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Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Overcontextualization?

Is that word possible? Can one actually look into the context so much that they begin to miss the point?

Probably not. Proof texting has become a bad word, because of it's abuse. I remember studying for licensure and looking at our statement of faith. I decided I was going to find other passages than the proof texts given in the statement, so that I wasn't just memorizing quick answers. It didn't take long before I realized that those passages were listed because they were the best passages to convey the doctrine and were only listed as they were read in their context.

Context is a tricky issue. We must evaluate a word based on the context of the sentence. The sentence based on the paragraph. The paragraph based on the passage. The passage based on the chapter (and sometimes the passage is bigger than the chapter or overlaps the chapter). The chapter based on the book. The book based on the author's writings. The author based on the testament. The testament based on the Bible. Wow! Suddenly, I've gone from one word to needing to examine the whole council of God's Word to make sure I am not in error. No wonder James says that not many should presume to be teachers (James 3).

However, when contextualization goes beyond the Word of God, it becomes a very dangerous thing. My favorite class in college was New Testament Foundations. In that class (by the way, I am one of the few who LOVED studying under Dr. Bateman), we studied the period between the Old and New Testament. It was fascinating to learn details I'd never heard before. When I learned what the Jews were looking for in a Messiah at the time of Christ, it made some of His interactions with others make more sense and come to life. I remember studying Antiochus and realizing that the words in the New Testament about the Antichrist hit closer to home for them because they had seen something similar. (Like how we American understand terrorism a little better since September 11).

However, if Antiochus' existence causes me to doubt the validity of a real Antichrist some day, I've gone too far. There is a fine line between knowledge buiding up and puffing up. When I begin to change the meaning of the text because of an understanding of events in that day, I've gone too far.

This is a tremendous oversimplification of the discussion of New Perspective on Paul (just giving you the warning in advance). But when I listen to NT Wright's discussion of New Perspective, I get the feeling that the man is focussing so much on what we think to be true (how do we really prove what was going through the mind of a first century Jew regarding justification?), that he is ignoring what the Word says to be true. His desire to penetrate the mind of a first century Jew seems to overcloud many of the issues Paul is actually addressing. It's deep stuff. Some of it is helpful and useful. But it also crosses a line that begins to minimize the Word.

Ignored is the issue that much of Paul's writings were about how we can't acheive righteousness on our own. That the law is dead to save. Why is it important that he teach these truths if the people already believed contrary? Why would he need to write Galatians, encouraging the body to find their salvation in Jesus alone if they didn't think works gained them righteousness. These questions are ignored in the quest to know the unknown.

It is so helpful and enriching to our people when we study the times, customs and archaelogy of the time of Jesus. We can help people see beyond our culture to the truth of God's Word. However, when we make contextual leaps based on speculation that cloud the original meaning of the text (the author's intent), then we've gone too far.

Actually, it's not too far. It's just the wrong context. Isn't that the temptation anytime we study the Word of God? To replace the context of the passage with the context of our world. We can never overcontextualize in the Word. We always overcontextualize in if it's in the world.

3 Comments:

  • At 9:55 PM, Blogger RevPharoah said…

    What about the Holy Spirit and the fact that Scripture is "living and active?" Of course, "Scripture cannot mean what it never meant." But there is role for the Holy Spirit both in the inspiration of the passage and the interpretation of the believer. Then even more when it gets to application. I have occasionally felt an uncomfortable tug at my heart as the Spirit was applying Scripture to my life. I know that the author's intent couldn't have included the application I was getting, but there was an inescapable sense of conviction. Maybe it comes down to identifying the levels of "Here's what it says. Here's what it means. Here one way to apply it. I think the degree of certainty diminishes as you go from one level to the next.

     
  • At 10:19 PM, Blogger loren said…

    I think Steve put it well.

     
  • At 8:56 AM, Blogger danny2 said…

    let's be very careful not to confuse interpretation and application.

    couple things to consider. Scripture being living and active (Hebrews 4:12) does not mean that it is fluid or changing. when we look at the context we see that the author's original meaning was that Scripture is applicable for today because when i submit myself to it, it isn't just a rule book to follow with outward manifestation, but rather it gets to my attitude and motive. as i read the Scriptures, God uses that Word to expose what is happening under the surface in my heart.

    we can not change the meaning of the text. that's not our option to do...it's not our text. if we truly believe in inspiration of the text, we believe that God superintended for His Word to be recorded the way He wanted it. It had a meaning as it was recorded (a very specific meaning). to say the meaning has now changed should cause us to question the validity of the original intent.

    now, application is a whole different animal. since Scripture penetrates to the motive and attitude, it can expose conduct that may not appear directly related to the text. it can convict of sin, even if that sin is not directly referred to in that passage for instance. that's not changing the meaning of the text. my application is not to fall outside of other Scripture, however. (That's why the issue of context WITHIN the Word is so critical.) Let me give an example.

    joe is reading his Bible. he is reading hebrews 3 about Jesus being our high priest. as he is reading, he realizes that he is in a serious relationship with someone that he should enter into committment with. he realizes the only reasons he hasn't is due to his fear and unwilliness to change some things in his life. he feels convicted to ask the girl to marry him. is anything wrong here? has he misused Scripture?

    no. but, if joe has a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and his girlfriend doesn't, then joe is gaining an application outside of the instruction of Scripture. To know the whole council of Scripture would remind him that he cannot become yoked with an unbeliever (2 Corinthians 6). he has gained an application that is contrary to the direct desire of God as stated in another place of His Word. this can't work. God can't contradict himself.

    say she is a believer. if joe reinterprets hebrews 3 to be about marriage. jesus is our high priest, he wasn't married. i'm not a high priest, so i should marry. he'd be misinterpreting Scripture. his views may be ok. yes, Jesus is my high priest. yes, Jesus is not married (other than to His bride, the church). yes, i am free to marry. none of those things are wrong, and there are other places in Scripture where we can make those points. however, the author was not intending hebrews 3 to be a discussion about whether a believer may marry, but rather a discussion about the ministry of Jesus in a believer's life.

    application is one thing.
    interpretation is another.

    the Holy Spirit was actively involved in the inspiration of the Word of God. the Holy Spirit is actively involved in the illumination of the Word of God to the believer. we must be careful to see those work together, not apart. as He illumines, He reveals to me what was originally intended as those words were penned.

     

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