Pay Attention to Context

A tribute to two influential teachers.

Whenever I try to understand a Bible passage I am reading, I follow an important principle of interpretation: Pay attention to the context.

Sometimes that context is all the other words that surround a specific word or sentence. Sometimes it is the paragraph or paragraphs that precede or follow the passage I’m reading. Sometimes it is the flow within a whole book of the Bible. Sometimes it is the cultural environment in which the author is writing. And sometimes it is the dialogue of one passage with other passages in the canon of the Bible.

I learned this principle from two teachers who have left a significant influence on all my work with the Bible.

Learning to read in a class on poetry writing

The first teacher was an English instructor at Wheaton College, when I was an undergraduate. His name was Douglas Olson. One semester he taught a course in poetry writing. I decided to take it. I don’t remember why. I learned from the class that I was not a particularly gifted poet, but I learned something else much more important.

Each week in class we read and discussed poems written either by one of the great English or American poets or poems written by ourselves. As each of us students would boldly set forth our particular interpretation of a poem, I can remember vividly Mr. Olson (as we called him) saying, “An interesting interpretation. Now show me exactly where in the text you got that idea.”

If we wanted our interpretation to remain on the table, we had to point to the specific word, the odd turn of phrase, the allusion, the surrounding context, etc. that supported our position. If we could not do that, our interpretation did not merit consideration. It was an exercise in the close, attentive reading of a literary text.

When I got to seminary and started my training in Bible exegesis, I found I had already learned many of its basic tools from Mr. Olson. I have been using those tools ever since, not only in reading the Bible, but in reading any written document. Mr. Olson’s class in poetry writing turned out to be the most influential course I took in all my undergraduate education.

Learning to pay attention to diverse voices

The second teacher was Dr. Brevard Childs, my professor of Old Testament at Yale Divinity School. He was a giant in the field of Biblical studies and an exponent of a process of Bible interpretation known as canonical criticism. He proved to be the most influential teacher in my theological studies.

One way he taught me was to be a model. I learned from him how to listen carefully to the diverse voices of Biblical scholarship and criticism but to retain a respect for the Bible as the church’s scripture.

Once again I learned from him the importance of interpreting the Bible within its context. Except this time, the context was the flow of the whole book in which a particular passage was to be found. I learned not only to read a text in isolation, but to search for its function and meaning within the wider flow of a whole book.

Also he taught me to listen to the dialogue that goes on within the canon of the Bible. That can include, for example, the dialogue that takes place among Ezra/Nehemiah, Ruth, and Jonah on creating a religious identity. And the dialogue that takes place between the Old and New Testaments.

I can no longer hear in the Bible one unitary voice. The Bible has many voices, and they are not always in agreement. In those diverse voices, however, we hear the Bible’s authors and editors bear witness to the rich complexity of God’s revelation and of Israel’s and the church’s experience with that God.

Why the lesson these teachers taught me is so important

Why is this principle of paying attention to the context so important to me? For one thing, because it guards against that process where I read my own subjective meaning into the text rather than paying attention to what it actually says. It steers me away from forcing the text to say what I want it to say rather than listening carefully to what it really says.

Of course, I recognize that one can never fully escape one’s personal bias in reading a Biblical text. That bias comes not only from our personal experience, but also from our upbringing in a particular religious, social, ethnic, economic, or national context. That’s why it is so important to expose ourselves to interpretations that challenge our own. I find that very hard to do at times, but so productive in the insights it brings.

The principle of paying attention to context also calls into question the common practice of careless proof-texting. Proof-texting is a practice when both scholars and ordinary Christians support a particular theological position by quoting an isolated verse or passage from one of the Biblical books. It is usually injected into a discourse with the introductory phrase “the Bible says….”

All too often the one quoting the text lifts the verse or passage out of its context and then makes the text say what the one quoting it wants it to say. In this way we can claim the Bible’s authority behind any number of theological positions that go against the grain of the Bible’s over-arching message of grace.

This is a practice that we also see all the time in social and political discourse in the form of the media or sound bite that politicians, social advocates, or media commentators love to use to either support their own position or attack another’s.

There is a reason why we are attracted to the short sound bite. It is hard work for most people to follow a complex argument, whether it is theological, social, or political. We want someone to boil it down into a pithy sound bite that is easily to grasp and hold onto. Jesus did exactly that when he boiled down the whole of the Torah into two commandments of love (see Mark 12:28-34).

But when anyone of us does this, we must be especially skillful and sensitive to what we are doing. When we extract a sound bite from what a person says or writes and ignore the richness of the context in which that sound bite is found, then we easily abuse the author or the speaker. Such abuse can do great damage to the church, society, or the political process. Likewise when we do this with the Bible, we abuse the authors and editors of the Bible… and the Spirit that inspired them.

Pay attention to the context. Yes, indeed, if we truly seek understanding.

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