Archives For Exegesis

Out of Context

December 14, 2021 — 13 Comments

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!”

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True or False? The Bible is so simple to understand that studying how to read it is just a waste of time.

Obviously, the answer to that question is a resounding “False.” While some might argue with me, every serious student of the Scriptures knows that probing its depths requires a variety of skills beyond simple faith.

Well, “simple faith” actually is essential for understanding God’s word, but it requires more than simply possessing faith to comprehend its meaning. If that were not true, then everyone being trained in seminaries and colleges to help others explore God’s word are wasting their time.

Exegesis—the focused study of biblical texts—is a core subject for Bible students. It goes deeper than secular “Bible as Literature” courses, and strives to interpret each passage as faithfully as possible. After all, Christians believe these words are inspired.

In 1952 C.S. Lewis wrote a letter in which he noted the value of knowledgeable instructors in understanding the Bible.

It is Christ Himself, not the Bible, who is the true word of God. The Bible, read in the right spirit and with the guidance of good teachers, will bring us to Him.

Bible Study Magazine had an exceptionally good issue several months ago. They provide online access to some of their articles, but sadly, not to the essay I wish to cite. It was written by Karen Jobes, a retired professor of “New Testament and Exegesis” from Wheaton College and Graduate School. She writes:

Different cultures’ writings function in particular ways and settings, and a given literary genre is signaled by textual clues—stock phrases or forms recognizable to anyone familiar with the literature of a given culture.

Jobes begins her article with an example. “Imagine you’re sitting down to read . . . The book in your hands begins, ‘Once upon a time.’” Western readers would know immediately what to anticipate in the pages that follow.

Then she raises a curious question. “Now imagine you’re a student taking a physics course. If your textbook began, ‘Once upon a time,’ you’d no doubt be confused by the phrase and wonder how you should understand it in a scientific context.”

Her article discusses the importance of properly recognizing the genre of what we are reading. This is a concept quite familiar to most readers of Mere Inkling. But what is unfamiliar to many, who have not had opportunity to study biblical exegesis, are the genres and guiding principles employed by Old and New Testament writers.

Reading the Gospels

In two brief pages, Dr. Jobes explains a fundamental principle that we spent weeks discussing in my seminary courses. Knowing the genre of the biblical text is the key to understanding it. Let’s look at the Gospels.

Mark . . . identifies his text as evangelion (“good news,” Mark 1:1), picking up the term Jesus himself used to describe his message (Mark 1:15). The early church came to refer to all four accounts of Jesus’ life using the same term, which survives today in English as “gospel,” a literary genre unique to accounts about Jesus.

The author points out a similarity between the Gospels and “an ancient Greek genre called bioi (“lives”). Rather than provide a day-by-day journal, these “biographies” focus on what is truly important in the perception of the writer.* John offers the prime Christian example of this, in devoting nearly forty percent of his Gospel to the final ten days of Jesus’ life.

C.S. Lewis’ Rules for Exegesis

Hundreds of people sought advice from the Oxford professor. Many asked questions about various Bible passages and religious doctrines. Lewis did his best to point them in the right direction, all the while explaining that he was not a trained theologian.

Within his letters, we find examples of his advice about how to understand the meaning of the Scriptures. “I take it as a first principle that we must not interpret any one part of Scripture so that it contradicts other parts, and specially we must not use an apostle’s teaching to contradict that of Our Lord.” He also wrote:

The two things one must not do are (a) to believe on the strength of Scripture or on any other evidence that God is in any way evil (In Him is no darkness at all) (b) to wipe off the slate any passage which seems to show that He is.

Behind the shocking passage be sure there lurks some great truth which you don’t understand. If one ever does come to understand it, one sees that it is good and just and gracious in ways we never dreamed of. Till then it must just be left on one side.

But why are baffling passages left in at all? Oh, because God speaks not only for us little ones but for the great sages and mystics who experience what we can only read about, and to whom all the words have therefore different (richer) contents.

Would not a revelation which contained nothing that you and I did not understand, be for that very reason rather suspect? To a child it would seem a contradiction to say both that his parents made him and God made him, yet we see how both can be true.

We began with a question, so it’s fitting to end with one.

True or False? Understanding the Bible is so challenging that we should postpone reading it until we become experts at exegesis?

The answer to this question is as obvious as the one with which we began. Don’t delay reading the Scriptures. Immerse yourself in God’s word. But, if you long to know them better, invest some time in learning how to best understand their full meaning.

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* In his biographical collection entitled Parallel Lives, the Greek philosopher and historian Plutarch (c. 46 – c. 122) expressly described the bioi genre.

In writing the Lives of Alexander the Great and of Cæsar the conqueror of Pompeius, which are contained in this book, I have before me such an abundance of materials, that I shall make no other preface than to beg the reader, if he finds any of their famous exploits recorded imperfectly, and with large excisions, not to regard this as a fault.

I am writing biography, not history; and often a man’s most brilliant actions prove nothing as to his true character, while some trifling incident, some casual remark or jest, will throw more light upon what manner of man he was than the bloodiest battle, the greatest array of armies, or the most important siege.

Therefore, just as portrait painters pay most attention to those peculiarities of the face and eyes, in which the likeness consists, and care but little for the rest of the figure, so it is my duty to dwell especially upon those actions which reveal the workings of my heroes’ minds, and from these to construct the portraits of their respective lives, leaving their battles and their great deeds to be recorded by others.

The parchment shown above is the earliest copy of the Gospel According to John. Included on the recto (front) are John 18:32-33.