The Wider World of the Text

March 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.

(Photo by Matrix2003, Creative Commons License)

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.



  1. Long term lurker, 1st time contributor, so, ‘hello!’
    It just so happens that this is one of my uni subjects this semester (so, I’m an expert – not!) and I’m wondering what your thoughts are on the criticism of historical-critical methods that says we simply cannot, with any degree of certainty, extract the context from Biblical texts? Our context is largely limited to the other texts surrounding our focus text.

    Also, what are your thoughts on how our own context affects our interpretation? I’m thinking here of liberation or feminist readings, for example. To what extent is our own context a valid position to read scripture? After all, if our reading is Spirit-led, then we must believe scripture speaks into our ‘here-and-now’ – that is, our context.

  2. John,

    Taking the latter point first, I think Carson is pretty good on this. In the recent Gospel Coalition documents he encourages Christians to embrace a “chastened” correspondence-theory of truth that is less triumphalistic than that of some in the older evangelicalism.” This affirms that we CANNOT read the bible without some subjectivism.

    At the same time, there is a difference between recognising the agendas, dogmas, and motives that we bring to the text, and – on the other hand- wielding our subjective standpoint as a ‘justification’ for ‘re-interpreting’ the text. There is a difference between identifying my personal bias (as a problem to be reckoned with) and using that bias as a justification for whatever interpretation I like.

    On the issue of historical critical method, you might need to unpack the question for me a bit more! Are you saying that historical-critical method ties us down into the first century, unwilling to allow any future interpretations to be read back into the text?

  3. Hi Colin,
    Sorry for taking do long getting back to you. Today has been a bit hectic.
    Thanks for your thoughts on my second point. Plenty there to chew over.
    And my apologies for not explaining myself about historical-critical methods (when you’re immersed in academia you tend to forget not everyone is using the same terminology). By this I mean the ‘older’ critical methods such as literary, form or redaction criticism (plus some others). Their main focus is to determine the ‘original’ meaning of the text by working out, for example, the original textual form (e.g. potential scribal errors), the genre or how some texts have been ‘stitched together’ by later editors. Some critical methods attempt to reconstruct the history of a time from the texts (and I’m thinking Old Testament more than New, here). It assumes that there is a ‘true’ text that can be extracted and understood.
    More ‘modern’ (and post-modern) approaches tend to take the text as it stands and don’t assume we can accurately reconstruct the ‘original’ text or the establish the historicity of the events it describes. Hence, we cannot accurately determine ‘context’. We can only work with the text we have.
    It does, of course, assume a view of scripture that says it wasn’t ‘dictated’ by God, rather scripture is an inspired work and God continued to inspire later editors and contributors.

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