Tag Archives: context

Reading the Bible in Context

One of my all-time favorite lessons to teach, now in video form.  I just narrated over the PowerPoint slides I use.

God tells us to read his word carefully: 2 Timothy 2:15 Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.

This lesson is very important, but it is also simple to follow. You don’t need a PhD in theology or to be fluent in the original languages to understand most Bible passages. Yet so many passages are misunderstood because people don’t read the verses that come before or after them. This lesson teaches simple ways to read the Bible in context, some commonly misunderstood passages, barriers to reading in context and how to overcome them, and more.

Reading the Bible in Context from Eternity Matters on Vimeo.

Context counts and early church leaders on abortion

quote.jpgI was thinking of this today and wanted to rerun it.

One of the most important rules for Bible study is to never read (just) a Bible verse.  Countless errors occur when people pick and choose verses they like while ignoring the real meaning of the passage.  An individual verse can’t mean something different than it does in the broader passage.  I have accidentally quoted things out of context many times and am always glad to learn the correct way to interpret a passage.

The same goes for quoting other writers.  A theological liberal seminary student (read: false teacher) started posting comments on “pacifist wisdom.”  His first quote was from Athenagoras of Athens, circa 180 A.D. from A Plea For The Christians, and it followed some anti-capital punishment posts.  Perhaps this guy was a flaming pacifist, and perhaps the quotes from other writers will make his point, but this one missed the mark.

The portion that he quoted:

We cannot endure even to see a man put to death, though justly.

What I found interesting is that this quote doesn’t even make a pacifistic anti-capital punishment point.  Athenagoras notes that the death was just!  It gets worse when you look at the broader context, with the previous portion italicized:

For when they know that we cannot endure even to see a man put to death, though justly, who of them can accuse us of murder or cannibalism?

So the context wasn’t necessarily pacifism and definitely wasn’t only pacifism.  Read the whole passage in the link under the heading of “The Christians condemn and detest all cruelty” and see for yourself.  The Christians were accused of being murderers and cannibals, and the quote is from the section defending themselves against that charge.  Perhaps he should have been turning the other cheek, but it is obvious that he wrote that section to defend Christians against false charges.

Also, keep in mind the kind of death he was referring to.  Was it crucifixion, the cruelest form of execution ever devised?  Was it being killed by wild animals in the arena?  (Note the reference to gladiators and wild beasts.)  He and other church fathers might have been against those types of capital punishments – though that still wasn’t the context of the passage – but perhaps they would feel differently about lethal injection.

That’s nice, but what does the Bible say?  Even if the passage had been in context, it would have been much more meaningful if it would have referred to the how the early church interpreted scripture (I know it was pre-Canon, but most of the books were widely circulated and authoritative).  After all, just because you quote a few guys doesn’t mean their views meshed with scripture.

What I found really interesting was Athenagoras’ section on abortion:

And when we say that those women who use drugs to bring on abortion commit murder, and will have to give an account to God for the abortion, on what principle should we commit murder? For it does not belong to the same person to regard the very foetus in the womb as a created being, and therefore an object of God’s care, and when it has passed into life, to kill it . . .

Again, he is trying to defend themselves against charges of murder and cannibalism by pointing out how they think abortion is murder.

It seems to me that true pacifists would quote the anti-abortion part because that was so clear.  99% of all murders are abortions, so wouldn’t pacifists want to start there?  That is, unless they are the typical pro-abortion pacifists or those who say they are anti-abortion but do and say nothing about it – including voting.

Here are a few more quotes from early church leaders on abortion.  I’m sure the pacifists quote these left and right in their pro-life efforts:

You shall love your neighbor more than your own life. You shall not slay a child by abortion. You shall not kill that which has already been generated. (Epistle of Barnabas 19.5; second century)

Do not murder a child by abortion or kill a new-born infant. (The Didache 2.2; second century catechism for young Christian converts)

It does not matter whether you take away a life that is born, or destroy one that is coming to the birth. In both instances, the destruction is murder. (Tertullian, Apology, 9.4; second century)

Those who give abortifacients for the destruction of a child conceived in the womb are murderers themselves, along with those receiving the poisons. (Basil the Great, Canons, 188.2; fourth century)

Jerome called abortion “the murder of an unborn child” (Letter to Eustochium, 22.13; fourth century).

Augustine used the same phrase, warning against the terrible crime of “the murder of an unborn child” (On Marriage, 1.17.15; fourth century).

The early church fathers Origen, Cyprian and Chrysostom likewise condemned abortion as the killing of a child.

Quoting the Bible or anything else out of context is unproductive.

Contextualists, not literalists


As I noted in a previous post, Biblical literalists is a common label thrown at Bible-believing Christians implying that they interpret every part of the Bible in a completely literal, rigid fashion. 

The charge often comes from theologically liberal Christians as a handy way to dismiss the arguments of those who take the Bible seriously.  I suppose it is easier than working through the passages in question, but ultimately it is rather unproductive.

I think the more accurate term for most of us would be contextualists – in that we read Bible verses in context – not just in the context of the surrounding passages but in the context of surrounding passages and the whole Bible. 

I like what Greg Koukl had to say about reading the Bible: “I try to take it with the precision the writer intended.”

A few things I don’t take literally:

  • Jesus doesn’t want us to dismember ourselves, He wants us to understand the seriousness of sin: Matthew 5:27-30 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.
  • Jesus it not really a plant: John 15:5 “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.
  • I’m not really supposed to hate my family: Luke 14:26 “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters-yes, even his own life-he cannot be my disciple.
  • The Bible is not a science textbook: When the Bible mentions a sunrise or sunset I don’t take that as a scientific claim that the sun really rises and sets.  I realize that people used figures of speech 3,000 years ago just like we do today.  I also don’t call the Weather Channel to tell them what unscientific idiots they are for referring to sunrises and sunsets.

Any additions to the list?