Context is everything.
Mark Twain is reported to have said, “It ain't those parts of the Bible that I can't understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.” Twain was a noted critic of just about everything, including the Bible so the above quote was not a statement of faith.
Maybe you have even expressed something similar; I know I. have. There are many things in the Bible I do not understand. However, I know that if I dig into the context of Scripture, I can understand more than I do now, even if some of my questions remain.
The key word in that last sentence is “context.” New Testament scholar Ben Witherington has often said, “A text without a context is just a pretext for whatever you want it to say.” In other words, if we want to understand any passage of Scripture we must know the context of that passage.
Without knowing the context of a passage, we are likely to misunderstand what the author is trying to say. For those with a self-centered or evil bent, they can, as Peter said above, “twist [the Scriptures] to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures.” If we are earnestly trying to understand, that understanding may elude us if we do not know the context.
But what is the context of a passage? On a very basic level, the context of a passage begins with the paragraph which contains the passage. The writers of Scripture did not write Scripture as a series of disconnected sentences, like a series of fortune cookie slips. They wrote books, letters, stories, parables, prayers and a host of other writings. Each of these types of writing had a beginning and middle and an end; they were never meant to be read in isolation.
Another level of context concerns the cultural context. The authors of Scripture wrote from a culture and to a culture. If we are to understand the message they wrote we must know something of that culture.
So what do we believe?
But even if we do not have access to cultural information, God has given us enough in Scripture to lead us to a relationship with him, know what pleases him and what he wants for our world. As our United Methodist Book of Discipline says,
We believe the Holy Bible, Old and New Testaments, reveals the Word of God so far as it is necessary for our salvation. It is to be received through the Holy Spirit as the true rule and guide for faith and practice (The Book of Discipline of The UMC 2016 ❡104).
As we open our minds and hearts to the Word of God through the words of human beings inspired by the Holy Spirit, faith is born and nourished, our understanding is deepened, and the possibilities for transforming the world become apparent to us (The Book of Discipline of The UMC 2016 ❡105).
So, let us come to God’s Word with an open mind and heart, let us seek to understand our mission in the world, and let us continue to search for answers to the things we do not understand.