“We Must Look at the Context”

I want to start by saying that I understand that a number of you have an extensive Christian education. By this I mean you have some background in Christian philosophy and theology. I, however, do not. I am mostly self-educated on these matters, bringing my experience and my studies to bear on the issues I’m about to discuss.

So, if this is something you have heard before or there is some technical term for what I am describing, then just bear with me.

I found an interesting trend in the way that some folks interpret scripture. It seems to me that there are two ways of evaluating scripture that I hear often and both approaches a troubling.

The framework generally goes like this:

1) This passage of scripture says “x,y,z”, I agree with it, therefore it is true.
Here’s an example:

Genesis 9:6 states that a man who sheds anothers blood shall also have his blood shed. Therefore, the death penalty is ethical from a Christian standpoint.”

2) This passage of scripture says “x,y,z,”, I don’t agree with it, therefore, we must look at the context.
Here’s an example:

(someone retorts to the above)
John 8’s account of the woman about to be stoned demonstrates that Jesus is against the death penalty”
(guy for the death penalty retorts)
“We must look at the context. The woman was an adulteress, not a murderer. Therefore, the death penalty is still ok.”

Do you see what I’m trying to get at here? In the first example, the interpreter jumps past the rest of scripture to make a claim that is totally out of the context of all of scripture, but then when challenged, he appeals to the context.

And yet, some things from scripture must stand as independent truths. They may be enriched by the context, but certainly the context doesn’t need to be a necessary component. “Blessed are the peacemakers” comes to mind as a possibility.

Anyone else run into similar struggles with biblical interpretation along these lines? Or is it just me?

Comments (20)

  1. James McGrath

    I posted something in a similar vein on my blog not too long ago – in that instance, drawing the contrast between the ready willingness to cite an individual verse out of context and say “homosexuality is an abomination”, while if confronted with “go, sell all you have and give to the poor”, suddenly context becomes important…

    http://exploringourmatrix.blogspot.com/2008/06/go-sell-then-tell.html

    Reply
  2. somasoul

    I think that we all begin to think about these things.

    James and folknotions both bring up great points. The homosexuality thing could be explained like this:

    “Homosexuality is an abomination” was written to a whole group of people thereby many believe it means what it says to everyone.

    Whereas:

    “Go and sell all you have” was said to one individual, not everyone, and thereby it only applies to the person it was spoken to.

    BUT

    “Homosexuality is an abomination” is in the Old Testament so it means jack shit to us Christ followers.

    Whereas:

    “Sell all you have” is a new testament teaching and should be applied across the board because it comes from Christ.

    ACK!

    I’ve been reading “The New Christians” but emergent guru Tony Jones. It’s been said: “Don’t open your mind so much that your brains fall out” and I think this might apply to Tony. On the one hand he says Emergent doesn’t mean anything other than a conversation, on the other he declares emergent to be working within a set boundaries. I can’t help but think that Tony is experiencing what we are talking about here, sort of a confused biblical approach that he wants to be clearly defined but he is afraid of clearly defining them.

    Ugh.

    Reply
  3. lukelm

    Here’s a little radical thought: you can’t get any particular rules from the Bible at all. You get many stories of people thinking about and dealing with God, a vision of Christ, and maybe – just maybe – an opening into a relationship with God. Nothing else you think you can find there can be applied to anyone else.

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  4. somasoul

    I dunno, Luke, I disagree with that entirely.

    Reply
  5. JeremyY

    Folknotions,

    I do believe the context of Scripture is important. I do believe we can misunderstand Scripture, because we neither understand the writer’s historical context, nor the text’s literary context.

    However, I don’t think the scenarios you’re describing are really about context. “Context” here is just a shorthand to dismiss part of the text that a person doesn’t agree with. In other words, an argument about context needs to articulate the context and how it affects or modifies the text. What you’re describing is laziness.

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  6. Jonny

    Can you say more, somasoul? I think Luke is really on to something both radical and good, and you seem to dismiss it without explanation.

    “Nothing else you think you can find there can be applied to anyone else.”

