Bible Study Basics for Writers: Part Two with Eric Gagnon
by Eric Gagnon
Note: This week and next week, the COMPEL Blog will be publishing part two of Bible Study Basics for Writers by theologian Eric Gagnon. Eric is a former pastor and currently serves at Proverbs 31 Ministries as the Theological Content Manager for the First 5 App. Eric has a Bachelors Degree in Church Ministry and a Masters in Theology from Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary. This week, Eric will guide you through the basics of understanding historical context and literary considerations. Click here to read last week’s post including the first rule of Biblical interpretation, understanding grammatical context.
Historical Context and Literary Considerations
After reading your scripture passage, surrounding passages, cross references, other versions, and perhaps even the original languages, jotting down your notes and observations, the best place to go next are Bible Commentaries by recognized Christian scholars.
I first want to point out that Protestants typically believe in the perspicuity, or clarity, of Scripture. The Westminster Confession of Faith explains what we believe when we speak of the perspicuity of Scripture: “All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all. Yet, those things that are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or another, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.” In other words, not everything in Scripture is easy to understand, but what we must understand in order to be saved is clear. 
The unlearned and those without access to commentaries can still preach God’s Word. But since God has seen fit to provide most of us with commentaries, we are wise to use them to enhance our ability to communicate God’s messages to his people. We consult commentaries to hear what the rest of the Church has gleaned from studying God’s Word. We take our study out of a vacuum and participate with Christ’s body, the Church, as it proclaims the gospel in the world.
I recommend reading at least 3-4 commentaries on any passage you plan to teach on. Please also use good judgment with what commentaries you select and read them critically. A professor of mine used to say that if you agree with everything in a book you either didn’t read it, or you wrote it. Here is a list of commentaries I personally recommend.
Be careful with prooftexts.
Reading commentaries provides us with more context than we receive simply by observing the Scripture. Theologian Dr. Donald A. Carson attributes his father saying, “A text without a context is a pretext for a proof text.” In other words, writing a sentence and then citing a Scripture after that sentence without providing the background and circumstances of that Scripture is a poor justification for whatever is being taught. All Christian Bible teachers use prooftexts from time to time. I’ve used them throughout this very article! They ought to be used carefully after those passages have been studied, but we often use them to keep the flow of thought going, and we don’t always provide context. The point is that a teaching that consists of prooftexts without context may still be helpful in some ways, and thought provoking, but may or may not be something God’s Word teaches. This very article is such an example of this. A certain level of trust is being given to me to explain some general principles I’ve found over the years on Biblical interpretation, but I’m claiming these principles are only generally true. In other words, this article is not a teaching on a passage of Scripture. I started with what I wanted to say and I’m now attempting to prove that to you based on experience (which happens to include studying the Bible). This is okay, as long as we all understand the difference between this article and a faithful Biblical teaching on a passage of Scripture.
Commentaries by Bible scholars provide us with research that is not always given to us in the Bible about the passage we are teaching on. There are six or so categories of information that we should be familiar with when teaching Scripture such as authorship, date, setting, purpose, audience and themes:
- Whenever I talk about authorship I like to point out that God is the primary author of all Scripture. After this, it is helpful to know whether it was Moses, David, the Apostle Paul, or another person God inspired to write the passage. For example, it matters, and is even more powerful, that four different people wrote their accounts of the four gospels because they all agree in their overall message regarding Christ’s death and resurrection as a historical fact.
- The date a certain passage of Scripture was written provides us with an idea of what events were taking place either during the events being recorded, or at the time those events are being written down. This may seem obvious but the date of writing is not always the date of when the events written about took place. In fact, some may be surprised to learn that several of Paul’s letters were written before the Gospels or Acts were written, even though the events recorded in the Gospels happened long before Paul became a Christian. It’s important to keep a timeline in mind when possible. Perhaps the most important area the subject of date concerns is prophecy. For example, Isaiah’s prophecies contain such details of the future that non-Christian scholars want to say the author of Isaiah was actually writing history. The date therefore changes how we might teach the text.
