Attempting to unveil further detail ought to come with music.
Previously we viewed the ten Commandments of Context as a way of approaching how to study Scripture. Here we will take some time to consider why each layer is important and distinct from the others and provide examples to show how they can be applied.
The point here is not to burden the disciple of Christ with rules, but to help guide godly interpretation of how to seek understanding words, statements, and concepts presented in Scripture. Ignoring these layers has historically resulted in errors of belief and even outright heresy.
“We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we don’t drift away” (Heb 2:1).
Let’s take a brief look at each and see how they operate.
1. In Sentence: A word must be first taken as stated within the sentence itself. Projecting ideas that might appear related from other parts of Scripture that conflict with the stated use of that word can violate the integrity of how that particular word is being used at that moment.
Words and ideas often have a variety of usages in differing contexts and so the actual statement itself is the most significant location within which to begin a review of what the author was likely intending through his choice of words.
Example: In Jn 11 we read how Jesus stated that Lazarus was “asleep”. The sentence fully conveys the idea of natural sleep, which is exactly how the disciples initially took it. How Jesus later revealed his intended meaning is not necessary yet in considering context, because it is very important to recognize that Jesus intentionally used a word that made the disciples attribute meaning in a common way. Of itself, the motive begins to come alive. The actual meaning, however, comes next.
2. In Passage: Caution should be exercised in assuming that the normal usage within a sentence is the full, intended meaning. The next layer to be evaluated is how that idea is potentially defined within the larger passage.
Most efforts that reasonably attempt to seek understanding of Scripture within its context tends to focus on this layer. The beauty of this view is that by its very nature it seeks for meaning within the text rather than projecting meaning onto it from without.
Most often, this is the segment where evidence exists to discern between literal and figurative interpretations. Whereas sentence review can appear contradictory, considering the word within the surrounding structure of sentences helps ensure that a viewpoint remains in sync with the fuller message of what the author is saying.
Example: The above statements from Jn 11 clearly portray the normal usage of the word sleep, however, Jesus counters their interpretation of “natural sleep” by contextually revealing that he actually meant “dead”.
To distinguish this condition of Lazarus from others who had died, the context implies that Jesus’ usage of the word sleep was meant to convey that actual death of one who is intended to be raised to full life again by God can be viewed as unique from death occurring in unbelievers. There is nothing in the sentence or in the passage that can be taken to mean that what Lazarus experienced was anything different than actual, physical death. As a result, the use of the term sleep at this layer should be taken to reference purpose and hope rather than some kind of unique physiological reality.
3. In Book: Original writings of Scripture were written without chapter or verse distinctions. What may appear as unique concepts within a book of the Bible, are actually part of a larger intended purpose for which the author was writing and any interpretation must remain within the overall context of that letter. This is not to say that the human author always understood the details of what he wrote (like when God told Daniel that it was not for his time), but there would still be consistency in the message.
So, what may appear as a possible meaning, may conflict with statements made at distant ends of that particular writing, and would then need to be adjusted to conform to the fuller revelation within that book.
Example: Some denominations view the shift of words from “church” to “saints” in Revelation as an indication that the book was written for Christians in the first three chapters and then for Jews after that, but within context of the book, a uniform message is confirmed. Rev 1:4 opens the letter with the revelation that this message is for the seven churches and then at the book end we again read the same thing in Rev 22:16 in Jesus own breath.
So however else one might want to view this observation, the entire book is written for the church of Christ followers that we call Christians. (One can also measure this idea using #6 and find that “saints” is not a term exclusive to Jews, but clearly references Christians throughout the New Testament).
4. In author’s other Writings: What can appear as a clear cut definition in one letter, still remains dependent upon how that author understood his own writing and so whenever a concept can be found in another writing by that same person, it becomes necessary to carefully look for consistency in his views ahead of our own.
Paul’s use of the word justification is consistent in his writings, but the same word is used differently by James and it would result in an error of judgment to put equal weight upon the scriptural use of that word ahead of the authors’ use.
