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

When I was a young Christian recently converted, I was taking a class in Latin and was supposed to be translating Caesar for my homework. Wanting to read only my Bible and not do my homework, I flipped open the Bible and stuck my finger down, hoping to find a text that said, “Forsake all and follow me.” Instead, I found, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Lk 20:25). God chose to answer my foolish approach to Scripture on the level it deserved, but this hardly means that this text now summons all Christians to translate Caesar’s Gallic War!

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.

Some claim that the apostles took Scripture out of context in the New Testament, which authorizes us to do the same; some nonbelieving Jewish critics use the same argument to claim that the New Testament writers were not truly inspired by the Holy Spirit. We could respond that, no matter how led by the Spirit we may be, we are not writing Scripture.  But the fact is that claims about New Testament writers taking the Old Testament out of context are mostly overrated. The examples critics give usually fall into one of three categories, none of which authorize us to discover a text’s meaning by ignoring its context. First, when responding to opponents who used proof-texts, the biblical writers sometimes responded accordingly (“answering a fool according to his folly,” as Proverbs says). Second, and much more often, they simply drew analogies from the Old Testament, using them to illustrate a principle found in those texts or the lives they present.

Third, and perhaps most often, the texts we think are out-of-context reflect our own failure to recognize the complex way the writer has used the context. Some non-Christian scholars have accused Matthew of quoting Hosea 11:1 (“Out of Egypt have I called my son”) out of context; they often present this as the one of the most blatant cases of the New Testament writers misunderstanding context. They make this claim because Hosea is talking about God delivering Israel from Egypt, whereas Matthew applies the text to Jesus. But Matthew knows the verse quite well: instead of depending on the standard Greek translation of Hosea here, he even makes his own more correct translation from the Hebrew. If we read Matthew’s context, we see that this is not the only place where he compares Jesus with Israel: as Israel was tested in the wilderness for forty years, Jesus was tested there forty days (Matt 4:1-2). Matthew also knows Hosea’s context: as God once called Israel from Egypt (Hosea 11:1), he would bring about a new exodus and salvation for his people (Hosea 11:10-11). Jesus is the harbinger, the pioneer, of this new era of salvation for his people.

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Category: Biblical Studies, Winter 2015

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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