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What Scripture Says...
and Doesn—t Say
READING THE BIBLE
IN CONTEXT

by Margaret Nutting Ralph

Have you ever heard two people who totally disagree with each other use Scripture to "prove" that God is on their side? Instead of letting Scripture form their thinking, they use a quote from Scripture, often taken out of context, to support their own opinions.

We—ve probably all done this to some extent. Even expert theologians use Scripture quotes to show that their teaching is rooted in the Bible. But a proper understanding of biblical revelation will challenge us to examine our approach to Scripture and overcome any tendency to quote the Bible out of context.

Instead of asking, "Do these words support what I already think?" we need to ask, "What is this passage trying to teach me?" When we recognize what the inspired biblical authors intend to teach we are opening our minds and hearts to the revelation of Scripture.

The revealed Scriptures do not necessarily hold the same meaning we may want to attach to the words. The inspired biblical authors intended to say and teach certain truths, and we need to root our understanding of Scripture first and foremost in the intent of the author.

But how do we determine the intentions of an author who lived thousands of years ago in a totally different cultural setting? The Church teaches us that in order to understand the revelation the Bible contains we must learn first and foremost to read passages in the context in which they appear.

What Are You Reading?

One way to safeguard against misunderstanding the intent of an author is to determine the kind of writing the author has chosen to use. Any piece of writing has a particular literary form: poetry, prose, fiction, essay, letter, historical account and so on. This is as true of the biblical books as of any piece of contemporary writing.

If we misunderstand an author—s literary form, we will misunderstand what the author intends to say. In order to understand what we are reading, then, we have to make allowances for the form and change our expectations accordingly.

We do this any time we read a newspaper, for example. As we turn the pages of a newspaper we encounter a variety of literary forms—news, features, editorials and so on—and we adjust our idea of what we can expect from the writing for each form.

For instance, after I read a news story I expect to have the answer to the question, "What happened?" I expect the author of a news story to be objective and evenhanded, to inform me of the facts. If the story is about something controversial, I expect the writer to cover all sides fairly.

When I get to the editorial page, I change my expectations. Now I know that the author is allowed to be persuasive rather than objective. I may find facts that support the author—s point of view but nothing that contradicts that point of view.

So if I read an editorial with the same frame of mind with which I read a front-page news story, thinking that the author has responded to the question, "What happened?" I will be misinformed after I finish my reading. It is not the author—s fault that I am misinformed. It is my own.

How the Inspired Author Tells the Tale

Now let—s look at how literary form functions in the Bible. One of the inspired biblical authors—the author of the Book of Job—has written in the form of a debate. This literary form demands that you be as persuasive as possible on both sides of an issue. If you write on the side you agree with persuasively and the side you disagree with poorly, you have not written a good debate.

The author of the Book of Job lived at a time when people believed that all suffering was punishment for sin. He wrote a debate to argue against this belief. The author places his debate in the context of a preexisting legend that establishes at the outset the fact that Job is innocent. So why is he suffering?

The author portrays Job—s friends arguing with Job over the cause of his suffering. All the friends think that Job must have sinned or he wouldn—t be suffering. They do not know, as does the audience, that Job—s sinfulness is not the source of his suffering. The friends are wrong.

Now, if you did not know that the Book of Job is a debate, in which some of the characters argue persuasively for the point of view with which the author disagrees, you might read an isolated passage and conclude that the book teaches the opposite of what the author intended to teach. You might think that the friends are teaching a valid message about suffering. If we look at the book as a whole, we discover that the author places the truth he is teaching not on the lips of Job—s friends but on the lips of God. God appears at the end of the debate and responds to the friends— arguments. Obviously the author agrees with what God has to say. God contradicts the belief that all suffering is punishment for sin.

Because this book is in the canon we know that it teaches revealed truth. We can only discover this revealed truth, however, if we look at the literary form of the book.

We need to remember, too, that the Bible is actually a "library" of many different books. To say that Job is a debate is not to say that the Bible as a whole is a debate or that a Gospel is a debate or that the Book of Revelation is a debate. The answer to the question, "What literary form am I reading?" will vary from book to book. Often the introduction to each book in a good study Bible will give you the relevant literary form.

