Any Text Without A Context is Pretext for a Prooftext (Updated)

So said my homiletics (preaching) prof, Derke Bergsma. I don’t know if that aphorism was original to Derke (he often quoted R. B. Kuiper to us in class, e.g., “Men, there are three points to every sermon, the text, the text, the text” and “preach the text, the whole text, and nothing but the text, so help you God.”) but it stuck with me. One way to be sure to handle the text of Scripture well and accurately is to place it in its original context. Failure to read Scripture against its original background will have unhappy consequences.

During my sojourn, in the late 70s, in a broadly evangelical SBC congregation (with a strong dose of Campus Life, Navigators, and a dash of Crusade), Bible studies were often of the sort where the group leader would open in prayer, read a passage, and then throw it open for discussion. Yes, I recall people saying, “To me, this passage says….” The good news is that we were studying Scripture earnestly and prayerfully. The bad news is that we were often studying Scripture without any knowledge of the original context of the passage. The result of our ignorance of the original context was usually that the passage was lifted out of its original historical context, out of its literary context, and re-contextualized into our contemporary context. The objective Word of God became a subjective word from God. The Word to us became a word about us.

In a variety of ways I’ve been reminded again recently of the importance of accounting for the original context when reading Scripture. Throughout its history the church has often struggled to remember the original context of Scripture and to read Scripture in light of the original context, to find herself in the Scriptures (rather than the inverse). Beginning in the patristic era the church sought ways to make the Scriptures more immediately “relevant” (there’s nothing new under the sun). Thus, one father taught that our Lord did not stand in a boat to teach because of a practical problem but in order to teach us about the nature of the church (boat = church). In that way the context of text was shifted from it’s original setting and translated into our context. Another influential father wrote that it actual history of the Ark narrative wasn’t nearly as important or obvious as the theological and moral truths embedded in the narrative. These fathers didn’t deny the historical truth of Scripture but they did marginalize it in favor of the doctrinal sense (i.e., the allegorical sense) and the moral or tropological sense of Scripture.

This approach to Scripture intensified over the centuries. There were reactions, in the 9th and 13th centuries seeking to return the attention of the church to the biblical history, to the original context, but the tendency to relocate Scripture into our time, to interpret Scripture in light of our experience, persisted until the Renaissance and the Reformation. The Renaissance writers (exemplified by Erasmus) grounded Scripture again in its original context but, in reaction to the some of the exaggerated medieval interpretations, tended to minimize the theological implications and focused on the implications for piety and for morality. In this way they anticipated aspects of the later pietist movement. The Reformers were more theological in their reading of Scripture, though they were also concerned about drawing out the implications of a passage for piety and morality. They tended to ground their reading of Scripture in the historical, original setting and sense of Scripture. None of the Reformers exemplifies this more than Calvin, whose commentaries continue to be valuable because he read Scripture in context and paid attention the intent of the human author and to the intent of the divine author (the Holy Spirit) of Scripture. The Protestants, however, didn’t suggest that Scripture has as many meanings as there are readers. it has implications and there are good and necessary inferences (to borrow from the Westminster Confession of Faith) but our reading of Scripture is always grounded in the original setting and in the original intent as understood in light of its setting and through the grammar of the passage.

There are real problems with ignoring original context and original intent. First, we effectively lose the Scriptures. If the Scriptures really mean what they mean to this reader, and that reader (no matter if those readings contradict each other), then there is no text of Scripture. The reader becomes the text because the reader is determining the text. The irony here is that, in popular evangelical piety, this way of reading Scripture is rampant and yet, in those same settings one is quite likely to be warned about the dangers of “postmodernism.” Well, nothing is more “postmodern” than denying original intent and privileging (as they say) the reader over the author! When it comes to subjectivism and deconstructing texts, the French could learn from the evangelicals.

