Hermeneutics and Context

To All the Bible Geeks out there!

If you are a total Bible geek, or some kind of freakish armchair deconstructionist, you’ll get this post. If not, you’ll probably want to wander along. I’m warning you, this is important stuff – but boring if you are not a Bible study geek.

I am a very slow and plodding reader. I go extremely slowly through books of the Bible in a very systematic way. I spend a lot of time thinking about small phrases and little pieces of verses. I find that I get confused reading too quickly through a book like 1 John or John’s gospel or Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. I have to stop, and look at a particular verse, and observe it very carefully. I can’t get the context without understanding the pieces. I’m not proud, it is just ultimately the way I rumble.

Context Includes the Particulars

I’ve noticed that people read and use the idea of the surrounding context in a way that ignores the obvious meaning of the text they’re actually looking at. It’s the same kind of thing where you’re always regretting the past and worrying about the future, but never present in the moment of the now. I think you have to look very carefully at the verbiage of a specific text and see what that text is saying for itself, before you can try to interpret it in light of the context. You can’t get the meaning of a text by ignoring what it says and looking around at the peripheral context. The text is there, and you have to assume it was written because it differs in some way from the context, that it colors or flavors the context because it is distinct and unique from the context. If not, it would just be repeating itself, and everything in scripture can’t be simply repeating what has been said elsewhere. At some point a passage is saying something distinctive, and you have to work to notice it. At a certain level Bible study is teasing out of a verse what is different than the context, as well as how it fits into the context.

But I find often that when I say, “this verse very clearly says X, by way of simple observation,” I get various responses. Some people say, “but the 7th council of Dort in article 3.8 says Y.” That’s easy, I don’t care what the 7th council of Dort says if it contradicts a clear scripture. I get this a lot concerning the section in the Romance of Grace where I say that the text says that the kingdom is like the merchant, not the pearl (Matthew 13:45,46,47). It is a simple observation. People say, “I’ve never heard it interpreted like that. You’re wrong!” It isn’t a matter of interpretation, it is a matter of observation. It doesn’t say it the way that people normally take it, it says the merchant is the pearl. However you want to interpret it and make it work in the context of what Jesus is saying, you have to make sure you don’t violate what the text actually says. Tradition doesn’t trump observation.

The second kind of response I get is that I am misunderstanding the context. In fact, the 7th council of Dort may be saying that I am misunderstanding the context. In that case, I take the 7th council of Dort a little more seriously, because it may be true. It is not because I respect the 7th council of Dort, but because the 7th council of Dort may be seeing the scripture a little more clearly than I am. In other words, I respect the scripture, I don’t respect tradition and I don’t respect myself.

But here is the thing: context works both ways. If you interpret the context in a way that contradicts the clear and obvious meaning of a certain text, that is a problem. The current text is part of the context as well. You can’t say “see, 1 John 2:4 says that if we don’t keep His commandments, we can’t say we have come to know Him!” if you take the meaning of 1 John 2:4 in a way that contradicts 1 John 1:7,9,2:1,2. It isn’t an either/or problem of interpretation – it is a problem of looking squarely at the whole of the passage and letting it confront your confusing and erroneous preconceptions.

Which Mountain are you Standing On

18 For you have not come to a mountain that may be touched and to a blazing fire, and to darkness and gloom and whirlwind,
19 and to the blast of a trumpet and the sound of words which sound was such that those who heard begged that no further word should be spoken to them.
20 For they could not bear the command, “IF EVEN A BEAST TOUCHES THE MOUNTAIN, IT WILL BE STONED.”
21 And so terrible was the sight, that Moses said, “I AM FULL OF FEAR AND TREMBLING.”
22 But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels,
23 to the general assembly and church of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the Judge of all, and to the spirits of righteous men made perfect,
24 and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks better than the blood of Abel.
(Hebrews 12:18-24, NASB).

So, if I say, “1 John 4:10 says that in this is love, not that we love God“, and you say, “but you’re wrong – 1 John 5:1 says we should love God and love the brethren.” I’m going to come back and say, we both have to understand this in a way that embraces the whole context, and not just the obvious single verses that support our pet doctrines. All of these verses are part of the context. You can’t be forever standing on one mountain looking off in the distance at other mountains, without ever looking at your own mountain. You can look at your own mountain better while you have actually climbed it and are standing on top of it. You can look at the other mountains as well, but their context from your current frame of reference is the mountain you are actually standing on.

Ultimately, you have to have some preconceived perspective to understand the whole of scripture. You can’t pretend that you come to the Scriptures as a blank slate with no preconceptions. That is never true. You have to examine what your preconceptions are and think about why you hold them. Here is my perspective. If Jesus is God’s word made flesh, and His ultimate work is His death on the cross for our sins and His resurrection, then that is the ultimate context from which to look at the rest of scripture. If you hear someone exposit a text, and you think, “what does that have to do with Christ and Him crucified and resurrected,” then you can bet they are coming from a strange perspective. If what they are saying violates the spirit of the notion that Christ came to save sinners, they are going to be at odds with the way I look at 1 John, no matter which verses. They are going to think I am standing on the wrong mountain looking at their mountain from an unacceptable perspective. They are going to say I am missing the context – because the context for them is the singular verses that support their pet doctrines and opinions. I do the same thing. It isn’t that you can say, “I don’t have a pet doctrine, I just let the scriptures speak!” That is inevitably a lie. The question is, do you put Christ and Him crucified and resurrected, and the grace that comes to us through His work, as your pet doctrine? Or do you put holiness and repentance and sanctification and human behaviors and deeds as your pet doctrines? Don’t say you don’t have pet doctrines, I’ll count you a liar. Paul had a pet doctrine, and you’re not better than the apostle Paul, right?

2 For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.
(1 Corinthians 2:2, NASB).

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