Importance of Context for Biblical Interpretation, Term Paper Example
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It is so crucial to understand what context means when applying it in Biblical interpretation of scriptural passages. The scriptural context means the following:
- The verses which come immediately after and before the passage in question
- The book and paragraph where the passage occurs
- Other books by the same author including the entire Biblical message
- The culture prevailing at the time of writing the passage
- The dispensation/historical period of “Progressive Revelation” when the author wrote the passage
The context of a scriptural passage matters a lot, because it makes the interpreter make a close examination of the overall flow of thought of the writer (Blomberg et al. 2004, p. 210). What appears immediate beforehand and afterward in the text determines controls or limits the meaning of any given passage. According to Dunn and Eerdmans (2003), the interpreter has an excellent opportunity to see what the author was seeking to convey to his readers by observing what precedes and what follows a passage. A reader does not plunge into a letter in the middle then emphasizes on a few consecutive sentences by a Biblical author. Instead, he or she should read the whole document carefully. The modern interpreter must enter into the total train of thought in order to treat a material fairly. Faithfully adhering to context creates a genuine appreciation for the scriptural authority in the interpreter. A respect for scriptural authority implies seeking the scriptural meaning rather than putting oneself above scripture in determining its meaning. There has been a constant tendency of taking verses out of context and using them to support various denominational positions by many religious leaders (Nelson, 2010). This “proof-texting” is an attempt to make the Bible say what a person wants rather than leaving the scriptural text to say what it intended to communicate.
Examples of context interpretation
The following scriptural accounts show how context is crucial in interpretation of scripture.
- 1 Corinthians 7:1—“That a man should not touch a woman.” Some may take this verse to mean that men should not come into any physical contact with women including handshaking and hugging each other. However, taking a closer look at the context- the importance of avoiding sexual immorality, we learn that it is in the sense of sexual immorality that the verse is talking. The same author illustrates the same issue in 1 Corinthians 5:1-5; 6:9-20; 7:2, 9. Therefore, it is wrong and out of context to construct a meaning from this passage, that touching of a woman by a man should never happen, but sexual purity needs to be a focus for every woman and man.
- Galatians 5:4—“man falling from grace”. Some may take this verse to assert that a person can lose his or her salvation. The context gives Paul’s talk on the legalism of the “Circumcision Party” and their efforts to subject believers under Mosaic Law bondage. Paul warns the proponents of circumcision that seeking the salvation of God through human effort is futility. This amounted to rejecting the salvation way, which God had provided through His grace by the person of Jesus Christ. Thus, the individual has fallen or departed from the way of grace.
- 1 Corinthians 11:3-4 is an example that shows cultural setting as what matters in contextual interpretation. The verse asserts that Christ is man’s head, and man is the head of the woman. The passage adds that any man who prophesies or prays with the head covered thus dishonors his head who is Christ. However, taking the cultural setting as the context, we learn that a man who had his head covered while praying dishonored Christ according to the Corinthian Greek culture (Morrow, 2011, p. 3). This contrasts with the cultures of the Jewish and the Romans, where covering of the head by men was a symbol of humility before God. Thus, the application of this passage is dependent upon a society’s custom.
- Galatians 2:16 asserts that no man receives justification by observing the law, but through faith in Jesus. James 2:24 tends to contradict the account of Galatians 2:16 by saying that a person receives justification through his or her actions and not through faith alone. We view Galatians as teaching justification before God while James as teaching justification before men. However, taking a close investigation of the contexts, we discover that the teaching entails the importance of a faith manifested by actions acceptable and commendable before God.
How to understand the overall flow of thought
The Biblical writer’s purpose influences every passage’s meaning in the book (Dunn & Eerdmans, 2003, p. 74). When one understands the general purpose of the writer, he or she gets a large context passage, which helps to determine the intended meaning of the author. We should let the author’s purpose to control the interpretations we make. We should interpret each passage in light of the writer’s overall biblical purpose. This is a basic rule that is key in biblical interpretation.
We cannot interpret an isolated passage as having no connection with all ideas coming before or afterwards. When discerning the overall plan of a book, outlines are extremely helpful. It is necessary for one to look for changes in the text in order to identify and outline the flow of thought. The writers of the Bible present the messages they have in recognizable steps, and to understand the steps one must consider the flow and structure of the whole context. Textual changes may provide structural clues of the thoughts of a writer. For an instance:
The writer can announce a new section when he begins it. Significant “signposts” may exist such as the example in 1 Cor 7:1; 7:25; 8:1; 12:1; and 16:1 where we have transition words such as “Now concerning. A change in literary form may occur such from prose to use of poetry. Changes in subject matter thought patterns and logic may also occur.
- The author may also use regular repetition. He may also contrast or compare things consistently. This style is a way of the writer laying emphasis on certain issues.
- It is extremely crucial to seek an understanding of the writer’s purpose by making direct book reading before consulting others’ opinions. However, it is a mistake to give a final decision without referring to the conclusion of specialists.
