Author: Ron Graham
What is This Thing Called Context?
—How context is involved in Bible interpretation
Often in scripture discussion, we hear reference to "context". Sometimes an argument from scripture will be countered with the remark, "You are taking that verse out of context". What does this mean? In this lesson we look at what context is, and how we should take account of it.
1 Context Defined
Context is, quite simply, the circumstances in which something is said. It involves things like...
- Who said something?
- Who did they say it to?
- Was the hearer hostile or friendly?
- Where was the person who said this thing?
- What prompted the person to say it?
- Whose interests did the speaker have at heart?
- What authority or expertise did the speaker possess?
- Was the speaker being honest?
- Was the speaker serious, joking, angry, joyful, afraid...?
That list could be expanded more and more, but that does not mean context is complicated. It can cover a lot of ground but it isn’t tricky ground. Nor is it something you have to learn, because you've been learning it ever since you began to speak and to listen to others speaking. It comes naturally.
When you are asked to "keep scripture in context", you are only being asked to interpret scripture as you would interpret anything you hear, and as you would expect others to interpret anything you say.
Making Bible Nonsense
Permit me a little foolishness by way of illustration. You can see that the quotation below, which is scripture every word, is unmitigated nonsense. Obviously I have joined bits of scripture together without any regard to context, so that I no longer have God’s word even though every word is from the Bible.
Joseph made ready his chariot. Now the flood was on the earth forty days. And he sank in his chariot. Joseph called Barsabbas. 'Deliver me out of the mire. Let me not sink.' The mother of Sisera looked through the window and called through the lattice. 'Why is his chariot so long?' And he answered and said unto her, 'Behold the appearance of the wheels. They toil not, neither do they spin.'
2 The Importance of Context
Imagine there is a preacher silly enough to tell the congregation, "Hear what the scripture says, 'Judas ... hanged himself,' and again in another place, 'Go and do thou likewise'." The preacher is certainly quoting scripture word for word isn’t he? (Matthew 27:5, Luke 10:37).
However that preacher’s congregation treats his exhortation as nonsense. They can see that the two scriptures he is joining together are taken completely out of context. It is important that they see that, otherwise they might all hang themselves. Unfortunately many people get hung, so to speak, by many serious errors because they do not notice that the scriptures quoted to them have been taken out of context.
Making Bible Contradictions
The importance of context is reflected in the statement, "The Bible doesn’t contradict itself". Most of the so-called contradictions in the Bible are contrived by simply juxtaposing scriptures out of context.
For example by this device, Paul can be made to seemingly contradict himself. Note these two statements...
- "By grace you are saved, not by works" (Ephesians 2:4-10)
- "Work out your own salvation" (Philippians 2:12)
There, if we take no regard for context, Paul seems to be contradicting himself by saying in one place that we are not saved by works, but in the other place that we are. Context, however, easily reconciles these two statements.
- In Ephesians Paul is addressing one of the key points in his teaching, that you cannot be saved by presenting yourself to God on the basis of an empty boast, namely that God ought to accept you on the basis that your good works make you good enough, and you don't need any mercy from him or faith in Jesus.
- In Philippians Paul is looking at the Christian responding to God’s grace by faith in Christ. The works here have faith as their basis — they are the obedience of faith, and faith without obedience is no faith at all because, as James says, "Faith without works is dead" and anyone who thinks otherwise is a "foolish fellow" (James 2:20-24).
So we see a unity in the teaching, namely that one cannot be saved by works alone, nor by faith alone, but rather by faith perfected by works and works perfected by faith.
3 Texts out of Context
Some people are very simplistic about this matter, and say, “You mustn't take a text out of context” as if it were a blanket rule. Bible teachers who know their stuff will, however, take texts out of context frequently, and encourage you to do the same.
Are you Puzzled? Well, there’s an important distinction to make between properly using a text out of context and improperly doing so. Pay attention therefore. This is not too difficult, and well worth understanding.
The Bible tells us that it should not be twisted (2Pet 3:16), but "straightly cut" or "rightly divided" (2Timothy 2:15). However there is no command that says anything like, "You shall not take texts out of context". There are at least two very good reasons for this.
Bible Writers Take Texts Out of Context
Bible writers, particularly the New Testament writers, often take texts out of context. One may say that the majority of the texts they use from the Old Testament are taken out of context strictly speaking. However they are certainly not taken out of context improperly. Here are just two examples...
Paul argued that a text about the right treatment of oxen could be used to show that preachers ought to be paid wages (Deuteronomy 25:4 1Corinthians 9:7-14). If you say to Paul, "Hey, you've taken that text out of context", he replies, "God is not concerned only about oxen is he?".
Paul saw a principle in the law about an ox, and so felt justified in applying that principle to a much wider context, that of any labourer, and especially that of a preacher’s work.
The Hebrew writer finds much more in Psalm 8 than the context would suggest (Hebrews 2:6-10). This Psalm appears to be speaking of mankind in general, and the idea is a simple one: "When I look at the creation, I feel so small. What is man that God should care about him? Yet God has crowned him with glory and given him rule over the creation!"
The Hebrew writer takes part of this and applies it especially to Christ the Son of Man, and his special glory and authority. If we said to the Hebrew writer, "You have taken text out of context there brother" he would reply that one cannot consider mankind and the sons of men in any useful way without also considering that one special human being Jesus Christ.
The rule that man was given over creation is nothing more than a symbol or foreshadowing of the rule that one unique man, Christ, would be given, namely authority over all things in earth and in heaven. Now this is the wider context to which the Psalm is properly applied.
Taking Texts Into a Wider Context
Every time the scriptures say, "...you..." and we make an application to ourselves, saying "that means me" we take the scripture out of context. In context, almost any "you" refers to persons who have been dead for centuries.
So if we cannot take the text out of context, then we can hardly apply any of the scriptures to ourselves. This simple illustration shows that texts are actually meant to be taken out of context when by doing so we apply them properly.
Perhaps we can make this clearer... When we say, "Don’t take a text out of context" we really mean "Don't lift a text out of its original context and place it in an unrelated context."
When we look at texts properly taken out of context, such as the examples by New Testament writers above, we find that the texts are lifted out of their immediate and narrow context into a wider context that is altogether appropriate. This is the proper manner in which to take texts out of context, and we should do it in no other way but this.