- The setting of a passage includes things like the geographical location, the climate, the culture at the time. It makes a difference, for example, that Laodicea was located in an area known for very cold water springs and hot springs, as well as lukewarm and nauseating mineral springs. So when Jesus says he will spit out lukewarm water (Revelation 3:16), he is not saying that being good or evil is okay as long as you’re not somewhere in the middle. Cold and hot water are useful while lukewarm water is generally not useful. Jesus is saying to be useful, purposeful and do what is right.
- The purpose of a certain passage of scripture is sometimes found in the letter itself. For example, “I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin.” (1 John 2) Other sections of Scripture are not always so clear. The background for the entire book of Galatians for example likely has to do with the events surrounding the ones recorded in Acts 15 regarding whether or not gentiles should be forced to be circumcised. Checking cross references will help with things like this.
- Understanding the original audience becomes important for example in Romans, which is written “To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints” which included mostly gentiles, as did most of Paul’s ministry. So in Romans 9 where Paul discusses election, he is not giving a history lesson to Jews about good works, but is showing the Romans why they ought to be humble regarding their faith and calling.
- General themes of a Biblical book are good to keep in mind as you teach any passage. I don’t recommend teaching on any verses until you have had a fresh reading of that book, perhaps even reading that book 2-3 times. Doing so will allow you to see repetition like the phrase “In Christ” for example that is repeated 13 times in the short book of Ephesians. “In Christ” therefore is not a throwaway phrase but carries significant meaning.
In recent days the Bible has been classified by its various literary genres.
- Knowing that Philippians is an epistle (letter) from the Apostle Paul to the church in Philippi should cause us to pay close attention to the commands from God we receive there as a letter to a pupil from a master teacher.
- In contrast, knowing that 1 and 2 Kings is narrative or historical writing can help us remember that the evil recorded in it is not a prescription for the behavior of God’s people. That Abraham is praised for his faith in the Bible and yet had more than one wife is an example of where the Bible simply records truth and doesn’t always give a commentary on what should have happened. By the way, this is also an indication that the main point of the Bible is not morality, but faith in Christ Jesus to rescue us from our sins.
- Proverbs is wisdom literature with maxims and principles for life that are generally true, but not always true. For example, “The hand of the diligent will rule, while the slothful will be put to forced labor.” (Proverbs 12:24). It’s true that hard work can generally make a person a candidate for leadership and being lazy can bring a person trouble, but we’ve all seen lazy people in leadership, and hard working people being taken advantage of.
- Poetry explains the intense expression of emotional despair sometimes found in the Psalms. Some scholars find that the genre of prose also accounts for things like God creating light on the first day in Genesis 1 and the sources of that light on the fourth day; or that all plants are made before man in Genesis 1 but that “no shrub” exists until after Adam in chapter 2.
- Daniel and Revelation contain both prophecy and highly symbolic apocalyptic writing. Understanding apocalyptic as a genre gives us permission to be less literal in our interpretation, whereas we should probably generally elsewhere take the Bible literally instead of interpreting everything symbolically.
Let’s conclude with a couple examples of commonly misinterpreted Scriptures:
- “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11-13) Remembering that this was spoken specifically to Israelites under the oppression of Babylon and that it was spoken for their encouragement, that God had intentions to make Israel prosper, reduces the chances we will use this Scripture to teach that Christians will always be prosperous today (or never experience harm if we just have enough faith). Jesus said we would have trouble in this world. (John 16:33)
- “If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” – 2 Chronicles 7:14. God’s people should always pray for our governments and those in authority, for the peace and welfare of the nations in which we live. However, this was spoken to Israel regarding their holy and promised land. Our “promised land” today is in heaven and is not, for example, the USA. As Christians, the countries we live in are not “Christian” lands. The Kingdom we belong to is the Church and a heavenly one (1 Peter 1:4), and our citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20). As “aliens” or “exiles” on the earth (1 Peter 2:11) Christians should pray for our world but also expect difficulty in the non-Christian nations we live in until Christ returns.
In summary, having studied the grammatical, historical and literary context of a passage, we are far less likely to twist the Scripture into saying what we want, but will faithfully proclaim God’s message of the gospel, which is all we are called to do. “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.” (Mark 16:15)
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