Is Context King?
You’ve probably heard the universal maxim of the “three rules” of real estate: “location, location, location.” Similarly, it could be argued that three crucial rules of Biblical interpretation are “context, context, context.”
One of the very first things a good English teacher will teach you is to find the author’s intent in literature. Whether it’s Lord of the Flies, Dr. Seuss, or the Bible, we should be asking ourselves, “What is the author trying to say here?”
It seems that the overall “feel” of our post-modern culture has reduced the importance of context and hermenuetics in favor of an “I think, I feel” style of interpretation. “I feel that this passage is ______, I think this could be applied ______.” To suggest that there is an objective meaning to a passage can even offend some people!
If we believe these writings — and their authors — have a sacred quality to them, we dare not ignore the important contextual surroundings that help us to grasp what the author is trying to convey to us. Understanding the vantage point from which he writes is almost as crucial as understanding the nature of the text itself.
Romans, for example, is a letter, in which Paul builds an argument brick-by-brick. He spends the first half discussing the bad news of the human condition, and suddenly erupts with exuberant hope and good news in chapter eight. If you stopped reading at chapter seven, you would think the book is fatalistic and depressing. If you only read chapters eight to sixteen, you’d be confused as to why this news would even be “good” at all.
Song of Songs is a poem, Proverbs relies on the reader having some common sense, and James is addressing a moral problem in Jerusalem.
We see the symptoms of this cultural context ignorance in the typical anti-theistic activist or “vocal” skeptic, who points to laws in Leviticus and cries foul that we’re not still slaughtering bulls and goats. Thinking they’ve dismantled the Bible’s credibility as a whole, what they’ve really done is demonstrated sloppy scholarship and lack of attention to… yes, you guessed it, context.
Beyond just demonstrating the ancient Israelite context of ceremonial laws or the allegorical nature of Revelation, Accordance can help you go deeper — way deeper, and glean incalculable riches from the Word.
What makes the Bible both a unique and challenging study experience is its broad range of historical, social, cultural, and religious contexts. It can often be overwhelming, even to the scholar. Some things may be confusing or downright contradictory. In our tough stuff sale, we want to encourage you to study divergent opinions on difficult texts and interpretations. These will help you to “solve” some of those passage predicaments.
Dr. J has just recorded an excellent podcast which demonstrates how and why to study a passage in context:
It’s enough to make the heart of the dedicated scholar or pastor burst for joy. But, er, don’t take me out of context there.