17 May 2012

A Plurality of Contexts

A red sports car swerves into your lane, forcing you to slam on the brakes and spill your coffee. You watch in disbelief as the driver speeds past another car and abruptly shifts back into the previous lane. As you try to compose yourself and slow down for the yellow light ahead, the maniac in the red car squeezes through the light after it turns red and solicits horns from cross traffic.

Finally, the car takes a hard left turn and collides with oncoming traffic. A young man emerges from the driver side door and staggers across another lane of traffic. He collapses as he pukes on the sidewalk, obviously drunk.

Your response?

Let's rewrite that last paragraph...

Finally, the car takes a hard left turn in front of oncoming traffic and screeches to a halt at the emergency room entrance of the local children's hospital. A frantic woman emerges from the driver side door and starts motioning for help as she runs around to the other side of the car.

Again, your response?

Self-portrait as the Allegory of
Artemisia Gentileschi

Context makes a difference in how we interpret events. More accurately, a complete context allows us to properly interpret events, while ignoring context can lead to severe misunderstandings.

When we come to Scripture we find ourselves in a variety of contexts. First, there's our personal context defined by our mood, our beliefs, our own life story, etc. - very subjective stuff. Then, the context of what we're reading is defined by its author, its historical setting, its language, etc. - debatable, but objective stuff. Our subjective context can sometimes clash with the objective context of Scripture and the end result is confusion. However, an awareness of these differing contexts can help clarify what we read in Scripture. I'd like to consider three elements of the objective context of Scripture and how they affect our understanding.

1) The context of sentences and paragraphs.

We use individual words in a variety of ways. Take the word "like." A quick consideration offers at least three ways this word is used. It can express affinity: "I like pizza." It can be used as meaningless teenage filler: "We, like, stopped to get, like, some pizza, and it was, like, so good." And on Facebook "Like" can mean nothing more than, "I just entered a drawing to win an iPad."

Though we're not likely to confuse the various uses of "like," we might overlook the different uses of words we find in Scripture. For instance, when Paul says, "We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ" (Gal. 2:16), he is not using the word justified in exactly the same way James uses the word when he writes, "You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone" (Jas. 2:24). Closely observing the context of these statements helps us understand the authors' different uses of the same word. (Detailed observations regarding these differences can be found here or here.)

When we focus too narrowly on individual words or even individual sentences, we can lose sight of the broader context, and it's the context that clarifies meaning. An earlier post provides another common example of neglecting context.

2) The context of individual books.

Please, permit me to state the obvious. Words are parts of sentences; sentences are parts of paragraphs; paragraphs are parts of books. Generally speaking, authors write with at least one purpose in mind. Something prompts them to write and they string together words and sentences and paragraphs. Within a single document, an author's thoughts are not typically scattered, jumping from one topic to another and then back to an earlier topic. Thoughts are not randomly pulled from the ether, but flow from one sentence or paragraph to the next. The connections may fall anywhere from very loose to very strong, but an author's writing usually has some degree of internal consistency.

Understanding why a particular book of the Bible was written aids in its interpretation and application. When Luke recounts the events of Acts 15, is he attempting to establish formal church structures to guide future generations? When he records the activity of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2, Acts 10, and Acts 19, is he documenting normative manifestations of the Holy Spirit that should occur in all churches throughout church history? While these passages can be instructive on their own, they fit within a larger context where Luke is communicating the spread of the gospel from Jerusalem to Judea to Samaria and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). His larger purpose is to record the expansion of the church from Jews to Gentiles, demonstrating that God does not show favoritism for one over the other and both should be received equally into the church (Acts 10:47). These texts reveal that the Holy Spirit, along with the apostles, elders, and the entire church, confirmed that the gospel is intended for a global audience without regard for maintaining Jewish laws and customs.

Keeping the bigger picture in view guards us from misunderstanding and misapplying isolated texts.

3) The context of all Scripture.

Christians acknowledge that the authors of Scripture reveal their own unique styles and purposes in their writings. However, we also affirm that they were inspired in a unique way to reveal the very Word of God to man. While each book of Scripture is distinct, together they form a cohesive, unified revelation concerning the person and work of Jesus Christ. They are never in conflict with one another.

Jesus taught that the Old Testament writings were given to bear witness to Himself (Mt. 26:55-56; Lk. 22:37; 24:27, 44; Jn. 5:39). The apostles used the Old Testament writings to prove Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah (Mt. 2:17-18, 23; 4:13-16; 27:9-10; Lk. 22:37; Acts 17:2-3, 18:4; 18:19; 19:8; 1 Cor. 15:3-4). Christians understand the whole of Scripture as an unfolding of God's purpose to redeem sinful man through the work of Jesus. As we interpret Scripture it all fits within this context. The history recorded in the Old Testament highlights significant events in God's interaction with man, pointing us forward to Christ. The laws recorded in the Old Testament highlight the contrast between man and God, and emphasize man's need of redemption through Christ. The authors of the New Testament record the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies in Christ and anticipate a final redemption that encompasses a restoration of all creation by Christ.

As we read individual books, they always fit within this larger narrative. If we set one author against another, or view the God of the Old Testament as distinct from the God of the New Testament, we've failed to comprehend the divine origin and purpose of Scripture.

There are still other contexts worth considering (e.g. cultural context, historical context, literary context, et al.), but we'll save those for another day. Meanwhile, as you read, consider how a particular text that you're studying fits within the larger contexts that surround it.