Welcome to the maiden voyage of RDRD Bible Study—previously known as Rightly Dividing Rightly Dividing. The topic chosen to begin RDRD’s journey—context—is quite possibly the most important concept in Bible study. When researching or studying a passage, the matter of context simply cannot be overlooked and the importance of context cannot be overstated.
This truth about the importance of context became apparent one semester in a class on Biblical Hermeneutics. A visiting professor from the UK, Dr. Bruce Winter, or simply Bruce, as he preferred to be called, drilled into our heads the overarching importance of context. Bruce had a favorite quote. And if he said it once, with index finger held high (as if to indicate its source), he said it at least 338 times:
This quote frequents many biblical interpretation books, commentaries, etc. However, because of Bruce’s semester-long tenacity, I am attributing it to him. Let’s define each of the words in the context (no pun intended) of Biblical study:
A Text without a Context, Is a Pretext to a Prooftext. –Bruce
- Text – any text, but in our context, a text from the bible.
- Context – the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood and assessed (from Google).
- Pretext – something that is put forward to conceal a true purpose or object; an ostensible reason; excuse (from Dictionary.com); in context of Biblical research, a pretext, sometimes unintentional, would indicate that the work necessary for interpreting a passage has not been done completely, i.e. perhaps the context has not been taken into consideration (“text without a context”).
- Prooftext (also written proof text) – appeal to a biblical text to prove or justify a theological position without regard for the context of the passage being cited (from theopedia.com “Proof texting”); in other words, the passage has not been studied in context to determine the author’s intention (and he always has one), but is being used as supporting evidence, a proposition, etc., nonetheless.
Let’s Cut Straight To The Point
Or in other words, a text has been studied outside of its context, and is used to teach something which it probably doesn’t mean. Or more frequently, for example, a text with the word “grace” will be used to support another text with the word “grace”—only because the words are the same—though “grace” may be used in totally different contexts. A lot more to come on that.
Quite Possibly The Most Important Tenet of Biblical Research and Study – Context
Over the years, Bruce’s persistence in drilling into my head, this quite possibly most important tenet of Biblical research and study, has had many benefits, including but not limited to:
- integrity in study
- integrity in sharing/teaching God’s Word
- integrity in ministry
- learning amazing things that otherwise might have been overlooked
- a deep appreciation for the unity and witness of the entire Bible, and
- a heart, mind, and soul more receptive to the Holy Spirit
So Why Only “Quite Possibly”?
Obviously, the important things related to understanding the Bible and/or passing it on to others are spiritual—prayer and guidance of the Holy Spirit. And as far as Bible study and/or research know-how goes, “context” is where the process begins. Everything that follows, in one way or another, depends on context. For example, a word study in Greek needs to be studied in context. If not, the process immediately gets off on the wrong foot.
But That’s Only the Wonderful Beginning…
Now that the importance of “Context” has been established, the question is “Which one?” The three primary are historical context, literary context, and theological context. And each will be the topic of an upcoming post complete with examples.
For now, just remember that a text without a context is a pretext to a prooftext. And in the context of studying the Bible effectively, you are already in an advantageous position, i.e. ahead of the game.
Until next time –
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. (2 Cor. 13:14)