Reading the Bible Out of Context

            It’s not uncommon to hear the claim that someone is reading the Bible “out of context”. Usually what is meant by this is that certain verses from Scripture have been extracted from their textual home in a particular book of the Bible and have been interpreted in isolation. Whether it be sports stars who attach Philippians 4:13 to their athletic achievements, or youth pastors who hand out Jeremiah 29:11 bracelets to high schoolers, one quickly hears this practice denounced: “You’re taking that verse out of context!”

            Leaving aside these particular cases (and the impassioned responses), I would like to take a bird’s eye view of the matter. What, indeed, is the context of the entire Bible? How do we really avoid taking Holy Scripture out of context in a macro sense? In other words, rather than examining the contexts of Philippians as a book or Paul as an author, I want to ask: As the inspired Word of God, what is the proper context for reading, understanding, and interpreting the Bible? Spoiler alert: it’s the Church.

            The Church, says St. Paul, is “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15 NKJV). Have we really reckoned with those words? That statement is not a mere rhetorical flourish. Paul didn’t write it just because it sounded cool, though, admittedly, it does. No, it is meant to show us that the proper habitat for the apostolic kerygma, the Christian Gospel, is the Church of Jesus Christ. Paul tells us elsewhere that the word of salvation that he received is now being “delivered” (lit. “handed down”; paredōka) through him to the Church (1 Corinthians 15:3). What the Church receives she in turn hands down generation by generation.

            The very nature of the New Testament demonstrates this to us. Every single book therein bears witness to the event of Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension, and the consequent existence of His Bride, the Church. Put another way, all the books of the New Testament—whether the Gospels, Acts, the Epistles, the Apocalypse of John—speak of a past event, not as a mere historical fact, but as the inbreaking of the future kingdom into the now and, as a result, the dissolution of this present age which is being shown its way out the door. Therefore, the existence of the Church precedes in time the existence of the New Testament. Moreover, the eschatological kingdom, which is the presence of God amidst the people of God, is the future concerning which these documents testify. Church, then Bible. Bible, then Church. From both angles, the Body of Christ is the context in which the Bible finds its place.

            The existence of this “New Testament”—and not some random and disputed collection of Christian writings from the apostolic circle of the 1st century A.D.—is also dependent upon the Church. It took a few centuries for the people of God to figure out exactly which books were to be considered canonical. The “New Testament”, as a historical fact, did not exist in the mind of any of the apostles. It is by no means arbitrary, however, for we confess that it did exist in the mind of God. My point is only to show that the Church is a necessary ingredient in the canonical recipe. Surely, in retrospect, the Church looks back upon these 27 books and recognizes that she did not determine their canonical status, but only discovered their divine quality and responded appropriately. That much is true. But we must not forget that the agent of discovery is, in fact, the Church. No Church, no New Testament.

            How, then, could we isolate the Bible from the Church when its existence as a collection is dependent upon the Church? Now, I concede that the Church is built upon the Scriptures, Old and New, and in that sense, the Bible serves as the foundation. But, as we have seen, it also goes both ways. In some sense, the Church is the “ground and pillar” for the apostolic tradition, enshrined in the New Testament. So, to isolate the Scriptures from the Church is like isolating a table from its legs. It’s taking it out of context.

            It should be obvious at this point that this whole thing falls apart without a proper understanding of catholicity. Catholicity, in short, is the visible universality, both spatially and temporally, of the Christian Church. It is the recognition of the shared faith among believers in Jesus that transcends the boundaries of one particular congregation. The catholic Church is the home of the Christian Scriptures, each local parish finding its place in relation to this larger whole. No singular group of Christians can sort out which books of the Bible should be deemed canonical or not; they must submit themselves to their contemporaries and predecessors worldwide.

            In addition to this ecclesial context, the Bible also belongs to a liturgical context. These two factors go hand-in-hand. The Church is a praying people: lex orandi, lex credendi (“the law of what is prayed [is] the law of what is believed”). Any account of ecclesia must include leitourgia. The Church is not a lecture hall or classroom; it is a house of prayer for all nations. The books of the Bible are not meant only to be studied; they are meant to be prayed, above all the Psalter. As the Church receives, houses, and supports the existence of the biblical canon, she, in turn, is fed, nourished, and strengthened. If we forget the fact that these texts were given to us in order to be read, recited, prayed, and sung in the liturgy, we may very well be prone to take them out of context. In his battle with Pelagianism, St. Augustine was able to refute the idea that Christians could attain perfection in this life on the basis of the weekly recitation of the Lord’s Prayer: if we can truly become sinless, why do we continue to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses”? The Bible has a liturgical context.

            Speaking of “the context” of certain Bible verses tends to be fairly reductive. Such speech (often correctly) identifies the perils of neglecting the surrounding literary or historical features of a certain text, but usually ignores the larger ecclesial-liturgical setting of the Bible as a whole. So, Christians ought to faithfully attend the weekly gatherings with brothers and sisters, lest in their private devotionals they read the Bible out of context. Seminarians should sincerely hear the way that their fellow church members are reading the Scriptures, trusting the work of the Spirit in their lives, lest in their private research they read the Bible out of context. Pastors ought to submit themselves to the consensus of the catholic Church, reading authors from before the divisions of the Reformation and discussing the Scriptures with leaders in other traditions, lest in charting their own path they take the Bible out of context. The Lord gives the Bible a home, and it is a glorious one indeed.

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