A man arrives to a movie a half-hour late, and having never seen it before, he proceeds to confidently whisper the plot to those around him. Those who teach, preach and debate about the Bible without knowing context are just as reliable.

When confronted with ancient texts, like those found in the Bible, our 21st-Century superiority complex hijacks honest interpretation and silences their words before they can even speak.

Let’s say an archaeologist 1000 years from now finds a copy of President Obama’s last State of the Union address. Will the president’s words resonate the same way in 3016 as they do now, in 2016? Of course not, which is why the archaeologist will need to do some investigation into the context of 2016 before the State of the Union address can speak.

In the same way we need to dig into history and gather all the available relevant information on ancient cultures, languages and geography before we can come to a reliable conclusion about what the Bible says here or there.

Ask any student of the Bible: context is the most basic element of Biblical studies. It’s the foundation of hermeneutics (interpreting ancient literature), for it constructs the right template that prompts the right questions. In other words, it eliminates the wasting of time; it tells us to ask A even when our modern presuppositions and instincts tempt us to ask B.

Despite being so elementary, the essentiality of context continually gets lost in the crowd of Biblical discussions. “What I feel to be true” (or, God-forbid, “what I assume to be true because I’m too lazy to look into it”) becomes the standard approach in a world where opinions are cheaper than what the truth is worth. We are coddled by the quick results that McDonald’s, Google and microwaves provide, so we’re willing to cut corners in Biblical matters to arrive at a conclusion, no matter how weak it is.

Yet even with all the careful analysis out there, the Bible is often anything but black and white. This raises a concern: if the Bible was indeed God’s chosen method for conveying his truth to humanity, why is it prone to such diverse interpretations? All Christian persuasions insist their nuances are Biblically justified, but what are we to do with the fact that interpretive divergences exist? In other words, wouldn’t the Truth be clear?

There are many reasons why diverse interpretations abound. For one, the Bible was not written as a systematic formula that eradicates gray areas. It is a compilation of many pieces of literature, spanning many years with many authors. There are various genres (narrative, wisdom, poetry, gospel, epistle), each having unique characteristics. Further, each book of the Bible was written for a specific purpose for a specific recipient in a specific environment (some books are more broad than others in this respect, but the point remains). All this is enough to muddy matters, but it gets worse when finite humans put their prejudices, dispositions, presuppositions, biases and agendas into the mix.

So we’re left with a mixed bag of certainty and doubt regarding Biblical interpretations. We all can stake our claims on truth, but in the end, we’re all finite anyway. What we must decide first is not whether we know the right facts but whether having the right facts is enough to give us an accurate picture of the truth. Only then can we work through what’s available to form a reasonable conclusion.

Digging into the context of ancient literature is like rubbing a dirty window to look outside. We can look as hard as we want, but the image is always incomplete. Mystery is inevitable.

So the wedge falls, splitting humanity in two. One side will trust the image through the pane despite the mysteries, while another will turn away because of them. One will say the image is complete enough, while the other will always demand more information.

For those willing to stay at the window, here are four practical steps for interpreting Scripture:

Step 1: Discover your own biases and presuppositions, then don’t be surprised when they don’t play will with others. Acknowledging the reality of presuppositions enables us to listen to others with an open mind.

Understanding our own ideological persuasions is key to avoiding tunnel-vision and ignorance, which ultimately helps us ask a wider variety of questions about Scripture.

Step 2: Research relevant information for the portion of Scripture you’re studying/reading (I’ll call it the “focus text”). Search out resources that shed light on the book of the Bible the focus text finds itself in (commentaries, Bible handbooks, pastors/teachers; most study Bibles are fortunately equipped with commentaries and background information, but it’s wise to use other sources if they are available because they provide more details).

It’s also important to understand the “big picture” of the Bible (often called “salvation history”) to determine how and where the focus text fits into the “plot curve” of God’s plan (Bible handbooks, encyclopedias and pastor/teachers can help with this). Keeping a focus on the Bible’s general purpose (God redeeming humanity) prevents us from wandering into strange theology.

Step 3: Based on what you learned in Step 2, try to understand the place the focus text has in the book, testament and salvation history. Read through the book many times, paying careful attention to details and compile questions/concerns that require additional research.

Step 4: Investigate the questions/concerns brought up in Step 3. This can be anything from word meanings (this can be done by using Bible dictionaries, lexicons or by conducting word studies) to relevant historical-cultural facts (for example, knowing what being a shepherd was like in 1000 BC illuminates Psalm 23). Every scrap of information is useful in providing us with a fuller sense of what the author was trying to say.

But I cannot make promises. Even when one digs into the information, reads with an open mind and does “presupposition damage control,” only a miracle will make bones breathe. This is, after all, the crux of Christianity:

“For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” (1 Cor. 1:18, 22-25)

Although there can be difficulties in Biblical hermeneutics, the vast assortment of scholars agree–simply by spending time and exercising their craft on it–that the Bible is worth studying. It seems to hit a button in the human machine that no finger can press. When we try to use words to describe its power, it loses its value, and to accuse it of falling short of fact is to only reinforce what it already says about the one pointing the finger.

The author of Hebrews rightly writes, “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Heb. 4:12).

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dscn8611In addition to writing at A Clear Lens, Alex Aili (B.A. in Biblical Studies) writes short stories and offers his musings about God’s hand in the world at Covert God: Redemption in Shadows. He is a novelist-in-progress who lives in northern MN with his wife and two sons. He thrives on coffee, good pipe tobacco and longs walks in the woods. See what he’s up to on Twitter.

1 COMMENT

  1. Alex, this is a great piece. I have a follow up question. Considering the importance of context, why do you think we (generalizing) put so much emphasis on individual verse memorization especially as it relates to youth and children’s ministries. In some cases that looks like Jeremiah 29:11 and clearly out of context, but in other cases it’s like John 3:16; true to the verse but much there is a ton of context surrounding it that gives the perception of irrelevance by focusing only in the verse.
    To summarize my question, is there a benefit to verse memorization if the process seems to negate the context?

    • We tend to simplify things, and perhaps memorizing isolated verses is a result of this; and for children, especially, simplicity is required. I don’t think there’s a benefit to memorizing verses while negating context. Alternatively, I would suggest complementing short passage memorization with a simple (since that’s what people want and it’s what seems to stick) comprehension of context. That way, what we memorize is rooted in accuracy. It’s more work, but I think that’s only a problem when people are too lazy and shortsighted to see the benefit of it.

      Of course, there are plenty of examples where verses can be memorized with minimal understanding of any context, such as the Proverbs or simple expressions of theology/ethics like in Romans 11:33-36; 12:9-21, Eph. 2:8-9, Phil. 4:8, 1 John 2:15-17.

      Still, it’s wise to err on the side of too much knowledge of context–literary, historical-cultural, and canonical. After all, why build our faith on fragmented and often deficient maxims that, taken alone, disgrace the rich supply that the entire canon provides?

      What do you think?

      • I think you covered it nicely! I think sometimes we read the Psalms and Proverbs (in this case Ps 119:11 & Pr 2:1) and take them literally. That is, I think we assume Scripture memorization is a command and not a good idea.

        Ultimately, I like your response. It’s not about the verse, it’s about the whole of it all–even if it means working harder for it. Thanks Alex