Context is Key

Ted Davis, Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College, had an excellent post on the BioLogos Forum this week. Professor Davis is a senior Fellow for BioLogos and writes for the Forum approximately every other week. All of his posts are worth reading, but this one struck me as particularly relevant to many of the discussions we have here.

Science and the Bible: The Framework View.

When I explain this position to students, I like to start with a little puzzle. Many years ago, after attending an academic conference in a major city, I was driving through the rural countryside some distance away, en route to an historic house that wasn’t well marked. As I got closer to where I thought I might start seeing some signs directing me to the house, I noticed a fair-sized hotel, restaurant, and bar off to one side of the road. What really caught my attention was a sign, prominently displayed at the start of the driveway, warning off a certain clientele: NO FOOTBALL COACHES, it said. Unfortunately I’d forgotten my camera, but this is pretty much what I saw.

When I show it in class, I ask the students to guess what this was all about: why such a sign outside of such a place? The stories they come up with are pretty good. My favorite involves two neighboring high schools, arch rivals, with the football coach at one having an affair with the wife of his opposite number, resulting in fist-fights in that bar every fall, when friends of one man or the other would go at each other in the bar, which was on the highway connecting the two school districts. After a few students have tried their luck to no avail, someone asks, where did this take place? Was it maybe in England, where football means soccer and coach means bus? Give that student an A, I say. It was England, on a highway running between York and Manchester. Now, who can fill in the blanks? Almost right away, a student will explain that soccer fans in England can be pretty rambunctious, and that a busload of them might not make the best impression on the rest of the clientele at a respectable country inn and pub. Thus, the manager would rather not have their business.

The take-away message, of course, is that there is always a context in which the meaning of a text is embedded. Unless you know something about the time and place in which a text is composed, you aren’t going understand what it actually says. The same is true for any part of the Bible, including the opening verses of Genesis. That’s the bottom line for the Framework View: if you don’t know anything about literature and culture in the Ancient Near East, you won’t understand what Genesis is really saying.

In his post Ted Davis goes on to describe the Framework View of Genesis. I suggest that those interested read his post carefully. You can also learn more about the view in The Genesis Debate : Three Views on the Days of Creation or listen to Lee Irons describe it in The Days of Genesis available from the Veritas Forum.  I first learned of the framework view through this Veritas Forum Lecture.

Very briefly, in the framework theory the days of Genesis 1 refer by analogy to God’s work and the account in Genesis is a literary framework describing God’s work in creation, not a literal account.  This is similar to an analogical day theory that God created the world in six days of work followed by one day of rest – but these days of divine work are an analogy rather than an identity with days of human work. The distinctions between the framework and analogical day approaches are subtle, both see the days a a literary framework rather than literal 24 hour days. Vern Poythress of Westminster Theological Seminary (not a liberal interpreter of scripture by any means) favors these two views in his book Redeeming Science.

Context is the key. Scripture is understood most completely when the context in which it was written is understood. John Walton in his book The Lost World of Genesis One makes the same point. We live something like 2500 to 3500 years after Genesis was written, in a very different culture with a very different approach to science, and different literary conventions. Anyone can read Genesis and get the fundamental messages about God as creator, the failings of mankind, and the mission of God in covenant with his people. But for the detailed context that fleshes out the whole we need more knowledge, and we need faithful biblical scholars, historians, and teachers. The framework view, analogical days, temple symbolism, emphasis on function rather than matter, the appropriation of ancient cosmology – all of these are attempts, invaluable efforts, to get at the context of the text so that we can better understand the meaning and message.

Context is the key for more than Genesis though, it is part of the key for understanding the whole sweep of scripture from Genesis to Revelation. Some of this context comes from scripture itself, from reading the whole story in large chunks – and more than once. Some comes from a knowledge of the languages and the surrounding cultures. Again we need faithful biblical scholars in conversation with each other and with the church.

And the “problems” in scripture involve more than just creation. Here we can change gears a little and bring into the discussion another common “problem” raised concerning scripture. Pete Enns put up a post earlier this week with the pithy title And Brief (and let’s hope final, but If I know me probably not) Comment on God’s Violence in the Old Testament. The problem of violence in the conquest of Canaan is one that crops of repeatedly. The issues are seen most clearly in Joshua, but also earlier in the Pentateuch, later in Judges, and even to an extent in Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles.  In Joshua God commands his people to remain separate, to annihilate the inhabitants of Canaan as they conquer it. In the prophets God’s anger burns against his people, largely because they fail to love God and love others. They take other gods, they follow the Ba’als and set up Asherah poles over, and over, and over again. They fail to care for the widows and orphans and the poor, the rulers and leaders oppress the people, over and over, and over again.

Pete asks, and I think this is a good question to consider as well:

Do these episodes of violence tell us what God is like or is the picture of God in the Old Testament mediated for us through ancient tribal culture the Israelites and their neighbors participated in?

Context again, perhaps context is key. What do we need to know about the context to properly understand the meaning of these texts to the original audience, and thus the meaning they should hold for us today? Pete also asks if “the gospel affects, one way or the other, how we answer this question?” I don’t claim to have a complete answer to the questions of violence in the Old Testament, or the depiction of God as violent and wrathful. But in the context of the whole sweep of scripture, along with the insight that it is likely that much of what we have in scripture is shaped and edited in the context of the exile, I don’t find the “violence” as troubling as I did in the past. I also think that we should be interpreting the Old Testament through the lens Jesus provided according to Matthew:

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Mt 22:36-40)

I don’t see a violent God in the Law and the Prophets as much as a God who expects his law to be obeyed. And it is likely, I think, that the form this message takes is shaped by the context of the culture into which God spoke through his prophets. Some of the language and tenor of description may be the result of a literary form and approach unfamiliar in our time and culture. Prophetic language is not always simple and does not always reflect literal reporting. I put no stake in the ground here, but open it up for discussion.

The Old Testament is a complex piece of literature, comprised of many forms and genres, written into different contexts and edited and compiled into the form we have to day in the canon accepted by the church. This is the word of God, able to make us wise for salvation, useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness so that we are equipped for every good work … as Paul told Timothy. But the fact that the scriptures are “God-breathed” does not mean that they are simple, with a message that can be understood completely thousands of years later without effort or without teachers.

How important is context to a proper understanding of scripture?

What role does context play in understanding the Old Testament?

Are the issues any different in the New Testament? If so, how?

If you wish to contact me directly, you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

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