On “Context”

A mantra I see repeated by many interpreters of the Bible is “context, context, context.” While it’s true that a proper context is crucial to exegesis, the interpreters who shout this mantra the loudest are usually the ones doing it completely wrong. First, what “context” actually means is often overlooked. To the lay interpreter, context often just means the interpretive lens provided by the harmonization of a text or a larger literary collection. When used this way, the appeal to “context” is often a pretense for the application of a hermeneutic slight of hand. Whether the text in question involves the Old Testament or the New, texts from different authors, different time periods, and vastly different worldviews are often appealed to in an attempt to impose  an interpretive framework specifically designed to preclude or support a given reading.

This framework is disguised as the text’s “context,” even though it is often an entirely artificial lens derived from notions that “scripture interprets scripture,” or that the “overall” or “central” message must govern exegesis of any given verse. This is specious for more reasons than one (begs the question, presupposes univocality, etc.), but most egregiously, it rests on the notion that the parts of a text should be understood in light of its whole. An example of this kind of claim I have used before is the notion actually asserted in a conversation I had that “you have to look at the picture on the box to see how the pieces fit together.” In other words, you have to know what the texts mean overall before you can understand what an individual verse means. Brilliant. Since the whole is made up of the sum of the parts, the former should not overrule the latter, especially if the parts constitute independently produced literary units, as is the case with collections like the Old Testament or the New. When the whole unilaterally dictates the interpretation of the parts, you’re spiral down into the black hole of the hermeneutic circle.

Certainly fundamental patterns that reoccur within a single author or single genre’s text/s merit serious consideration when it comes to interpreting an anomalous-looking portion, but the offenders to whom I refer rarely maintain that kind of methodological discipline. Usually their “context” is much more broadly based and seems to align conveniently with conservative dogmas, like sola gratia or strict monotheism. When a text that conflicts with these principles is brought up, the “central message of the Old/New Testament” is asserted as overruling or contextualizing the text to the degree that it no longer says what it seems to say, even if it means asserting that the true meaning of the text can only be found between the lines, and can only be illuminating by the imposition of the (artificial) “context” provided by the collection as a whole.

As an example, in a recent discussion on a message board a poster was vehemently arguing that John’s soteriology was not “works-based” because John only requires that an individual believe in order to be saved, and believing is not a “work.” John 6:28–29 was brought up:

They said to him, “What should we do, that we might work the works of God?” Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”

Now, what a “work” is vis-à-vis a “works-based” soteriology is debatable, and this verse doesn’t necessarily put the kibosh on the argument that believing isn’t a work, but the response to this appeal was that John’s soteriology, and that of the New Testament as a whole, is not “works-based,” and so this verse must mean something else. The poster insisted that this must be sarcasm on Jesus’ part, meant to poke at the Jews’ preoccupation with the works of the law. In other words, he only used the word “work” sarcastically since it was the word the works-centered Jews used in their question. The poster stated that although he could not prove it, he thinks that Jesus winked at his disciples when he said this.

In making this argument the poster not only begs the question, but presupposes a univocal soteriology in the New Testament from beginning to end, and aligns that soteriology with modern notions of sola gratia. In doing so the poster must reject the straightforward meaning of all texts that conflict with those assumptions as sarcasm, irony, or some other rhetorical tool that leaves the actual meaning of the comments in between the lines. It takes the imposition of a “context” derived from the univocal reading of a secondary gathering of texts composed independently of each other to draw out the true meaning of the text. This is not what context means, though; this is a hermeneutic puppet show. To properly understand context one must be willing to avoid the presumption of univocality and be willing to look at literature outside of the Bible itself. After all, the texts of the New Testament had to operate for decades within their own literary contexts before they were ever brought together into a collection.

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4 responses to “On “Context”

  • epatt72

    Is it not possible that the Gospels are simply a narrative, and that we are over analyzing this? After all, these were unlearned and ignorant men (Acts 4:13) at least in the eyes of others. Over analysis of the text can lead one to misinterpret, regardless of whether that analysis is exegetical or through the lens of traditional dogmata.

  • diglot

    You are right… the univocality of the Bible is a huge presupposition at those forums.

    Interacting with those types of people, while being time-wasting, is actually kind of addictive. I imagine it must get frustrating, though, considering you apparently can not question their presuppositions without getting banned.

  • Gavriel

    The last line: After all, the texts of the New Testament had to operate for decades within their own literary contexts before they were ever brought together into a collection.

    Hits the nail on the head. People forget especially in times of the “Old Testament” there were HUNDREDS of years between some of the books and all the “New Testament” if you go by traditional dating. There was extended periods of times that the books up to that point in history would have been all of Scripture. So using later works is absurd in the name of context.

    The furthest I ever use the “context” card is with the same author, that is it.

  • Jon Ericson

    I ran across this post researching a question (http://hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/q/219/68) on hermeneutics.stackexchange.com. You (and your readers) might enjoy the site, which beginning to gel into a really interesting community of Bible enthusiasts. We could really use more experts over there. ;-)

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