Three Contexts When Studying Scripture

There are plenty of ways offered on how to study Scripture. This all falls into the branch of theology known as hermeneutics, most easily defined as how to understand, interpret and apply the text of Scripture.

Recently, when I was teaching an introduction to the Old Testament, I specifically pointed out three contexts I believe we need to remember when study the Bible. So I thought I would share those three contexts in a blog post here as well. They are:

1) Historical-grammatical context

This simply refers to getting into the mind of the biblical writer, i.e., studying the historical, grammatical, cultural context of the author. So, when looking at something like Genesis, we need to study the ancient Israelite setting, while also considering a background of the larger context of the ancient near east. We will not properly understand what is going on in Genesis if we approach it from, say, a western, 21st century mindset.

Not many theologians disagree on this specific approach to studying Scripture. It is the greatest point emphasised by probably all theological traditions. Rather, it’s the two approaches that I suggest now that can be quite debatable.

2) Christological context

This has to do with considering what the text is saying in light of the coming of Christ and the new covenant. So, when reading the Old Testament, though we start by considering what it is communicating within its own particular context, as Christ-followers we cannot stop there. As theologian F.F. Bruce reminds us:

‘They [the OT writings] found their fulfilment and had their meaning made plain in Christ; when people read them without using this key to unlock their significance, “a veil lies over their minds” (2 Corinthians 3:15).’ (Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free, p19)

This is extremely important to remember when approaching portions of the Old Testament such as the Law and the prophetic writings. The coming of Christ and all that he accomplished should lead us to ultimately view these words through a new lens. Christ widened the reality of the promises of God and the people of God. I believe this crucial to bear in mind as we approach the Scripture, especially the Old Testament.

Matter of fact, in the words above, Bruce gives quite a strong challenge if we don’t remember this factor – ‘when people read them without using this key to unlock their significance, “a veil lies over their minds”. Hence, if we don’t have the Christ-lens on for our overall understanding of Scripture, such can be quite impairing.

Old Testament scholar, Peter Enns, refers to this as the teleological context. Telos comes from the Greek meaning ‘complete’ or ‘goal’. Christ was the goal of the whole of the Old Testament Scriptures. He came to complete all that was written beforehand (i.e. Matt 5:17), since it all spoke of him (Luke 24:44).

A very easy-to-spot example of the Christological character of the Old Testament text is that of the blood taken from the passover lamb, which was painted on the door frames of the Israelites in Egypt before their great exodus (see Ex 12:7). If the angel of death saw this blood, he would passover that house and not take the firstborn. This clearly points to and foreshadows the blood of Christ, the Lamb of God. Actually, the New Testament helps point this Christological factor out in quite a few places.

Now, it is true that this Christological approach can be taken too far. Some find Christ tucked away in almost every passage of the Old Testament. For example, the spies that go into Jericho tell Rahab to tie a scarlet cord in the window. This will be a sign to the Israelite army that her family is to be spared the destruction. You can read about it more in Josh 2.

I, personally, don’t believe the scarlet cord points to the blood of Christ. But some possibly have preached and taught such. The thing we must remember is that, for the Old Testament to point to Christ, this does not refer to each and every passage or account. But rather the Old Testament as a whole.

And what I like about what Enns says in his book, Inspiration and Incarnation, is that, though he also sees this teleological approach being taken too far at times (and he gives the example of the scarlet thread himself), he will not get too bent out of shape knowing that the Old Testament does ultimately point to Christ.

In all, the challenge is to remember this Christological quality of the Scripture text (the OT in general), but to also be careful that we don’t over-spiritualise every verse of the Old Testament. But, hey, the in’s and out’s of this feature of the Old Testament has been debated for centuries.

3) Devotional-prophetic context

Most theologians might stop at the first two. But I believe we need to allow for this third characteristic as well.

What do I mean by devotional-prophetic context. Well, with the word prophetic, I am not so much pointing out that Scripture is prophetic in its make-up as a whole. True, it is as the God-breathed text of Scripture. But that’s not what I am getting at here.

