Part of the Rightly Understanding God’s Word series by Craig S. Keener.
As appearing in Pneuma Review Spring 2003.
Chapter 1: Context, Context, Context!
One of the most important resources for understanding the Bible is in the Bible itself: context. Some readers want to skip to verses elsewhere in the Bible (sometimes with the help of references in one’s Bible’s margins, but these were added by editors, not as part of the Bible itself). But we can make the Bible say almost anything by combining different verses; even verses that sound similar may in context address quite different topics. Using this method, one would think that “one is justified by faith without works” (Rom 3:28) and “one is justified by works, and not by faith alone” (James 2:24) contradict each other. By contrast, each passage makes sense in a special way if we read it in its context: the flow of thought from what comes before and after the passage we are studying. In context, James and Paul mean something quite different by “faith,” and both affirm that a person is made right before God only by a sort of genuine faith that is expressed in a fairly consistent life of obedience (see our discussion below).
If we ignore context, we will almost always misunderstand what we read in the Bible.
The Importance of Context
Context is the way God gave us the Bible, one book at a time. The first readers of Mark could not flip over to Revelation to help them understand Mark; Revelation had not been written yet. The first readers of Galatians did not have a copy of the letter Paul wrote to Rome to help them understand it. These first readers did share some common information; in this manual we call this shared information “background”: some knowledge of the culture, earlier biblical history, and so on. But they had, most importantly, the individual book of the Bible that was in front of them. Therefore we can be confident that the writers of the Bible included enough within each book of the Bible to help the readers understand that book of the Bible. For that reason, context is the most important key to Bible interpretation. (Background, what the writer could take for granted, is also essential; we will return to that subject in a later chapter.)