A second great problem is that invariably, when the text is decontextualized from its original setting and re-contextualized in our setting Scripture is no longer a historical text but it is turned into a myth or a moral story. If the text can be removed from history then it doesn’t really matter if it’s historically true so long as it’s morally true. Moral truth without historical truth may work for modern liberalism but it didn’t work for the Apostle Paul, who wrote that if Jesus wasn’t historically, actually raised from the dead then our faith is worthless. Paul didn’t know anything about the moral truth of Christianity without its historical reality. On this see J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism.

A third problem is that deconstructing Scripture this way fundamentally corrupts its message. When we treat Scripture thus, when we lift passages out of their context, even under the context of “applying them,” we change the message of the text. This is the brilliance of Dr Bergsma’s aphorism. Any (biblical) text, without a (its historical, grammatical, canonical, and literary) context, is a pretext (an opportunity falsely taken) for a proof-text (a text abused by a preacher or Bible study leader to make a point that is not actually being made by the text itself). Historically, the most frequent result of the abuse of Scripture this way is to make the text to be about “me” or “us” rather than about Christ (however revealed in the text), his objective moral law, his saving acts and Word, and his church (in whatever epoch of redemptive history). Scripture is not, in the first instance about “us” or “me.” In the first instance Scripture is about God the Holy Trinity. It is about creation, redemption, and consummation. It’s about the progress of redemptive history and revelation. It’s about the salvation of his people in Christ. We come into the story rather late. It has massive implications for us. We do have to find ourselves in the story that God has written but it is great mistake to make the text about us.

For these reasons I’ve often been nervous about whatever the latest preaching or Bible Study “model” is supposed to be, whether it is the “idols of the heart” or find the “purpose” of the text or even Christian experience. Each of these, in their own ways, seem to me to find a way, however subtly, to move the focus of the story away from Christ and back to me. The text becomes about “us” or “me” or my life (and sometimes about the preacher). As sinners we have a powerful, almost overwhelming incentive and drive to re-write the story and if we can do that in pious sounding ways then it’s harder to detect. After all, who can object to searching our our own personal idols or to making concrete practical applications of the text to daily life or to explaining Christian experience?

Well, not every text is about the “idols of my heart.” To ask that question (or any other) about every text is effectively to return Protestant hermeneutics to the worst uses of Quadriga. In such an approach, one begins with the assumption (a priori) that the passage must say something the idols of my heart and proceeds to find the idols, even if the text, on its own terms, doesn’t intend to speak directly to that question in this passage. Yes, I have idols that need to be torn down and replaced with Christ’s Lordship, but we mustn’t flatten out Scripture so that every text is a mere variation on the same moral theme. Yes, there is a purpose (a telos) to every text but, in some approaches, that “purpose” usually turns out to be what the medievals called the “tropological” sense, i.e., the “moral sense” of Scripture. When it’s there, in the text, it has to be preached but approaching Scripture with a strong model like this tends to flatten out the story. The same is true for that model which asks Scripture first of all what it says about Christian experience. The Word does speak to Christian experience but not every passage is meant to do so. Yes, it’s even possible to abuse a redemptive-historical approach such that every passage becomes a test of the preacher’s cleverness at pulling Jesus surprisingly from the text as a magician pulls a rabbit from the hat. There’s no question whether it’s going to happen. It’s only a matter of when and how. The intended message of a passage must be determined in light of the original historical context, grammar, genre, and canonical context.

The point is to preach and to teach “this text.” What contribution to the canon does this particular text make? What is distinctive about this passage, read in its narrow context, in its broader canonical context, in its historical context, and in its grammatical context? That is the question that the Bible Study leader or the preacher must answer. The preacher/teacher must always also relate this passage to others and see the unity of Scripture. As we learned from Van Til, we must always account for the one (that which unifies) and the many (that which distinguishes) and we can only do that as we begin with and pay close attention to the context.

UPDATE 30 Nov 2020

The most recent episode of the WHI is on this very topic, “Textual Narcissism.” Check it out.

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