If I could pass on one word of advice to everyone who picks up the Bible, it would be, “Remember, context is king.” Another way of saying it would be, “Don’t ignore the forest for the sake of one tree … or, quite possibly, a single leaf.”
A Lesson in Missing Context
Fifteen years ago I attended a two day visioning event for pastors at a large church on the edge of downtown Denver. While most of the details faded away a long time ago, one thing stands out. The theme text:
Look at the nations, and see!Habakkuk 1:5 (NRSV)
Be astonished! Be astounded!
For a work is being done in your days
that you would not believe if you were told.
The event leaders used a translation that said something to the effect of, “Behold, God is doing a new thing!” So multiple times a day, they would say those words and invite us to reflect on the new thing that God wanted to do through our churches and in the city. The whole point was to get pastors excited about new ministry opportunities and the people of Denver coming to faith.
There is just one small problem. What new thing did God do in Habakkuk’s day? According to Habakkuk, God will empower the Chaldeans, a powerful foreign nation described as “fierce and impetuous.” And this new thing is not tucked away somewhere further in Habakkuk. God first announces the Chaldeans are coming to destroy the nation of Israel in versus six to eleven.
In the end, Habakkuk is a letter about learning to trust in God even as the whole world falls apart. Habakkuk 1:5 would be a great text for an event helping pastors cope with fear in the midst of a radical change, but it is a horrible choice for two days of inspiration.
The truth is, you can make the Bible say whatever you want it to say. So how can we read it well?
The Big Picture aka Words About the Word
Let’s start with what some will hear as a radical statement: The Bible is not the Word of God. The Christ is the Word of God. The Bible is filled with words about the Word of God.
There are three points to make on that statement, one concerning biblicism, another concerning Jesus, and the third on the big picture of the Bible.
To say the Bible is the word of God makes you a Biblicist, something other authors have already expanded on:
- Brian Zhand identifies biblicism as something birthed out of the Reformation where Catholics got history and tradition while the Protestants got the Bible.
- Pete Enns argues that the simple reading of biblicism reads the Bible in a way contrary to how the Bible works … and doing so makes the Baby Jesus cry.
- The late Rachel Held Evans takes a different path, exploring biblicism’s fallacy.
However you look at it, biblicism ultimately takes the words in the Bible and strips them from their overarching context. At best, this means we miss the point. At worst it means we create a god in our own image.
Jesus vs. Christ
Some might wonder why I said that Christ, rather than Jesus, is the Word of God. I can assure you, it is intentional. Jesus is the Christ, the Word, made flesh. But the Christ, the Word, was there at the beginning and so is much bigger than the physical man, Jesus. For more on this, see my review of Richard Rohr’s excellent book, The Universal Christ.
The Big Picture of the Bible
One of the books I am working on is tentatively titled, How to Read the Bible (Without Losing Your Heart, Mind, or Soul). In it, I will argue that the Bible is a story about humanity’s struggle between two systems, centered on Jesus and a divine invitation.
Now, obviously, if I am going to write an entire book on that sentence then there is not enough room in this post to unpack it. However, if you would like one example of what I am talking about, I recommend my post, Give Unto Caesar, where I highlight the two systems and the divine invitation. If you want to understand the Bible, you need to read it within that overarching story.
Beyond the overarching story of the Bible there are two areas of local context that anyone can keep in mind (meaning you can get the big picture without being a Hebrew or Greek scholar). This includes the textual context and cultural-historical context rarely included in the text.
Within the Text
Within individual passages of Scripture, context also matters. The Bible is not a collection of sayings, rather, it largely tells a story. In other words, what happens in one part of the story helps make sense of another part. Here are a couple examples of this from the Give Unto Caesar post:
- Jesus says, “give unto Caesar,” in the broader context of Holy Week. We need to think about these words in relationship to Jesus‘ crucifixion and resurrection.
- ”Give unto Caesar,” is a response to questions from the religious leaders. Their questions focused on things Jesus did earlier in the week, specifically coming into Jerusalem and cleansing the temple.
Beyond the Text
The Bible is an ancient document. The original authors wrote from a cultural and historical perspective radically different from our own. The original readers lived in the midst of that context and that life experience shaped how they understood the text. Failure to educate ourselves on these nuances sets us up for misunderstandings. Again, here are examples from the Give Unto Caesar post:
- Jesus entry into Jerusalem stands in contrast to an elevated Roman presence in Jerusalem for Passover. Knowledge of the elevated Roman presence comes from extra-biblical sources.
- Both of these events (the triumphal entry and cleansing the temple) have links to other historical events that shape our understanding of what is going on.
- Extra-biblical sources also make us aware that Caesar self-applied many of the titles that the Bible attributes only to Jesus.
- You cannot truly understand the passage without understanding Roman taxation or coinage in Jerusalem.
Take the Bible Seriously, Not Literally
My parting words on context as king? They are as simple as the header above. Do not take the Bible literally, do the work necessary to take it seriously.
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