    Luke, can you elaborate on that? How far would you take it?

    Reply
  7. somasoul

    Well, I thought Luke’s comments that the Bible doesn’t say anything are, well, misinformed. The idea that nothing in the Bible “can be applied to anyone else” is, well, silly.

    We at YAR apply what we view as Biblical to others all the time. Every blog post is our perception of the Bible applied to others. Denying absolute truth is to deny it absolutly, a contradiction in itself. Denying Biblical authority is to hold up ourselvesas the ultimate authority, not God alone.

    Perhaps I misunderstood Luke. If so please explain.

    Reply
  8. folknotions (Post author)

    JeremyY,

    I think that the second argument does articulate or modify the text. If we look at John 8 and contextualize the scene that the woman was an adulteress and not a murderer and therefore undeserving of the death penalty – but a killer IS deserving – that appears (at first) to be a totally valid contextual reading within the framework you have provided because it modifies or articulates the text. It’s not lazy at all really.

    Now, if you believe that we need to delve more into that and understand Jewish judicial systems, customary rites of stoning, Palestinian understanding of sexuality (I’m using these purely as examples without knowing if they bear on this text at all), etc. etc., I think that’s a bit much.

    Expecting your average Christian to have that level of knowledge doesn’t seem fair to me – particularly when we consider that some third world Christians feel blessed to even have a copy of the Bible – forget commentaries or scholarly analysis.

    Reply
  9. folknotions (Post author)

    Luke,

    I see the spirit of what you are trying to say – there is an unfortunate tendency to “overrule” folks out of the community in the contemporary American evangelical church.

    However, to say you can’t pull rules from the Bible, I think, throws the baby out with the bathwater. There are biblical principles for living that are borne out of the text.

    What I am primarily concerned with, I think, is how we pick and choose what rules or principles still apply, and what that says about our understanding of scripture and how it relates to a relationship with Christ. I’m generalizing, but sometimes we put scripture above Christ, which misses the point of scripture completely.

    Reply
  10. JeremyY

    Folknotions,

    I had understood your examples as dismissives, not serious attempts to understand Scripture. My apologies for misunderstanding your question.

    I agree that it’s not practical for most Christians to read the Bible through scholarly lenses. Scholarship has it’s own limitations and temptations. I think one of the strengths of the Bible is its ability to speak through many types of contexts and shape the lives of diverse peoples.

    But at the same time, it does drive me a bit nuts when people assume that their own interpretations are divinely inspired and unhindered by our own preconceptions.

    I suspect that whether someone interprets John 8 as a blanket condemnation against the death penalty as a whole, or only against adulteresses often depends on what we already believe about the death penalty. What the Bible says is one thing, how we understand it is another.

    None of us really draw equally from all parts of the Bible. We have a “canon within the canon.” We emphasize certain parts of Scripture and deemphasize or ignore others. Often we have no idea that we’re doing it.

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  11. somasoul

    “We emphasize certain parts of Scripture and deemphasize or ignore others. Often we have no idea that we’re doing it.”

    OOOOOHHH……….OOOOOHHHH!!!!!
    I KNOW!!!!!!!!!

    *WAVES HANDS IN THE BACK OF THE CLASS EXCITEDLY*

    We’re hypocrites with our own agendas, right?!

    Reply
  12. lukelm

    First, I’d like to say that I don’t dismiss texts as meaningless, to say that we never see anything more in a text than what we already bring to it. People who spend a lot of time with the Bible can be shaped by the Bible. It has an effect on their experience of God, their relating to God, their ethics, their reactions and relationships to other, their political beliefs, their behavior, their thoughts. Things – real things – do certainly grow out of the Bible in someone’s life, things that wouldn’t have been there without the Bible.

