39, Paul has been establishing the benefits and security of individual believers, having made reference to both Jews and Gentiles in the earlier parts of his letter. So, to say that Paul is making the leap in Romans nine to talk about nations and their historical destinies is not warranted by the context of Romans 8, the place he just left. Moreover, Romans 9:6 indicates a couple of things. First, it mentions that not everyone in Israel is of Israel, singling out individuals rather than the nation as a whole (i.e., people in Israel). Second, why would Paul make the statement that the Word of God hasn't failed? The context of the referenced part of Romans 8 and the first five verses of 9 tell us -- God secures those who believe, but He has not chosen to save all of His Old Covenant people in the Messiah, nor was it ever His ultimate intention to do so. Did God then not follow through on His Word since every person in Israel is not saved? No, Paul tells us in verse six, because not all of them really are Israel. Paul then goes on to describe the reasons throughout much of the rest of the chapter, and brings the Gentiles into the same fold in verses 24 through 33.

Understanding the book context is critical. However, how do we bridge context across books? I'll lump the next two together.

VII. AUTHOR
It's commonly known that one person wrote more than one book in the Bible in many cases. Paul wrote several in the New Testament for example (13 I think), as did John (5), Luke (2), and Peter (2). Sometimes, with Paul especially, more than one book was written to a particular audience.

Often, when multiple books were addressed to a set group of people (or a single person), the same issues surface in those books. If we understand how an issue is addressed in one of the books to the same audience, or how a word is used in the same respect, we can very often understand how it was addressed/used in the other book.

Two examples of this come to mind. First is one I address over at my good friend Andrew Short's Blog. He raised a very good question about 2 Timothy 1:12 and how several translations differ over it (even excellent translations like the NASB and the ESV). The analysis used authorial context along with the audience context; we went to 1 Timothy to understand 2 Timothy. The results are very interesting, and I think it is worth your while!

The second exmaple is something I put into my blog a while back about 2 Peter 3:9. This verse is often quoted by Univeral Redemptionists to try to indicate that God intends to save every single person on earth without distinction. At first glace, without reference to context (not to mention grammar with special attention being paid to the antecedents of certain pronouns), they appear to be right. However, when context is used for the book and the author, a different (and correct) conclusion is reached. Follow the above link and read it over to see how important using context is!

Another example of Authorial context (moving outside of the audience now) can be seen with how Paul uses the illustration of Isaac in Romans 9:7-9 with how he uses references to Isaac in Galatians 3:29 and 4:28-30. Knowing that Paul refers to the Galatian Christians (who are mostly Gentiles) as "children of promise" and uses the same phrase in Romans 9:8 is quite telling.

The New Testament is not alone in having this kind of context either. Several of the Psalms were written by King David; Solomon wrote most of Proverbs, the book of Song of Solomon and Ecclesiastes; Jeremiah wrote the book that bears his name as well as Lamentations; Moses wrote the Pentateuch. Knowing the author can be a GREAT help in interpretation as I've discussed and briefly demonstrated.

VIII. TESTAMENT
This one almost goes without saying; whatever you are reading in a particular book by a particular author has either the New or Old Testament as its context; it either happened before or after Christ, and the writers of the respective Testaments will have that in common.

A brief example of this is when Peter makes the comment over in his second letter that Paul's writings are Scripture. Well, where do we have to go to find these writings? Much of the New Testament of course was written by Paul, and it isn't hard to find an example of what Peter was talking about. :)

Something else comes into play here as well as in the next context grouping, and that is something I like to call "Theological Corroboration." What is this? Well, let's move on!

IX. BIBLE
The entire Bible is without error and speaks in unity with itself. That being true, we can use Scriptures from both Testaments to illustrate and help verfiy something in a difficult passage that, on its own, would be hard to comprehend. This principle, which I often call "theological corroboration" is usually referred to as the rule to "let Scripture interpret Scripture." If you don't know what a verse in Matthew means, Luke might have the answer for you. If you are wondering what Mark means when Jesus says He's a "ransom for many," perhaps Isaiah can help you. The usefulness of this rule is great, but remember: the closer contexts have greater impact on the meaning than the broader contexts. Further, when doing corroborative work and letting Scripture interpret Scripture, make sure you are not taking a verse or two and tearing it away from its immediate context(s) to make it support something elsewhere in the Bible that it is really not addressing.

There you have it, the Hierarchy of Biblical Context. I hope and pray this can and will be useful to you as you seek to divide the Truth rightly.

May God be Honored and Glorified in it!

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