“Context matters — you’re just proof-texting.”
Or, “I read this book about this woman who spent a year trying to apply the entirety of Old Testament law to her daily life. HAHAHA — it was a total failure! (Can you believe that some people actually live like that?)”
Or perhaps, “The theologian utterly destroyed that guy! Amidst terminological spell-casting — and the audience really was spellbound! — the theologian pointed out that the context of the passage wholly undermined the application advocated by that fundamentalist.”
Scenarios like these are neither as ridiculous nor as unusual as one might wish. Who hasn’t heard some impassioned person (lay, clerical, or academic) sneer, with righteously enlightened indignation, that a given text is being misused? Many of us know such Christian snobbery all too well.
It seems to me that behind many of the debates that Christians have about the Bible, there is an important but unstated assumption: that interpretation (understanding what the text means) is inseparable from application (correctly doing x rather than y with the text in question). If someone doesn’t like your application of the Bible, they will often accuse you of misinterpreting it. In what follows, I argue that interpretation and application are actually quite separate. Context concerns the former and never the latter. Consequently, it is always invalid to invoke context in an argument about biblical application. The validity of application depends not upon the context of the past, but upon the truthfulness of revelation.
Context and its Limits
It might be helpful to define the word “context.” The English word comes from the Latin verb contexere, which means “to weave together.” The Latin adjective contextus means “interwoven” and “closely joined.” Every text is always woven into a larger historical whole; we call this larger whole the context. As a heuristic, we might break “context” into its two respective halves. In Spanish, con means “with” (con descends from the Latin cum, which means the same). “Context” is what comes with the text.
In order to understand a text, do we need to know the context? Granted, every text is written in a particular time and place by a particular person who has certain ideas and assumptions about the world. These things may be vitally important for interpreting the meaning of a particular work, but making the context primary also carries a cost.
First, it erroneously assumes that the context can always be known. But the further back we go in history, the harder it becomes for us to pin down the context. What was the context of Homer’s great epics? Regrettably, we know very little about Homer himself, which makes it difficult to determine the particular time and place in which the Iliad and Odyssey were written. If context is necessary for understanding, then our ability to comprehend the Homeric epics is doomed from the outset. Few, however, would argue that we should therefore abandon these texts, and neither read them nor teach them! When context induces paralysis, it is the concern with context — and not the content of the text — that must go. So, I propose the following: The text is more important than the context. For the sake of ease, let’s call this Guyer’s First Rule of Context.
Second, but related to the first point above, we should be clear that knowing the current state of scholarship is not the same as knowing the context of an ancient work. Rather, contextual knowledge requires us to prioritize our sources. Contemporary and near-contemporary sources are more important than even the most recent scholarship. Let’s take the Gospels as an example. It is one thing to read a recent book about Jesus — even a good one, like David Flusser and R. Steven Notley’s The Sage from Galilee; it is quite something else to read contemporary first-century Jewish works like Josephus’ The Jewish War. Jesus shared his context with people like Josephus, not with late twentieth and early twenty-first century scholars like Flusser and Notley. Hence Guyer’s Second Rule of Context: Scholarship is never a mirror image; it is but a map at best. If you want to learn about Canterbury Cathedral, you may wish to read a guidebook — but that experience will be nothing compared to the reality of walking along Canterbury’s streets and through the cathedral’s gates. For lack of a better metaphor, the real “sights and sounds” of an era are found more in the surviving sources of that era, than in later books about them.
Third and finally, even when context is known, there is still a question of experience — the experience of reading, which context cannot contain. What is the context of, e.g., your favorite comic book? The question itself seems rather strange! By way of example, earlier this summer, after putting it off for many years, I sat down to read Jeff Smith’s brilliantly charming, award-winning comic book epic Bone. We could ask, what is the context of Bone? And we could answer this question by pointing to certain things. For example, Smith wrote his work under the influence of classic fantasy literature such as J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. We could also point to the fact that Smith published Bone independently, at a time when independent comic books were comparatively rare (the success of Bone changed this). But does knowing any of this really help us to better understand the story itself? Simply stated, the answer is “no.”
One could fairly counter that, depending on one’s interest, it might be crucial to know the context of Bone. For example, if we wanted to study the influence of fantasy literature upon comic books, or if we wanted to look at the influence of Bone upon the history of comic book publishing, knowledge of context would be absolutely essential. I agree with this sed contra — but this counter-argument only underscores my own initial point: context doesn’t always matter. The enjoyment that I derived from Bone did not depend upon knowing about its literary influences. The experience of reading Bone — the act of living with Bone for many hours over the course of two days — needed no such academic knowledge. The experience of Bone was sheer pleasure, and it was only this enjoyment that inspired me to learn more about the wider context of Smith’s work. (I suspect that this order of interests is quite common, and that textual interest does more to inspire contextual interest than the converse.)
