Text and Context

‘By a strange paradox, Paul may be most significant today when he is most carefully re-situated in his own original context.’

-John M.G. Barclay, Paul and the Gift, p. 7

I have received my copy of John Barclay’s new book, Paul and the Gift and it looks to be a game-changer for Pauline studies. I’ll have more to say about this important book in the future, but for today, the last sentence (quoted above) of the prologue got me thinking about exegesis, biblical theology, and communicating biblical truth across cultures.

Barclay’s primary subject is Paul’s theology of grace, understood in terms of gift. His strategy is careful exegesis of the biblical text, understood within its first century context, particularly Paul’s Jewish heritage. Here, Barclay argues that while the biblical text is primary, proper exegesis must take background study into account. Doing so clarifies the meaning the text and, consequently, illuminates it’s significance for the contemporary church.

I want to add one thought to this: responsible exegesis set within the textual and historical context of the biblical text also aids in communicating biblical truth across cultures. 

context-matters

There are at least two reasons this is so:

1. First, biblical truth was revealed in particular cultures.

To appropriate the words of John Donne, ‘No text is an island.’  The Scriptures did not fall from the sky as a set of propositions, but were revealed over time and in particular cultural contexts. Thus, the words of Scripture are best understood within their cultural contexts. Of course, I am not saying that texts and historical contexts carry equal value. Indeed, the biblical text is sufficient in and of itself. And, primary interpretive weight is given to the biblical context.

Nevertheless, historical contexts are important for rightly understanding the meanings of particular words and phrases. Thus, background study helps us rightly understanding authorial intent and meaning.

This point is significant in teaching cross-culturally because no one reads the biblical text as a blank slate – i.e. without their own cultural lenses. Historical context helps guard us from importing foreign meanings into the biblical text.

2. Second, placing texts in context helps illuminate the concreteness of truth.

Removing texts from historical context often results in the abstracting of the message of the text, which inherently makes it more difficult to understand. While some theological truth is abstract in nature, most biblical theology is communicated in concrete stories. In choosing this manner of self-revelation, God contextualized truth so that humans could understand and apply.

It is helpful for us as readers of texts to see the way in which God has acted in history, the way in which these great historical acts were understood by believers, and the way in which believers’ lives were changed as they applied the gospel to real life situations. Concreteness communicates cross-culturally.

Reading biblical texts in historical context helps us to see the concrete reality of biblical theology. This is the point at which truth is truly life-changing and worldview building.

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