As discussed, the first rule of hermeneutics is “pay attention to the text.” The second is like unto it, “pay attention to the context.” (Because if you take the text without the context, you have a prooftext for a subtext.)
Context is the surrounding pieces of text and taking into account the time it was written in and the problem Scripture seeks to address. If you are working with a particularly hard word to determine meaning, then the words in the verse around it can help. From there, the words in the passage impact the meaning of the word in question. And go outward to the chapter, the book, other books by the same author, other books in the same same genre by a different author, different author in the same testament, and then how words are used in the other testament. Finally, events from outside the Bible may impact the passage. It might help to line them up differently. Let’s work with the word “kill” in Luke 12:4.
Other books by the same author
Other books in the same genre by different authors
A Different author in the same testament
The other testament
Events from outside the Bible
A good presentation on using circles of context in light of John’s statements regarding Jesus’ divinity can be found here.
A phrase I have used before regarding context is “right sermon, wrong text.” Just the other night, I was reading to my children from their devotional. The devotion was about children keeping their rooms neat and orderly. I thought this was a good thing but remained curious as to how the author was going to bring it to the Bible as the focal verse is always at the end. That focal verse was 1 Corinthians 14:40 “Let all things be done decently and in order.” That was certainly to the point, but what? I checked the surrounding verses (you know, for context). Verse 40 ends the paragraph. The paragraph is about how prophets at a church service should be eager for the gift and it should be conducted in an orderly manner. The devotional had used the verse out of context.
So how can you ensure you are working from the right context? Doing so is fundamental to doing good interpretation. You will find everyone thinks they are working in the context. Many aren’t, but with some studying, you can be.
As the two testaments were originally written in different languages, for most people, this step of the study will involve working from English translations or other translation. Personally, one of the best tools for this step is the Greek translation of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint. The Septuagint was translated within centuries of the New Testament being written. It was also heavily used by Jews outside of the Land during the time of Jesus and immediately following. The words and phrases used in the New Testament are often filtered through the Septuagint. Often, when the New Testament authors quote the Old Testament, they will quote the Septuagint. An odd Greek phrase may turn out to be worded that way because it is coming from the Septuagint. For example, in Romans 3:4, Paul uses “and prevail when thou dost enter into judgment.” That phrase comes from the Septuagint of Psalm 51:4 where the Hebrew has “and blameless when thou judgest.”
The absolute minimum context you should work with is that of the book. To that end, I suggest that every student of the Bible have at hand a fact sheet about the book of the Bible they are studying. It might look like the below.
Date Written: Done by 536 BC
Major Events: The Babylonian Captivity Begins, prophecies of the future
Major Themes: Standing with God through it all. The coming future.
Famous Passages: The Daniel “fast.” Daniel interprets the dream. The fiery furnace.
Summary: Daniel and three friends are taken captive by King Nebuchadnezzer of Babylon. through several trials and tests, they prove that even though they are captive, they are still loyal to the “God of Heaven.”
A useful book for this would be Fee and Stuart’s How to Read the Bible, Book by Book. You can also make your own sheet for each book by studying different commentaries and Bible survey or introductions. As you can see, doing this yourself will help gets the items in your mind. I suggest conservative authors as they are more likely to be taking the Bible as both divine and human. Also, good conservative authors will address the criticisms made by liberal writers whereas liberal authors rarely address the arguments raised by conservatives.
One thing that knowing the context helps with is the charge of contradictions. While finding verses that appear to be contrary to one another is easy, examining the verses for context shows they are not. For example, I once heard an atheist point out that Matthew 10:10 records Jesus telling the Disciples to take nothing extra when they go on their missionary journey. However, he pointed out, Luke 22:36 has Jesus telling them to take extras when they travel. “So which is it?” he asked, thinking he had an unsolvable contradiction.
Honestly, this is a laugh out loud contradiction. This is, in fact, quote mining of the highest order. The two are not the same event. In fact, Luke 22:35 says, “When I sent you out before without purse…”
Using context keeps us from isolating verses for a proof text and keeps them in line with the rest of Scripture. Some might argue for polytheism, incorrectly, from 1 Corinthians 8:5 “…as indeed there are many gods and many lords.” However, Scripture clearly teaches elsewhere that there is only one God who is Lord. Paul refers to these as “so-called gods” in 1 Corinthians 8:5 and repeats in 8:4 and 8:6 that there is but one God. Using context brings in another rule of hermeneutics: the unclear is interpreted in light of the clear. Individual phrases and verses must be interpreted in light of the whole of Scripture.