Content, Context and Corinthian Confusion

From the Dean

A regular article written by Phillip Jensen in his role as Dean of Sydney at St Andrew's Cathedral.

Originally Published:
28th August 2009

Tagged: bible reading gifts

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We must read the Bible in context.  But what is the context in which we are to read it?  And what is the relationship between context and content?

Last month as I preached through 1 Corinthians 12-14, I was reminded once again of the danger of ‘interpreting’ the Bible by context rather than understanding the content of the Bible.

There are two contexts that are often appealed to – one unconsciously, the other consciously.  The first is the experience of the reader.  The second is the assumed historical background of the original recipients.  Both can dominate the content of the text to enable the readers to find whatever they want.

It is impossible to read without being influenced by our own experiences.  Even the ability to read is an experience that we bring to the text.  The experience of listening to literature read aloud is different to reading silently by oneself.

But there is a common problem of assuming our experiences are the same as the author’s.  For example we experience ‘church’ long before we read about it in the Bible.  It is hard then to leave our experience of church behind and genuinely hear what the Bible writers refer to when they mention ‘church’.  Similarly translators are unhelpful when they retain words like ‘deacon’.  It is not actually a translation but transliteration - turning the Greek letters into an English word.  The Greek word means ‘servant’.  As our churches have office bearers called deacons it is normal for modern readers to wrongly assume that the Bible is talking of these people and their role.

That leads to the second context problem – the historical background.  The Bible was not written in a historical vacuum.  It was written with historical particularity.  God chose to write by human authors addressing particular historical situations that God had brought about to reveal himself.

This gives us the ability to read and understand what God said – for he spoke in human language.  Yet we do not know everything about the historical circumstances in which the Bible was written.  We know enough because there is a common human experience of life and because God created and revealed the context in which to speak.  But we do not know everything and must be wary of guessing what precise situation of life is being addressed, if it is not stated in the text.

It is the combination of unconsciously reading our own context into the Bible and of guessing a particular historical context of the Bible that opens up the real possibility of twisting the Bible to our own destruction.

So in studying 1 Corinthians 12-14 we come across terms like ‘speaking in tongues’ or ‘prophecy’ or commands about the participation of women.  Modern readers are fascinated by this passage precisely because of the practices and controversies of today.  We are tempted to read it in order to find ourselves in the Bible and justify what we are (or are not) doing.  We usually start by defining the terms and establishing the historical circumstance that Paul is addressing.  From these definitions and our best guess at the situation we then ‘interpret’ the text.  But this is ‘interpreting’ the Bible by context rather than understanding the content of the Bible.

The trouble is that Paul assumes that the readers know what these activities are and makes no attempt to define or even describe them.  He does not describe what the women were or were not doing, but simply states what they are and are not to do.  Our attempts to get behind the words of 1 Corinthians do not illuminate God’s meaning but reveal our modern confusion.

It is possible to see from the rest of scripture something of what ‘prophecy’ and ‘speaking in tongues’ may refer to.  The events of the day of Pentecost are described as “speaking in other tongues” (Acts 2:4).  There are a plethora of prophets in the Old Testament, which can give some basic idea of prophecy as ‘claiming to speak God’s word’.  But we do not know precisely what Paul was referring to, as he saw no reason to define the terms in order to make his point.  And we have to hold open the possibility that Paul was writing about something different than the other biblical references.

Guessing what may have been happening is not all bad – it is useful in opening our minds to possibilities.  The evidence in the text discounts some of these guesses.  But even if they cannot be discounted they are only guesses and cannot be used as the basis of knowing what was meant.

Furthermore we must not assume that the present day activities we call ‘speaking in tongues’ and ‘prophecy’ are the same as the New Testament activities.  This is to read our context into the Bible.  We must read from the Bible to our present context and not read our context into the Bible.

Understanding these limitations to our knowledge does not leave us completely in the dark.  The content of God’s message to us is very clear.  By contrasting the effects of two different activities, Paul teaches us about true spirituality in church.  Prophecy aims to edify others while speaking in tongues, unless interpreted, does not edify others.  Spirituality is neither prophecy nor tongue speaking but building the body of Christ.  The whole passage enlightens us as to what to do and not to do in church e.g. “strive to excel in building up the church”, “let all things be done for edification”, “Do not be children in your thinking.  Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature”, “All things should be done decently and in order”.

Our use of gifts must be governed by serving one another in love.  This is the spiritual work of the members of the body of Christ our Lord.  The Bible is the context in which we must read the Bible.  The content of God’s word is clear – the confusion lies in our minds.