High Context and the Perspicuity of Scripture

What hath the Big Bang Theory to do with hermeneutics? Let’s find out as we dive into Deeper Waters.

Just recently on Facebook, I was in a dialogue with a skeptic who was saying that God should have made His novel clearer. This is the kind of thinking that I find I regularly seem to have to argue against. Why is it that God should have made it clearer, and clearer to who?

What 21st century American thinkers can think is clear might not be what a 12th century Japanese person thinks is clear. It might not be what a 17th century Chinese person thinks is clear. It might not be what a 3rd century Egyptian thinks is clear. Why should it be that our society is the one that gets precedence?

Note that this also implies that Scripture will be dispensed at the lowest level possible. Why think Scripture should be that way? I would think that God, if He is the most awesome being of all, would in fact NOT be simplistic in His writing. The reality is that he would write far better than any author could in having multiple levels of depth to what he writes.

Consider this in light of the Geisler controversy. The idea is that the text does not seem to create any clear indication of being apocalyptic in Matthew 27:52-53 and even if it was, it must still be literal somehow. (Never mind that hardly anyone stops to think about what that means.)

One aspect missed in this is that the Bible is written in a high context society. The Bible assumes that you knew the prerequisite background knowledge to understand what is being said. Take the book of Revelation for instance. Two thirds of Revelation alludes to Old Testament Scriptures. It assumes that you have a working knowledge of the Old Testament. If you don’t have that, you will misunderstand the book. You cannot open Revelation and have just the text and understand it without knowing the background of the Old Testament.

Consider for an example the Big Bang Theory.

Oh I don’t mean the scientific theory. I mean the TV show. If you don’t know about this sitcom, it’s one that some friends suggested my wife and I watch, not only because they suspect one character (Sheldon) has Asperger’s, but they thought I in particular would since these are really four intellectual geeks together. The show is filled with such humor.

Regularly throughout the series, one will find bits of humor that depend on having a high knowledge of the subject matter discussed. I have no doubt that if I was more of a scientist, I would understand much of the humor even more. There is enough in the text that one can get a basic understanding of what is being said, but the more knowledge you possess of the subject, the more you will understand the inner-depths of the text.

If I want to enjoy a joke more in the series, I can look up a name or a word in the joke and do some studying and then look back at that joke when I watch a rerun and say “Ah! Now I understand that. It makes a lot more sense now!” What do I do with the Bible? The same thing. I go back and understand the context that the text is in, and that includes its historical and social context. Could it be that the Bible is not written from the perspective and reading style of modern Americans, but rather Ancient Jews?

When asked then how we can know what the text means, the answer is the same as that which Paul gave to Timothy. It’s 2 Timothy 2:15. Study to show yourself approved.

If we want to understand the deepest things of God, we will have to study. There are no shortcuts to this.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

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10 Responses to “High Context and the Perspicuity of Scripture”

  1. Scott Henderson Says:

    It is also worth pointing out that errors of interpretation can arise when one fails to take into account the complexity of the history of mentalities and how language functioned in those mentalities–e.g., before the invention of the printing press. It is worth noting that scholars such as Eustace Mandeville Wetenhall Tillyard have brought to light the fact that period literature contains many allusions to the mentalities of the time in which it was written, which is often missed by virtue of the fact that modern readers are not privy to their understandings. We simply gloss over them or apply our meanings because we cannot see them.

  2. Rob Bezant Says:

    Nick said: “Note that this also implies that Scripture will be dispensed at the lowest level possible. Why think Scripture should be that way? I would think that God, if He is the most awesome being of all, would in fact NOT be simplistic in His writing. The reality is that he would write far better than any author could in having multiple levels of depth to what he writes.”

    Reply: If we work on the assumption that God wants to save us from damnation, would we not expect scripture to be written in a way, that would allow, and encourage, the most amount of converts? If, for example I, turn away from the Bible (and Christianity) because I don’t understand it, or think it’s offensive (possibly based on a misunderstanding), or think it’s too complex and contextual to understand etc doesn’t that threaten my eternal soul?

    We might ask, does God care about saving us? If he does, we would expect that text to have been written in such a way that everyone, in all contexts, intellectual levels etc to be able to understand it, easily. And if it’s not, I think we’d be justified in asking: why is God willing to send people to hell, simply for not being as informed as others?

  3. apologianick Says:

    @Rob.

    Perhaps we would, but what if I took the atheistic approach?

    “If God really wants to see me saved, then He will manifest Himself to me right now! After all, if He wants to get converts, He needs to show Himself and then I’ll believe in Him. If He wanted me to believe, He should have made it clear that Jesus rose from the dead.”

    That is where the argument leads. Not everyone is called to be a scholar, but everyone is to be seeking the truth in whatever area they are in and if someone wants the truth, they can find it. For some, it might just take hearing a pastor speak it, but then they need to know that that pastor can defend what he believes even if they themselves cannot.