- When one studies the whole context of a scriptural passage, he will find the reason why the writer writes to the readers the way he does. We get deterrence from attaching ideas to the writings of the author that are foreign to his development of thought or purpose, as we understand the purpose of the original writer.
Advantages of taking care of context
The advantages of taking care of context in scriptural interpretation include an assurance of reaching or deriving the author’s intended message and thus getting the truth as it was (Nelson, 2011). In this case, we learn that the Bible has one interpretation but not many as we see the current society giving. However, the one interpretation can apply in various ways. Context is so valuable when one is performing word studies. According this case, as determined by the context, many Greek words may have more than one meaning. We must make every struggle of coming up with the writer’s single intended meaning because a word can mean only one thing at a time. When looking up definitions of a word in Greek lexicons and using it to interpret the meaning of the word in a verse, a diligent student needs to be extremely cautious.
Use of context in a correct way ensures accurate and a fair meaning of a Biblical passage. This may entail the passage’s context within the book, the time of writing, the author certain ideas, whether the passage is literal, symbolic or uses metaphors and the intention of the author.
The context is crucial because it avoids contradictions that we can easily make when we compare scriptures. For example, the Bible in the book of proverbs 20: 1- forbids wine because it can lead one astray. However, Paul in the second letter to Timothy, 5:23, it is as if the Bible allows drinking of wine. The context in Timothy is a case where the individual had stomach upsets. Again, original context had a meaning of grape juice that is fresh grape juice not fermented. Therefore, we cannot just rule out that the Bible has contradicted or taking one verse to make an overall conclusion that cannot stand the test of other scriptural accounts elsewhere. In this case, we must depend on the fact that a scripture interprets another scripture or else we will come up with own invalid interpretations.
History, as part of context, plays a vital role in Biblical interpretation, yet many people seem to forget this fact at present. One must have some familiarity with the Jewish language, practices and beliefs at the time of biblical writing in order to understand the Bible successfully. History also plays a crucial role in the recording of events, prophesied in the scriptures and which have taken place.
Morrow (2011) asserts that a careful consideration of the context leads to sound biblical doctrine and avoids the teachings and perceptions of men who pervert the biblical intended meaning for their own self-gain. When we consider the context, we are letting the Bible teach us. The beliefs we cling to should have a ground on the Bible and not tradition, personal opinion, bias, prejudice, wishful thinking, church history or unquestioning acceptance of long held beliefs.
The dangers of ignoring context in Biblical interpretation
Blomberg et al. 2004 asserts that the Bible records many accounts of renowned people sinning or going not according to the plan of God. One such individual include Abraham who took Hagar in an attempt to have children for Sarah his wife, Genesis 16:1–. King David had many wives and concubines, yet he is a humble and righteous king according to the scriptures. King Solomon, the wisest king of Israel also had many foreign wives who took his heart from God. Some people tend to take the fact that this records exist, in the Bible, to mean that God approves of such acts. However, comparing these accounts with other scriptural accounts, we learn that, the records existence does not merely mean that God approves them. The problem comes into existence when people read a passage recording sins in isolation without considering the command of God against the behavior in question. Thus, they read the passage out of context.
Taking the scriptures out of context may lead people to making wrong interpretations about them. The later part of 2 Peter 3:9- “That God does not will for any to perish, but all to repent” may be taken to mean that God will save all and no one will perish in hell in the end. However, putting this into its immediate context, we note that Peter is addressing the church those called and set apart as God’s people. Peter was talking about the second coming of Jesus. He was informing them that His coming was not to happen soon as time did not matter with God. Many people at that time thought that Jesus coming was going to be immediate, and since it could not be so, some scoffed asserting that Jesus would not come.
The differential interpretation of the biblical texts due to lack of any care on the context has led to propagation of doctrines not grounded in the Bible (Blomberg et al. 2004, p. 220). No wonder we stand to witness many denominations springing up here and there and promising the truth that has been the search for many people. If the Bible has only one interpretation, then we should have one denomination for Christians or all the denominations could agree on the same doctrines in the churches.
In conclusion, we learn from this short discourse that, context is so crucial to understanding the Bible rightly. We should pay a close observation and investigation considering the context while making conclusions in giving interpretations from Bible passages. This will ensure that we sail on the right track in pursuits for Biblical truths.
Blomberg Craig, Hubbard, L. Robert & Klein, W. William. (2004). Introduction to Biblical Interpretation. Nashville, Tennessee :T. Nelson.
Dunn, J. D. G. & Eerdmans, J. W. R. (2003). Commentary on the Bible. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing.
Morrow, J. L. (2011). Jewish Biblical Interpretation and Cultural Exchange: Comparative Exegesis in Context. Review Of Biblical Literature, 13501-503.
Nelson, A. (2010). Justice and Biblical Interpretation Beyond Subjectivity and Self-Determination: A Contrapuntal Reading on the Theme of Suffering in the Book of Job. Political Theology, 11(3), 431-452. doi:10.1558/poth.v11i3.431
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