Monday, November 26, 2007

The problem with the “context” argument

One of the most popular methods for reinterpreting the plain meaning of a biblical text is to say “well, the context of that passage is different than our current context.” The way this argument is put usually goes like this: “we need to keep in mind that this was a letter Paul was writing to address a certain situation in a certain time in a certain place.” The argument then eventually says “now we’re in a different time and situation, so that text is not directly applicable.” (The teaching that is being reinterpreted is almost always one that offends contemporary politically correct views).

There’s plenty that can be said in favor of understanding the context of a biblical passage. But, I’d also like to point out a major weakness of this method: it can be used to undermine every aspect of Scripture. In law school this is what we called an argument that “proved too much.” What I mean is that, although it’s true that Paul’s writings on (women/sexuality/authority/you-name-it) were meant to address a particular situation, the same is true of all the writings of the Bible. So, to the extent this notion of “context” calls into question any given teaching (say, women’s roles in church), it equally calls into question any other teaching (say, salvation by grace through faith). This is not to suggest that we should question our central doctrines because of context, but rather it’s to suggest that the “context” method is often being used not in pursuit of truth but in the pushing of an agenda.

This isn’t to say that understanding context isn’t important. But it is to say that pointing out that a biblical epistle was addressed to a particular context is often simplistically misapplied by people desiring to justify a convenient re-interpretation of Scripture.


-Dave said...

Is it a problem with the context argument, or with the supporting arguments we make on those other doctrines?

My thought is: Just because the argument proves too much doesn't mean it's a poor argument to make. I think it's equally important to remember the particular context of each epistle in particular, and each book in general.

It seems that the primary reason not to make an argument that "proves too much" is that it opens a hole in your (legal, theological, or other) narrative. But if our goal is to understand Scripture, then shouldn't we embrace that hole and be willing to consider salvation by grace in light of the people to whom a particular message was written?

Does that make sense? Because, that thought aside, I agree. We often pick and choose the justification for the doctrines we believe... making our faith more a product of our own sensibilities and less a view of the world conformed to Scripture.

Kenny said...

Dave, your comment is completely correct. The example of this I most frequently see is with the "slippery slope" argument. Often someone will simply point out that a certain action or position puts someone on the "slippery slope" to another more drastice position, and then rest their case as if by pointing out the slipperly slope they've proved the other person has already fallen down it.

To me, truth is a "narrow path" and so we have to walk it extremely carefully.

So, again, I completely agree with Dave's comment. But I also wanted to suggest that the "context argument" is being habitually abused.

jason said...

I was going to disagree with your context critique, but then once I understood how to apply this discussion to my particular circumstances, I realized we are totally in agreement, and that is why I will require that everyone in my future congregation learn and speak only in ancient greek and hebrew, so that they may better understand the context from which the bible was written.

Ρωμανός ~ Romanós said...

Hear, hear! Bravo, Jason! When you set up your congregation, give me the address so I can join! I agree 100% that everyone should learn ancient Greek and Hebrew to be able to understand better the context in which the scriptures were written.

I've gotten the beginnings of fluency in evangelical Greek, as some of you know, because I worship in a Greek Orthodox congregation, and I try to read some part of the Greek NT aloud every day (usually evenings after work). By the way, I just got my first copy of the entire Greek Bible, Septuagint and NT, all in koiné. Thavmásios! The OT is just as easy to read and understand as the NT. I'll let you know if I find anything earth-shattering in the "original". But for now…

I think I'm in agreement with Dave and Kenny, especially in the pushing of agendas by using the "context argument."

What I really liked was what Dave wrote, "…making our faith more a product of our own sensibilities and less a view of the world conformed to Scripture." (Italics mine.)

This reminded me of something my son Jacob wrote, "Thus we should not seek to incorporate the bible within our worldview and interpret it to meet us where we are – rather, we yield our own worldview to the authority of scripture and allow it to lead us and become the world that we live in. This is the only way to truly reap the full benefits of scriptural study. We live in God’s world by taking on the vocabulary and culture of the scriptural universe and allowing it to clothe our thoughts and feelings."

This thought of his is a fully Orthodox attitude about scripture, and I respect it very much, although I came to the same conclusions by a different logical route. If any of you want to dialog with a really challenging, contemporary Orthodox theologian in your generation, visit the bible section of his webpage:
I hope this is not considered advertising. I just like to connect the new generation of Christian thinkers (all of you brilliant from my angle) and see what you come up with.

Sorry for this long comment. The only other thing I wanted to say is, regarding context, though it's helpful to know it, I think that the Word of God in written form (the Bible) by nature of its singular inspiration, encompasses all times, places and cultures; and that arguing from context is in some respects looking at the Word of God instead of letting Him look at you.

Do you recall this incident in C.S. Lewis' book The Silver Chair? Puddleglum believes that Aslan has control over everything, and that whatever happens, it will be the right thing in the grand scheme of things. This faith is demonstrated very clearly when the enchanted Prince Rilian tells them that the Third Sign (the word “Under me” written in stone on the Ruined City) was part of a giant king's epitaph and therefore not really the Third Sign, Puddleglum retorts, “There are no accidents. Our guide is Aslan; and he was there when the giant king caused the letters to be cut, and he knew already all things that would come of them; including this.”

This is kind of a Christian mythological expression of what I take as the Orthodox view of scripture. God knew beforehand how every verse would be and should be applied in every situation till the end of time, in spite of the fact that the words were written "in a local context."

Forgive me, brothers, for this overly long comment, and pray for Romanós the Orthodoxymoron.