Last week I wrote about how we tend to proof text Scripture. I talked about how it is often taken out of context. The question is, how do we read it in context?
Reading the Context
If we know that proof texting is wrong, how do we avoid it? We look at the context. Christianity Today recently put out an article about how Matthew Vines misuses context to support his claims. He uses some context, but he doesn’t use it well. So how do we use context?
Ken Berding, professor at Biola University, gives five helpful tips for avoiding proof texting and reading the Bible better. These tips can be summarized as ‘pay attention to context’. But what contexts do we need to be aware of?
Berding points out that we need to be aware of the historical, literary, cultural, scriptural, and big-picture contexts.
Historically, the Bible takes place at a different time than us, and even different parts of the Bible operate at different historical moments. Abraham didn’t live at the same time as Paul, and Moses lived long before David. They dealt with different historical issues.
Within the literary context, one must know what kind of passage you’re reading. This begins be recognizing that it’s Scripture, that it is God breathed, inerrant, and normative (meant to be applied to our lives). Then it enters the level of narrative, poetry, proverb, letter, etc. Even within these, there are sub genres like parable, dialogue, monologue, etc. Each literary context has its own set of rules and keys for interpretation. You can’t read a Psalm and assume that God is a literal shield that shelters David, nor read the narratives of David and interpret God’s salvation as figurative. Literary context matters.
Cultural context is closely connected with the historical context. Keeping in mind that Israel and the church are unique cultures that exist within larger geopolitical contexts brings light and understanding to passages.
Scriptural context is one of the more neglected and difficult contexts to understand. The Scriptural context refers to the context within Scripture, both within the structure of the individual book and the cannon. Reading the parables should be taken both within the literary context of the passages surrounding and also the Scriptural context of the whole book and the location in the canon. This can be difficult for Christians today, as we often put a large divide between the testaments, “divorcing the two halves of the Bible,” as my professor would say.
The Big-Story context includes the big-picture ideas that are happening within the whole plan of redemption and Scripture. The Scriptural context and the big-story context bleed together often. The big-story context allows us to use our systematic theology to understand passages. While words like ‘trinity’ don’t show up in the Bible, we can see through the whole story of the Bible that there is a triune God. From this we can see how he has revealed himself through the story of salvation found in the Bible and, knowing that God doesn’t change, can appropriately see where the trinity is expressed throughout Scripture, even in the Old Testament.
Reading the Bible within context is important, but we need to know what that context is. People will differ about how much of each of these contexts to bring in, resulting in different interpretations, though using them will help one remain truly ‘biblical’.
The Prodigal Son
So with these tools, let’s look at a beloved passage of Scripture, the Prodigal Son. Found in Luke 15, the parable is the third in a set of three given by Jesus. In it, the younger of two brothers takes his inheritance from his living father, runs to a foreign nation, and squanders it. When tough times come, he finds himself among pigs, and, remembering his home, runs back with the hope of being a servant. The father sees him running from a distance and runs to meet him, giving him a place of honor and celebrating his return. The parable ends with the older son being jealous and frustrated with his father’s celebration.
There are many ways to interpret this story, many of them being biblical. One of the more popular focuses on the historical context in which the father shames himself by lifting up his garment, thus showing the love of God the Father running to the repentant sinner. Some interpreters even bring in an ancient ceremony that the father prevented that would shame the son.
These are completely biblical interpretations. They take into account the historical,cultural, and big picture contexts, bringing about an appropriate biblical meaning. I, however, want to show another biblical interpretation, advocated by another professor, using some of the contexts mentioned above.
Historically, this is a parable about shame and honor. The son had dishonored the father by asking for his inheritance, essentially saying he wished his father was dead. When he returns, he should have been shamed, but instead the father lifts his garment, shaming himself, and gives honor to his son.
Within the literary context, this is the third in a set of three parables: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. Before Jesus begins these parables, he was eating with tax collectors and sinners. The Pharisees complain, and Jesus tells these parables. Each parable follows the same structure. Something is lost, the owner finds it, and celebrates with his friends. The last parable, the longest and most dynamic, ends differently. While the owner/father rejoices at the end, the older brother complains about the celebration. This is a direct rebuke against the Pharisees who were complaining when the lost sinners and tax collectors came back to God.
In the big picture context, this reminds us of that humanity was originally created to be with God, but that he was/is lost. The Father finds us again, like the sheep, the coin, and the son (the father runs to him). It reminds us of the theological truths of God’s salvation from man’s sinfulness. God rejoices when he finds us, and we should rejoice when he finds others. The rebuke to the Pharisees is the rebuke to the Christian today who doesn’t celebrate when the lost are found.
All these interpretations are biblical and build up our dual love of God and man (a necessity to interpretation according to Augustine). They aren’t proof texts, but come from the context of Scripture, even theology (which is formed by Scripture). So the next time someone quotes a passage of Scripture, don’t just listen to how they use it, but look back and see how it is used in Scripture. You’ll be surprised at how much you’ll find.