    But I don’t think it’s possible to quantify or objectify these things, to say that the Bible certainly says/means THIS one thing or THAT one thing, like a certain rule, for example – that the Bible says to do this or not do this, that this is wrong or that is right. Somasoul, I don’t mean this as a rejection of absolute truth, but I do mean it as a statement that the “absolute truth” that seems to be offered by a literalist reading of the Bible inevitably falls down like a house of cards and blows away. And I would argue too that even if my viewpoint is a rejection of Biblical “authority” (which it could very well be), that it is not holding myself or any person’s self up as the ultimate authority. You seem to be saying in your statement (I realize this is putting word’s in your mouth, so feel free to say something else) that it’s “the Bible or nothing” when it comes to sources of truth beyond one’s self. I disagree with this.

    I think it’s ultimately the Spirit living within us that really does the true, life-giving “reading” of God’s Word (whether in the Bible or from other sources.) The Bible’s words simply entering into our minds/intellect/thought leads only to finite, limited, relative ideas. Anytime we think we’ve found a “rule” in there, I’d say that it’s just our minds latching onto something so it can built itself a structure of ideas to hold onto – an idol really, something to trust in that we can hold in and encompass with out finite selves. The Bible can become an idol this way.

    But again, there are real things that can come out of the Bible. Maybe I’d best use an example – two men read the same passages. In the first, the Spirit within him fills his reading, and he knows that Scripture is telling him to serve the poor. He struggles with this, overcomes some bad habits, deepens his relationship & sense of God, and goes to do real, hard work with poor people in which he is transformed. The second man reads the same passages and believes that the Bible tells people to go serve the poor. He decides that this is a message from the Bible. He tries to convince some other people about it, maybe gets in a few arguments. He searches through the Bible to try to back up his ideas. He divides people and things of the world according to whether they follow his belief or don’t follow his belief. But because it’s just his mind playing with ideas, it makes no real lasting change in his own spirit and his own life. He goes on with the words and ideas for a while, but they hold no real life for him, so eventually they fall away.

    That’s more what I mean when I say that you can’t find any rules there that you can apply to other people. Certainly, you can FIND rules, because there’s been a whole bunch of this through history, and will continue to be. But there are two kinds of finding – one is with the mind struggling to set up certainty for its own self, in which case you just result in a hollow, flimsy construction of the mind that lasts a very short time. But any real reading with the Spirit doesn’t result in rules or mind-constructions – it results in internal change, and in the outward signs of this internal change. If the Word is to impact others through us, it’s only through the Spirit-reading, not the mind-reading, that that can happen.

    So that’s the crux of my thought: that you shouldn’t seeks after rules in the Bible, because the only real life-giving reading of the Bible results in a changed life, not in rules.

    Reply
  13. JeremyY

    Somasoul —

    We certainly due shape Scripture according to our agendas, but even if we don’t intentionally have agendas, our frame of reference (our experiences, our culture, etc.) shape our readings of Scripture. That’s why there are so many different traditions within Christianity.

    So you’re right, but that wasn’t the point I was trying to make.

    Reply
  14. mountainguy

    I always struggle with topics like context vs absolut, discrete vs continuum, change vs stasis, dualism vs monism, and, for this matter, (historical-social-cultural-etc) context vs ahistoricism-a priori-etc. For biblical purposes, I tend to make interpretations according to the context rather than making assuming in an “absolute” way. But there are also teachings that, in my opinion, have to be taken literally, regardless of the context. I think that the main teachings of Christianism (and I know I’m being biased) like golden rule, “Thou shall love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind (…) Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” are to be taken in the most textual way, no matter with the context. But some biblical verses and stories should be interpreted acording to the context (geographical, historical, “OT vs NT”) or taken as teachings rather than as scientific theories (as with the creation accrosing to Genesis… I’m evolutionist…).

    Apologies for all the confusions I’ve just written… there are a lot of things I´m dealing with.

    Reply
  15. somasoul

    Luke, I really agree with what you’ve stated. Maybe it’s my own 21st century worldview but I think the Bible’s commands are this internal thing that makes each of us, as individuals, to empower the collective christian conscious (WOW! I sound smart!)

    When the rules we find in the Bible begin to be applied to others as some strict set of guidelines I think we lose focus. If I read the text and the text says to give everything to the poor then I must do that(But maybe not everyone else).