    The bottom line is still that truth requires work and the promise of God is that He is found if we truly seek. If someone doesn’t find, it is because they were not seeking.

    • Rob Bezant Says:

      Thanks for your thoughts Nick.

      You said: ““If God really wants to see me saved, then He will manifest Himself to me right now! After all, if He wants to get converts, He needs to show Himself and then I’ll believe in Him. If He wanted me to believe, He should have made it clear that Jesus rose from the dead.””

      Reply: The demanding tone aside, if that person were honestly searching, and asking for God to show Himself, would God not simply do so? And if He doesn’t, is it fair (if we assume your atheist was asking honestly) that we blame the victim (victim in this sense meaning: someone sent to Hell, unfairly), by suggesting he simply wasn’t seeking?

      You said: “The bottom line is still that truth requires work and the promise of God is that He is found if we truly seek. If someone doesn’t find, it is because they were not seeking.”

      Reply: Where does revelation come in to this scenario? It would seem that wouldn’t require work. Why does God reveal himself to some, but not to others? We know God has converted skeptics (Paul?) by revelation, surely God knows exactly what it would take to convert even the most hardened atheist (if we assume God knows all logically possible things). Why does He simply not do that?

      I’ve gotta run to work, but I can read your reply on my phone (what a nerd right).

      • Aubrey Minnick Says:

        Just to comment on the “sent to hell, unfairly.” It’s not “unfairly” but rather “ruthlessly”, or “without mercy”. Let me give a real life example. Let’s say someone makes a calculation error of, say, ten cents on their checking account. This person is not particularly financially secure but does their best to make ends meet. Anyhow, they overdraw their bank account by a few cents. Not only do banks charge for the tiny error that causes the overdraft, they also charge for every pending transaction. Let’s say this person has ten small pending transactions. All of a sudden, they owe $350.00 in bank fees for that mere ten cents.

        This person goes to the bank in tears because they cannot pay the fees. $350 is most of what they make in two weeks at minimum wage, and they will be unable to pay the bills if they are required to pay the fees. The banker they speak with refuses to reverse any of the fees.

        Is this fair? Yes. Is it cruel, cold, heartless? Without mercy? Certainly.

        But I would hesitate before applying the term “without mercy” to a God who would sacrifice his only Son. God must be fair. He must be perfect. That is why we cannot enter his presence without blood, without sacrifice. But God is also has an abundance of mercy. Jesus is that sacrifice. We enter through him.

        But we must be the one to enter. We want certainty. We want the evidence to shout so loud that we cannot make any other choice. I would say, “Then it would not be a choice,” but even I think the statement too trite. No mere words can contain the pure waste in that salvation should be so simple – and yet for many, unredeemed. That is why we (Christians) continue to preach, continue to exhort, so that as many as possible will NOT be wasted.

        And, in the end, isn’t that what everyone wants? To matter. To have their life not be a waste. To live on, somehow. To know and be known. These desires were planted in us for a reason.

        Okay, so I didn’t just comment, more like spilled my guts, but your “fairness” comment got something in me going. I hate the unfairness of life sometimes and spend most of my time wishing the world was a much kinder, gentler place. And this thought that some people will end up in hell is the one thing I hate about my faith. But just because I hate it doesn’t make it less true. I can sit around and moan about it (which I have done, from time to time), or I can do accept it and do my best to live with it, which means making sure that I am right with Christ and letting others know what they need to do to get right with him.

  4. apologianick Says:

    Rob: The demanding tone aside, if that person were honestly searching, and asking for God to show Himself, would God not simply do so?

    Reply: In what way? According to Scripture, God has shown Himself. People just aren’t looking. If you want a personal manifestation of God, why should He do that?

    The big mistake is in thinking God wants converts. He doesn’t. He wants disciples. He doesn’t want people who just seek an answer to the question of if he exists and if Jesus rose from the dead, but are wanting to know who He is and what it means to follow Him.

    Rob: And if He doesn’t, is it fair (if we assume your atheist was asking honestly) that we blame the victim (victim in this sense meaning: someone sent to Hell, unfairly), by suggesting he simply wasn’t seeking?

    Reply: Yep. The Bible tells us that the problem is not lack of evidence, but refusal to follow evidence.

    Frankly as well with what Aubrey said, if God was fair, we’d all be going to Hell anyway. It’s what we deserve so let’s not come with any stuff to God that it’s His fault if we don’t make it. He’s under no obligation to get us there.

    Rob: Where does revelation come in to this scenario? It would seem that wouldn’t require work.

    Reply: Why not? When Jesus Himself spoke to people as the ultimate revelation, people turned away from him. Today, we have the revelation of Scripture, but if we want to know what it means, we have to work.

