Saturday, February 18, 2017

There's More to Context than Many Think

Hermeneutics is the art and science of interpreting the Bible. Understanding Context is an important aspect of Biblical hermeneutics. Thankfully, most people are somewhat aware that to understand what the Bible is saying in any given place, we have to know the immediate context. That means we need to understand what words, phrases, and sentences mean in relation to one another in paragraphs, sections, and books of the Bible. We cannot just pick out a word or verse and say what it means without looking at what is around it. I think it was John Piper who said something like, "Never read just verses. Read paragraphs!"

But there is even more to context than just the immediate context. Context can be divided into at least two categories: 1) Historical-Grammatical Context and 2) Theological Context.

Historical-Grammatical Context

The Historical part of this phrase refers to the history that surrounds what you are studying. The Grammatical part of the phrase has to do with the language that surrounds what you are studying. We put them both together in one phrase because they are bound together by time--the time in which the text was written.  We have to do a bit of time-traveling to understand the language and history at the time of the original text. Knowledge of history and language work together to give us the best understanding of the text that we can get. To really know the historical-grammatical context you need to understand the following sub-contexts for each text:
  • Linguistic Context--words, patterns, transitions, sections, etc. 
  • Literary Context--Genres; What kind of biblical literature are you studying? E.g., narrative, epistolary, wisdom
  • Historical Context--All about who, what, when, where, and why
  • Cultural Context--All about societies, cultures, customs, and artifacts
Theological Context

Theological context is how our learning fits with everything else we learn from the rest of Scripture. We usually study theological context in the following categories:
  • Biblical Theology--How does this text fit in the Unfolding Story of the Bible?
  • Systematic Theology--How is does this fit with everything else the Bible teaches?
  • Historical Theology--How have others throughout history understood this text in the light of biblical and systematic theology?
Historical theology is especially important.  It helps us avoid mistakes that others have made. It also helps us see that millions of people throughout history have been doing Bible study for centuries. In fact, the Holy Spirit has been teaching the Church through the Scriptures ever since Christ sent him to help us. Knowing these things might make us as individuals a little more humble and less likely to claim that we know it all.  One of my professors used to say, "Novelty in theology is not a good thing."  The best way to recognize novelty is to know what has gone before. 

Historical theology makes us aware that we don't and cannot do Bible study all by ourselves. Sometimes we think it is just "me, my God, and my Bible." But God did not save me just to make a Christian. God saved me and all the rest of us to make a Church. We are all together in the Church God is making. We cannot do Bible study properly without knowing what God has been teaching the Church for millennia.  You and I are not alone in this. We need the input of Christians throughout history so that we can receive the benefit of their intelligence, diligence, holiness, and Spirit- illumination. 

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