Volume 5 - Issue 2
Interpreting texts in the context of the whole BibleBy David L. Baker
A naked brown body splashing in a muddy Sumatran river, a fully-clothed undergraduate floundering in the Cam—two men in the water, but for quite different reasons. One is taking his daily bath, the other has fallen off a punt.
Both the Israelites and the Egyptians entered the Red Sea, but only the first group came out again. Naaman’s business in the river Jordan was different from that of the penitent Jews who flocked to join John the Baptist there. In each case the event is similar, but its meaning different depending on the context.
Words, too, cannot be separated from the context in which they are said. In the film ‘For Heaven’s Sake!’ we see Peter Sellers as an incompetent but well-meaning vicar doing parish visitation. At one door he is rebuffed by an unfriendly parishioner who knows enough of the Bible to quote it out of context: ‘Matthew 27:5, “Judas went and hanged himself”; Luke 10:37, “Go and do thou likewise”!’ But infinitely more serious is the subtle quotation of scripture out of context that can genuinely deceive, as for instance that of the Devil himself (Matt. 4:6).
An understanding of context is a vital part of hermeneutics. It is generally obvious that words and events are related to their immediate context. What is not always fully appreciated is the need to consider the whole background to the immediate context. A man bathing in the river Musi does not mean the same thing as if he were taking a bath in an English river: in one context he would be perfectly normal, in the other an eccentric or exhibitionist. The English student’s style of recreation would probably seem even more eccentric to an Asian villager, for whom spare time is for resting, not wasting precious energy. If the fellow wants to go to Granchester, couldn’t he take a bus?
So the meaning of an event or word is affected by its place within the context of a whole culture and way of life. In terms of biblical hermeneutics, this means that a text needs to be understood not only in its immediate context, but also in its wider context, which is the whole Bible.
The biblical context: history and theology
The Bible records the history and theology of God’s chosen people. After a short theological account of the beginning of the world, the first major event in biblical history is Abraham’s call out of one of the great centres of pagan civilization to found the holy nation Israel (Gen. 12:1–3; Exod. 19:4–6). The history of the people of God is then traced through two millennia, up to the apostle Paul’s arrival at the centre of the unholy Roman Empire with God’s message of salvation to all nations (Acts 28:16–31). The record is concluded by a collection of letters dealing with theological and pastoral matters, and visions relating to the end of the present order.
In theological language, biblical history is usually called heilsgeschichte (salvation/saving history; e.g. von Rad, Cullmann). By this is meant that the events of that history are presented not purely as human activity but also as the activity of God, who is at work in them to save. History is not the product of chance, nor does it derive ultimately from human endeavour, but is the outworking of the divine purpose. The Bible proclaims how God is calling men out of darkness into his marvellous light, and incorporating them into his own people: the chosen race, royal priesthood and holy nation (1 Pet. 2:9). In other words, the Bible contains theological history. History is the sphere of God’s revelation of himself to man, both in words and in deeds. For example, God revealed his greatness and power in the Exodus and the events associated with it; and he revealed his will and purpose for the people he saved in the writings which record and interpret those events.
The biblical history is divided into two eras, corresponding to the Old and New Testaments. The relationship between the two is a complex one, but one of its main aspects has conveniently been summed up in the formula ‘promise and fulfilment’ (Kümmel, Zimmerli), by which is meant that the earlier parts of the history contain promises that are fulfilled in later parts. In particular, the promises of the Old Testament focus on the Messiah, whose coming is recorded in the New Testament. Through the law and prophets God promised to save his people, and through the gospel and apostles he brought that promise to its fulfilment.
One way of understanding the distinctive nature of the biblical history has traditionally been expressed by the concept of ‘typology’. Unfortunately this term often became an excuse for rather fanciful kinds of interpretation, and as a result both the term and the concept behind it were almost forgotten by historical-critical scholarship in the first half of the twentieth century. Perhaps because of that some scholars suggested alternative terms to represent what is at the root of typology, such as ‘homology’ (Phythian-Adams) or ‘common patterns’ (Rowley). But after the Second World War, with the advent of ‘Biblical Theology’, the idea of typology gradually came into fashion again, redefined and distinguished from allegorization and other generally unacceptable ways of interpreting the Bible. One of the more influential proponents was G. W. H. Lampe, whose definition is fairly representative:
Understood in this way typology is a useful concept for interpreting biblical history, and thus for interpreting the relationship between the two main parts of that history, the Old and the New.
