Out of Context

Journalists quickly learn the skill of taking the words of people they dislike out of context. By doing this, they can make absolutely brilliant men and women sound like simpletons.

If the person is a public figure, with lots of material to sort through, you can find partial quotations (or obviously humorous or sarcastic remarks) that make the object of their ridicule sound like nearly anything – from a compassionate philanthropist to a conniving fascist.

That’s one reason some people who hope to tarnish the reputation of C.S. Lewis consciously avoid citing his work in its totality (or each piece in its honest context). Thus, as this article suggests, intelligent readers understand Lewis’ writing is “exceptionally good,” while some infantile critics regard it as “dodgy and unpleasant.”

(Do you appreciate my skillful use of adjectives in the previous sentence? They, of course, represent another dishonest method of undermining the arguments of people with whom one disagrees.)

Returning to the idea of taking things out of their context, I offer the graphic (meme, if you will) that I created for the top of this column. It was inspired by “The 12 Most Inspiring Verses In The Bible” in the Babylon Bee. The brief article humorously illustrates how excising words from their context can make them sound rather bizarre.

These examples (mine included) are offered in a light-hearted way. However, the internet teems with examples of malicious attacks on God’s written Word. And many of these rely on the tried and true[false] technique of ignoring the immediate or full context to construct their strawman.

Strawmen or strawwomen are another dishonest form of argument, as “Logical Fallacies 101” explains.

Strawmen, scarecrows, and mannequins all have one thing in common: they are, by nature, flimsy objects that are easy to knock down. In the context of logical fallacies, a “straw man” argument is an argument that is framed in such a way that it is easy to “knock down” or dismantle.

How many times have you been in conversation with someone—someone who holds an opposing viewpoint to yours—who frames your position in a way that you have not? Then once they frame your position in that way, they attack it, supposing that by doing so they have won the argument?

In “Lewis on the Atheist’s Straw Man,” the author quotes a concise argument provided by C.S. Lewis “in Mere Christianity, [where] Lewis warns about over simplifying Christianity (something some people who call themselves Christians sometimes do), and the straw man Atheists often build from this. It’s definitely worth the read.

Biblical Verses that Demand Knowledge of Their Context

Admittedly, there are some passages in the Scriptures that are challenging to comprehend, apart from the whole. Intervarsity Press even has a website “Hard Sayings of the Bible,” subtitled “A Difficult Passage Explained Each Day.”

In “Encountering Difficult Passages,” the author charts a helpful course in how to discover their meaning. Here’s a sample of their sound advice:

Be extra careful with Google. I know. It’s so easy. It’s so tempting. You think, “Google tells me where to go when I’m physically lost; why can’t it help when I’m lost in the Bible?”

The problem is that Google only shows you what’s popular; it cannot differentiate between sites that provide truth and sites that provide ignorance. Avoid your natural impulse to click the first link that appears in a search. There are good websites out there to find answers, but you have to be discerning.

Some of Jesus’ own teachings were difficult for the disciples to comprehend. This was especially true of his announcement that he must die as part of the divine plan to deliver us all from the consequences of sin. When he announced the marvelous mystery of the eucharist (Lord’s Supper) he said “I am the bread of life. . . . Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. . . . This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever” (John 6).

While the twelve who become the Apostles continued to follow the Lord, some fell away in confusion because “When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?’”

The Bible Truly “In Context”

Christians understand that the Incarnation, Life, Death, Resurrection and Return of Jesus Christ is the final, ultimate Word of the Bible. The Word himself, through whom all things were created, is the central, life-giving message of the holy Scriptures.

Because of this truth, we can evaluate the entire, comprehensive meaning of the Scriptures. We recognize the clear significance of those passages dealing with the Savior of humanity are vital, while those dealing with the nutritional value of locusts are rather less so.

While many people consciously practice this Christocentric reading of the God’s Word, one of its great champions was Martin Luther. If you wish to explore this subject in detail, I commend to you “All Scripture is Pure Christ: Luther’s Christocentric Interpretation in the Context of Reformation Exegesis.” You can find the entire volume in which this essay appears here.

As Martin Luther puts it, “To him who has the Son, Scripture is an open book; and the stronger his faith in Christ becomes, the more brightly will the light of Scripture shine for him.”

Christians are not Gnostics, who believe the Bible is hiding divine secrets from the uninitiated. Quite the contrary. However, the only way to truly understand the meaning of the Scriptures is to read them in their full context. And that context is Jesus, “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”

13 thoughts on “Out of Context

    1. Glad you enjoyed this, Erroll. Yes, that is one powerful quote, isn’t it? Holding fast to that truth would spare people a lot of the indigestion brought on by arguing about different opinions about trivia.

    1. Thanks for the affirmation, and the suggestion, Arnold. Let me offer a couple examples, off the top of my head.

      1. Truth: God watches over and cares for his children, seeing them through times of trial and suffering (even martyrdom). No one and nothing can pluck us out of the Father’s hand.
      Misleading Simplification: When you follow Christ, you are safe in God’s hands.
      Danger: People may quite naturally think this means they will be immune to suffering, illness, etc. When problems arise, it can cause people to doubt God, or their relationship with him.

      2. Truth: God chooses and saves us completely due to his underserved love and grace, redeeming us through the atoning work of the only begotten Son, Jesus Christ.
      Misleading Simplification: Since “works” have no place in earning salvation, we don’t need to think, do or even believe anything.
      Danger: People may dismiss the role of faith, and think a Gnostic antinomianism (licentiousness) is just fine.

      3. Truth: God doesn’t want people to perish (i.e. be eternally lost) but he treasures the free will and opportunity for voluntary obedience that he gave our first parents in the Garden.
      Misleading Simplification: God wants everyone to go to heaven.
      Danger: People think universalism is a valid doctrinal option, despite the vast evidence in the Scriptures that this is not the case.

      I hope this helps explain the distinction. Of necessity, my response here is rushed, and “oversimplified” in its own way, of course.

  1. Good examples and explanations; I thought you might suggest my blog posts too simple!
    My goal is Christ, so I appreciated the tone of your post. And I downloaded Luther’s “Pure Christ” essay. Excellent!
    I see you’re a “retired” chaplain, meaning you work, without pay. Same here, only my call is kids- I volunteer in the local elementary school. “Become as little children.”

    1. Serving kids is often wonderful. (My wife would say it’s always wonderful.)

      As for the “retired” part… I just accepted an interim position with a nearby congregation. Meaning I’ll be working about half-time serving the church as they continue to seek their new, permanent pastor.

      It’s not something I have sought, but God’s used me this way in the past–now for the fourth time since my retirement from the Air Force. Something not sought, but it’s amazing how the Lord provides the strength, energy, vision, confidence, and even excitement and enthusiasm, when he calls us!

      1. Yes, “not sought.” Seems that’s how Jesus lived–finding disciples, and ‘my sheep’ via the holy Spirit. Because his relationship with the Father is primary.

  2. HI Rob,

    I am guilty of not taking things in context. I know that getting real answers takes time and study. I have often taken a verse and run with it. Keep it in context. Thank you, Gary

  3. My brother-in-law recently gave an example of your second subversive literary device by quoting two headlines about the same event. The first news headline was almost totally factual (asteroid of ‘x size’ will pass by Earth’s orbit”); the second used blatant adjectives and size comparisons to evoke fear (“the size of the Empire State building will nearly collide with Earth”).

    I see the contextual mis-quoting constantly. That, and mis-attribution to original authors. I strive to be correct and full in both when I share quotes.

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