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Rightly Understanding God’s Word: Context, by Craig S. Keener

Verses isolated from their context nearly always mean something different than when read in context.

Many contradictions some readers claim to find in the Bible arise simply from ignoring the context of the passages they cite, jumping from one text to another without taking the time to first understand each text on its own terms. For instance, when Paul says that a person is justified by faith without works (Rom 3:28), his context makes it clear that he defines faith as something more than passive assent to a viewpoint; he defines it as a conviction that Christ is our salvation, a conviction on which one actively stakes one’s life (Rom. 1:5). James declares that one cannot be justified by faith without works (James 2:14)—because he uses the word “faith” to mean mere assent that something is true (2:19), he demands that such assent be actively demonstrated by obedience to show that it is genuine (2:18). In other words, James and Paul use the word “faith” differently, but do not contradict one another on the level of meaning. If we ignore context and merely connect different verses on the basis of similar wording, we will come up with contradictions in the Bible that the original writers would never have imagined.

 

Levels of Context

Is it sufficient merely to read the verse before and the verse after?

Most of us agree that we should read the Bible in context, but how far should we read in the context? Is it sufficient merely to read the verse before and the verse after? Or should we be familiar with the paragraphs before and after? Or should we be familiar with the entire book of the Bible in which the passage occurs? While in practice the answer of this question depends to some extent on the part of the Bible we are studying (context is shorter in Proverbs than in Genesis or 2 Corinthians), as a general rule we should think of each passage first of all in its immediate context, but also in the context of the entire book of the Bible in which it appears.

Some scholars have spoken of various levels of context for any text. First, most texts have an immediate context in the paragraph or paragraphs surrounding them. Second, we can look at the context of the entire book of the Bible in which they appear, the one unit of text we can be sure the first writers expected the first readers to have in front of them. Third, we sometimes need to look at the whole context of that writer’s teaching. For instance, though the Corinthians could not consult Paul’s letter to the Galatians, they were familiar with a broader backdrop of his teaching than what we find in 1 Corinthians alone, because Paul taught them in person for eighteen months (Acts 18:11). Whatever we can learn about Paul’s broader teaching may help us, provided we give first priority to what he tells his audience in the particular letter we are trying to understand.

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Category: Biblical Studies, Spring 2003

About the Author: Craig S. Keener, Ph.D. (Duke University), is F. M. and Ada Thompson Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. He is author of many books, including Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Baker Academic, 2011), the bestselling IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, Gift and Giver: The Holy Spirit for Today, and commentaries on Acts, Matthew, John, Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, and Revelation. In addition to having written more than seventy academic articles, several booklets and more than 150 popular-level articles, Craig is is the New Testament editor (and author of most New Testament notes) for the The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. He is married to Dr. Médine Moussounga Keener, who is from the Republic of Congo, and together they have worked for ethnic reconciliation in North America and Africa. Craig and Médine wrote Impossible Love: The True Story of an African Civil War, Miracles and Hope against All Odds (Chosen, 2016) to share their story. sites.google.com/site/drckeener. Twitter: @keener_craig

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