Subscribe via RSS Feed

Rightly Understanding God’s Word: Learning Context, Part 1, by Craig S. Keener

Part of the Rightly Understanding God’s Word series by Craig S. Keener.

As appearing in Pneuma Review Summer 2003.

 

Take a course on biblical interpretation with New Testament scholar, Professor Craig S. Keener.

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.

Traditional English poetry balances sounds with rhymes, but ancient Hebrew poetry balanced ideas instead. Most translations place the poetry of Psalms and most of the biblical Prophets in verse form. (The King James Version did not only because translators in 1611 had not yet rediscovered the idea-balancing pattern.) There are different kinds of idea-balancing, or parallelism, in texts; we mention here only two of the most common. In one kind of parallelism, the second line repeats the basic idea of the first (sometimes adding or replacing some details)—for instance, “Happy is the one who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand in the path traversed by sinners, nor sit in the seat of scoffers” (Ps 1:1). In another kind of parallelism, the second line is an explicit contrast with the first; for instance, “Ill-gotten gains do not profit, But righteousness delivers from death” (Prov 10:2, NASB).

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.

Pin It
Page 1 of 812345...Last »

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Category: Biblical Studies, Summer 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

  • Connect with PneumaReview.com

    Subscribe via Twitter 1121 Followers   Subscribe via Facebook Fans
  • Recent Comments

  • Featured Authors

    Amos Yong is Professor of Theology & Mission and director of the Center for Missiological Research at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena. His graduate education includes degree...

    Holy Spirit and Mission in Canonical Perspective, by Amos Yong

    Antipas L. Harris, D.Min. (Boston University), S.T.M. (Yale University Divinity School), M.Div. (Emory University), is Associate Professor of Practical Theology and Director of the Y...

    Let’s talk Millennials: Inviting you to the YMPL Gathering

    Charles Carrin has served the body of Christ for over 60 years. Today his ministry centers upon the visible demonstration of the Spirit and imparting of His gifts. Read his biography at Captivity Of The Mind: Spiritually Understanding Abnormal Human Behavior

    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<...

    Listening for God’s Voice and Heart in Scripture: A conversation with Craig S. Keener