What does this mean in practice? The Greek tupos as used in the Bible means ‘example’ or ‘pattern’ (Baker: 251–53). Thus a ‘type’ may be understood as an event, person or institution in the biblical history which serves as an example or pattern for other events, persons or institutions. For instance, the Exodus is the supreme example of God’s saving activity as recorded in the Old Testament, and is thus frequently treated as a typical event by biblical writers (e.g. Pss. 66, 77, 135, 136; Hos. 11; Isa. 63:11–14; cf. 1 Cor. 10:1–11; Rev. 15:1–8). Sometimes a particular figure in the Bible becomes a type of how believers should live, such as David (1 Kings 3:14; 15:3, 11; cf. Ezek. 34:24; Zech. 12:8; Matt. 12:3–4; Heb. 11:32); whereas Cain (1 John 3:12; Jude 11) and the stubborn Israelites in the wilderness (Ps. 95:8–11; Heb. 3:7–4:11) are examples not to be imitated. The name of the hill ‘Zion’ becomes used to refer to the holy city built on it (Ps. 97:8; Isa. 28:16), and thence becomes a type of the spiritual home of all who belong to the true Israel (Isa. 60:14; Mic. 4:1–2; Heb. 12:22; 1 Pet. 2:5–6; Rev. 14:1).
So ‘typology’, like ‘salvation history’, points to the fact that the history recorded in the Bible is not merely human history, nor the history of two religions, but the history of God and man. It is based on the conviction that God really exists and is involved in the affairs of man, whom he created and is saving. Because God is one, and consistent, there is a certain consistency throughout the course of the history that he directs, and therefore parallels can be drawn between different events in that history. The spiritual experiences of worshippers of Baal or Buddha do not form patterns for Christian spiritual experience. But the encounter of Isaiah or Ruth with Yahweh is of immediate relevance to us, because they were in touch with the same God who has revealed himself to us in his Son (Heb. 1:1–2). Thus such biblical figures can become examples or patterns (‘types’) for the Christian’s experience of God.
The key figure in salvation history, who is the example and pattern for every Christian, is Jesus Christ. In the person of Jesus the theology of the Bible is summed up and finds its clearest expression. The Old Testament looks forward to him, and the New Testament looks back to his first coming and forward to his expected return. He does not occur in either Old or New Testament. None of the documents were written in his lifetime. But both Testaments witness to the Christ, who lived on earth during the time between their writing. The Christian statement of faith that ‘Jesus is the Christ’ is based on both Testaments, for the Old Testament promises and gives a provisional definition of ‘Christ’, while the New Testament supplies his name, ‘Jesus’, and shows how he fulfilled and surpassed all expectation (cf. Vischer, Miskotte).
According to Jesus, the Old Testament speaks about him (John 5:39). This is not to say that he was present in Old Testament times, or that he may be found in and expounded from Old Testament texts. But it does mean that it is impossible to give a true theological interpretation of the Old Testament in the Christian Church without reference to the Christ who fulfilled its promises and realized its hopes. We do not have to impose Christological interpretation on the Old Testament from the outside, by reading the New Testament into the Old, or seeing ‘Jesus in Genesis’, or allegorization, or arbitrariness. On the contrary, the very nature of the Old Testament itself, rightly understood, demands Christological interpretation. It is un thinkable that a test-match should be discussed without concern for who won. So it is futile for a Christian to try to understand the Old Testament without consideration of the Christ it promises, and who actually came in fulfilment of that promise. Moreover a correct Christological interpretation of the Old Testament is essential to justify the existence of Christianity, because it was precisely the Jews’ different Christological interpretation of their scriptures that led them to execute Jesus for blasphemy and persecute his followers.
Preaching texts in context: some suggestions
Paul’s motto in preaching was to preach Jesus Christ as the crucified Lord (1 Cor. 2:2; 2 Cor. 4:5). Many preachers have rightly made this their starting-point and goal. James Stewart, for instance, advises the prospective preacher that ‘if we are not determined that in every sermon Christ is to be preached, it were better that we should resign our commission forthwith and seek some other vocation’ (p. 54). Whether our sermon is based on an Old or New Testament text, or is topical, its primary aim should be to declare the Good News about Christ.
