We’ve written much over the last few months about the importance of context. And Michael Heiser has an important article at the Logos Talk blog entitled “What is the Proper Context for Interpreting the Bible?”
Historical, cultural, and literary context all matter. And the context of orthodox Christian interpretation over the last 2,000 years matters. But more than any of that, Heiser argues that the most important context to which we must pay attention (and with which historical, cultural, and literary context only “flirt”) is the context of the biblical writers.
We must do all we can to get into their heads, to understand their worldview, to grasp what factors led to the production of the literature contained in the Bible.
As certain as this observation is, there is a pervasive tendency in the believing Church to filter the Bible through creeds, confessions, and denominational preferences. That’s not a bad thing. It’s a human thing. Creeds are useful for distilling important points of theology. But they are far from the whole counsel of God, and even farther from the biblical world. This is something to be aware of at all times.
Lest I be misunderstood, I’m not arguing that we should ignore our Christian forefathers. I’m also not saying that we’re smarter. They were prodigious intellects. The problem isn’t their brain power—it’s that they were simply too removed from the world of the biblical writers and had little chance of bridging that gap.
It might sound odd, but we’re actually in a better position than any of our spiritual forefathers in that respect. We live at a time when the languages of the major civilizations that flourished during the lifetimes of the biblical writers have been deciphered. We can tap into the intellectual and cultural output of those civilizations. That output is enormous—millions of words. We can recover the worldview context (their “cognitive framework” in scholar-speak) of the biblical writers as never before. The same is true of the New Testament writers because they inherited what had come before them and were part of a first-century world two thousand years removed from us.
I know firsthand this is a hard lesson. It isn’t easy to put the biblical context ahead of our traditions. But if we don’t do that, we ought to stop talking about how important it is to interpret the Bible in context lest we be hypocrites. I can honestly say that the day I decided to commit myself to frame my study of Scripture in the context of the biblical world instead of any modern substitute was a day of liberation. It’s what put me on a path to reading the Bible again—for the first time. You can do that, too. Check it out!