Discovering What the Bible Means
When you read or analyze a statement, you have discovered what the Bible says. Knowing what it says, you must look at this in its various contexts to discover what it means. What a biblical statement means is what it meant to its author and first readers–them, there, and then. Application or significance is what it means to the interpreter and his audience–us, here, and now. All of the following contexts inevitably contribute to the meaning of a text. (1) Historical Context: – The writers’ statements were meant to be interpreted in the cultural, political, and religious situation of their first readers. (2) Book Context: – A particular passage must be interpreted in the light of how it fits into the overall book. We must know what its function is in the author’s overall argument. We must ask how it relates to the central idea of the book to help prove, explain, illustrate, or apply it. (3) Pericope or Wider Context: – Most books of the Bible can be divided into sections that support the main point of the book. Each statement fits within one of these main sections (i.e., pericopes). A passage must be interpreted in the light of its function in the pericope. (4) Immediate Context: – Each sentence in a paragraph supports the central idea of the paragraph. It will either give facts to prove, explanations that clarify, or illustrations that clarify or apply the central idea. Each paragraph relates to the ones immediately before and the ones immediately following. What is said must be interpreted in harmony with the content and function of the immediate context. Contextual study considers the following: Who is speaking? To whom? When? Under what circumstances? To support or negate what idea? To deal with what problem? To correct what situation? (5) Canonical or Remote Context: – When a statement about a subject is unclear, clear statements on the subject must be sought out to determine what the Bible teaches on the subject. The Bible is its own best commentary. Since we view the Bible as a unit, our interpretations of difficult passages must never contradict clear statements in other passages.
Step 9: Analyze what the entire canon of the Bible says about the theme you are considering. When a statement about a subject is unclear, clear statements on the subject must be sought out to determine what the Bible teaches on the subject. The Bible is its own best commentary. Since we view the Bible as a unit, our interpretations of difficult passages must never contradict clear statements in other passages. Any interpretation that differs from clearly stated teachings is wrong. For example, Paul’s statements in Romans (8:28-33) and Ephesians (1:4-11) do not indicate whether predestination is conditional or unconditional. However, when we consider the teaching of the rest of the Bible on salvation, unconditional predestination contradicts all teaching regarding the fact that God is not a respector of persons, that man chooses to be saved or not, that faith is required for salvation, and that obedience is required to make faith acceptable. Thus, the canonical context requires that predestination to salvation requires that it be conditional predestination.
The search for what the biblical canon says about a subject or an issue may be facilitated by the use of both verbal and conceptual concordances. A concordance will direct you to passages that deal with the subject of interest. The quickest method of finding this information is using a computer search program. A computer search program will both find and show the texts on the screen, even print out the texts if you wish.