You’re discussing a Bible verse with a friend, and suddenly he says, “You’re taking that verse out of context!” You didn’t think you were taking it out of context, but how do you know?
Quite frequently the “out of context” claim is used to stop arguments, often with no basis in fact. Yet many times Bible texts are taken out of context, and made to mean things which their authors never intended them to mean. How do you respond to this argument? How do you make sure that you are not the one guilty? What is context anyhow?
Types of Context
People usually think of context as a single thing. But each text has a number of different contexts, and different types of literature need to be considered differently. Let’s look first at a number of types of context.
- Syntactic Context
This is simply the linguistic structure of the verse, and how various elements of it fit together. It means you need to get various clauses and phrases attached to the right element of the sentence.
- Literary Context
Where does this element fit in the broader structure of the passage I’m reading. In part, this involves understanding what type of literature you are reading.
- Historical Context
When in history was this passage written? What were the circumstances? What elements of the history contribute to the nature of the material written.
- Cultural Context
This overlaps with historical context, but goes beyond it. How did the people who wrote and/or heard the piece of literature you are studying understand the world, and written texts? What concepts were available in their world?
- Canonical Context
Where does this passage fit in the overall canon of scripture. For those who are reading the Bible as part of the literature of their faith, this is particularly important. There are reasons why these texts were chosen and put together into the larger book we call the Bible. How does your passage fit into this broader picture?
- Spiritual Context
Where does this passage fit in spirituality generally?
- Experiential Context
What is the nature of the religious or spiritual experience of the people who wrote and read or heard the passage you are studying?
This is simply a matter of careful reading, though those who read the Bible in languages other than the source languages, such as English, need to be aware that often choices must be made by translators in order to provide a readable English text. Comparing translations can help show you where such choices needed to be made, since not all translators will necessarily make them in the same way. For more information see Reading Precisely.
Literary context is more commonly violated. I provide an example of taking a portion of a passage out of context in my essay on interpreting prophecy, in which Jeremiah 4:22-27 is commonly taken out of the context of the entire prophetic oracle that begins at 4:5. People see these few verses as applying to a different time and place, even though the context–words on both sides of the main passage, indicate the topic. One excellent way to avoid this type of context problem is outlining and phrasing (see Reading Precisely).
Frequently quoting out of context is much more subtle. Psalm 12 is frequently cited by KJV Only advocates (see my Bible Translations FAQ) in support of their view that the Bible must be preserved word for word through all translation processes. The verse they cite is Psalm 12:6, which reads literally, “The words of the Lord are pure words, like silver refined in a furnace in the ground, purified seven times.” One can immediately point out that the context is not one of Bible translation. The Psalmist is not dealing with a translated text at all. What he is dealing with is God’s promises, and he is stating that God’s promises are true and will come to pass. (Read all of Psalm 12 to get this literary context.) This is why many translations use promises here rather than just words–because in context, that is the precise meaning of the Hebrew word used.
A more subtle case is leaving off portions of a text that don’t relate to whatever point we are trying to make at the moment. Sometimes this is simply necessary because of time, but often it leads to problems. Consider the following passage:
11But they conquered him by means of the blood of the lamb,
and by means of the testimony they spoke,
And they did not love their lives even up to death. – Revelation 12:11 (TFBV)
We frequently quote the first three lines, but often we leave out the last line, which seems less comforting. Is it wrong to say that they overcome through the blood of the lamb and the word of their testimony? Not at all! But when we consistently quote the passage partially, it becomes part of our lives and our experience as a partial concept. We forget that the martyrs have given their lives for the things they believed in, and that their overcoming often carried on right through their deaths.
This is not the only text to which we commonly do this. We should be careful that we do not get in the habit of extracting just a portion of the meaning of a text as it was intended when it was written.
Historical context is the easiest to understand but sometimes the hardest to get right. This essay is not about how to learn history, but let me suggest the use of Bible dictionaries, study Bibles that include historical introductions to books, Bible handbooks, and finally commentaries, especially the introductory material.
There are, however, several historical contexts that must be considered on any particular passage. These are:
- The historical situation of the writer
This deals with the time when a passage was written. Why is the writer writing about this issue, and what is his situation?
- The historical situation described
A history is normally written after the fact. Thus there is the historical situation of the writer, but he is writing about a very different historical situation.
- The historical situation of any sources used in writing
Though sometimes hard to identify, this can also be of interest in understanding the written text.
Let’s look at some examples.
In the Gospels, we have two viewpoints: 1) The situation in the story in which Jesus and his disciples and various other people in Palestine are interacting, and 2) The situation of the gospel writers who are trying to nurture a new church. The gospels speak of a time before the crucifixion and resurrection, but they do it from the perspective of people who come after those events. The relationships between the various synoptic gospels suggests that there are differences in the historical situation of some of the sources. Mark, considered by most scholars as the first gospel, is copied in portions of Matthew and Luke. (On other theories, the copying may go the other direction.) Thus one can ask what the context was in Mark, what the context was in Mark’s source, and separately what the context was in Matthew and Luke.
