Reading the Bible in Context(s): Why Faithful Interpretation Means Considering ‘Various Strata of Biblical Discourse’

aman-bhargava-272763When reading the Bible (especially the Old Testament) we must always endeavor to read it “in context.” However, because Scripture is book composed of many books, written by many authors, and recorded over many centuries, reading the Bible in context means paying attention to “various strata of biblical discourse.”

On this point, Andrew Abernathy, in his book The Book of Isaiah and God’s Kingdomoffers a balanced approach to reading in context that both holds fast to the grammatical- historical of the Old Testament context and the biblical-theological context of the whole canon. His words are worth considering, as we seek to understand any passage of Scripture and apply it through Christ to ourselves.

In the opening pages of his book, Abernathy writes,isaiah

Within OT scholarship many Christian interpreters, myself included at times, are afraid that the scholarly guild will blow the whistle, accusing us of violating the rule that Christ and the NT must not intermingle with our examinations of OT texts. While I affirm that there is a place for limiting one’s interpretative focus to OT texts in their original setting, as is evident in a number of my other publications, the reception of the OT by the church as Christian scripture should ultimately lead Christian interpretations to probe how the OT bears witness to Jesus Christ. The abundant quotations, allusions and echoes from and to Isaiah in the NT demonstrate how vital Isaiah was for the church in their conceptualization of how the kingdom of God had come and will come in Christ. If the divine author of Isaiah is also the author of the entire canon, then we should weigh how God may have providentially inspired the human words, including a book’s arrangement, in an initial context to play a role in the larger canonical witness to Jesus Christ and God’s redemptive plan, even if the human writers were not fully cognizant of the way in which their contextually tailored utterances, or the book’s arrangement, would function as part of a larger whole and address later audiences of God’s people.

One, however, must be careful to not impose the New on the Old to such an extent that this mutes the discrete witness of the OT.  If all one is left with in the interpretative process is something one could have read in the NT, the OT is not even necessary. The key issue is to allow an OT text to sound its own discrete voice while also factoring in how this joins in with the NT as they jointly bear witness to Christ and God’s redemptive plan. As Vanhoozer puts it, ‘Theological interpretation is not a matter of breaking some code (“this is what it means”) but of grasping everything God is doing in and with the various strata of biblical discourse.” (3–)

Thankfully, this is the approach that Abernathy and many other biblical theologians are pursuing today—hearing the uniquing contribution of the Old Testament voices while also harmonizing them with the rest of Scripture. Surely, this is how we are hear the voice of God in Scripture, by paying attention to the local context of every passage and the larger context of the whole Bible.

To that end, may we seek by God’s grace to “grasp everything God is doing in and with the various strata of biblical discourse.”

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

Photo by Aman Bhargava on Unsplash