This blog series is inspired by a lecture I had the privilege of attending by Dr. Ronald J. Sider. At the beginning of his lecture, he outlined some basic guidelines for how we should interpret the Bible. Though not every article is directly from this lecture, I am drawing heavily upon what Dr. Sider presented, however I am also drawing upon my education and experience. My hope is that each of these articles will help all of us more faithfully read and understand the Holy Scriptures.
I was driving in the car with my wife and children one day. I had just bought some Tim Bits or some manor of sugary goodness that I wanted to give to my children as a treat. As my wife was preparing to hand it back to the kids in the car, one of my children loudly and brazenly demanded, “Give it to me NOW!!” We immediately responded by saying, “Not with that kind of attitude!” Our child began crying and throwing a fit. After awhile, I told them, “All you have to do is to ask nicely, and you will get what you want.”
Immediately after the words came out of my mouth, my mind began racing. Though my child understood the context of what was meant, I imagined them at age 22, coming to me and saying, “Dad, you said—in your own words—that all I have to do is to ask nicely and I will get what I want, so Dad, I’m asking for your car and for your house and for all your money. Can I have it please?”
As we can plainly understand, such a question would be taking my words out of context. My words in the car were meant for a specific instance, so understanding the context was key for understanding the meaning. Take it out of that immediate context, and the meaning could change drastically. I wondered how much I have taken out of context over the years in the Bible.
There are some obvious contextual issues in the Bible, like how understanding Ancient Near Eastern culture can help us gain a richer understanding of the story of the Prodigal Son. But there is another type of context that we don’t always think about: Canonical context.
Canonical context is looking at the context of a given verse in light of the whole canon of Scripture. Which part of the Biblical narrative does a passage fit into, and how does that portion fit into the larger Biblical story?
As Dr. Ron Sider puts it, we should seek to “Understand [the] text within the entire biblical canon and develop what the entire canon teaches on the topic with Jesus Christ as [the] final interpretative key”. What this means is that we should not focus on one little verse and build an entire theology on it separate from the rest of the teachings of Scripture. When we read a passage on a given topic, we should examine what the Bible as a whole has to say about it, using that passage as only one part of the larger interpretation.
If we were to develop an idea or an understanding of one verse without consulting the rest of the Bible, we can easily come up with ideas that run contrary to the intended message of both the individual verse and the Bible as a whole.
If we were to look at a passage in the Old Testament where God brings the Israelites into the promised land, helping them to conquer those who inhabit the land, it might be easy for us to think about God as a genocidal maniac. When we understand the culture of the time, how people of the day brought credibility to their deity, and the covenant between God and Israel, then the story begins to make more sense. Add to that the idea that the promised land is meant to foreshadow our entrance into heaven—our eternal promised land, where Christ himself conquered sin and death—and you might begin to get a richer understanding of these admittedly confusing texts.
When I worked at a radio ministry, they received an email from a disgruntled listener who disliked the genre of music that was playing. So she sent an angry email, telling the ministry that she believed that God disliked what they were doing, and to prove her point, she included a verse from Amos 8:10, which says, “I will turn your celebrations into times of mourning and your singing into weeping.” Apparently, because she didn’t like the style of music, God must not like it, and since Amos talks about singing, and we played people’s singing on the radio, God was now going to end this ministry. I understand that people can do silly things when they get upset, so under normal conditions I would hope that this lady would not be so sloppy with her use of the Scriptures in her daily life.
This verse appears in the book of Amos, which is largely about how God is displeased with Israel for all the injustices they allow in their society, and so prophesied punishment for the nation unless they would start caring for the less fortunate and giving justice to the oppressed—it had nothing to with the style of music they played. In addition, the book of Amos is part of the minor prophets, which called Israel back to faithfulness to the covenant that God made with them. This passage reminds us that our behaviour and actions matter to God, especially when it comes to the broken, the oppressed, and the downtrodden. It also reminds us that despite Israel’s continued disobedience and rejection of God and His ways, God still chose to send Jesus to die in their (and our) place, showing us how great His grace is. Ripping a verse out of its context for our own purposes is not only spiritually abusive, but it robs us of the full richness of the Word. Even this obscure verse in Amos, when put in the proper context within the book and also of the whole canon, provides a much deeper, richer, and more robust message.
Knowing the grand narrative of the Scriptures, and where a given passage fits into that narrative is essential to properly understanding that text.