How do we read the Bible? Not in what order should we read its individual parts or how much of the sacred text should we aim to engage at a given time. What I ask is how much should we consider context. Who is the writer? Do we know who the writer is beyond a reasonable doubt? If so, what has the writer experienced that colors and shades their understanding of God’s revelation? Who were the original readers of a particular portion of scripture? Does their experience of wealth for example, or persecution for another example affect how they experience reading and hearing scripture?
I confess my conviction that context indeed matters. I believe that God called particular men and women to give human and earthly translation to the divine story. He chose particular people knowing full well their education and background, their gifts and imperfections. He chose them on purpose, choosing to work through the uniqueness of his scribes. With our capacity to understand different styles of literature and to add historical context to our understanding of holy scripture, I’m convinced that holding a high view of scripture demands that we seek to understand such matters. The Bible deserves the use of our brains. It is too important a book to do any less.
I confess my conviction that if we do not consider context, we are sinful and arrogant. I believe that the orignal readers of holy scripture are not 21st century Christians seeking present day understanding of the will of God. God did have those modern Christians in mind as the themes of scripture we received by humanity and recorded, but we were not the first ones to read it. James wrote to dispersed and persecuted Jewish disciples of Jesus. James was a persecuted follower of Jesus living in Jerusalem. That context shaped the text. John, in his Revelation, wrote to 1st century Christians who experienced smothering oppression under a maniacal, Roman emperor named Nero. His writing protested that oppression, holding to hope that God was in control and Christ was truly victorious even though his readers’ worldly reality offered a different take. If we only read the Revelation as a present day playbook on how the end will go down, we arrogantly assume Revelation was written only for us and not for 1st century Christians who faced deadly persecution for their hope in Christ. To read the Bible without doing the hard work of considering context represents a rather shallow view of a book we claim to be of divine importance.
I deeply believe in the sacred nature of the Bible, and in the inspiration of the many people God used to record it and the devotion of the many people who have maintained it through the years. The Bible is a treasure, an extended love story of the great length to which God would go to bring humanity into a relationship with himself. The fullest extent of that love is revealed in the ministry, death, and resurrection of Christ. Because of that, when we read the Bible, we ought to give God the very best of our God-given intellect and scholarship.