Thursday, June 12, 2008


I started this "Hermeneutics" thread by discussing the "analogy of faith." Closely related to this Lutheran principle of Bible interpretation is the matter of context. And a closely-related example serves to introduce this subject. The same "Christian" theologian who used Scripture "without the analogy of faith" in order to deny infant baptism, also referenced Matthew 7:18a ("A good tree cannot produce bad fruit") to support his assertion that we are born sinless, reasoning that God does not create anything evil.

On its own, without even the latter half of the verse to clarify what Jesus is talking about, it could be used to argue that. But in the context of verses 15 and 16 ("Beware of the false prophets...You will know them by their fruits"), and the rest of verse 18 ("A bad tree cannot produce good fruit"), it becomes evident that Jesus meant nothing of the sort. Jesus meant that a true prophet of God declares only what God reveals to him, while a false prophet receives nothing at all from God. See John 10:19 ff., where Jesus uses the same argument to back up his claim of being God in the flesh; and John 3:2, where Nicodemus follows this reasoning to a weaker and more tentative conclusion. What Jesus does by the power of God signifies that what He proclaims is the Word of God; He is therefore the "good tree" of Matthew 7:18. If He were not - if His claims, e.g. in John 10:30 ("I and the Father are one"), were not divinely true - then He could not have done the signs, miracles of restoration and liberation from demonic powers, that attested to Him as a true prophet from God.

The "Christian" columnist's interpretation Matthew 7:18a is one of the worst examples I have seen of disregarding the context of a Bible verse. But only one of them. Among other examples are some so outrageous that you have to laugh. There is the classic catena (chain of Bible references) of Matthew 27:5; Luke 10:37; John 13:27 - which brings out a "hidden message" particularly if you use "part B" of each verse. You could similarly quote a fragment of Psalm 14:1 and assert that the Bible teaches: "There is no God" (ignoring the prefatory words "The fool has said in his heart"). Or you could quote part of James 1:13 ("I am being tempted by God") to teach that God dangles temptation in front of us, even though the verse begins "Let no one say when he is tempted..."

These examples are so obviously distorted that one glance at the text reveals the trick. Without the context, you can make Scripture say any number of things - including the very opposite of what the Holy Spirit means to say. Unfortunately, Christendom is full of fast-talking false teachers who use Scripture without the context, often to nearly the same degree of transparent dishonesty, to confuse people about what God's Word teaches.

The abuse of context is a main arrow in the heretic's quiver. It is even, embarrassingly enough, found in our own books. Edition after edition of Missouri Synod Lutheran catechisms, going back to the time when they were printed in German, cite John 5:39 ("Search the Scriptures") to urge us all to read the Bible. I call this embarrassing because, if you trouble yourself to read anything in the neighborhood of these three words, you will easily perceive that Jesus is saying something else. He is reproaching the Jews for reading the Bible without recognizing Him as its subject, without finding in Him the salvation they seek. Let's save that for a later discussion on this thread.

I wish the concept of "context" were as obvious as I feel it should be. Clearly, it is not so obvious to most people. Millions of Christians have been duped into false beliefs, and some have lost their faith entirely, through canny quotes and Bible references that do injury to the intended meaning of the Holy Spirit. Finding out that meaning, or at least casting doubt on the quoter's interpretation, is often as simple as reading two or three verses to each side of the given citation. Why are people vulnerable to such an easily spotted deception? Perhaps it is because they have a poor concept of the Bible: that it is a list of separate verses arranged in arbitrary order, a net full of fish from which we can pluck out those that we want and throw the rest away.

It might surprise many Christians to start reading, say, Matthew or John or Romans, a chapter at a time, and so to discover that one sentence (making a single, coherent argument) can go on for a dozen verses, that one paragraph logically follows from another, that whole chapters and even groups of chapters build up a purposeful narrative design or carry one idea through a sophisticated process of development. There may be parts of Scripture (say, in Proverbs or the Psalms) where it is hard to see what leads one verse to the next. But throughout most of the Bible, the context is a very significant factor to take into account.

A lot of Christians would be surprised - including some who have been quoting God's Word out of context. Using a verse or part of a verse to illustrate or "prove" your point, without regard for its context, is at best sloppy, at worst dishonest. This suggests that the whole tradition of "proof texting" needs to be reevaluated, at least. For it is appalling to think about how much American Christians may be influenced by the views of the editors of the "Thompson Chain Reference Bible," "Elwell's Topical Analysis of the Bible," the "Scofield Reference Bible," etc., as to which doctrines are "proved" by what verses. For all we know, Thompson, Elwell, Scofield, and their ilk may have been reading Scripture without the analogy of faith, and quoting it out of context to boot.

How, practically speaking, can this nationwide, spiritual disaster be remedied? That question is wide open, folks. I can't offer a panacaea. But I can offer a tip that can help, at least, when sectarian missionaries come a-knocking and you feel overwhelmed by their deluge of supporting Bible references. And that tip, or rather hermeneutic, is: Look up the context. Don't take someone's word for it that Joe Blow 3:16 says so-and-so. Make sure that's what it says, not just from the verse itself, but from its context. And, of course, if even that leaves you unsure, you can fall back on the "analogy of faith": What Scripture teaches here cannot contradict what it teaches everywhere else. Or to put it on a bumper sticker: "Scripture interprets Scripture."

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