A Novel Idea

February 29, 2008

Context is important.  If you hear a woman screaming, you will react differently depending on whether you are standing in an oncology unit or in a labor and delivery unit.  Failure to consider context in that moment will inevitably lead to a misinterpretation of reality.

Likewise, we need to consider context every time we pick up our Bibles.  Correct interpretation of truth is at stake.  Which of the following approaches to the Bible is yours?

When you use the encyclopedia you simply turn to the entry you are interested in, say “Asparagus.”  The fact that the entry before “Asparagus” was on “Asps” (cobras) and the one after it was on “Aspartame” (an artificial sweetener) is irrelevant.  In fact, you don’t even look at them, unless you get bored with reading about asparagus.

Imagine reading a novel in the same way: you open the book up halfway through, and read the third paragraph down.  Try it if you like.  We can guarantee it won’t make much sense.  You don’t know who the characters are or how the plot is unfolding; you have no idea what is going on.  That is why we read a novel from beginning to end. 

(HT: Unashamed Workman)

The Bible isn’t exactly like a novel.  But it is much more like a novel than an encyclopedia.  If we are to interpret the Bible accurately, we will need to understand the difference.  Being aware of the context surrounding the verse(s) under consideration will often make or break our interpretation. 

So the next time you pick up God’s word, remember.  Remember that the verse(s) you are reading is part of a larger section (almost always); that that section is contributing to an overarching point being made in the book (e.g., all the sections of Mark’s Gospel are telling the good news of Jesus as “the Son of God” [1:1]); and that the book is located somewhere in the grand biblical storyline of creation, fall, redemption, and new creation.   

Sometimes you can grasp the context with little effort.  Other times will require further reading and reflection.  At all times the effort is necessary.  

Understanding the verse(s) you are reading within the context of the entire Bible won’t make you an infallible interpreter, but it will make you a wiser one. 

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