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

In this chapter from the Rightly Understanding God’s Word series, Craig S. Keener explains more interpretation principles for understanding the biblical context.

As appearing in Pneuma Review Summer 2004.

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

 

We should briefly survey some other context principles: context of author; anticontext methods to avoid; and the value of outlining Scripture to catch the flow of thought.

 

Context of Author

In some cases, we have additional help in understanding a passage or statement in the Bible because we can look elsewhere at the particular author’s style. Paul says that God inspired the Scriptures “through” people (Rom 1:2), which suggests that the author’s point corresponds with God’s point. It is therefore important to understand the author’s point. Understanding inspiration recognizes that God inspired different writers in their own basic styles. Jeremiah and Isaiah and Ezekiel all heard God’s message, but each has a very different style. God even gives Ezekiel a special nickname, “son of man.”

Sometimes the author’s style is relevant within the book. For example, when some people today claim that “abundant life” in John 10:10 refers to material prosperity, we should note that this is not what John means by “life” anywhere else (1:4; 3:15-16, 36; 4:14, 35; 5:24, 26, 29, 39-40; 6:27; etc.) If this were not enough, however, one could also note references to “life” by the same author in 1 John (1:1-2; 2:25; 3:14-15; 5:11-13, 16, 20). Some argue that Jesus healed everyone on the basis of Matthew 4:23. But does “all” mean every individual in the whole region? Matthew also says that they brought him “all” the sick in the whole province of Syria (which included Galilee and Judea); if he meant that literally, no one would have needed healing after this point (against the testimony of Acts and even the rest of Matthew’s Gospel). Jesus did not heal everyone who was sick near him (13:58), although there were reasons for this and the text indicates that Jesus normally healed people. When we read Isaiah and the Psalms, “salvation” has a broader meaning than it usually bears in the New Testament, and we should respect the context of Isaiah’s and the psalmists’ usage and not read other texts into these.

When some people today claim that “abundant life” in John 10:10 refers to material prosperity, we should note that this is not what John means by “life” anywhere else.

Let me take two examples from Paul’s writings. In neither case are we addressing a particular doctrine; a doctrine often may be based on other texts. But it is helpful to pick examples that will underline the point. For example, some say that the Church will not go through the Great Tribulation at the end of the age because Paul declares that we will not experience God’s “wrath” (1 Thess 1:10; 5:9). This, however, is a questionable argument for that position. Occasionally Paul speaks of God’s “wrath” in the present era (Rom 1:18), but usually when he uses the term he speaks of future wrath on the day of God’s judgment (Rom 2:5, 8; 5:9; 9:22)—nowhere of the Great Tribulation before that day. Some interpreters want to appeal to the use of “wrath” in Revelation, but Revelation had not yet been written, so Paul could not expect the Thessalonians to simply flip over to Revelation to guess what he meant by “wrath.” (If one does appeal to Revelation, however, this particular Greek word for “wrath” always refers to judgment at the end of the tribulation; the word which sometimes—not always—refers to the tribulation as God’s anger is not even the same word!)

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Category: Biblical Studies, Summer 2004

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

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