But perhaps it is worth pointing out here how important it is to choose a suitable text as the basis of a sermon. Not every part of the Bible is appropriate for every occasion. In teaching, preaching, counselling, apologetics, private reading, some texts are more relevant than others. An important aspect of hermeneutics is to determine which text is to be interpreted. The preacher’s task is to preach Christ, and the whole Bible is a witness to Christ and thus forms the source-book for preaching, but not every sentence and paragraph are equally suitable for that purpose. Genesis 11:10–26, Deuteronomy 23:1–8, Nehemiah 12:12–21 and Psalm 109:6–15 have their place in the Bible as parts of salvation history, but that does not mean that they should be chosen as texts for the Sunday sermon. The ingenious preacher may be able to make an edifying homily out of the most unpromising text, with the help of allegorization and imagination, but that is little more than reading one’s own ideas into God’s word. Instead of trying to make relevant a text that is not obviously relevant to the occasion, it would be more profitable to choose a different text. There is no shortage of material in the Bible for preaching Christ!
Supposing we already have a suitable text, how do we interpret it faithfully as part of the one Bible? Just how is a text to be preached in its biblical context? Because the Bible is not a collection of independent texts, but one complex work, we often need to refer to other parts of the work for clarification of what is being said at one particular point. That is why cross-references form an important part of an edition of the Bible.
First, let us consider the preaching of Old Testament texts in their biblical context.
In some cases this is relatively straightforward, because a marginal reference or footnote in our Bible points to a quotation, allusion or interpretation in the New Testament, or in another part of the Old Testament. For example, if the set text is Numbers 21:4–9, it is not too difficult first to explain this in its original context in the history of Israel, and then to refer to John’s use of the story to illustrate salvation through Christ (John 3:14–16). That does not mean that Christ is the meaning of the passage in Numbers, or that we can preach Christ directly from that text. But it illustrates certain principles of God’s activity to save his people: God initiates salvation, a human mediator co-operates, and the people have to respond in the way appointed. Thus it forms a helpful background against which to understand one of the key texts of the Christian faith. Of course that is only one way of preaching from Numbers 21:4–9. We could equally follow the lead of Paul (1 Cor. 10) and produce quite a different sermon. Or we could point to 2 Kings 18:4, from which we learn that the bronze snake—originally a symbol of God’s grace—had been made an idol and drawn the people away from God.
Many Old Testament texts do not have such an obvious relationship to the New Testament, but nevertheless can profitably be interpreted by reference to what the New Testament says on the matter. For instance, 1 Kings 3:4–15 is an important and obviously meaningful passage within the Old Testament. No doubt a profitable sermon could be preached on it without reference to the New Testament. Solomon considered wisdom to carry out the task entrusted to him by God more important than health, riches and political security (v. 11). His prayer forms a good pattern for supplication: he remembers God’s past goodness (v. 6), reflects on his present situation (vv. 7–8) and requests God’s help for the future (v. 9). But this story, illuminating as it is, may still seem rather far removed from the experience of the average Christian, who is perhaps apt to file it in his mind alongside childhood stories of fairies granting wishes. It may be helpful, therefore, to link it up to a New Testament passage which deals with the subject of prayer, such as Jesus’ invitation to ask for what we need (Luke 11:9) or Paul’s encouragement to pray in faith (Phil. 4:6). In this way it can be shown that God’s offer, ‘What would you like me to give you?’ was not only for Solomon, but is an offer and challenge to every Christian.
A few months ago the set text in our church was Jer. 8:4–9. This is an example of a text that is not irrelevant to the Christian, but is clearly incomplete without being supplemented from the New Testament. It teaches clearly about the nature of sin, which is a good enough start for a sermon, but the preacher would be unfaithful to his call to preach Christ if he left it at that. One solution would be to refer to Romans 3:23, which sums up the point of the text in Jeremiah (‘Everyone has sinned and is far away from God’s saving presence’), and then to point to the following verse, which gives the answer to the separation between God and man (‘But by the free gift of God’s grace all are put right with him through Christ Jesus’, v. 24).
Secondly, the preaching of New Testament texts in context needs to be considered. In practice it is much easier to preach from the New Testament without reference to the Old than vice-versa, because it is more obviously relevant to the Christian. All the same, to preach the whole counsel of God involves preaching a New Testament text in the context of the entire Bible, whether explicitly or implicitly.
