When we talk about the context of Scripture there are several things that need to be considered. I want to start with what is in front of the text. This means you.
Take a few minutes to really think about who you are.
Where did you grow up? What part of the world? What country? If you grew up in the US, what state? What city? What neighborhood?
What crowd did you hang out with? Were you a loner? Did you have a lot of friends? Did you play football or some other sport? Did you do theatre or play an instrument in band. Maybe FBLA.
What socioeconomic class was your family part of when you were growing up? Are you still part of that socioeconomic class or have you changed your financial reality? Are you working to change it? Going to college or trade school?
How old are you? What does your life look like now? Do you feel like you purposed to be where you are as a goal you set and reached? Or did life happen to you and you did the best with what you had thrown at you and here you are?
Are you male? Female?Trans? Gay? Heterosexual? Do these questions make you uncomfortable?
There are just some of the questions about who you are and what defines you that go into the filter through which you engage with life and Scripture. The answer to each of these questions and so many more influence what you read when you read the text.
This is why the idea of the “plain reading of the text” is impractical as an approach to sound theology. Everyone’s plain reading of the text is influenced by who they are as the reader. Trying to defend the plain reading of the text is nothing more than defending your personal opinion about things. Sound theology needs to be more than this.
We are all products of our experiences and our culture. We learn as we go through life and the things we learn shape who we are. Have you ever wondered why you can read something 100 times and then read it that 101st time and suddenly see something you’ve never seen before? The text didn’t change – you did. You learned something new or had an experience that opened your eyes to something new. It’s like the phenomenon you experience when you buy a new car and suddenly see that model everywhere on the road. Your eyes are opened to something new.
Men and women are made in the image of God, but we are not God. We are within time and bound by our immediate perspective.
One thing that causes many people to experience a crisis of faith is that they change and they were told their theology was absolute Truth that could never change. When they change and begin to question, or see things differently, they mistakenly assume they have abandoned Truth. Some will try to force themselves to continue believing something they can no longer truly believe but more will eventually walk away thinking they have rejected God when they have only rejected a doctrine or denominational teaching. They aren’t having a crisis of faith so much as a crisis of bad theology!
When doctrines are considered absolute Truth it is time to consider whether the line has been crossed between studying Scripture and idolatry. The inability to see that theology is man’s best effort to understand God has led to wars and divisions even within the Body of Christ. Scripture says we are one Body but we end up looking like the Walking Dead when people refuse to connect to this or that body because they disagree on something not even related to salvation. If you
cannot fellowship with someone who loves God but believes differently about the function or method of baptism it is possible that the issue of baptism has been elevated out of context. And yet it is unwise to attach to a toxic community. If someone is elevating something out of context it is not your responsibility to try and change them or stick around to be treated poorly out of a mistaken idea that allowing others to harm you is love. If you realize the body you have attached to is a Zombie it is wise to detach and seek out a Living Body.
As we study Scripture in order to understand the text, it is helpful to work to overcome our cultural context and become aware of when we are imposing ourselves onto the text or the people behind the text. Do I read this passage the way I do because it really says that or because it’s comfortable for me to read it that way? Does it make sense to me because I am reading it through my filter? Would it say the same thing to someone form a different culture? There is something beautiful and edifying in the practice of learning how various cultures respond to issues within the text. This is a wonderful way to learn about other cultures and communities and challenge our own reading of the text.
Obviously we cannot remove ourselves from our reading and study. We are part of the package. it’s more that awareness of this will minimize how much we impose ourselves on the text. I am a firm believer in holding my theology firmly enough to allow it to provide structure for my life and loosely enough that God can correct me when I have misunderstood something.
It’s important to be discerning when we seek out teachers and as we involve ourselves in community. What is in front of the text influences the way the text is studied and understood and determines the fruit that comes from that study.
I have come to realize that misunderstanding Scripture produces toxic fruit and fear. I know I am on the right track for understanding something in the Bible when the fruit of the Spirit are brought about and the presence of love (as defined in ! Corinthians 13) is greater. Great peace is evidence of connecting to Truth in Scripture. It brings with it humility and compassion. Looking for these things in the way teaching is communicated and the way that someone is living have helped me to determine whether or not an individual or group has something worth learning.