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Doctrine / Hermeneutics / Upward Trek

The Abuse of Context

The literal interpretation of Scripture is the bedrock of the Christian faith. It is the only way to ascertain the mind of God given to us in the pages of the Bible. The theological term for this approach is the historical-grammatical interpretation of Scripture. Historical means that we let the actual facts of history and the actual historical context determine the meaning of a passage. We are not allowed to invent our own facts to supply a meaning that suits us. Grammatical means that we allow the actual grammar and usage of the original language to provide us the translation and interpretation of a passage. There is no room to ignore the grammar and usage of the original language. Nor are we free to invent our own grammatical rules and definitions.

An important facet of the historical-grammatical approach is the axiom that we must interpret Scripture in the light of its context. This is not always understood. Context has three senses. Context in the narrow sense of the material that precedes and follows the passage we are examining. Context in the broader sense of where the passage sits in the flow of the book in which it resides. And context in the broadest sense, which is where that passage sits in the Bible’s unfolding message of redemption. This is why preachers sometimes say, “the three main rules of Bible interpretation are context, context, and context.”

But man is rarely balanced. He tends to emphasize a favored truth at the expense of other truths. The use of context in interpretation has not escaped this tendency. Not infrequently, men emphasize one aspect of context at the expense of the others—a practice which undermines the check-and-balance influence that each aspect of context has on the others. Over the past decade, I have observed many evangelicals insist that a passage should only be interpreted by the light that was available to the human author at the time the book was written, which means that every book or prophecy written at a later date is off limits as a source for interpretation. Transgressing this principle is regarded by them as a serious taboo that erodes the historical-grammatical approach.

But they are wrong … seriously wrong. The historical component of historical-grammatical interpretation is a qualitative ban, not a quantitative ban. It bans us from reading into the passage ideas that are contrary to the historical context. It does not ban us from shedding light on the passage from later books or prophecies.

Limiting the light that can be shed on a passage to only the portions of the Bible written earlier is an intellectual blunder that presses the historical-grammatical interpretation of Scripture to rationalistic extremes. This practice exalts the human author of the Bible at the expense of the divine author, and it undermines the practical application of progressive revelation. Every step of God’s progressive revelation to man—every addition to the Bible—is intended to increase and does increase the light available for every prior passage and subject. The result of this is refreshingly glorious. We have more light on the meaning of the OT than the OT saints did. We have more light on the subjects of the Gospels than the original twelve did. And we have more light on prophecy than Paul had.

The only time it is legitimate to limit our interpretive options to prior revelation is if our aim is to understand what was going through the mind of the human author at the time a passage or book was written. But if our aim is to understand the whole revealed mind of God on a subject addressed in a passage, then every passage in the Bible that addresses that subject must be allowed to shine its light regardless of when it was written.

For instance, when we read OT passages on God’s love and grace, they must be viewed through the lens of the eternal mind of God. When God gave these passages to man, He was speaking from the ground of the full revelation of his love that he intended to manifest in Jesus, not from a truncated version of it. The fact that the original recipients of these passages had a limited revelation of this love does not diminish the expansiveness of this love one iota. And their limited revelation does not ban us from bathing the entire Old Testament revelation in the oil of the love that God manifested in the incarnation and cross of his Son. With the New Testament advances of progressive revelation now in our hands, it is perfectly legitimate to understand every Old Testament love and grace passage in the light of “God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son …” This is God’s love. Every drop of the love that he manifested in the OT was poured from this cup. He has no other love, and he has no other cup of love.

This principle of bringing the entire, progressively-revealed, eternal mind of God to bear on a subject or passage applies to every redemptive or moral issue that has been progressively revealed: the day of the Lord, the times of the Gentiles, the tribulation, God’s plan for the Gentiles, the New Covenant, the purpose and place of the law, divorce and remarriage, the relationship between faith and works, etc. None are excepted.

Happy Thanksgiving to all my fellow sojourners on the heavenly way.

Eyes wide open, brain engaged, heart on fire.

Lee W. Brainard

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