Ministry Resources

A Common Objection to Studying in Context

Author: Dr. Craig Keener

I will deal here with one objection to studying the Bible in its context that arises in some circles.

Special Revelation or Out of Context?

Some people quote Scripture out of context and then claim they are right because they have special authority or a special revelation from God. But they should be honest in claiming that this is a special revelation rather than the Scripture. All revelations must be judged (1 Corinthians 14:29; 1 Thessalonians 5:20-21), and God gave us a Bible in part so we could test other revelations.

No one has the right to short-circuit hearers’ rights to evaluate their claims from Scripture by claiming a revelation about Scripture’s meaning which the hearers cannot evaluate by studying it for themselves. Otherwise anyone could claim that Scripture means anything! Any view can be supported based on proof-texts out of context; any theology can make its reasoning sound consistent; Jehovah’s Witnesses do this all the time. We dare not base our faith on other people’s study of the Bible rather than on the Bible itself.

Hearing God’s Voice

We should be very careful what we claim the Bible teaches. Claiming that “The Bible says” is equivalent to claiming, “This is what the Lord says.” In Jeremiah’s day, some false prophets falsely claimed to be speaking what God was saying, but they were in fact speaking from their own imaginations (Jeremiah 23:16) and stealing their messages from each other (Jeremiah 23:30) rather than listening to God’s voice for themselves (Jeremiah 23:22).

“We dare not base our faith on other people’s study of the Bible rather than on the Bible itself.”

God can sovereignly speak to people through Scripture out of context if he wishes, just as he can speak through a bird or a poem or a donkey; if God is all-powerful (Revelation 1:8), He can speak however He pleases. But we do not routinely appeal to donkeys to teach us truth, and how he speaks to one person through a verse out of context does not determine its meaning for all hearers for all time. The universal meaning of the text is the meaning to which all readers have access, namely, what it means in context.

Render Unto Caesar

When I was a young Christian recently converted, I was taking a class in Latin and supposed to be translating Caesar for my homework. Wanting to read only my Bible and not do my homework, I flipped open the Bible and stuck my finger down, hoping to find a text that said, “Forsake all and follow me.” Instead, I found, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Luke 20:25). God chose to answer my foolish approach to Scripture on the level it deserved, but this hardly means that this text now summons all Christians to translate Caesar’s Gallic War!

“All revelations must be judged, and God gave us a Bible in part so we could test other revelations.”

All claims to hear God’s voice must be evaluated (1 Corinthians 14:29; 1 Thessalonians 5:20-21), and listening to someone else’s claim can get us in trouble if we do not test it carefully (1 Kings 13:18-22). Paul warns us: “If anyone thinks himself a prophet or spiritual, let him acknowledge that what I write is the Lord’s command. If one ignores this, he himself will be ignored” (1 Corinthians 14:37-38). The one revelation to which all Christians can look with assurance is the Bible; what we can be sure it means is what God meant when he inspired the original authors to communicate their original message. This is the one revelation all Christians agree on as the “canon,” or measuring-stick, for all other claims to revelation. Thus we need to do our best to properly understand it, preach it and teach it the way God gave it to us, in context.

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