Part of the Rightly Understanding God’s Word series by Craig S. Keener.
As appearing in Pneuma Review Summer 2003.
Chapter 2: Learning Context
Although all of us officially recognize the importance of context, most Bible readers still ignore it in practice. You may be an exception, but do not be too disturbed if you are one of those readers unfamiliar with the actual context of many of the passages we cite in this chapter. I have cited these passages purposely because I have repeatedly heard these passages taken out of context, and my students are frequently surprised when they actually read them in context. Although we may think we read the Bible in context, too often we read the Bible in light of how we have heard others use those same Scripture texts. Whether those interpretations are new or old, they cannot take priority over what the text itself says in context.
You need not agree with our interpretation of every example cited below, but these examples will suffice to illustrate how frequently we have ignored context. They should also illustrate how context makes a difference in our understanding. In no instance are we challenging specific doctrines people have sometimes based on these verses; we are challenging methods of interpretation. (If some texts in context do not support a doctrine, the doctrine might still be defended if other texts support it.) You will learn context principles best if you actually work through the passages yourself before reading our interpretation of them; this way you will recognize what students in my classrooms usually recognize: when most the students come to the same conclusions independently, they recognize for themselves how clear the point of the text is.
We begin with some brief examples of context within verses, but the emphasis of this chapter will be on broader levels of context.
Context within Verses
You need not agree with our interpretation of every example cited below, but these examples will suffice to illustrate how frequently we have ignored context. They should also illustrate how context makes a difference in our understanding.
You have perhaps often heard the expression, “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Prov. 29:18). But what does Proverbs mean by “vision”? Does it just mean having a good plan for the future (the way some of my friends had preached it before they realized the context)? Does it mean that a driver who needs glasses might run over someone if she drives without her glasses? Because most of the Book of Proverbs is a collection of general principles rather than a sustained argument, the verses around Proverbs 29:18 do not help us interpret the verse very well. The other half of the verse, however, does provide some context. “Where there is no vision, the people perish; but happy is the person who obeys God’s law” (Prov. 29:18). The second half of the verse parallels the basic idea of the first half: visions and the law are both sources of God’s revelation, sources of hearing from God. In other words, “vision” does not refer to mere natural sight; nor does it merely refer to having a plan for the future; it refers to hearing from God. The Hebrew term translated “vision” here in fact relates to dreams, revelations, or oracles, which confirms the point: God’s people needed the Bible and genuine prophets who had heard from God to guide them in the right way.