The Wider World of the TextMarch 4, 2008
I remember being shocked a few years back to read the following comment by John MacArthur: “context is the most important hermeneutical principle.” Surprised, I thought to myself, could context really be THAT important?
Well, in my slender experience of studying and preaching biblical texts since then, I’ve found MacArthur’s statement to be spot on. Taking note of the context – the ‘wider world’ or setting of the text (both in literary and historical terms) – is of paramount importance.
I think the reason for this is simple: the wider environs of any text informs the meaning of the text itself. For example, this would be my own definition of literary context:
Literary context describes those elements that surround the text which in turn inform the meaning of the text.
If this definition is correct then rightly interpreting any passage is nigh on impossible without considering the context.
And yes, I know about the book of Proverbs! But EVEN in Proverbs the context of what is said of a given topic within the whole book is of vital significance. No stated theme in Proverbs can be absolutised without first considering balancing or caveat verses that refine the point elsewhere in the book.