Example: It is popular to quote Rom 8:1 that there is no further condemnation for believers and extend that statement into a doctrine of irresistible salvation. However, that same author wrote in Gal 5:21 to the Christians at Galatia, and clearly states that “those [believers] who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
5. In Covenant: Christians are under a new covenant agreement with God that significantly impacts how Jesus intends for us to view Scripture. As revealed in the Sermon on the Mount, we repeatedly hear the refrain “you have heard it said before, but I tell you”, by which the Spirit of God reveals a shift in how we are instructed to view the words of God; not as a magnification, but as an outright replacement from law to grace, from Judaism to Christ.
Some scholars suggest a similar layer under the term genre. From the point of cultural literature, that is a fair approach, but it is not capable of revealing how it is that certain statements within Scripture allowably outright violate other statements. Only a covenantal change ordained by the primary Author of Scripture has the power to shift expectations within the holy word of God.
Example: Because the 4th commandment defines the Sabbath as from sundown to sundown on the seventh day, Christians have historically struggled to justify the change to Sunday as the apparent Sabbath. Neither Jesus or the apostles recorded or even hinted at allowing the day that God rested from Creation to be changed. It is only through recognition of how Christians are under a New Covenant that revealed a change to that former divine expectation. (More detail on this shift in the covenants can be read in Wineskins).
6. In Scripture as a whole: It is imperative that proper consideration be given to how a word or concept under consideration is addressed throughout Scripture. In other words, if that idea can be found elsewhere, then those other specific contexts must be taken into consideration as to how they ought to influence our understanding. This seemingly obvious layer is probably the one most ignored by students of Scripture, perhaps because the further out from a specific word one goes, the more necessary it becomes to involve the other layers of context at the same time and it is easy to get off track.
Nevertheless, if an emphasis of importance could be distinguished between these first six, this one probably is the most revealing as well as the most misused: revealing because the Word of God itself is the single most reliable interpreter of Scripture, and the most misused because zealots can twist Scripture to appear to say just about anything they want.
This layer also helps prevent selective interpretation from within single books or passages of Scripture, like can often occur for ministers who consistently preach only from single texts or just from one book of the Bible at a time. Those approaches can be very instructive, but they can also be easily mis-interpreted when not viewed within the full context of revelation. Whenever emphasis is placed on the “fullness of Scripture” or on the “whole gospel”, this layer is what is being applied.
Example: Entire churches have developed around the idea that only Paul’s writings carry absolute scriptural authority. Aside from how this has arisen, the effect is that other passages of Scripture effectively take a back seat in forming doctrine whenever there is apparent conflict.
Paul’s emphasis on the gift of faith, as supporters have taken as the exclusive necessity for salvation, finds a very different conclusion in James letter that without works that faith is incapable of resulting in salvation. Scripture cannot disagree without violating what the Bible declares about itself and thus contextual agreement on this issue is imperative if a right understanding is to be discovered. (More detail on how to find unity in this apparent discrepancy can be read in Claiming Christ).
7. In Language: Understanding the nuances of Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic in their ancient forms can give helpful insights as well as protect against mis-translations. However, the languages themselves are generic to Scripture. That is, just because a word is commonly used to mean one thing in the culture, does not necessarily directly translate into identical meanings in Scripture.
Because the Bible is recorded in the language of man, the context of our language directly influences our ability to grasp the divine message.
It needs to be recognized that presenting heavenly things in worldly terms requires both Spiritual guidance as well as often shifts in how those natural words are used to convey spiritual truths. As a result, errors are common among those who suggest that a words extent of possible meanings can all be referred to as useful meanings for how that word is used in Scripture.
Example: “Begotten” has multiple meanings in natural language, but within Scripture, as it is specifically applied to Jesus, a much more narrow meaning is implied. The Bible does not support the otherwise defined meaning that Jesus came forth as a produced offspring from the body of God.
8. In History: Tradition provides significant stability to how we ought to maintain our beliefs, but it also can stand in the way against new revelations within Scripture. History can involve a review of both general history (like how people lived at the time those original words were recorded) and also ecclesiastical history (like in how the church has historically attempted to define understandings of Scripture).
Significant caution needs to be exercised here to avoid the common tendency to view Scripture through the lens of personal belief. That belief can come from our upbringing, our culture, our denominational comfort zone, and from our hero’s. It is natural and understood that it is impossible to come to a passage with a completely blank slate, but Scripture ought to be considered within the context of history without filtering our understandings through our histories.
The writing of Scripture remains imbedded in the cultural context of mankind.