    Paul hints at this in Romans 14:

    “But the man who has doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.”

    Is Paul saying that personal conviction is sin? I think so. Our response needs to be spirit led, not by creating laws and rules.

    “We certainly [do] shape Scripture according to our agendas, but even if we don’t intentionally have agendas, our frame of reference (our experiences, our culture, etc.) shape our readings of Scripture.”

    You’re right. But also it’s important to remember that our personal experiences look a lot like agendas to those without those same personal experiences.

    Also in Romans 14 Paul is trying to unite the Gentile believers in Rome with the Jewish believers in Jerusalem. He is trying to get them to connect on a level that they lacked which is a shared cultural identity. Paul is pointing out: “Hey, we have these things in common. The things we don’t have in common are really unimportant.”

    A lot of people read Romans as if Paul is creating all these rules. But when you really look at it, he’s breaking up preconceived notions that these people had. He’s eliminating rules, and showing these wildly different believers a new set of rules based on mutual understanding.

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  16. JJ

    Luke, your last comment was extremely well said. I hope you don’t mind if I copy it and read it to other people…

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  17. lukelm

    Sure, JJ, copy away. It’s useful to constantly be reminded (I know I need it) that Christ showed us how to relate to a living God and a living spirit within, and that all our conceptual frames have a lasting value of precisely zero. You could have the perfect “beliefs” by whatever standards you wants, and yet be devoid of faith, hope, and love. And you can have a very wide variety of ideas/understandings (or barely any at all) and have a whole bunch.

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  18. SteveK

    I like to remember how the early Christians (Paul, James, Luke, etc) used Scripture and I try to use it the same way. Their principles were thus:

    1. What Jesus said is primary and since we accept him as our Lord, Jesus’ word is law.

    2. Jesus’ law are moral principles for living, not usually “rules” and so we need to apply those principles to our lives and communities as strictly as possible. These principles are often understood as “love, generosity, humility, etc”

    3. Jesus was more specific about vices– bad things we want to avoid for the sake of our relationship with God– but these are also stated in general terms “greed, sexual immorality, slander”.

    4. We can make rules out of these terms and there are certain things we should always avoid (murder, adultery, etc), but usually each generation, congregation and individual can re-apply these principles to themselves to make it fresh for them and apply them to their context.

    5. The OT’s purpose from a Jesus’ perspective is to have it fulfilled in Christ. We see how others relate to God and we have examples of what Jesus was talking about, but our law is in Christ, not Moses.

    6. The NT writers are inspiring and important, but they are mostly significant in how they point us back to Jesus.

    Anyway, that’s how I see it.

    Steve K

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  19. somasoul

    I’d say I disagree with 4 and 6, Steve.

    The New Testament writers are more than simply inspiring. They had first hand contact with Christ. They wrote the gospels. They ate with Jesus. Some were biological brothers, others best friends, some students, other matyrs. Their word is to be trusted considering they wrote the words of Christ down. The New Testament writers, considering they joted down the words of Christ, considering Christ trusted them to write it, are fathers of the faith. They are not God but their words are not simple interpretations of Christ’s teachings, they are well beyond that.

    Secondly, each congregation and individual either obey’s Christ or they do not. It’s that simple. This may not mean obeying every little “rule” but it does mean that we need to live a submissive lifestyle unto Christ. Humble ourselves, accept our wrongdoing, and try to be become, not good people, but an extraordinary holy people.

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  20. David Reese

    Thanks for this post. I think it ably sums up some major confusion about how to read the Bible.

    I’m rarely one to resolve confusion about how to read the Bible, and certainly not single-handedly, so I’ll just add to it by pointing out that “Blessed are the Peacemakers” would actually be a great thing to read in context.

    I think that the phrase “peacemakers”, out of context, could lead to assuming that whoever quiets conflict down is doing the work of God. In my mind, this is clearly not true, when given the anti-imperial context of Jesus’ ministry, and the way Jesus died.

    What I mean to say is, I think that God blesses peacemakers across the board. I don’t think that everything folks count as “peacemaking” is blessed by God.

    Reply

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