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

If God inspired each Scripture—meaning at least each “writing” or book of the Bible—to be profitable, we must grapple with each book of the Bible as a whole to fully understand it. (In some cases, where independent units of thought have simply been placed together in a book randomly—for instance, psalms in the Book of Psalms, most proverbs in the Book of Proverbs, and many laws in the legal sections of Exodus and Deuteronomy—this principle is less important. But it is very important as a principle for reading most of Scripture, and especially for tight-knit arguments like Romans or books of interdependent symbols like Revelation.) This principle has serious implications for our Bible study. Instead of reading verses in the Bible first of all with a concordance or chain-references in our Bible, we need to learn to read books of the Bible straight through. Preferably we should read the smaller books like Mark in one setting; at least we should focus on a particular book for a particular period of time. Merely skipping from book to book without returning to a particular book is unhelpful.

I should deal here with one objection to context that arises in some circles. Some people quote Scripture out of context and then claim they are right because they have special authority or a special revelation from God. But if we follow this practice, we call people to heed us rather than the Scripture. In this case, we should be honest with people: if we merely want to say something that the biblical text does not say, we should tell them that we believe we are right but admit honestly that the biblical text does not teach this point. (Any view can be supported based on proof-texts out of context; any theology can make its reasoning sound consistent. To actually read each text in context with an honest heart, however, is more essential.) Cults regularly take Scripture out of context. Sharing Christ with Jehovah’s Witnesses, I caught them taking many verses out of context to fit their system of beliefs; in time I recognized that often we Christians have done the same thing. We dare not base our faith on other people’s study of the Bible rather than on the Bible itself.

If God inspired each Scripture to be profitable, we must grapple with each book of the Bible as a whole to fully understand it.

We should be very careful what we claim the Bible teaches. Claiming that “The Bible says” is like claiming, “This is what the Lord says.” In Jeremiah’s day, some false prophets falsely claimed to be speaking what God was saying, but they were in fact speaking from their own imaginations (Jer 23:16) and stealing their messages from each other (Jer 23:30) rather than listening to God’s voice for themselves (Jer 23:22). I do not doubt that God could speak to people through Scripture out of context, just as he can speak through a bird or a poem or a donkey; if God is all-powerful (Rev 1:8), He can speak however He pleases. But all claims to hear God’s voice must be evaluated (1 Cor 14:29; 1 Thess. 5:20-21), and listening to someone else’s claim can get us in trouble if we do not test it carefully (1 Kgs 13:18-22). Paul warns us: “If anyone thinks himself a prophet or spiritual, let him acknowledge that what I write is the Lord’s command. If one ignores this, he himself will be ignored” (1 Cor. 14:37-38). The one revelation to which all Christians can look with assurance is the Bible; what we can be sure it means is what God meant when he inspired the original authors to communicate their original message. This is the one revelation all Christians agree on as the “canon,” or measuring-stick, for all other claims to revelation. Thus we need to do our best to properly understand it, preach it and teach it the way God gave it to us, in context.

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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. Twitter: @keener_craig

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