When Studying the Bible, Always, Always, Always, Know the Context

Watch the TED Talk from 2010 below. In it, Doctor and epidemiologist Ben Goldacre shows how witholding test data on drugs is being used to push drugs on the market, to say that certain drugs are better than others, and that a drug will do a certain thing most of the time. This is bad science.

As a student of the Bible (both as a Christian and as a student in a University’s Religion Department) there is one thing in particular that this video made me think of.

A classic example will flesh this out for you.

A young man is in a dating relationship with a young woman. This young man is uncertain about how to proceed with the relationship. So, like any good young man, he looks to God. He first stumbles across 1 Corinthians 7:36c, which says, “They should get married quickly.”

His heart rate goes up. God wants me to ask her to marry me! But, when?

He then stumbles across John 13:27, which says, “What you are about to do, do quickly.”

His questions answered, and having heard directly from God on what he should do and when he should do it, he closes his Bible and goes to sleep, dreaming of marrying his girlfriend.

What’s the problem with this? Well. Everything actually. What he read is in the Bible, yes. But, what he read has what we call context. If there is one thing that should be drilled into every Christian’s head when it comes to teaching, preaching, and learning from the BIble it is that context determines meaning.

If our eager young man would have bothered to read the context surrounding his snippet of text he would have noticed two things. First, that Paul was writing a specific instruction to a specific people. There was a problem in the Corinthian church of engaged couples acting as they shouldn’t (like married couples). In this light he says, “GET MARRIED!!” Second, after this verse (v. 36), there is a conjunction…”but.” Our young man should have continued reading. Paul instructs that if the young men are able to practice self-control and have decided to not marry, they should not. He concludes by saying this, “So then, he who marries the virgin does right, but he who does not marry her does even better” (v. 38).

And, obviously, John 13:27 is a quote of Jesus telling Judas, he betrayer, to do what he is going to do quickly, his betraying of Jesus, which has nothing at all to do with marriage and thus does not apply to our young man’s question of when to marry.

Context, context, context. In light of the video above, data, data, data.

“We cannot make decisions in the absence of all information.” – Ben Goldacre


10 thoughts on “When Studying the Bible, Always, Always, Always, Know the Context

    • Julie, I will give it a listen and let you know my thoughts.

      The account that retweeted, @TRWestminsterTS, is not to be trusted. They appear to have an agenda against the REAL seminary and their professors: @WestminsterTS. They are a seminary located in Philadelphia and one that I have attended a conference at. I would LOVE to attend for my MDiv. Currently my father is studying for his PHD at Westminster and is currently writing his thesis for his ThM.


    • Julie, I have been in a lecture of Tipton’s before but it was on a completely different topic. Unfortunately a lot of what he is talking about is over my head, currently. I hope to one day be able to understand those topics, but where I am at in my education now is not even close to that. One day I will.

      You can learn more about Van Til here – http://www.theopedia.com/Cornelius_Van_Til

      And here – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cornelius_Van_Til

      You will notice that he taught at Westminster Theological Seminary for 43 years and was also at Princeton Seminary for a time.

      • Thank you! It was over MY head thats why I asked you first 🙂

        Definitely something I am going to need to delve into!

        I apologize for distracting you with all this. Who knew all this would happen just after a Retweet!

        • no apologies necessary!! It is good to ask questions, learn, and then do something about it. The account needs to be shutdown and i’m sure every block and report helps get it closer to that. My dad could probably explain that clip…I’ll have to see if I can get him to listen to it and comment 🙂 (He is also someone that I’d like to have write here on a regular basis. You would learn SO MUCH from him).

  1. Pingback: A Lamp to my Feet, Focusing on Christmas – Isaiah 7:14 | Aaron Aiken

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