Can there be too much context in Bible study?
All too often, the proper context in Bible study is an issue. If you think back to the times where context was an issue in Bible study, it was probably because there was not enough — there was too little context being considered. In fact, that’s why “What is the context?” is baked in to every single scripture-block in the Bible Study Framework. It’s vital for any verse or passage that the Bible student understands the immediate context in order to know if/how that verse applies.
But it’s not just the “verse before and after,” especially for difficult passages. We likely need to look across the entire book to understand the author’s point. Paul’s book of Romans is a good example of this; or the book of Ecclesiastes where the author doesn’t really bring the message home until the last chapter. In fact, we could legitimately argue that “full context” is all of the Bible – God’s word. Isn’t that the point of Psalms 119:160?
But can we take that too far?
Yes! It seems to be increasingly important to emphasize the other end of this “context spectrum.” There is an equal – maybe even greater – danger in too much context in Bible study. “All Scripture!” is no longer enough…
Increasingly, it seems religious leaders are incorporating and endorsing the use of extra-biblical sources in order to explain (e.g. interpret) Scripture. While some may readily and rightfully balk at anything other than the Bible being used, there is a far more insidious way by which extra-biblical sources are being introduced. The pendulum of “more context” has now swung from “too little” to where many enthusiastically accept the “culture of the day” as a requirement for the proper understanding of God’s word.
Where in Scripture are we told that our understanding must be governed by or through the lens of the “culture of the day”? Nowhere does God authorize anything like this in His word. These conditions are man-made and constitute the admonition we are given at the close of the Bible in Revelation 22:18.
Why is it happening?
Often, it seems the culprit for man’s accepting, even requiring, this extra-biblical condition for interpretation is his own struggle to understand a difficult passage. Sometimes, that struggle arises because the passage is indeed difficult. But other times, and more typically, the “difficulty” is created because of man’s own limitation.
Maybe they just haven’t come to understand it yet…not having evaluated the full body of God’s word or simply not thought on it long enough. That’s fine; even expected. Peter said Paul’s letters were “hard to understand”. Notice, he didn’t say anything about needing to bring in culture as a result. Instead note what he does warn about happening in 2 Peter 3:15-16!
Or maybe they have been blinded by a doctrine they hold to more closely than a desire to allow God’s word to affect them? We define this as presuppositional scripture weighting. For example, holding so closely to the post-modern, societal ideology of gender equality may lead one to “explain away” very clear Bible teaching about a woman’s role in the church in 1 Timothy 2.
The pendulum of “more context” has now swung from “too little” to where many enthusiastically accept the “culture of the day” as a requirement for the proper understanding of God’s word.
Advancements in archaeology and the ensuing knowledge mankind has regarding ancient history have exploded in the last century. As a result, the Christian has a wealth of new, corroborating evidence about the historical accuracy of the Bible. It is often and correctly footnoted in these conversations that while it’s profoundly interesting as well as faith-building for the Christian, we need not and should not rest on this extra-biblical information for our “great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.” (I Tim 3:13)
It is the same with the “culture of the day”. It may be interesting, or even faith-building, to have insight into some cultural norm of the first century that further amplifies or corroborates a statement in the New Testament. However, going any further to require something like this for an understanding of God’s will is only adding to His word.
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