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Context, Context, Context!

Dangers of Our Perceptions


An overwhelming amount of questions we have are stemmed from ill Biblical interpretation; and naturally so. Our perception is reality. Our reality is our perception. We view our world through our experiences. But is that usually correct?

I am a big fan of comic books. And with the boom of comics to motion picture, I could not be happier. One of my favorites is Spider-Man. And towards the front of the movie, Peter Parker (Spidey) and his class are on a trip to a science lab. Outside of the lab the students gathered with their teacher in order to be presently counted. Peter’s crush, Mary Jane, arrived and he was fortunate to turn and see her waving her hand in his direction. Peter blushes and waves back. Mary gets closer; walking straight toward him. Pete’s heart is thumping (guys, you know the feeling). Two voices from behind him excitedly say, “Hey, MJ!” and she walks right passed poor Petey. It was her friends to whom she was waving.

In like manner, we look at the Bible the same way. If the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man would have known the context, he would have saved himself the embarrassment.

Like any book, the Bible must be literally interpreted, which means that it should be interpreted as it is written. A noun is to be treated as a noun and a verb as a verb. It means that all forms that are used in the Bible are to be interpreted according to the normal rules of governing those forms. Poetry is to be treated as poetry and parables as parables, and so on.

This is best understood with an exercise I created for one of my Bible study classes. Although it is more effective when exercised within a group of people, but you should get the picture.

We begin with dividing the group into two teams. I act as escort standing by the dry-erase board. On it, I write the word, “drop” and I drop my marker and pick it up. And ask them to interpret. They came up with similar interpretations: “The word ‘drop’ is a verb which means to release from clutches. In other words, ‘Let go.’”

I then added to the word, “Leave the cream at the drop.” I asked them again to interpret. They were puzzled now, because the word drop had different meaning. One team answered, “Drop is a place. This is taking place in a grocery store. The counter is the ‘drop’ and someone is placing sour cream there.” The other team stated, “The drop is a place where old goods are thrown away. Someone cannot let go of their favorite treat, but is commanded to.”

I added some more. It now read, “Here is the bag. Leave the cream at the drop.” The first group ran with the grocery store idea and interpreted it this way, “The sacker left to get a price check. But before he ran off, he told the teller, ‘Here is the grocery sack, place the sour cream in it and I’ll get the rest when I get back.” The other team began to side with the first. They too saw the grocery store in the text.

I added yet another sentence to the text to read, “I got the bricks. Here is the bag. Leave the cream at the drop.” Now they were all puzzled. They switched from grocery store, to home décor store. “There are two employees at this home decorating store. One says to the other ‘I got the bricks’ referring to the appropriate stones for the customer. The other employee says that he prepared the bag and informs his fellow employee to drop them off up front for the client.”

Lastly, I gave them some startling insight on this. I put the text into context by briefing the story so that they knew the characters. I told them that there are indeed two people. But one is speaking. One is a drug dealer and he says to his buyer, ‘I got the bricks. Here is the bag. Leave the cream at the drop.’ These criminals were New York urban youth with an underground slang only they understood. ‘Bricks’ were an amount of drugs, ‘cream’ is another word for money, and ‘drop’ was a specific place to make the transaction. It was all understood now. This never took place in a store.

This is a great example of how we twist Scripture according to our own experience and knowledge. The Bible must be taken literally as it is written. We must know the context. We must know the people. We must know the slang.

So what then? What if something is still not clear? In some passages, this is the case. We call these passages “implicit” passages because they imply a meaning (possibly more than one meaning). These passages must make sense in light of the “explicit” passages. For example, in one sentence I state “I got bricks.” This could mean so many things (as you see above). It is certainly implicit. But when in another sentence I state “I have drugs. Drugs are bricks”, you automatically understand the first.

You see this in 1 Corinthians 14:4, Paul accuses the church of edifying themselves. He says it in a statement form. It reads, “He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself.” Many take that as Paul commanding them to do so. Conversely, other say that it is Paul being sarcastic as he did before. This is indeed an “implicit” passage of Scripture. So, when we look at the chapter before, Paul states that love does not edify self (13:5). And that we should act in love. This passage is definitely “explicit”. There is no way to misconstrue this text. So we must interpret the 14:4 with the 13:5.

If we can grasp the art and science of biblical interpretation, we can understand so much more of God’s Word and disagreements can be avoided. So keep this in mind next time you approach the Word of God.

Posted by Jacob Abshire on September 16th, 2008 - 7:37 pm
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