Often a New Testament text quotes or alludes explicitly to a word or event in the Old Testament, and in that case an explanation of the purpose of the reference is clearly called for. Texts from books such as Matthew, Romans and Hebrews, for example, that set out specifically to relate the Christ-event to the Old Testament salvation history, can only be correctly interpreted in that light. There are many books and articles on the New Testament use of the Old which help us to do this (see Baker: 32–40).
In other New Testament texts a specific interpretation of the Old Testament is implied, which was no doubt obvious to the original readers, but is not necessarily so obvious to a modern pewsitter. For instance:
‘As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man who had been born blind. His disciples asked him, “Teacher, whose sin caused him to be born blind? Was it his own or his parents’ sin?” ’ (John 9:1–2)
It does not occur to the average Indonesian-in-the-street to ask such a question about those who sit on the pavements and bridges of Jakarta. Fate determines such matters, not sin, in this part of the world. The disciples’ question is based on their understanding of the Old Testament (e.g. Gen. 3; Exod. 20:5). So it may be necessary to explain the Old Testament background of such a text.
Another way in which the Old Testament is essential for preaching from the New is in the definition of terms. Many of the basic theological concepts of the Christian faith come from the Old Testament: sin, reconciliation, sacrifice, forgiveness, God, man, Christ, grace—to name but a few. A sermon on Romans 12:1, for example, may not require explicit quotation of the Old Testament. But in fact almost every significant word in this text (mercy, sacrifice, holy, worship) comes originally from the Old Testament and can only be fully understood in that context.
To sum up, it is not coincidence that the Old and New Testaments are bound in one volume. The God who reveals himself in the Old Testament is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. The New Testament recounts the fulfilment of promises made centuries beforehand. So the two Testaments form one historical and theological work, in which each event and word can only be understood fully when interpreted in the context of the whole; and the whole can only be rightly interpreted in the light of its central event and Word, Jesus Christ.
The Bible is about God and man, theology and history. Once upon a time, nearly two thousand years ago, when the old covenant was exhausted and the new still a dream, God came to earth. The Son of God became the Son of Man. The promised Messiah appeared in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, the carpenter-King, the Word Incarnate. That is the message of the Bible and the starting-point of our hermeneutics.
W. Vischer, The Witness of the Old Testament to Christ I: The Pentateuch, ET: London 1949 (German 1936,319341).
W. J. Phythian-Adams, The Way of At-one-ment: Studies in Biblical Theology, London 1944.
J. S. Stewart, Preaching, London 1955 (originally published in 1946 under the title Heralds of God).
W. Zimmerli, ‘Promise and Fulfilment’, ET in Essays on Old Testament Interpretation (ed. C. Westermann, London 1963): 89–122; originally published in EVTH 12 (1952): 34–59.
H. H. Rowley, The Unity of the Bible, London 1953.
G. W. H. Lampe, ‘Typological Exegesis’, Theology 56 (1953): 201–8; ‘The Reasonableness of Typology’ in Essays on Typology (Lampe and K. J. Woollcombe), London 1957; ‘Hermeneutics and Typology’, LQHR190 (1965): 17–25.
R. W. Funk, ‘The Old Testament in Parable’, Language, Hermeneutic, and Word of God, New York 1966, ch. 8 (originally published in Encounter 26 (1956): 251–67).
K. H. Miskotte, When the Gods are Silent, ET: London 1967 (Dutch 1956, revd German edn 1963).
G. von Rad, ‘The Old Testament and the New’, Old Testament Theology II, ET: Edinburgh 1965 (German 1960): 319–409; also ‘Typological Interpretation of the Old Testament’, ET in Interpn 15 (1961): 174–192 (German: EvTh 12 (1952): 17–33).
O. Cullmann, Salvation in History, ET: London 1967 (German 1965).
J. Bright, The Authority of the Old Testament, London 1967.
W. J. Harrington, The Path of Biblical Theology, Dublin 1973.
F. Mildenberger, ‘The Unity, Truth, and Validity of the Bible’, Interpn 29 (1975): 391–405.
D. L. Baker, Two Testaments, One Bible, Leicester 1976.
3 See Orlando Costas’ evaluation of the Consultation in Gospel in Context, Vol. 1, No. 2, April 1978, pp. 16–17.
1 For the purposes of this article, we shall concentrate on the implications of the discussion for contemporary evangelical missionary thinking and strategy.
David L. Baker
is the Deputy Warden and a Research Fellow at Tyndale House, Cambridge.