Let’s say you enter a theater and on stage you see a young man standing besides a woman, whom you assume is dead or sleeping. The young man utters some whimsical stanza of his undying love for the young lady and promptly drinks a little vial of some clear liquid. He staggers and stumbles before crashing to the ground. At that moment the young lady wakes up and, to her shock, finds her young love dead beside her. Unless you knew the context of Romeo & Juliet you would be completely lost. You would have no idea of the struggles between two families and the strife it produces in these young lovers.
The same is true of the biblical narrative. If you happen to just flap your bible down on a desk and begin to read that David saw Bathsheba up on the roof taking a bath you would probably assume, having no prior knowledge, that David must have been a snooper and was there waiting for the ladies to get up on the rooftops and bathe themselves. What you wouldn’t know is that during this time of year the kings would go off to war but David stayed behind. Bathsheba who happened to be one of the generals of David’s army was just following the customs of the day by bathing on the rooftop. One thing led to another and David ends up impregnating Bathsheba and killing her husband in order to save himself from any clear accusations. It didn’t work out so well for him.
In Context: How to Understand the Bible, James Nicodem places readers in the midst of various contextual settings in order to broaden his or her understanding. He does this by leading readers through four settings; The historical, literary. theological, and immediate settings. Each setting continually plays off the other and cannot be done in isolation or the reader runs the risk of leaving some portion of context undiscovered, and in practice leaves some portion of scripture without practical application.
When beginning with a historical context we must be ready to put different caps on. We have to dig a little bit and ask some questions of the text when it comes to a historical viewpoint. We must be prepared to ask the journalistic questions; who, what, where, when. why, and how. Asking those questions can produce some good answers for us but we must be prepared to apply some photo lenses to those answers in order to glean the real meaning. We must look for the facts, not only from the biblical text but from those outside the biblical text. We must also consider the culture in which the text was written and who the readers were of a specific set of passages. This is what Nicodem leads readers through when he explains the historical context of the bible.
Next we move onto the literary context in which the books of the bible are categorized. Nicodem breaks these down into the following genres; Law, Narrative, Poetry, Proverbs, Prophecy, and Epistles. If you read that list carefully you would have noticed a large portion of scripture missing. What about the gospel? Nicodem places them under the narrative heading but doesn’t explain too much about them. I think that an easier set of categories could be used here in order to keep the confusion to a minimum. If we bend in the direction that the gospels are just a good narrative then it may not, in some cases, be thought to hold any sway or authority as simple narratives.
Moving onto something more my style, Nicodem jumps into the theological setting of the text. He takes time to recommend resources which are indispensable for the reader to use in understanding the best way possible. He suggests the tools many pastors and Christians would like concordances and cross references. He also includes some study materials which may not be on some people’s radars, such as a study Bible and a Systematic Theology. Using these tools in conjunction with one another will produce in the reader a well-rounded understanding of scripture but caution must be taken when choosing a theology text. If you only purchase a Systematic Theology text which is written from a Presbyterian view then you may only get a Presbyterian interpretation of scripture. It’s easy to overcome this if you known what you’re looking for and what stance the authors take in their theologies.
What Nicodem doesn’t recommend is a theological lexicon of either testament. He also does not recommend a biblical theology text, new testament and old testament theology, or commentary on scripture. I understand the reason behind his recommendations though, this small text was not meant to exhaust the theological resources one has at his or her disposal, but to introduce readers to the basic tools one must have in order for the correct interpretation of the text.
From there we move on to the immediate context of scripture or the “what does this mean for me?” section. I was having a theological discussion with a friend who leans in the direction that N.T. Wright does regarding the doctrine of justification by faith. In a series of explanations this friend tried to relay to me the utter importance of the context in which the narratives of the bible were being interpreted. My response was an abrupt, “So what?” What does a 1st century interpretation have to do with me in 2013? They don’t relate, or so I thought.
In this last portion Nicodem moves on from the tools of the trade and considers how we may actually get into the text. This is done by looking at specific contexts and using tools to understand the meaning of the text. He gives some translation recommendations and considers a study on specific words as an example for the reader. This last section really brought the rest of the book together. When getting into the text and showing readers how to use these tools it becomes real for the reader and attainable as a goal in study. It would be quite overwhelming to go into a bookstore and purchase a 1200 page book by Grudem and then a similar book about Strong’s numbers, It’s not enough to have these texts, but to use them wisely in the study and application of the biblical text. He also lays down some warnings about faulty translating methods and steers the readers away from them, like a good shepherd would do with his sheep. His pastoral heart truly shines in this last section and it’s from this portion that the reader will benefit the most.
Context: How to Understand the Bible is the third installment of a four-part series of bible studies from the Bible Savvy series. Check out the whole series on the Bible Savvy website. http://www.biblesavvy.com/bible-savvy-set/
Other Books In the Series: