Context, pretext, and Theology Like Burlap
I have been musing a bit recently at some of the unspoken rules in communication. Specifically, the rules we all know to follow that kind of get thrown from the third floor building when the Bible is interpreted and pontificated upon… a “failure to think in three dimensions,” if you will (thank you, Stuart Greaves). There is the old adage that we have two ears and one mouth because we are only supposed to say about half as much as we hear… yet we the people don’t seem to have the same mindset about our eyes. Perhaps–having only one brain–we think upon only half of what we read… but I digress.
There is much in Western theology that is very well thought-out and biblically based. For example, I much prefer the Western formula of the procession of the Holy Spirit to the Eastern formula. I may talk about that more in a future post, but if you aren’t sure what I’m talking about right now, don’t worry… it isn’t the point of this post. That being said, if you can go a year without having a shift in your theological bearing you are either a much better Christian than myself (which is a definite possibility) or there is a lack of diligence in your study.
For example, we have all heard–
For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek.– Romans 1:16
–from people being browbeaten into a work of evangelism that is more an exercise in contrivance than the overflow of a loving heart. While it is not necessarily “bad” to hear the verse used that way, it must be understood that that meaning has absolutely no bearing on what the apostle meant when he said it to the Roman church. In fact, in it’s proper context, Paul’s statement of not being ashamed of the Gospel is related to his apparent dismissal of the Roman church due to his “failure” to not visit and teach them during his missionary journey through Greece, and not a spur to get on the evangelism bandwagon.
However, things such as this are only small pebbles compared to some of the bigger blunders waiting to be made. In the book of Job, for example, we find a small chunk of narrative that brackets some 35 chapters of discourse, philosophy and debate about the nature of God, the human delimma and why bad things happen to people. However, towards the end of that 35 chapter section of monologues, God comes on the scene and declares that most of it was in error. However, I cannot count how many times I have heard people quote Job’s three friends and think that they are giving you a definitive ultimatum because it’s in the Bible. Yes, everything in the Bible has value, and without a doubt there are things to be learned from every single verse to be found therein (even the genealogies… good luck with that, thought). However, we have to remember that (A) the Bible is written by human authors and (B) that every verse has a context and culture to which it is primarily suited.
Yet the same problem is not encountered when we deal with one another. If I give someone a quote from the president that makes him like a jerk, the first thing people want to know is what the context is or why he said it. We understand that all forms of communication have a context that gives them their meaning and can alter the meaning of even the individual words spoken… except, apparently, when it comes to scripture. The result is theology that is about as water-tight as a t-shirt. For a very direct example, how different does Paul’s admonishment to the women to keep silent in church look is we understand that the church gatherings in Corinth were apparently in chaos (as indicated by the surrounding verses talking about etiquette while prophesying and speaking in tongues) and that Paul’s directive was for the women of the church at Corinth to hold questions regarding the church until they had left and could ask their husbands in private? (1Cor 14:26-40) While this verse (v. 35) has been used to blatantly subject women to an inferiority complex, Paul isn’t even addressing the teaching of scripture on the whole– rather a problem in a specific church. While there is definitely more to be said about that specific issue (in fact, my sister has done much looking into it and I won’t take the time to develop it here), it should be obvious from that single example that doctrine cannot be merely as simple as “the Bible says ‘X’ and therefore ___________”.
We must remember that the books of the Bible have a serious difference from blog posts. While blogs are written for the benefit of the random passersby that happen across them, the books of the Bible were always written to a specific audience for a very specific reason. If that reason is forgotten, the purpose of the writing is lost and it becomes nothing more than a shadow of what the author originally intended. As a smart guy once said, “A text with no context is a pretext for disaster.”
Never forget: all things have their context. Without the context, it is like looking at Mona Lisa’s index finger and declaring her the homeliest buzzard that ever walked the earth.