Tuesday, June 28, 2011


All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.
II Timothy 3:16-17

The question recently came up in a Bible Study group: Can scripture passages be applied out of context? It is an interesting question, because it focuses on the very heart and soul of how we approach the biblical witness.

Since the Bible was written across many different centuries by many different writers, the original contexts are complex and varied. When we apply any biblical passage to a current situation, we are taking it out of historical context. Whether we are looking at a short phrase, or a verse, or a particular episode, or a book, or a testament, or the Bible as a whole, we are taking it out of historical context.

The goal of biblical interpretation is to determine what a particular passage means to us, nineteen hundred to three thousand years (give or take) after it was written. Which ideas or concepts or teachings are time-bound, and which ones have universal and timeless application? Understanding the original context can help us better understand what the passage might mean to us today.

The text does not change, but our understanding of it does.

At the same time, there is a long tradition of rabbinic interpretation which holds that even the smallest phrases can be taken out of context and stand alone. In the smallest detail, there is still a measure of inspiration from which we can learn.

The passage above provides a wonderful illustration of the relationship between context and meaning. It is sometimes used as “proof” that the whole of the Bible is literally and directly inspired by God, as if God dictated the text to the biblical writers. Among the many problems inherent in that interpretation is the fact that it was written long before what we call the “New Testament” was part of the Bible. Taken literally in context, it says that the Hebrew Scriptures, what we call the “Old Testament” is inspired by God, and it makes no claim about the New Testament.

And then there is a larger point that transcends the historical context: the passage is about the purpose of studying scripture. The purpose is, or should be, to open ourselves to the message so that we will be “equipped for every good work.” That idea works, even out of context.

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