Context inevitably colors how we understand texts. It shapes our assumptions about what about what is possible and plausible. I see this in Patristics (the study of the early Christian church). As a confessional Reformed Christian with connections to Reformed orthodoxy, as an heir to their theology, piety, and practice it’s easier for me to see some themes and notes in Patristic literature than it might be for others. E.g., when most interpreters of Ignatius of Antioch (d. early 2nd century) seem to assume that his vision of church polity must have been monepiscopal (i.e., a hierarchy organized around a single bishop) it’s easier for me to see him talking about a plurality of offices and officers. Where some interpreters see Prosper of Aquitaine (d. c. 460) moving away from Augustine’s high doctrine of predestination later in his career, I see him embracing something like what we call the free or well meant offer of the gospel. Because most interpreters of Justin and Irenaeus are probably only vaguely aware of federal or covenant theology they are not categories that come immediately to mind when interpreting their reading of redemptive history but they do when I read them. When Tertullian wrote that he intended to contest the ground of his opponent’s argument I do not see that as fideism (the refusal to make reasonable arguments), as some do, but rather as a sort of presuppositional approach. I think my context helps me interpret Anselm for similar reasons. “Fides quaerens intellectum” (faith seeking understanding) is not only classic Augustinianism but it also makes perfect sense to a Van Tillian.
Context also affects what we think biblical texts might be saying. Most of us, even in confessional Reformed congregations, do not sing Psalms or any other portion of God’s Word during public worship very often. Yesterday morning pastor Stephen Donovan was preaching through James 5. Verse 13 says, “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing a psalm.” That’s not translation that most people are seeing. The Authorized Version (1611) had “let him sing psalms” but the ESV and NASB have “sing praises.” The NRSV has “sing praise.” The 1559 Geneva Bible has “sing.” Each of these is a reasonable translation but in our context to translate “sing praise(s)” suggests in the minds of most readers songs by Graham Kendrick more than songs by King David. When James wrote those words, however, those Jewish Christians were emerging from the synagogue. That background is signaled in a different ways. E.g., in James 2:19 he wrote, “You believe that God is one….” That was a reference to that part of the liturgy in which they confessed Deuteronomy 6:4, “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” Since we do not regularly confess the Shema (“Hear….”) we might miss that but they would not have missed it. When James exhorted those Christians to “sing” they would have thought of that collection of songs of praise given to believers by the Holy Spirit though David and others. The Jews had been singing those songs for a 1,000 years by the time James wrote those words. That millennium of experience would have shaped their expectations, their frame of reference, and their assumptions about what it means to “sing praise” to God. Further, the Greek text says “ψάλλω” (Psallo). You can see the connection between “Psallo and Psalm. The first is the verb and the second refers to the song that was sung. The collection of Psalms, which we often describe as the “book of Psalms” is actually composed of 5 books, each of which is marked by its own doxologies(s) at the end. As the Psalter was mediated to the New Testament church (via the Septuagint) there were 4 classes of songs: Psalms, hymns, [spiritual] songs, and wisdom. Those categories should seem familiar since they are the categories that Paul invokes in Colossians 3:16:
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom (σοφίᾳ), singing psalms (ψαλμοις) and hymns (υμνοις) and spiritual songs (ωδαις πνευματικαις), with thankfulness in your hearts to God.
Again, context makes all the difference. When we hear “hymns” we probably think of songs from the 18th and 19th centuries that have come to be regarded as “traditional” and were, in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries added to Reformed songbooks. Of course, the Reformed originally translated the Psalms in the languages of the people and sang principally Psalms and other parts of God’s Word (e.g., Lord’s Prayer, the Decalogue, the Nunc Dimittis, and Beza compiled “canticles” from the New Testament for use in Geneva, though it is not clear that it was ever used) for use in public worship. Most of the Reformed churches sang only God’s Word for 200 years.
Those are the songs that God gave to his people. They were given by inspiration of the Holy Spirit and preserved for us as the canon (rule) and the holy, infallible, and inerrant Word of God. Songs written by uninspired writers, however much we find them personally inspiring, are not God’s Word. They are a part of God’s general providence but so are songs by the Rolling Stones. Non-canonical hymns have no intrinsic authority and relatively little as compared to God’s Word. Further, we know that God’s people sang the psalms in the early church: “When you come together, each one has a psalm (ψαλμὸν)….” This noun is frequently translated into English with “hymn.” That choice, of course, leads most readers/hearers to think of “How Great Thou Art” more than Psalm 23.
With this background we should perhaps think differently when we read Paul quoting or alluding to 2 Sam 22:50 (a song of David) or Psalm 18:49: ” Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles, and sing (ψαλῶ) to your name.” When David sang about singing, he was singing a psalm. When Paul quoted David, he was quoting a psalm. Given that original setting we should read that language as it was originally intended. In this light perhaps we should reconsider how we understand 1 Corinthians 14:15, “I will sing (ψαλῶ) with [s]pirit and I will sing with the mind.” When he wrote “sing” we should not assume a priori that he must have been thinking of new songs. Certainly we have no warrant to think that he was implying the use of uninspired songs. When Paul says “singing” (ψάλλοντες) in Ephesians 5:19, since it is used in the context of the categories taken from the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (LXX) from the Psalter (see above) we should think of this participle in that context.
Context matters. Most of us read Scripture in English translation. Most of these are faithful translations but translators must make choices and those choices are colored by context. That seems clearly evident in the case of 1 Corinthians 14:26, where a transliteration of the Greek noun psalm produces markedly different results in the mind of the English reader. Further, because Reformed worship was revolutionized in the 18th and 19th centuries, many Reformed and Presbyterian Christians no longer sing Psalms in public or private worship. That revolution has produced a new context in which Scripture is read, heard, interpreted, and applied. If we are are to read Scripture well and apply it skillfully we should remind ourselves that our context is not final, that Scripture was written in a different context, and we must remember to seek to read Scripture in its original context as we seek to apply it to ours. In this case, as we do this, it leads us to think that not only were the canonical Psalms more prominent in the biblical context but also that they should be in ours as well.