I read a book called Out of Context by Richard Schultz last semester for a seminary class. The author goes through common exegetical and interpretive mistakes in teaching the Bible, including those that famous preachers or authors have made, and equips the reader with ways to make sure he or she does not make the same mistakes. As I read about each of these kinds of fallacies, I wondered if something deeper than carelessness or ignorance might be the issue for some of us who take things out of context when teaching from the Bible.
One example is that the listeners generally eat it up when a teacher says, “In the Greek, this word means such and such,” assuming that what the teacher says must definitely be accurate. This can tempt us to do some acrobatics to make the Greek mean something it may not actually mean. For example, the teacher could pull out the lexicon and reduce the word to its elements and thereby conclude that he or she has deduced the “true” meaning of the word. The equivalent would be someone far in the future taking apart a current compound word or phrase like “cell phone” and explaining, “‘Cell’ could mean a room in a prison, a portable phone, or a blood cell, so when we really look deeply into the meaning of ‘cell phone,’ we see that it was the life-blood of Americans around the year 2000, and yet it imprisoned them in its cage of distraction and isolation, especially with the advent of the smartphone.”
That’s certainly a very interesting interpretation, and not entirely inaccurate in its implications, but when you or I say the word “cell phone” to each other, we are not in that moment thinking of all possible meanings of the word “cell”! In the same way, we often grasp at straws in an effort to read deep meanings into certain parts of the Bible.
The Word is an inexhaustible source of riches and deep meaning as it stands, but all too often, in our effort to extract something profound, we take words and concepts out of context. Maybe we are just tired, or we are running out of time before we have to present a lesson.
But as I read Schultz’s book, I kept asking myself, “Why else do we do this?” Besides time constraints when preparing to teach, why do we read things into the Word? Is what it plainly says not riches enough for us, not challenging enough for us? Have we been so fully aligned with the Lord, are we so completely obedient and living in the Spirit already, that we have to go into iffy allegory and analysis of seemingly insignificant details in Bible passages for the Word to have anything further to teach us?
I believe the temptation to take things out of context usually comes from a heart that is sincere, but which is trying to substitute human effort for the Holy Spirit. It comes when we rely on the words on a page to give us some deep meaning and revelation, rather than the Spirit who empowers those words, without Whom the words really don’t carry any power at all.
When we as ministers of the gospel are preparing to teach, preach, or write for the education and edification of other believers, we have to let the Spirit guide us in our preparation – not the expectations of others, not what we were “trying” to say or “wanted” to say. Sometimes we feel that we absolutely must teach about this part of Scripture or that, or make this point or that one, and in so doing we limit the Holy Spirit and fail to let Him empower the Word and speak to His people individually.
As Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 2:1, “When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God.” He deliberately contrasts himself with some philosophers of the day who relied on human wisdom, effort, and analysis to grasp at higher truths, rather than the readily accessible revelation and power of the Higher Being.
I firmly believe that the simplest and most basic of biblical truths, communicated in the power of the Spirit and with His anointing and timing, will always be more powerful than the best of human wisdom that tries desperately to glean some elusive nugget that lies below the plain meaning of the text. Teach the basic truths of the Word with power, conviction, and with the guidance and presence of the Holy Spirit. When you are preparing to teach and find that you are coming up short, resist the temptation to read something into the text that really is not there, to take some little nuance or word and magnify it into more than what the writer clearly intended it to be. Delving into the original language, the history, the philosophy of the times – these are all wonderful things that can potentially help to further illuminate the Word rather than stretch or obscure it. When you find yourself pulling something out of the text other than the intended meaning of the passage, take a step back and ask yourself, “Is this being guided by the Holy Spirit, or is this my own human wisdom?”
We are hungry for the Spirit in our seminaries and churches today, and we all long to be guided by Him in our teaching. Using Scripture out of context, pulling unintended meanings out of the Word, is just one symptom of trying to use human effort to supply the meaning and power that only the Spirit can offer.
By Rebecca Dobyns. Becky graduated from the University of Texas and still loves the city of Austin in all its weird glory. Nevertheless, she currently finds herself keeping it relatively normal by studying at Southwestern Seminary in Fort Worth, preparing for further cross-cultural ministry. She blogs about spiritual and physical wholeness at Wholly Redefined and Tweets about the adventures of abundant life with Jesus.