Friday, May 18, 2012

Skills for Reading Scripture: Context(s)

Skills for Reading Scripture

There is no substitute for learning to read the text carefully and closely. Each of us can gain competence in this practice. Reading the Bible may be compared to a trip to the ocean. Like the ocean, the Scriptures have various levels and depths of meaning. The reader must decide whether to be satisfied merely with observing the ocean from a chair on the beach, dipping one’s toes into the shallows, or heading out far from shore. If one only enjoys the ocean from one particular spot, much will be missed. It is vital for us as readers to venture as deeply as possible into the biblical passages we are studying and to learn to view them from a variety of perspectives in order to experience them in all of their richness. Just as the ocean runs from the shallows along the shore to the unfathomable depths of the Mariana Trench so the Scriptures offer us as much depth as we desire. How deeply do we want to explore the Scripture?

Reading in Context
The key to understanding any passage in the Bible is learning to read it in its literary context. Reading Scripture is a dance between the reader, the text, and its wider context. Like a dancer who must maintain awareness of both the music and her partner, the wise reader must keep in view both the discrete details of the passage of Scripture being studied and the wider movements of the passages surrounding it. In biblical interpretation, context is everything. By literary context, we mean several interlocking levels.

First, the primary source of evidence for understanding the meaning of a passage is its immediate context. In most cases this will be the text that we are studying and the paragraphs immediate before and after it. For example, if we are studying the Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:9-13) it is important to observe that it occurs within a block of teaching that focuses on prayer (6:6-15). The verses immediately before the Lord’s Prayer contrast it with prayers that emphasize many words and religious formulas and the verses after it focus on the necessity of forgiveness. Our reading of the Lord’s Prayer must be informed by and account for these elements.

Second, each passage has a wider context in the book in which it occurs. To get a sense of the book context take a few minutes to read the introductory notes in the Common English Study Bible to the book you are studying and observe the outline of the whole. This will help you to gain an understanding of the role that the smaller passage with which you are working plays in the overall message of a book. Again looking at the Lord’s Prayer, we may observe that it falls within a larger segment (6:1-18) that serves to warn against public acts of piety (almsgiving, prayer, and fasting) as a means to gaining rewards from God. Widening our lens a little more, we may observe that this text falls within a larger block of teaching materials known traditionally as the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:1–7:29). In this material Jesus is training his disciples for the ministry of announcing the good news of the kingdom of heaven (Matt 4:17–11:1).

Reading in context is vital as a guard against misreading the meaning of a passage. A truism about reading in context is this: “A text without a context is a pretext.” Apart from reading a passage of Scripture in context we may easily make a text say what we desire for it to mean rather than to hear the message that the text itself wants us to hear. The wise reader must remember this: Read an individual text in light of its literary context. This practice alone will keep us from many errors.

There are other contexts that the wise reader will also be attentive to as time permits. First, information on the historical context or background can help us to gain a richer appreciation of a passage of Scripture. The study notes in this Bible will draw the reader’s attention to important historical details. In addition, readers may find it helpful to use a bible dictionary or a full-length commentary. For example, in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, Paul mentions opponents who are harassing the Philippian Christ followers (e.g., 1:28, 3:2, 3:18). Who are these opponents? Is there one group or are there several different opponents? What is the nature of their opposition? Answering these questions would provide helpful historical background for understanding Paul’s words to the Philippians.

Second, readers need to be aware of related texts that the passage we are studying alludes to and/or other passages that may allude to our text. Psalm 8 is a text that models both of these situations. Psalm 8 is a hymn of praise to the Lord. It reflects on the status and mission of humanity in light of the majestic nature of God. Psalm 8:6-8 focuses on the stewardship role played by women and men over creation. The psalmist clearly has in mind the creation story in Genesis 1:1–2:3. If we are going to fully comprehend the message of Psalm 8, we will need to study how the psalmist interprets uses the material from Genesis. The savvy reader will also want to know that Hebrews 2:6-8 quotes Psalm 8:4-6. If we are going to understand the full biblical meaning of Psalm 8, we will need to be aware of how the author of the book of Hebrews deploys Psalm 8 in his letter.

Reading with the Big Picture in Mind
Reading the Bible as Christian Scripture also involves understanding each individual passage and book within the overall context of the Bible as a whole. The Christian canon of sixty-six books links the Old and New Testament and proclaims an overarching narrative when viewed as a whole. We may observe the following framework that holds the discrete elements of the Bible together: Creation, Fall, Israel, Jesus the Messiah, Church, New Creation. The Bible begins with the story of the Creation of the world (Gen 1–2) and ends with the description of a future New Creation (Revelation 20–21). The biblical story opens with a very good world and ends with the recreation of very goodness. In between these bookends, we find the biblical story of the salvation of the people and all creation. The need for salvation is first described in Genesis 3–11. This section of Scripture describes the fundament problem in the world: human alienation and sin. This problem has fractured the very good creation described in Gen 1–2. God responds to this problem by calling a people for himself through whom he will bless all nations (Gen 12–Malachi). This people is named Israel. God calls Israel’s ancestors in Gen 12–50. He rescues them from slavery in Egypt and establishes a covenant relationship with them as a means of preparing them to serve as a people of blessing to the world, and leads them through the wilderness to the promised land of Canaan (Exodus–Deuteronomy). Joshua­–Esther narrate Israel’s life in Canaan, its times of obedience/disobedience, exile, and return. The wisdom books (Job–Song of Songs) include the prayers of God’s people and their reflections on the good life within God’s creation. The Old Testament ends with the Prophetic books. The Prophets (Isaiah–Malachi) serve to call God’s people back to their roots as the holy redeemed people through whom God will bless the nations and they also envision a radical future act of salvation. The New Testament opens with the four Gospels, which tell the story of the Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Jesus announces the inbreaking of God’s future and fulfills the hopes and expectations of Israel’s Scriptures. Jesus’ death and resurrection marks the climax of God’s saving work and serves to announce the final victory of God. Acts–Rev 19 tells the story of the Church under the power of the Holy Spirit witnessing to all nations about the good news of Jesus. Revelation 20-21 brings the story full circle by envisioning the full consummation of God’s victory in a New Creation.

The wise reader keeps in mind this broader story as a means of understanding much smaller portions of the Bible. Again a balance must be maintained. To focus only on this broad summary risks missing the many nuances that individual biblical books and passages within them offer. If we only focus on the big picture we may flatten out the Bible by forcing its individual pieces to conform to our assumptions about the big picture. But to focus only on the specific details of smaller passages runs the risk of missing the overall message of the Bible. It is like having all of our clothing piled randomly in a closet without any discernible organizing principle. The big picture serves as hangers and dividers to make sense of our wardrobe. The wise reader will be aware simultaneously of the broader narratives and themes of the Bible while also hearing the witness of the individual passage under current consideration.

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