Bible Basics 6 – Context, Context, Context
Welcome back to Bible Basics. In this edition, we’re going to be talking about one of the simplest but most important keys for responsible biblical interpretation: context.
Context is just the stuff that goes around something you’re trying to understand. Without context, it can be very difficult to understand what the Bible – or even another human being – is actually saying.
Chances are, you’ve had someone misrepresent something you said. Maybe they took it in a way you never intended or twisted it into something very different from what you meant. But chances are you described what they did by saying that they were taking your words “out of context.”
An awful lot of misinterpretations of the Bible happen for the same reason, because something in the Bible was read out of context. So here’s one of the most important principles of responsible biblical interpretation: context reveals meaning.
If I said “that was wicked”, you might assume I was saying something was morally evil. But, there’s another option. Some people use the word “wicked” to mean that something was awesome and exciting. Now, I’ll grant you, that’s a strange linguistic development and it probably says something pretty disturbing about our culture, but the fact is that if a surfer says she rode a “wicked barrel”, she’s not thinking about the moral connotation of the word. She just means it was awesome.
So if someone says “that was wicked”, we have two very different possible meanings: it was really, really bad or it was really, really good. So how do we know which one they mean? Well, without context, we might not know. But chances are that a little context will make it clear.
If someone says “that was wicked…so I made the sign of the cross to ward off the devil”…they probably aren’t saying something was really awesome. If someone says “that was wicked…she totally launched a 360 out of that barrel, dude!”…well, it’s probably not a moral evaluation.
Context reveals meaning. Honestly, I think about 99% of the misinterpretations of the Bible happen because people forget this simple principle and end up trying to interpret a part of the Bible without enough context. If we just read even a little more of the stuff that comes before and after a particular passage, we’re dramatically less likely to misunderstand it.
Now, context is actually more than just the words that come before and after a passage. Context includes everything that surrounds a passage. So, context also includes characteristics of the author or speaker. If you know you’re listening to a surfer, then you might know what they mean by “wicked” even without any of that 360 and barrel business.
Context also includes historical circumstances. If you see the word “wicked” in a 15th century manuscript, you’re not going to think it means “awesome”…because that’s not how the word was used back them.
The point is that all of the circumstances - linguistic, cultural, historical – that surround a statement provide important context for understanding the meaning of that statement, because context reveals meaning.
That’s just basic common sense, so let’s make sure common sense is a common practice as we read the Bible!