What I am trying to touch on is how the Scripture can speak into our lives, our situations, our churches, our context today. No doubt most of us have plenty of testimonies of God speaking to us in a specific sense while we have been reading, studying and meditating on Scripture. There are those times, as well, when God brings to mind and heart a certain passage that becomes water to our thirsty souls in the particular context in which we find ourselves.

I think I will reserve some of my thoughts on this characteristic in a follow-up post, but suffice it to say, God takes His own breathed-out words that have been recorded in the Bible and utilises them by speaking into our contexts. That is both amazing and humbling. The God who has always communicated continues to communicate as the Spirit reveals, illumines and stirs us with those words found in the text of Scripture. We truly find daily bread from every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.

I could give many a testimonies of this, but I share one.

About 7 years ago, I was living in Swansea, UK, teaching at a ministry training college. One Saturday morning I awoke to much pain in my back (assuming I slept wrong). It felt like it might even be something with the vertebrae of my spine. Still, I tried to get on with the day as best I could. But by the end of the day, the pain was almost unbearable. I could barely turn my head to the left or right, and if I did, I had to do it extremely slow as to not cause increased pain. I did not know what had happened, but I was wondering if I had truly hurt my spine in a more serious manner.

To make a long story short, I was in so much pain that some friends at the college ended up calling an ambulance in the middle of the night (the first time I had ever been in one). I was taken to the hospital and examined. Thankful and relieved, I found out there was no nerve damage or problem with a vertebrae. Simply stated, a muscle had knotted up so strongly in my back and it was shooting extreme pain all up and down my back and neck. The doctor was able to give me some muscle relaxers and I went back home to rest for a few days.

During that time of resting in bed, I somehow found myself in the well-known Psalm 23. As with many other times, I don’t know how I ended up in that passage. I am not even sure I had my Bible open, but rather God simply brought the passage to mind. My memory fails me on that detail.

But, lo and behold, within the 23rd psalm, God made vs2 a deep reality in my life right then and there: He makes me lie down in green pastures.

I realised how much I had been working, how over-worked I had allowed myself to become. That is something I am not so great at guarding against, even today. Yet, in the abundant grace of our Father, I began to understand a sense of the Shepherd’s care for the sheep. So much love and care that He was even willing to make me lie down. And it was green pastures I found myself lying in, green pastures of rest.

That psalm, and specifically those few earlier verses, are seared into my heart forever. Not because Psalm 23 is the most known psalm on planet earth. But because the Spirit of God did a work and brought a revelation into my life.

This is the devotional-prophetic context I speak of.

There are other examples of hearing God speak specific words as I have been devotionally reading the Bible. I could share more. You could share plenty. But what I am getting at is that God takes delight in still speaking to His people today, and one great starting place for such is in the God-breathed text of Scripture that we already have.

In the end, I believe all three of these contexts need to be remembered as we approach Scripture. If we only focus on one, or at the best two, I suppose we will miss out on receiving all that God would have for us through the biblical text.

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9 thoughts on “Three Contexts When Studying Scripture

  1. Hermeneutics usually refers to three contexts – the world behind the text (historical criticism), the actual text (narrative criticism/structuralism) and the world in front of the text (reader response theory and the more extreme deconstructionism). Most theologians agree that a mix of all three is necessary, but how, and to what extent is hotly contested! It’s also interesting to think about the role of revelation/Holy Spirit inspiration, and the fact that we are now taking part in Christian re-readings of the OT (which is where you get your Christological point from, I think). Its really interesting to look at the role of the reader in making meaning from the bible. I think its also really important that we are aware that all readings are subjective, and to be aware of all the personal perspectives we bring to any reading of the text.
    (Sorry for the long comment – I’m just about to start writing a paper on these things!)

  2. Abby –

    I would think you would have much to say with your new studies. And already writing a paper after only just beginning.

    You might be interested in Andrew Perriman’s thoughts on embedding Scripture in its historical narrative context. He always has challenging perspectives in his books and blog. Check out his blog at http://postost.net. Even his most recent post is on this topic.

  3. Abby –

    Actually, if you would like, when you finish your paper, is it possible that your conclusions be posted as a ‘guest’ series on my blog?

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