Friday, November 14, 2008 | By: Zachary Bartels

Ah, Context...

I've got the week off work. I've been putzing around, cataloging and arranging my notes from college and seminary, doing laundry, watching movies, smoking cigars, &c. In the back of my mind, I haven't been able to avoid thinking about my sermon series on Luke and my recently launched Wednesday night class on Calvinism.

My whole life, I've been a Baptist. And the thing about Baptists is that most consider their religious/biblical education to have been complete when they sat under the "Dare to be a Daniel" or "Dare to be a David" Sunday school lesson for the fifth time...somewhere in the vicinity of eighth grade. As such, I find that teaching Baptists the doctrines of sovereign grace almost always involves encountering some major resistance. American Evangelicals usually mount a fierce--if short-lived--resistance to the biblical notions of election and grace, wherein the only weapons they have to employ are a quiverful of contextless proof-texts that allegedly demonstrate the truth of American-bootstrap Pelagianism and the falsehood of Historical, Orthodox Christianity. Often, these proof-texts are more like proof-sentence-fragments, as members of the feeble resistance recall certain phrases (most of which are found in Scripture) that they have heard butchered from Pelagian pulpits over the years. So they're now twice removed from context--not only lacking the surrounding context of the chapter and book of the Bible, but even the full context of the verse in question. "God doesn't will anyone to perish," "Jesus came to seek and save the lost," "Christ became a ransom for all," and the like.

What I find endlessly fascinating is the following phenomenon:
1. Student: "But what about that part of the Bible that says [insert verse fragment that allegedly disproves Augustinian Christianity]?"
2. Teacher: "Oh, you're referring to [insert verse reference.] Well, let's look at the context of that verse..."
3. The teacher explains the context and how, when understood within the framework of the author's intent and broader purpose, it acutally supports the doctrines of Grace.
4. Repeat steps 1-3 many times.
5. Student: "It seems like you're really reaching and just explaining away a bunch of really straight-forward Bible verses."

Step five takes on a much more accusative tone if the teacher has been utilizing Koine Greek in his or her explanations.

Behold the power of a resurrected 1500-year-old heresy hammered into the heads of unsuspecting and well-meaning Christians for decades.

As I was taking my dog (and my sister-in-law's dog, who we're dog-sitting) for a walk a couple nights ago, I witnessed first hand why context is absolutely central to understanding meaning. As I walked, I was listening to Pennington's "New Testament Greek Vocabulary" on CD. Pennington reads a Greek word, pauses, and then reads the definition. It's a great way for pastors to keep from losing our Greek (I've got the Hebrew one as well, but am far less successful with it). It was a chilly night, so I was eager to try out my new winter hat with built-in headphones. The dogs (both big, strong, and difficult to control) kept stopping to smell and mark along the way, but it was, for the most part, a nice walk.

So now, you know the context. However, imagine you're the woman sitting alone in the dark at a bus stop on Michigan Ave. A man in a big jacket and ski cap, chomping a cigar, accompanied bytwo big dogs walks by and stops a few feet away. Then he says, clearly and articulately, "I hate...I fear...I am...evil, wicked." Remember, the headphones are not visible and neither is the cord, as it goes down under my coat.

I felt the lady's stare boring into me and looked back at her for a moment. Our eyes locked. She swallowed hard. When I realized why she was concerned, I thought about trying to explain. But Max and Sasha were already pulling me ahead, so I just left her with a story to tell.

Without context, I appeared to be a devil-worshiping nut trolling for my next victim. In reality, I'm just a dorky pastor (who can't even put aside his biblical Greek when he's on vacation) walking two dogs who might lick you to death, but that's about it.

It's a huge temptation to let all those little verse fragments floating around in our heads line up with our presuppositions. It's so easy to never explore and study Scripture because we've been taught that it's simple and straight forward, and it clearly teaches _____________. But without context, these Scripture fragments are less than useless.

Without context, we have no hope of discovering meaning.

Without context, I'm Ted Bundy.

3 reader comments:

E. said...

Great post! One of your last sentiments ("Without context, we have no hope of discovering meaning.") is something that the secular academic world often brushes aside in favor of relativistic, true-for-me meanings. I constantly ran into this--and fought it whenever I could--in my lit classes in college. So it's not simply the folks who have stopped learning their Bible in eighth grade who have this problem.

Also, I shudder to think of how many people don't really care about "discovering meaning" at all. So many only care about what "seems right" or "seems like it SHOULD be right/fair/whatever"--and most of them tend to get these ideas from TV self-help gurus like Dr. Phil and Oprah. Even Christians seem to put more stock in what they hear on TV at 4pm than what the Bible says, and the read God's Word (if they read it--which is often not the case) through the lens of someone who is making millions by playing on (and multiplying) her audience's insecurities.

Gah! I can't wait until 2011.

David Marvin said...


JB said...

My Baptist upbringing left me fearing that every time I was out in public somewhere and had lost sight of Mom for a minute, the Rapture had come and I was STILL THERE!