Context before Content

No one likes to be misunderstood and I suspect this is equally true of God. Of the many important interpretive principles that are crucial for rightly interpreting a passage from the Bible (or anything written for that matter), none is more important than context before content. What I mean (at least) is that each word, clause, sentence, paragraph, pericope, chapter, book, et al. has a hosts of unique but related contexts in which it was written and, without some understanding of some or all of these backgrounds or frameworks, then words, clauses, sentences, et al. can easily be misunderstood and mis-applied (see my Best Practices for Understanding the Bible).

Ben Witherington (one of the really smart guys on the popular and especially well done Finding Jesus CNN series) has a good series on “learning how to think biblically.” In it he insists (and I could not agree more) that “in order to understand the content of the Bible you need to know the context of the Bible– its historical, literary, rhetorical, archaeological, linguistic contexts.” Then he calls out community-based Bible studies and the popular inductive methods are lacking.

Biblical education then is not just about opening your mind and opening your Bible and reading and studying. Why not? Because the human mind is not a blank blackboard. It brings to the study of the text all sorts of modern assumptions, many of which are at odds with the worldviews and understandings of the people who wrote the Bible. Nor is it even enough to bring your mind and the indwelling Holy Spirit to the study of the Bible. Even then the possibility of confusing or fusing your own thoughts with the guidance of the Spirit is too regular and ready a danger to make it an adequate way of studying the Bible. This is why things like pure inductive Bible study, or things like BSF are never an adequate way of studying God’s Word. That is as likely to lead to a pooling of ignorance as to a pooling of knowledge when it comes to studying the Bible.

Read the whole thing.

Also, check out his book Reading and Understanding the Bible. The description reads:

With his usual flair and reader-friendly style, Ben Witherington III brings us a fresh and distinctive guide to interpreting the Bible. Ideal for courses in Biblical Interpretation, Hermeneutics, and Introduction to the Bible, Reading and Understanding the Bible is unique in that it carefully examines the various genres of literature in the Bible while also explaining how to interpret each within its proper context. Taking a faith-friendly approach to historically based interpretation, it shows students how to read the Bible with a keen awareness of the many and profound differences between the modern world and ancient biblical cultures. It explains how ancient societies worked, how documents were created, who preserved them and why, the patriarchal nature of all ancient cultures, and, most importantly, how these cultural characteristics should affect our reading of the Bible.

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