In I & II Kings we have a number of references to the chronicles of the kings of Judah or of Israel. When I was quite young I thought this referred to the book of Chronicles in the Bible, but that is not the case. Some people believe that these chronicles were written by the court scribes of the two kingdoms. Others, however, believe they were maintained by the schools of the prophets, at least in the north. These sources would have one historical context, the actual historical events portrayed would have another. Finally, the books were probably written during or shortly after the exile. The writer is dealing with how God deals with Israel, and how blessings and curses, rewards and punishments occur and why they do. His purpose and historical context was different from that of the chroniclers or of those who lived through the events he narrates.
Cultural context can be more subtle. Here we are looking at questions of how the people thought in the time that the material was written and/or the events took place. In particular, we are interested in the types of concepts they used, their cosmology (understand of how the universe worked), their language, and how they lived. This can help us understand what they wrote.
For example, Genesis 1 shows evidence of some of the language of ancient near eastern cosmology (see Genesis Creation Stories – Form, Structure, and Relationship). The apocalyptic literature of Daniel and Revelation shows an acquaintance with the mythological symbols of much of the ancient world. These cultural points can help us understand. If the beasts take forms we can recognize from the surrounding culture, we can understand why God and the prophet would represent those concepts using those particular symbols.
The canonical context simply takes seriously the idea that the Bible is God’s revelation, even though it has been brought together from many different books, times, and places. What is the place of the passage you are studying in this overall scheme? For example, the story of the exodus is an interesting story of God intervening to allow some slaves to escape when seen by itself, but when seen in the overall picture from creation, through the call of Abraham, slavery, exodus, life in Canaan, the exile, the return, and the coming of Jesus, it will take on a number of different associations. Christian students of scripture should be aware of this.
Closely related to canonical context is the spiritual context. Simply ask, “Where does this passage fit into God’s overall plan?” Obviously this is the most theological and and nearly the most subjective (experiential context is certainly more subjective), so don’t be too dogmatic. This is a good area for calm discussion and exchange of views with others. Some suggestions about the overview of scripture can be found in Cosmic Conflict, a tract in the Participatory Study Series.
I don’t know anyone else who uses this phrase in the way I do, but what I mean by “experiential context” is the state of spiritual experience reflected in the passage of scripture. This is very subjective, but it is something that you must think about in order to understand how to apply the scriptural experience to your own. You also need to think about where your own experience is. This opens the way to spiritual growth through reading the scriptures like very little else can.
As an example of discussing spiritual experience, consider the story of Gideon (Judges 6-8). Gideon is at first very reluctant, and he requires many signs from God before he takes on his task. What sort of spiritual experience, or spiritual maturity, is reflected in this story? Or compare Psalm 137, especially verses 8 and 9 with the prayer of Jesus: “Father, forgive them!” You may find it helpful to note that God used people who were not necessarily steady on their spiritual feet, such as Gideon, and that he allowed prayers of vengeance to be recorded. But he also provided us with more ideal examples.
Avoiding Context Errors
Here are some suggestions for avoiding contextual errors:
- Always read a number of verses before and after a text you choose to use in making a specific point. Read enough to allow you to make a short, 2 or 3 point outline.
- Look at the basic background information of any book before you draw conclusions about the meaning of one part.
- Spend more time reading the scriptures in order to hear what they are saying to you than you spend searching the scriptures for texts to support a particular point.
- When someone says you are taking a verse out of context, ask them to tell you what the context is, and show you how you have used the text incorrectly.
- Look at the conclusions that other people have drawn about a scripture. Don’t give up your own judgment in favor of simply believing what someone else says, but do look at their reasons for their position, and use them to check your own conclusions.
- Share what you have learned. Expect others to question your conclusions. Be prepared to look at your facts and reasoning again.
Foolishness to Unbelievers?
Frequently, 1 Corinthians 2:14 tells us that an unspiritual person cannot accept things that belong to the kingdom of God. This text is frequently misused by people when they are asked to prove their point from scriptures, especially when they are being challenged by unbelievers. Sometimes even when they are challenged by believers, they claim that the other person cannot understand because the issue is to be “discerned spiritually.” But this is a misuse of scripture. Of all the contexts discussed above, only the experiential one will mean that one person cannot necessarily understand another.
Let me suggest that the truly spiritual person is not going to pound people over the head with his judgment of how unspiritual they are. Rather, he will join with Paul in becoming “everyone’s servant” (1 Corinthians 9:10). Even if it means being thought stupid, you should avoid accusations when you are sharing the spiritual blessings of God’s word.
By carefully investigating all elements of the context, and by reading more than just a single text when you study, you can generally avoid errors of context.
Some additional information on this topic can be found in: Facing the Proof-Text Method. It provides a view of this topic from the other side.