The Importance of Context
In my last post on teaching in the church I discussed building a bridge between the message of the Bible to its original readers and the message of the Bible for today. The importance of this task is that it helps us teach what God has said, rather than using the Bible as a platform for a “What do you think?” session. Sadly, most small group meetings in the local church have become little more than opinionated socials. Building a hermeneutical bridge keeps this from happening. Though the Bible is an old book written to a very different culture, the gap here may not be as wide as you may think. Even still, it is not a simple task. It takes time and hard work.
Whether one is preparing to teach or engaged in personal study, the key to understanding the Bible is context. Context is the surrounding material that influences meaning. Statements taken out of context can be grossly misrepresented as the reader is suddenly given the freedom to provide his own context. For example, in a sermon on the topic of truth I shared on a Sunday night I made the following statement,
“If you stand and say that, ‘Jesus it the only way’ that’s really an uneducated, naive, ignorant position to take. It is intolerant, harsh and wrong. For us (Christians) to stand and say to a homosexual that, ‘homosexuality is a sin’ that is harsh, intolerant . . . that is something that is intolerant, passé, old fashioned and something you should not do.”
My statement taken on its own may lead someone to believe that I do not hold Jesus to be the only way of salvation or that do I not believe homosexuality is a sin. The statement, taken on its own, may also lead one to assert that I believe churches or Christians who hold to those positions are out of step with modern culture; and that if they are not to come across as harsh and intolerant they need to relax these views. Yet this is not what I was saying at all.
When a statement is taken out of context the reader is left to supply his own context and meaning. This is why I believe it is so easy for our culture to be deceived by the media. We receive our news in sound bytes. Our views are shaped by statements taken out of context. The clips provide the statements. The commentators provide the meaning. We never do the homework of context and the result is that we are easily led astray. This, in itself, is a discussion for another day!
My statement was given in a context which provides meaning.
- There is the context of my theology. Does Brian Branam preach consistently that Jesus is not the only way of salvation or that homosexuality is not a sin? NO! I do not preach these ideas - AT ALL.
- There is the context of the sermon itself. The context of the sermon was an apologetics piece on truth. By nature, the sermon lent itself to an attempt to represent opposing views.
- There is a historical context. You probably did not hear many, if any, sermons quite like the one I was preaching in early colonial America. The challenges of our culture today are pluralism, relativism, and post-modernism. The historical timeframe of my sermon gives it meaning.
- There is the context of the place in the sermon. I was in a moment of the sermon in which I was trying to establish how the exclusive claims of the Christian faith would be received in the public square. I attempt to dismantle these claims later in the sermon.
- There is the context of the audience. The purpose of the sermon was to equip the Christian and challenge the skeptic to see truth as an unchangeable, objective, absolute, reality.
In context, my statements take on a whole new meaning. At the very least they cause us to investigate and assert, “There must be something else to this story!”
If my statements can be so grossly misrepresented, imagine what we are doing to God’s Word when we take no time to investigate context. We read the Bible like we watch the news, in snippets. We find a statement we like and pull it away from the rest. We are then left to manipulate it as we like as the reader provides the context. This is dangerous and misleading. As teachers we should know better.
The Bible has a context that we must investigate if we are to be faithful to teach what God has said. What are those contexts?
- The general historical context - What was the world like when the text was written?
- The context of the author - Who is the author? What was his experience? What else has he written? What was the author’s purpose for writing?
- The context of the audience. What was life like for the original audience? What were they experiencing at the time they received the text? What was the occasion for them receiving the text?
- The context of the text itself. Where does the text occur in the Bible? Where does the text occur in the book itself? What are the surrounding passages? What is the theme of the book? How does the text support the theme?
- The literary context. What is genre of literature is the text? How was that genre generally used in the period in which it was written? What are the general rules of the genre in the time in which it was written?
I know it sounds like a lot, but investigating context is critical. I will attempt to show you why in my next post. It does take work, but not as much as you may think. It is here that good tools are important, which will lead us back to the place where this string of posts began - tools for teaching.