About literary context (3)

A horrible illustration we mustn’t forget
Perhaps the most infamous illustration of the violence that can be done by taking words out of their context is the stringing together of these two Bible “verses”:

Judas went out and hanged himself.

Go thou and do likewise.

We all “get” that context is important.

Bible verses don’t just “mean” something outside their contexts.

But what do most of us ever do about context, aside from paying lip service to the general idea?  Do we actually pursue the framework for understanding that contexts alone provide?

We laugh at the very idea of imitating Judas, and then we move on, so often glibly unaware of literary context.

What two scholar-friends have written (putting flesh on the bones of “context”)
Gary Collier has cogently asserted the primacy of literary context over historical and other contexts:

However important historical research is (and I think “very”), it is always incomplete.  How could we possibly uncover or rightly understand everything there is to know about something in the distant past and in some distant place?  At best, historical background is always incomplete.  It is a mistake to think that any supposed “historical background” that we think we know is a full picture.  It is easy to force something onto a text and thereby change its meaning.¹

And in another place, Gary has said,

The literary context is always the first and most important consideration in reading any text.¹

Further on the necessity of paying attention to the “book-level” literary context in order to hear God’s “voice,” Greg Fay has offered this:

Sometimes, when people talk about the context, they are referring to a chapter or to a paragraph, a set of verses before and after a particu­lar verse.  This is not what I mean by “literary context.”  I’m talking about the book as a whole—the over­all, big-picture of the book as a whole.  Of course, there are smaller paragraph- or chap­ter-level con­texts, and reading a verse in context certainly means seeing it as an inte­grated part of that context—its immediate context.  Any intelligent reading requires that; otherwise, you don’t really have com­muni­ca­tion at all, just words or even letters, if we take the logic far enough.

The literary con­text of a verse certainly includes its imme­diate context, if we want to understand it properly.  But—if I may be elementary for a moment—a letter is connected to other letters to make a word.  Words are connected to other words to make sentences.  Sentences    . . . to sentences—to form paragraphs.  Para­graphs . . . to paragraphs—to make a letter, or an essay, or a book.  Breaking apart any of those connec­tions risks the ability of the context to control the meaning.  

So, yes, the literary context includes the immediate context of a sentence or verse, but it also includes the rest of the book.  That’s the heart of what I’m trying to say.  Separating the verses or paragraphs—the immediate con­texts—into individual pictures is the start of inkblotitis.  (Think shat­tered mosaic.)  What we want to do is learn to see how the immediate contexts fit together as smaller, but integrated pictures into the land­scape view of the book as a whole.²

Speaking personally now . . .
I can’t adequately summarize or crystallize the things I’ve learned in recent years about biblical interpretation.  Although Greg and Gary are more than equal to this task, I’m not equal to the task of setting forth a hermeneutical hierarchy or prioritizing principles used in interpretation.

I can tell you this one thing, though:  terms and phrases and paragraphs are infinitely more meaningful when considered in their book-level contexts.  When we pay attention to those contexts, we hear God better.


¹ Dr. Gary D. Collier, private group e-mail, used by permission.  coffeewithpaul.com

² Dr. Gregory L. Fay, Inkblotitis:  Christianity’s Dangerous Disease, Book 2: Rediscovering the Books of God (2013).  http://inkblotitis.wordpress.com/inkblotitis/


16 thoughts on “About literary context (3)

  1. godschildrenorg 12/18/2014 / 1:59 pm

    Excellent thoughts, Gary and Greg! This is important. A friend was recently stressing to me the validity of historical writings over translation of The Word. I did not remind him that few people could read or write for centuries…that clerics wrote “history,” nor did I point out that “history” is written to record what the author wants to validate whether true or not. (I wanted to discuss, but friend wanted to debate.)

    I wonder how many approach Bible study in the manner Gary and Greg are presenting. I am no Bible scholar. I simply love and want to honor the Word of God. When I read a Bible book, I take into consideration by whom and to whom it was written, the overall purpose of the book. Please, fellows, provide some coaching on how to go about seeing “how the immediate contexts fit together as smaller, but integrated pictures into the land­scape view of the book as a whole.” ~~ Anne, in Transylvania


    • Brian Casey 12/19/2014 / 7:50 am

      Gary and Greg both read once in a while, and I asked permission of one of them (and have been sure of the other), but they may not see your comments, just fyi.

      Each of these men has provided quite a lot of Bible reading “coaching,” and much of it is in book form. Here is a link to some of Greg’s material, and I can send you a few other bits about Pauline literature on the backchannels. Greg, by the way, stood for a few short years in the same place that your dear Dan stood many years ago — behind that ugly, white pulpit creation. 🙂

      There’s no doubt that it’s easier to get a handle on the literary context of a book when it’s short. This is why I like Philemon and 1Thess and Galatians more than Romans or Isaiah!

      On Thu, Dec 18, 2014 at 1:59 PM, NT Christianity wrote: > >


    • godschildrenorg 12/19/2014 / 9:20 am

      This is helpful, Brian. We can choose to delve deeper into God’s Word…or we can choose to just learn and follow what suits us, what we have taken out of context and insist others follow. I’d rather be brave and let God help me comprehend what He is saying in the broad landscape of each book…and walk more closely with Him. ~~ Anne in Transylvania


  2. Susan Peterson 12/18/2014 / 8:25 pm

    I have appreciated the emphasis on seeing the overall structure of the book in various studies we’ve done. As someone who knows she naturally focuses on the details and therefore seeks out means of seeing the larger picture, I think this has helped me a lot.
    There will always be a great distance between us and the writers of these biblical books because of the change in time, attitude, approach to writing, etc., and in order to grasp what the writers were saying, we need to tune ourselves to their influences. I’m thinking specifically of text structures like parallelism and writings of contemporaries whose forms and styles may have been emulated or adopted. As someone greatly interested in history, it always bothers me when the Bible is approached with modern attitudes at the helm. Yes, these words [and the Word] are for all times and peoples, but God purposely chose to use a time-bound people to experience and record them. We cannot assume {in often-unnoticed arrogance} that we are the people at the culmination of all things, and that these words are meant for us who are the most enlightened, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, as though somehow we now know best.
    (End of rant.)
    I have appreciated in N.T. Wright’s studies of New Testament books his notes on the significance of certain structures and events to the contemporary audience who were physically present and/or readers of these books. Though it will always be difficult to sift through the layers of time to find the world of thought and practice of biblical times, true study and application cannot happen without it.


