Recently, my wife and I got the chance to travel to Washington D.C. for the 4th of July. We toured the Capitol, explored the museums, and savored some of the local cuisine. One of the highlights of our trip was getting to watch fireworks explode over the Washington Monument. It was quite the memorable adventure.
As we wandered among the streets, the towering monuments and rich history of our nation was not the only thing that caught our attention. At almost every corner we were met by someone offering pamphlets on faith or Buddhist prayer beads. We watched a priest debate theology, heard protesters use Scripture to justify their political position, and listened to a tent meeting. In all, we encountered no less than a dozen different religious and faith-based groups.
This was to be expected in our Nation’s Capital where hundreds of thousands of tourists were anticipated to come for the 4th of July. It also demonstrated the great diversity of thought and backgrounds that make us this nation. However, it also captured the essence of an epidemic that plagues us.
We suffer from biblical illiteracy.
Time and time again we heard Scripture taken out of context and misapplied. Unfortunately this is not uncommon in America. According to the American Bible Society, 9 out of 10 Americans own a Bible. The average household owns three in fact. Yet, LifeWay Research conducted a recent survey finding that more than 50% of Americans have read little to none of the Bible.* Because we don’t read the Bible, it follows that we don’t know it. This spirals into biblical ignorance, misinterpretation, twisting of Scripture, and even worse, misapplication. Recently the Attorney General cited Romans 13 to defend separation of immigrant families. Many churches and leaders rightfully countered his misuse of Scripture. But his biblical illiteracy is typical of the majority of Americans. We are suffering from an ever-growing infection. And if we ever hope to overcome this epidemic, we cannot just read about it, we must do something.
So, how do we rise above the biblical illiteracy that is so negatively impacting the world around us? While this is not the place for an exhaustive answer, I would like to offer one that every household in American can grasp. It comes down to context, context, context.
The Literary Context
When we actually open up our Bibles to read it, we have to begin by reaching back to our years in English classes. To better understand the passage we’re reading we need the literary context. We need to examine the genre or literary type that we’re reading. The Bible was not written in a single genre, but includes narrative, poetry, wisdom, prophecy, Gospels, epistles, and apocalypse. Just as we would not read a math textbook the same way we would read Shakespeare, so too we do not read 1 Samuel (narrative) the same way we read Psalms (poetry) or the same way we read Romans (epistle). The genre dictates how we should read the passage.
Literary context also notes how words are used. As my seminary professors would always say, “Words have meanings not meaning.” There are multiple meanings for words. For example, the word ‘slave’ in Scripture, does not carry the same connotations that it does for those in the U.S. today. The meaning of a word holds great weight in how we read Scripture. We must get back to the literary context that the author intended.
The Histo-Cultural Context
Secondly, we need to add the historical and cultural context of the passage we’re reading. This may take some digging, but it is well worth it. Discover the lifestyles of the author and audience. Explore what situations they were experiencing. Finding the historical and cultural context will bring new life to what we are reading and a better understanding as to its meaning. While the Bible was written to a specific people at a specific time and place, there are universal and relevant principles that God’s Word still teaches us today. The histo-cultural context helps us recognize what the author and audience were experiencing while drawing proper parallels to today.
The Gospel Context
Finally, and most importantly, is the Gospel context. Although the Bible is made up of 66 books stretching several centuries and written in a handful of genres, it is still all one very true and very real story pointing to Christ. It is the story of a people created by God, yet who rebelled against Him. Their decision came with consequences for all humanity; the brokenness caused by sin. But God, loved His creation and longed to restore them from brokenness. He sent His son to take on our penalty and pain, that we might be restored to a right relationship with Him. That is what the Bible is all about. And when we read it, we must recognize how the passage before us fits into the greater context of the Gospel. How is it pointing to Jesus and our salvation?
Biblical illiteracy may run rampant, but you don’t have to be a victim. These three points of context are only the start of growing in biblical literacy. The more time you spend reading the Bible, studying the Bible, and asking biblically literate people questions about it, the better you’ll be able to understand and use Scripture as it was intended.
Resources for You:
How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Gordon D. Fee & Douglas Stuart
The Drama of Scripture by Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen
The Hermeneutical Spiral by Grant R. Osborne
Gospel Centered Hermeneutics by Graeme Goldsworthy