How can we know the original context of the Bible?
For many Christians today, this is a question at the heart of what it means to even be a follower of Christ. Discerning the correct interpretations of scripture from the incorrect; the exegesis from the eisegesis; the quality commentaries from the rubbish.
But are these the right questions to be asking? And can we even know the answers?
Context Abhors a Vacuum
I’ve participated in several different Bible study groups in my lifetime. Some were better than others, of course, but it’s often an enjoyable thing to get together with fellow Christians and explore the scriptures.
Recently, I’ve been involved with a group studying the Gospel of John, along with my priest and some other Orthodox and non-Orthodox Christians. We have mostly been looking to the fathers and Saints for our insights, following along with their wisdom and then branching off into our own discussions from there.
A few weeks ago, we came to the passage in John 3 where Jesus has a late-night conversation with Nicodemus. I would imagine most Orthodox Christians see in that passage an obvious reference to the mystery of Baptism (John 3:1–8). Besides the immediate context—as baptism is mentioned immediately following this dialogue (3:22)—considering the context of this passage in light of Church history and tradition makes it more than apparent. Where water and Spirit go, Baptism follows.
But our non-Orthodox friend saw it differently.
He suggested that, taken on its own, he can’t see Baptism in John 3. Instead, he offered that it was simply a use of metaphor (water, Spirit, etc.) to describe the spiritual (and presumably, invisible) activity of the new birth in each believer. In other words, it isn’t really about water, and only by forcing the later, Christian concepts of Baptism onto this passage anachronistically would that even be considered a plausible interpretation.
But is the context of scripture a vacuum? Is it to take passages “on their own,” isolated from the context of Church history and tradition? Anyone that’s taken a decent Philosophy 101 class knows that neutrality is a myth; there are always presuppositions, and everyone has them.
So when studying the scriptures, the question is less about eliminating all presuppositions, and rather carefully choosing which ones to follow.
Scripture within Tradition
As Orthodox Christians, we believe the proper context of scripture is the life of the Church.
Rather than isolating scriptures from the life of the Church and taking them “on their own,” we recognize that the life-giving Spirit inspiring the authors of holy writ is the same life-giving Spirit indwelling, guiding, and preserving the holy Church through history; the same life-giving Spirit that creates and perpetuates this “thing” we call holy tradition. After all, holy tradition is little more than the life of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church.
As a consequence, understanding the scriptures depends more on a person’s unity with God than it does education. Deification or theosis—an acquisition of the Holy Spirit through ascesis, prayer, almsgiving, mercy, and the sacred Mysteries—is the path laid before us, and it’s a path every single person in the Church is called to follow (i.e. it is not for the super-spiritual alone). This is one of the reasons why on the Great Feast of Pentecost, we sing of simple, illiterate fishermen who became great apostles through the sending of the Holy Spirit.
Discovering the true context of scripture is not really all about the best exegesis or commentaries, but rather embracing the Mind of the Church.
Isolation Begets Schism
Going back to taking passages of scripture “on their own,” history paints a rather graphic picture of what happens when enough individual Christians adhere solely to this maxim.
Influenced largely by humanism and other concepts of individual liberty, the key architects of the Reformation paved the way for an uncontrollable revolution—a revolution in which anyone could be the final arbiter of truth. Instead of a single, corrupt papacy, there were now thousands of individual “popes,” all serving as the head of their own unique movement. And today we now have dozens of different English translations of the scriptures, each with its own “spin” on the text and various liberties taken to massage one passage here or there in a certain, doctrinal direction.
The goal of escaping every presupposition has failed—indeed, it is impossible—and we’re left with a choice of which presupposition. Left to our vices, discovering the “original context” of the Bible becomes an exercise in dividing the people of God.
Embracing the Body of Christ
For Orthodox Christians, the choice should be rather clear: we believe “in one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church,” as our Creed demands we acknowledge. A prerequisite to partaking of the very Body and Blood of Jesus Christ is a confession of this fact. And through that Mystery of Mysteries, we truly become the Body of Christ.
The Church is, of course, the pillar and foundation of the truth (1 Tim. 3:15), but this has little to do with us individually, and everything to do with her sole Head: Jesus Christ (Eph. 5:23; Col. 1:18). In Christ is truth personified, and so by following the words of his apostles and their successors, we embrace a continuation of Christ through the ages.
Additionally, we know that the Church is built on a foundation of the apostle and prophets, with Christ the chief cornerstone (Eph. 2:20). This is not a structure in need of linguistic or historical analysis in order to discover the hidden meaning behind words penned two thousand years ago (or more); she is rather a Body that lives and breathes through history, with a “great cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1) alongside us each and every step of the way.
We are not Deists, believing that God has left us on our own until he decides to return—we are children of the Incarnation, of a God named Immanuel (“God with us”); of a personal and loving God that sends a Helper to guide us into all truth (John 14:26); of a long-suffering and merciful God that gives us his very Body and Blood for sustenance and communion in him (John 6:55ff). This is not a God merely of ideas and books, but of flesh and blood—of matter and substance.
Rather than facing the impossible task of discovering the “original context” of cultures and societies long past, we look to the Body of Christ. We look to the Saints and martyrs, the hymns and divine services, the iconography and sacred Mysteries. We look to our bishops and priests, men ordained in faithful succession from one of Christ’s apostles.
In the end, discovering the original context of the Bible is not a question of epistemology; it is a question of ontology. And as faithful Christians, we belong—body, mind, and spirit—to the all-holy Trinity. It is through our union with Christ and in his Body that we are guided into all truth.