For most of my life I’ve heard others talk about the importance of reading scriptures in context. They are exactly right. Context is king.
But what exactly does it mean to read scriptures in context? I used to think that reading scripture in context meant reading the verses immediately preceding and following the scripture, in order to get an idea for the flow of thought. I might even think bigger picture, and think about how the scripture contributes to the overall flow of the book, or even how the idea fits in the larger context of the whole Bible. If you think that’s what context is, you are exactly right. Those are some really important aspects of reading scripture in context.
Sometimes we might think of context in terms of genre. Is the author writing a discourse? Is he speaking historically? Is he speaking poetically? Is he speaking literally or figuratively? This is another important level of context to consider, and it can certainly help our understanding of the text.
But literary context is not the only level of context that matters. One level of context that is frequently overlooked is the historical and cultural context. Since the Holy Spirit inspired the writings of scripture through real life people as they experienced real life historical circumstances, we need to try to make ourselves aware of the circumstances that occasioned the text, as well as the cultural features of that time.
For example, when Paul wrote Romans, he wasn’t writing in the historical context of the reformation movement. He was primarily addressing the conflict between Jews and Gentiles in the early church. This isn’t to suggest that principles addressed in the book of Romans can’t be applied to other historical contexts, but we need to keep our understanding of the text rooted in the original historical and cultural circumstances.
For another example, the book of Genesis wasn’t written as a science textbook for the purpose of addressing evolutionist in the early 20th century. It was written in an ancient near eastern context, and interacts with and confronts some of the ungodly worldviews that were prevalent in that culture at that time. This doesn’t mean that Genesis is historically or scientifically inaccurate, and it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t consider it when interacting with modern worldviews. It just means that we need to be careful to keep our understanding rooted in the original historical and cultural context.
The Bible was not written in the context of the Roman Catholic Church, the Reformation movement, the Restoration movement, or a modern context. Two of the best questions we can ask are, “What did the original author mean when he wrote this?” and “How would this have been understood by the original audience given their cultural and historical context?” If we’re going to rightly apply the Bible in our own cultural context, we first need to make sure we are understanding it correctly in it’s original cultural context. For better Bible study, remember that context is king.