Literary context is one of those important principles that can be applied not only in a Biblical exposition setting, but also in an every day reading the Bible setting. It’s really pretty straightforward and does not require any special knowledge or training. It’s as simple as being mindful of just a few things as you read scripture. Oh, and if you haven’t read my intro. on context, check it out here.
When considering literary context, one of the most important principles is to reduce the amount of time a scripture passage is examined in isolation. If you are looking at a passage of scripture, and particularly if you have questions, read said passage in the context of surrounding material (scripture above and below the passage in question). Furthermore, consider the context of the whole book and also the entire Bible. Literary context can be summarized as follows:
- Read material preceding and succeeding passage in question (immediate context).
- Read the entirety of book to gain a better understanding of overarching ideas.
- Keep the entirety of scripture in mind.
Let’s look at an example from scripture. This is an example of applying immediate context (looking above and below).
“For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.” (2 Corinthians 5:1-5 ESV)
This is an example of a fairly intuitive bit of scripture. It doesn’t take too much to understand what Paul is referring to. However, if we also peek at 2 Cor. 4:16 – 18, the verse directly preceding 2 Cor 5:1-5, it lends quite a bit in understanding this passage. You must also recall the original text did not have chapter divisions, and, as useful as they are, they can sometimes be pesky in preventing us from identifying the author’s train of thought. This is one of those instances.
Paul says, “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison…” (2 Corinthians 4:16-17 ESV).
As previously mentioned, you can understand the first passage, but in the context of surrounding material, it’s really illuminated. What was mildly opaque becomes translucent and beautiful. Continuing further draws additional context and clarifies Paul’s intended meaning. Read the following (succeeding) passage for even more clarity.
“So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.”
(2 Corinthians 5:6-8 ESV)
After reading 6 – 8, it becomes salient as to what Paul is referring and how he is explicating his knowledge concerning death and the fate of the believer in Christ. This is a rather straightforward example of literary context, and, yes, other areas of scripture are considerably more difficult, but, with practice, we can greatly improve our comprehension of scripture simply by being mindful of literary context.
SCRIPTURE AS A LITERARY CONSTRUCTION
I think sometimes we forget real people, through the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit, penned what we see in our Bibles. This means there are literary themes and ideas that permeate scripture. Take the Gospels, for example. Each is unique, with various authors emphasizing different thematic and theological emphases. Each has a “thesis” of sorts. If we know the thesis, is reduces inaccurate interpretation.
If we read a passage or even a chapter in isolation, we can vastly neglect the overarching narrative the author delicately crafted. This is why reading large chunks of scripture in context is so important, and will considerably reduce misunderstanding.