    Rob: Why does God reveal himself to some, but not to others? We know God has converted skeptics (Paul?) by revelation, surely God knows exactly what it would take to convert even the most hardened atheist (if we assume God knows all logically possible things). Why does He simply not do that?

    Reply: Because he doesn’t want a convert. He wants a disciple. Now we could say “God did it for Paul.” Paul is not normative. You might as well say “I refuse to bury my dead loved one because Jesus raised Lazarus before the final resurrection and maybe he’ll do that here.

    Interesting that you say this as you go to work. Supporting yourself and/or a family requires work, but understanding the God of all creation shouldn’t?

  5. Rob Bezant Says:

    Thanks, yet again, for your thought Nick.

    You said: “In what way?”

    Reply: In whatever way, creates a convert, dicsiple; whatever stipulations there are for a saving relationship. As I said, God would know exactly how to create that situation, for every person.

    You said: “Yep. The Bible tells us that the problem is not lack of evidence, but refusal to follow evidence.”

    Reply: But we assumed the atheist was asking honestly, that makes the hypothesis that he was lying, completely ad hoc: he had to be lying because the Bible tells us he must have been.

    You said: “Frankly as well with what Aubrey said, if God was fair, we’d all be going to Hell anyway. It’s what we deserve so let’s not come with any stuff to God that it’s His fault if we don’t make it. He’s under no obligation to get us there.”

    Reply: Really? You don’t think the omnipotent being that created the rules, created the system, has any responsibility over the system He created and sustains? If he fails to reveal Himself to me (as He does to others) and if His word (the Bible) is written in a way that I can’t understand (see above examples), how is any of this my fault? Being that I’m His creation, and think, exactly as He created me? Seems the sole responsibility is on Him.

    You said: “When Jesus Himself spoke to people as the ultimate revelation, people turned away from him. Today, we have the revelation of Scripture, but if we want to know what it means, we have to work.”

    Reply: So, you don’t think Jesus personally reveals himself to people since his ascendence?

    You said: “Because he doesn’t want a convert. He wants a disciple.”

    Reply: As I said above, it’s the same issue, whether it’s a convert or a disciple He desires, God would know how to get anybody there.

    You said: “Interesting that you say this as you go to work. Supporting yourself and/or a family requires work, but understanding the God of all creation shouldn’t?”

    Reply: Not when the risk is eternal damnation for those who can’t understand it. God loves us right? If He can’t simply create everyone saved (which raises huge implications about His omnipotence), why not create a situation where we come to know and love him, in the easist way possible? Sending most of His creation, that He apparently loves, to Hell, for intellectual snobbery, seems, well, less than worthy of worship, and an unrecognizable standard of love.

  6. Aubrey Minnick Says:

    I can agree with you on one thing, Rob. Intellectual snobbery is really an incredibly stupid reason to be kept out of heaven.

  7. apologianick Says:

    Rob: In whatever way, creates a convert, dicsiple; whatever stipulations there are for a saving relationship. As I said, God would know exactly how to create that situation, for every person.

    Reply: To which I say that while feasible, it’s not really ideal. I do not believe God can make you want something.

    Rob: But we assumed the atheist was asking honestly, that makes the hypothesis that he was lying, completely ad hoc: he had to be lying because the Bible tells us he must have been.

    Reply: I don’t assume that at all. I don’t necessarily think lying, but I do think we can deceive ourselves. I seriously doubt our motives are always pure especially with the effects of sin.

    Rob: Really? You don’t think the omnipotent being that created the rules, created the system, has any responsibility over the system He created and sustains? If he fails to reveal Himself to me (as He does to others) and if His word (the Bible) is written in a way that I can’t understand (see above examples), how is any of this my fault? Being that I’m His creation, and think, exactly as He created me? Seems the sole responsibility is on Him.

    Reply: Is it really? To begin with, God is under no obligation to do anything for you. He is in charge of the situation but He is under no obligation to His creation. Furthermore, this isn’t about intellectual snobbery. There is enough information to reach all intellectual levels.

    Rob: So, you don’t think Jesus personally reveals himself to people since his ascendence?

    Reply: Never said that. Just said that it’s not normative and we shouldn’t expect it.

    Rob: As I said above, it’s the same issue, whether it’s a convert or a disciple He desires, God would know how to get anybody there.

    Reply: What do you think it means to “get there?”

    Rob: Not when the risk is eternal damnation for those who can’t understand it. God loves us right? If He can’t simply create everyone saved (which raises huge implications about His omnipotence), why not create a situation where we come to know and love him, in the easist way possible? Sending most of His creation, that He apparently loves, to Hell, for intellectual snobbery, seems, well, less than worthy of worship, and an unrecognizable standard of love.

    Reply: No implications about his omnipotence. God can’t force a free act. That’s a contradiction. Furthermore, the easiest way is not always the best way nor will it produce the best end-result.

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