What role does context play in understanding passages of Scripture?

Jun 17, 2014

We must study any passage of Scripture in its proper context; this will make or break the accuracy of your interpretation and application of the passage.

It might help to visualize a large, concentric set of rings that is made up of the entire Bible itself. As John Calvin wisely remarked, “Scripture interprets Scripture."

The next and smaller ring within the circle of the entire Bible is the Testament in which the passage is found (e.g. why are Nazarite vows and animal sacrifices no longer appropriate?).

A third ring is the book of the Bible that the verse is in (e.g. the book of James does not conflict with Paul’s letters, but must be taken in the context of what James is emphasizing in the entire book).

Next is the immediate context of the surrounding verses (e.g. Philippians 4:13 “I can do all things…” does not mean we will never be in a bad situation, but that we can go through any situation with Christ).

Meanwhile, we must remember to largely ignore the chapter and verse breaks, because they are artificial, man-made divisions of the thoughts (or at least consider them only as well-considered suggestions). We should also consider true cross references, parallel passages that can shed light on the key word or words of the verse under consideration.

Last, keep in mind the type of literature under consideration (e.g. is it didactic/intended for instruction or historical/narrative?) -- any purely historical passage must be interpreted in light of didactic teaching of the Word, and not visa versa. Just because God says something happened does not mean that it is a governing principle for us. For instance, the fact that David had multiple wives must be interpreted in light of the command in Genesis for the two to become one flesh. Likewise, a clear didactic passage must shed light on a parable or allegory, not the other way around.

Resource: Q&A
Categories: Bible Study, God's Word

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