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My Journey Using Literary Context to Understand and Teach the Bible

By Dustin Ellington

I first became deeply attached to the Bible when, in my early teens, my family went through a difficult time. One day during this period I sensed God saying to me, “You haven’t tried reading my word.” I took my Bible from a shelf, started reading it, and began to sense that I was meeting God through Scripture. I knew from then that my life would always involve reading the Bible, and hopefully teaching it. I would like to share a bit of this journey, especially the parts involving “inductive Bible study” and “literary context.”

In college, I was introduced to “inductive Bible study” (IBS) through InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. We would print out a whole book of the Bible without its verse numbers, and use colored pens to highlight, draw on, and write on passages to study and discuss them closely, week by week. IBS is a method of taking in as much evidence as possible from what is present in the written text of a book of the Bible, and a way of seeing connections between different passages, while also seeking to lay aside our preconceptions about what we might expect the Bible to say. The process is inductive because it aims to take in as much raw data as it can from the biblical text itself before drawing conclusions about the meaning.

About ten years later, after seminary and some years teaching and ministering in a congregation, I went to Duke University to pursue a Ph.D. in New Testament; it was intense, disciplined training to discover and express what the authors of Scripture were trying to say. The training involved learning to understand the New Testament in its historical context, it included lots of Greek and Hebrew, and the aim was to understand the theology of the books of the New Testament. But the work itself was largely literary. It was essentially about learning very well how to understand what we read. My background in inductive Bible study helped a lot, and I learned to call this method using “the literary context” to study the Bible very closely. The Bible is a piece of literature, so we mainly study it with literary methods to discover what is there on the page and what the writers sought to convey.

To be more specific, making use of the literary context means that we interpret words, verses, and passages according to what we find within those passages and in the surrounding passages. Words, verses, and passages take meaning from the whole book of the Bible in which they’re found. Literary context seeks to allow a whole biblical book to tell us as much as it can about what any passage within it means. The book also reveals its genre, and that guides how we read, such as if it is a letter or a narrative. Using the literary context is a way of allowing a biblical book to have its own voice and to define its own terms. If we can do this using the original languages, even more information and meaning become available to us.

Literary context is important because it helps to keep us on track. Too often we try and make a piece of Scripture fit our own preconceived notions. This is perhaps especially tempting when leading topical Bible studies or doing topical preaching that’s not rooted in one particular passage or book of the Bible. But when we read something in its literary context, we have to face what’s really in the text, and what the rest of its own context is saying, so that we don’t make Scripture conform to what we want it to say. Too wide a variety of meanings are possible when we don’t read something in context. The literary context gives us the writer’s own guidance to clarify the meaning.

As soon as I finished my Ph.D., my family and I were sent to Egypt, where I taught New Testament at the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo. There I encountered students who cared deeply about Scripture and had even memorized large chunks of it. It was wonderful. But I also sensed that many of my students had the idea that to understand the Bible well an expert was needed, to unlock the historical context of a passage. And that if an expert helped them to get the historical context right, then the true meaning of the text would click into place and come forth. And this might well be a different meaning from the straightforward literal sense of the passage.

This went against much of what I had come to believe. I felt sure that the Bible’s meaning is mainly available to anyone who can learn to read, and who can then learn to read a text closely in light of what’s available to us on the page, through using inductive method and literary context. It should work for almost anyone. Of course, to understand the Bible well, we must pay attention to its books in their own historical context. For instance, letters in the New Testament address particular situations in the past. But our best access to the historical context of a biblical book tends to be the clues which that biblical book itself gives, and we access those clues through the literary context. Biblical scholars are trained to identify these clues, but anyone who knows how to read a piece of literature well can also mostly learn to do what professional Bible scholars know how to do.

Later, God led my family and me to Justo Mwale University in Zambia, where I taught the New Testament and Greek (plus preaching), for twelve years. In that context, the prosperity gospel, saying that God promised financial success to those who truly follow him, was in the air. I had never studied the Bible with people from such a different culture. For most of my students, it made the most sense that the highest priority was not the historical or the literary context of Scripture, but what their community would say the Bible says. “The Bible means what it means to us and our community,” was how a Zambian colleague explained it. Not the historical world behind the text, or that which can be found within the text, but “the world in front of the text” (the community the interpreters come from) mattered most in interpretation.

On one hand, in Zambia I learned about the importance of the community and the context of readers when it comes to interpretation. We need to own the reality that our vantage point affects what we see in the Bible. And, when we interpret the Bible, we are not doing that just for ourselves as individuals. We read for our context and to serve our community of believers. We bring the concerns and interests of our community to the task of interpretation. Indeed, the Bible is mainly a book not for scholars but for the whole community of Christians.

On the other hand, I sensed that the prevailing approach didn’t protect the church from teachings that weren’t true to what’s written in the Bible. In terms of authority, the Christian faith ultimately puts the community not above the text of Scripture but under it. We interpret for the context, to serve the context, but not under the control of the context. We allow the text to speak from God toward us and our community. Given this reality, inductive use of the literary context of Scripture can serve the community, as we make discoveries on their behalf. Using the literary context, my students in Zambia became more able to identify what Scripture really said, and they could hold that in critical dialogue with what their communities said about the Bible and the Christian life. They could help to safeguard that the community hears Scripture clearly, and thereby help the community to contextualize God’s word in ways that are appropriate for them. (I wrote a few articles in light of the process of sorting through interpreting the Bible in the southern African context. They can be found in the link below.[1])

I am still somewhat new to ABTS, but I believe these prior periods in my journey have been fruitful for shaping how I will teach the Bible in the coming years. I’m excited to invite students to go farther on their journey of meeting God through Scripture and hearing from him, including words that surprise them or that they don’t expect. I’d love to see students trained to invite others to travel on the same road of discovery. I’m convinced that giving students skills for using the literary context can empower them for their journey with the Bible, so they can hear God’s voice more reliably and share his word with more clarity.

 

Dustin Ellington is Associate Professor of New Testament at ABTS. He enjoys conversations about Scripture with students and taking walks with his wife, Sherri.

[1] https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=7Cm_cNsAAAAJ&hl=en Look for the terms “prosperity gospel”, “the missing cross”, and “literary context”.

2 Comments

  1. Ashrαf ζακi Nαkhlα says:

    Dear Professor Dustin Ellington, as one of your students, Much obliged for the insightful posts on your blog. the anticipation is high as we look forward to seeing how this will enable us to expertly navigate the depths of Scripture and fearlessly proclaim the truth of Gods word to a world seeking hope and redemption.

  2. Dustin Ellington says:

    Thank you, Ashraf. It’s a pleasure to have you as a student who’s eager to go deep in Scripture and share the word with others.

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