Example: From the cautionary side, Jesus himself notes that tradition can some times stand in the way of understanding truth like when he stated “You have a fine way of upholding your tradition over the word of God.”
Also, a biblical word that is often abused with cultural familiarity is “slavery”. What Americans are familiar with in our history has never been biblically condoned for Christians.
9. In Practice: Understanding Scripture is not simply an intellectual enterprise, it requires complete immersion. This is one of the reasons that Jesus declared that the highly educated, who avoid active implementation in the trenches of life, are often prevented from understanding truth. God expects implementation not only as an expression of obedience, but also in order to mature in understanding what is recorded in the Bible.
Scriptural implementation entails obedience, but it begins with humility. Consider CS Lewis’s comments about approaching Scripture:
“The first demand any work of art makes of us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way.There is no good asking first whether the work before you deserves such a surrender, for until you have surrendered, you cannot possibly find out.”
Only those who “hold to my teachings” are allowed to be identified as legitimate disciples and thereby are promised that the truth will set them free. It is not the hearers, but the doers who are blessed with understanding truth. Only those who are founded upon the Rock, which Jesus defined as “putting into practice”, can survive the storms of deception. Those who are capable of discerning between right and wrong come from that meat-maturing group “who by constant use have trained themselves.”
When Jesus declared that his words were spirit and life, he was not suggesting that his scribed vocabulary was a living organism, nor that they simply “pointed” toward the way of life, but rather than when those words are incarnated in a believer, they convey the very life-source of God.
Because of this, putting Scripture into practice is an essential layer of context in being able to understand truth. Those who don’t obey, can’t understand. Those who do obey, come alive.
Example: According to Peter, it is those who have endured and suffered as witnesses of Christ who are capable of understanding the will of God (1 Pet 4:1-2). This is not a context of mental prowess, but a context of practical living that directly impacts ones ability to grasp truth from Scripture.
10. In Faith: Without faith it is impossible to please God. Aside from faith, a relationship with God through Christ cannot be maintained. As the identified Word of God, that same Jesus will prevent understanding in those who claim belief, but ignore the necessity of faith as an integral part of the context of Scripture.
God expects an informed faith from students of the Bible. Every verse, every concept, every doctrine, must be clearly founded upon the divine words from Genesis through Revelation, but ultimately all interpretation must employ faith in its conclusions. Reason, science, tradition, history, linguistics, and all other relevant disciplines cannot stand alone, but must bow before the contextual requirement of faith.
That said, care should be taken to prevent slipping from genuine faith into interpreting through unbiblical world views. The faith being promoted here is that which is defined within Scripture and that which comes as a result of taking God at his word. It is an invalid “faith” that dismisses statements within the word of God in favor of preferred, un-provable ideologies. In other words, it is not tenable to claim faith in the Word who is God while denying any part of the word that was breathed by that God (like some are inclined to do with Genesis).
For it is “By faith we understand” (Heb 11:3).
Example: When the angel informed the onlookers that just as Jesus went into heaven, so shall he return, it is by faith that we accept that promise and maintain our hope in his return. We have the evidence of his resurrection, and the perfect record of fulfilled prophecy to rely upon, but nothing else can replace the necessity of outright trust in the details of those words for which we willingly give up our own natural desires and even our own lives for the sake of holding on to that promise.
It needs to be highlighted that denominational and ecclesiastical tradition, including historic creeds, although significant for considering how others have wrestled with biblical concepts, is not one of the ten layers of scriptural context. Sadly, however, it is often the most influential force in determining a person or groups views because it operates as a theological lens through which Scripture and all contextual considerations are interpreted. For this reason, it is not surprising that Jesus denounced this use of theological traditions when maintained in defiance of what Scripture actually says (Mk 7:13).
Keeping our views of God’s word within context requires careful consideration of more than just original language and culture. It entails a fuller consideration of context that segments Scripture into multiple layers of analysis. It also requires that we review how those words and ideas fit within our human context in which Scripture has been recorded and by which we are expected to apply it.
So the next time you are asked for your opinion on what God’s word says, consider emphasizing a look into the ten Commandments of Context and bring your personal views into agreement with the full context of what God is saying. Of course, all this effort still remains completely dependent upon the revelatory lead of the Holy Spirit.
For, as we have been elsewhere admonished, “Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.”
What have you found most helpful in keeping your eye on the context?