Culture in Context

We have seen how easy it is to "misquote" the Bible by taking passages out of the context of their literary form. A second context we need to consider is the culture and the beliefs in place when the book was written. The inspired author and the original audience shared knowledge, presumptions, expressions and concerns that may not be part of our awareness, but may nevertheless influence the meaning of the book or passage.

The inspired author may have applied the revealed message contained in a particular book to a shared cultural setting in order to make the message clearer. People sometimes mistake such applications for the heart of the revealed message. Thus they put the full authority of Scripture behind passages that reflect beliefs of the time rather than the unchanging truth the author intended to teach.

In expressing the revealed truth, a biblical author may show cultural biases and presumptions that later generations know are inaccurate. This kind of misunderstanding resulted in Galileo—s excommunication. We know, as biblical authors did not, that the earth is not the center of the universe or even our solar system. We also know that the Bible does not claim to teach astronomy. Rather, the Bible addresses questions about the relationship between God and God—s people, about what we should be doing to build up God—s kingdom rather than to tear it down.

A biblical author may also apply an eternal truth to a setting that is important to the original audience but not to us. For example, one of Paul—s key insights is that the way we treat every other person is the way we treat the risen Christ. He applies this insight to the social order of his own day, an order that included slavery. We misuse Scripture if we say this application shows that God—s social order includes slavery. While Paul—s core message is eternally true revelation, the application was relevant only in its own cultural context.

Revelation Is Ongoing

A third context we must be aware of is the place the inspired author—s insights have in the process of revelation. The Bible is not a book of bottom-line answers like a catechism.

The Bible is a "library of books" written over a two-thousand-year period. It reflects the process by which the inspired authors came to greater knowledge of God—s revealed truth. People who do not realize or do not believe that the Bible reflects this progression take an early insight as the whole truth.

For example, people may make this mistake when arguing over the death penalty. Some people who support the death penalty try to put God—s authority behind their opinion by quoting Scripture: "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life." It is true that Scripture teaches this (see Exodus 21:23-24). However, the teaching dates to the time of the Exodus, about 1250 B.C.E. At the time this teaching was an ethical step forward. It taught people not to seek escalating revenge: If you harm me, I can—t do worse to you than you originally did to me.

Jesus later challenged people to grow beyond this teaching. He said, "You have heard that it was said, —an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth....— But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you..." (Matthew 5:38, 44). Jesus did not say that the law was wrong, only that it did not go far enough. Jesus is the fulfillment of the law.

We are misusing Scripture if we quote Exodus to support the death penalty and fail to quote the words of Jesus in the Gospels. When we use a passage from Scripture to support our side of an argument, we must ask ourselves if the passage reflects the fullness of truth or whether it is a partial truth, perhaps an early insight.

Context, Context, Context

It is distressing to hear Christians abuse the Bible by quoting it in favor of un-Christian positions. It is doubly distressing to realize that we ourselves might be guilty of this.

One way to avoid this mistake is to remember always to consider the context. Determine the place of a passage in its larger context. Ask yourself what literary form the author is using. Explore the beliefs and presumptions the author may share with the original audience. Learn something about the time when the book was written. Know how the author—s insights fit into the process of revelation.

If we do this, we will avoid many a harmful error. We will be less likely to abuse Scripture and more likely to hear the revelation of God—s love that the biblical authors intend us to hear.

Finally, invite the Holy Spirit to open up your mind and heart as you listen to the word. Discerning God—s will in your life will leave you with Christ—s own peace in your heart.

Margaret Nutting Ralph is secretary for educational ministries for the Diocese of Lexington, Kentucky, and director of the master—s degree programs for Roman Catholics at Lexington Theological Seminary. She has taught Scripture to high school students, college students and adult education groups for 20 years. She is the author of the book and video "And God Said What?" and the Discovering the Living Word Series (all from Paulist Press).

 

 

Living the Scriptures


The living word of Scripture can speak to our hearts, teach us, correct us, encourage us, comfort us and guide us. But how do we know that we—re not simply following our own desires rather than discerning God—s will? Ask yourself:

  • Is the message compatible with the gospel message as a whole? Is it calling me to grow in love?
  • Is the message directing my thoughts and actions, not someone else—s?
  • Am I willing to share my experience and understanding with other faithful Christians and consider any serious misgivings they may have?

 

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