When I sit down to do historical research, context is vitally important — indeed, it is the sine qua non of my work. When I sit down to glean wisdom from the writings of Plato, Cicero, or Seneca, context matters less. When I sit down to do pleasure reading, context matters not a whit. There is nothing wrong with any of this, which brings us to Guyer’s Third Rule of Context: Context matters only when we are engaged in work that requires knowledge of context.
Interpretation and Application
If the above arguments hold, why are so many Christians so concerned to underscore the context of a given biblical passage? What are we expecting knowledge of context to do that knowledge of the text itself cannot?
Thankfully, Guyer’s Rules of Context are wholly applicable here. Let’s apply the first rule. When it comes to ancient texts like those in the Bible, we can’t always know the context of a given book or even passage. Who wrote Job? What about Genesis or the Letter to the Hebrews? When the same passage shows up in different places in the Gospels, which Gospel — if any — should be privileged as providing the original context and thus the original meaning? We can’t answer such questions. In these and other instances, concern for context can become a series of rabbit trails. Hence, as the first rule states, the text is more important than the context.
Applying the second rule, academic scholarship will offer us some level of insight, but scholarship is never a mirror image; it is but a map at best. (Of course, if we can’t even date a work or identify its author, then scholarship on it cannot be a map so much as a rough guide.) Insofar as the scholarship in question is reputable, academic knowledge is always good. It is, however, a limited good, and if the limits of scholarship are not understood, then the good of scholarship will be misapplied. (Incidentally, this returns us to the first rule.)
Finally, as the third rule notes, when we read the Bible (or any other text) in the pursuit of wisdom or for the sake of devotion, contextual knowledge is less important than textual knowledge. The life of piety is not predicated upon contextual knowledge, for context matters only when we are engaged in work that requires knowledge of context. If prayer, worship, and the sacramental life do not depend upon context, why should Bible reading? This too points us to the first rule: the text is more important than the context.
But most arguments in the Church are not really about Biblical interpretation. We know enough about the ancient world that the vast bulk of passages can be helpfully placed into some sort of context, and, where this cannot be determined, biblical narratives remain largely comprehensible. Most arguments in the Church are actually about something very different: biblical application. Context concerns the past; application concerns the present. What should we do today with ancient texts written in a context so very different from our own? Some will be content to say that context always changes. Hence, the laws or commands of long ago (especially the less attractive ones) might be easily dismissed (or lambasted or mocked or whatever). This argument is wrong for two reasons.
First, it is true that context changes, but it is precisely for this reason that context cannot be appealed to in matters of application: if changing contexts are enough to sideline an idea or a conviction, then nothing can ever be applied, for context does not cease to change.
Second, from the standpoint of historical methodology, there is no reason to privilege change over continuity. Change does not occur at a constant rate; some changes occur more quickly while others occur more slowly, and some changes are so remarkably slow that they appear to be nonexistent. Similarly, continuities are defined by no shared degree of longevity; some continuities last longer than others, and some continuities may be so unimportant to later eras that their existence is wholly ignored. There is no valid reason for appealing to change without also appealing to continuity. We lack a scientific standard for determining the extent of continuity across diverse contexts; we lack such a standard for determining the extent of change as well. Change and continuity together comprise the realities of history. Appealing to one at the expense of the other is simply ahistorical.
How then shall we live? Only a god might save us from this otherwise interminable mess. If one is a Christian (or a theist of another sort), then one concedes that there is such a god, and that this god has given us something that transcends context and remains eternally true. Only such an eternal truth might enable the application of ancient texts — in this case, the Bible — to modern contexts. And, only an eternal truth might guarantee that such an application is ever and always correct. If God has not given this — if God has left us on our own — then God has abandoned us.
To borrow from the scholastics, there are two kinds of theology: in via (on the way) and in se (in itself). God alone knows theology in se; human theology is always in via. But — unless God has given us nothing — absolute disparity cannot define the distinction between these two kinds of theology. Insofar as God has given us something, that revelation is the most valuable thing we have for determining how to live, for the divine revelation remains revelation amidst and despite our changing contexts. Insofar as it works within the light of revelation, theology in via will always map if not mirror something of theology in se — and this, again, regardless of our contexts.
For too many, “context” has become just another silly theological buzzword. Although sometimes essential for interpretation, context is misapplied when it is used to determine application. Because contextual change is neither a metaphysical certainty nor a measurable scientific reality, arguments about application can neither be validated nor invalidated by appealing to “context.” When arguing about application (as opposed to interpretation), the appeal to “context” is ever and always a non sequitur. There is nothing wrong with desiring that Bible verses be treated as something more than impregnable bulwarks for theologically uninformed but defensive egos — but the same concern can and should hold for appeals to context, for they too can be treated as just such a bulwark. Arguments about context will not and cannot give us the security that we need for determining what we should do in the present — we need something more. That something is divine revelation.
The featured image is “Context is King” (2015) by Rebecca Jackson. It is licensed under Creative Commons.
 I learned about the influence of Tolkien and the state of independent comic books in the 1990s while watching the delightful documentary The Cartoonist: Jeff Smith, Bone, and the Changing Face of Comics.