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/