    • Brian Casey 12/20/2014 / 9:24 am

      BTW, that was hardly a rant. (See my quasi-reply that might have appeared under Anne’s comment.)


    • godschildrenorg 12/20/2014 / 4:02 pm

      Susan, you are a deep thinker and express yourself so well…please, keep sharing your thoughts! (However, you will have to step it up to rant as well as our Brian! I’m just teasing you. Your deep thoughts speak for many of us. You are obviously a friend of theirs. Any friend of theirs is a friend of mine…if you don’t mind. He is my “nephew” by choice. I met Brian in late 1965. He was the cutest, most adorable little boy! ) ~~ Anne in Transylvania


    • Brian Casey 12/20/2014 / 4:07 pm

      Anne, you have “pegged” Susan well. You have, however, erred in the year you met me by at least 4 years and maybe 6 — I wasn’t alive then. I’m editing that. 🙂

      On Sat, Dec 20, 2014 at 4:02 PM, NT Christianity wrote:



    • godschildrenorg 12/20/2014 / 4:27 pm

      Brian, We were called to serve with Cedars in late ’65. When the work in Ghana was outgrowing Cedars capacity to support it, they stopped supporting all things that the members could do themselves. The final one they cut was Dan in August ’69. Elder Green preached for the next 3 years…and all the salary went to support the work in Ghana. Dyann “babysat” you. Maybe I remember you as a toddler when we visited back there, and your mom sent photos of you, and they visited us when they were in the DFW area? Whatever, I remember what a precious little boy you were. ~~ Anne in Transylvania


    • Brian Casey 12/20/2014 / 8:21 pm

      I hadn’t known that Dan’s position was a “cut” for the sake of Ghana. Maybe I heard some revisionist history during my years at Cedars that conveniently left that part out.

      On Sat, Dec 20, 2014 at 4:27 PM, NT Christianity wrote: > >


  3. Brian Casey 12/20/2014 / 9:22 am

    Anne, for some reason the link I’d intended to share didn’t show up, but I just added it in the prior comment: http://inkblotitis.wordpress.com/6-bible-study-steps/. The extra material I mentioned is about “Pauline Paragraph Markers.” Greg has written a two-volume set called Inkblotitis: ____ (taking the first part of its title from a terrible habit of believers — trying to see “verses” as disconnected “inkblots,” as in “what this might mean to me.” His 2nd volume speaks of the cure for this malady! I love your resolve to be brave, of course, and I rather feel you are more consistently brave than I.

    Susan, I am beyond thrilled at hearing/reading those things from you. If I were a jump-up-and-down sort, I would be jumping. You said it so well, so clearly, so understandingly. You doubtless remember my referring to a few N.T. Wright things in our house, and he is certainly one who “gets” the structure of texts. May I read your comments to a class on 1Thess tomorrow morning before talking about some of those structures and words as Paul uses them? (Of course I may!) 🙂


    • godschildrenorg 12/20/2014 / 4:04 pm

      Thanks for the link, Brian. BTW, Monday I’ll be 80 years old. My Hungarian Transylvanian friends are hosting a reception for me Sunday afternoon. I have been living at warp speed…can’t imagine I’m turning 80! ~~ Anne in Hungarian territory in Transylvania!


    • Brian Casey 12/20/2014 / 4:08 pm

      Happy birthday! My dad will be 75 on 1/1/15….

      On Sat, Dec 20, 2014 at 4:04 PM, NT Christianity wrote: > >


    • Susan Peterson 12/20/2014 / 8:26 pm

      Yes, I will officially give you permission. 🙂


    • Brian Casey 12/20/2014 / 9:16 pm

      Thank you. 🙂 If someone way in the East and someone way in the West both think your thoughts were eminently worthy, it must be true. Not that you have to work too hard to say really good things, but please don’t let all this attention obligate you in the future only to say quotable things. Chime in anytime!!

      I’m triple-tasking right now: listening to a 1Thess video recording from Gary Collier while thinking through/typing out some notes and writing back to you. . . .

      On Sat, Dec 20, 2014 at 8:26 PM, NT Christianity wrote: > >


  4. godschildrenorg 12/20/2014 / 3:56 pm

    Brian, you rant far better than anyone I know! I sometimes let loose and rant, then later I’m embarrassed. But life is short. It can be more pleasant (and heaven is waiting for us) if we choose to walk with the Lord…and how can we pretend to walk with Him if we have no interest in what He says…or if we read it, twist it, and consider ourselves experts in The Word, as well as comprehending The Mind of God. Well, God’s Word answers these questions. When I get exasperated with attitudes, I remember the parable of the four soils…heave a sigh…and move on…I pray God will plant my feet on the path of His choosing, and help me stay on His path. For 80 years now God continues to love and pursue me. If Siri would behave herself, I’d dictate “My Book,” or “Books.” God has demonstrated over and over in my life that He is real, loves us, is just, will never abandon us no matter what trials come our way. I wish I could be in your class in the morning! ~~Anne in Transylvania


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