Reading the Bible in Historical Context

Reading the Bible in Historical Context

In the adult CE hour in our Systematic Theology class, we recently covered how to use the Bible in doing theology. We usually follow the adage that the three most important rules in Bible interpretation are context, context, and context. By context, we typically mean the following:

  1. Textual context – the historical setting in which the Bible passage occurs; how the original audience would have understood the passage; to whom the passage was addressed; the grammar of the text; and the genre of the text.
  2. Canonical context – where the passage fits in the Bible: Old Testament, New Testament, Pauline, Pentateuch, etc.
  3. Systematic context – where the passage fits in relationship to the entire Bible. What does this passage say about a topic that the Bible elsewhere says about the same topic?

Seldom, however, do we mention a fourth context – the historical context. What I mean by historical context is reading the Bible with Christians of the past–men like Augustine, Luther, and Spurgeon.

What is the benefit of reading the Bible with Christians of the past? Let me answer by way of example.

Matthew 28:18-20 is commonly seen as the “Great Commission” text of the Bible. Only until very recently in church history, however, has Matthew 28:18-20 been viewed this way. Christians in the past used Matthew 28:18-20 for other purposes.

In the fourth century, the passage was used to support orthodox Trinitarianism. When Jesus says to baptize disciples “in the name of the Father and Son and Holy Spirit,” fourth century Christians saw a clear reference to the Trinity. These Christians used Matthew 28:18-20 to defend orthodox Trinitarianism because debates about the Trinity were raging in the fourth century.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Matthew 28:18-20 was used by Anabaptists and Baptists to support the biblical conviction of believers’ only baptism. These Christians used Matthew 28:18-20 to support the notion that Jesus taught that a disciple (i.e., Christian)—and a disciple only—should be baptized.

It was not, in fact, until the late eighteenth century when Matthew 28:18-20 was used to support the idea of the Great Commission.

Now, why does this matter? It matters because it sheds new perspective on the passage. Does Matthew 28:18-20 support the doctrine of the Trinity? I would argue yes. Does Matthew 28:18-20 support the doctrine of believers’ only baptism? As a credo-baptist, I argue yes. And does Matthew 28:18-20 support the concept of a Great Commission? Yes.

The point is that when you think of a text on the Trinity or a text on believers’ only baptism, is Matthew 28:18-20 the first passage you go to? Probably not. Why? Because it’s the passage for the Great Commission, not the Trinity or believers’ only baptism.

But when you read the Bible with the church of the past, you gain new and true insights into the word of God, and you avoid heresy and traditionalism. Reading the Bible with the past gives you a depth of understanding that you might not otherwise know. As a scholar aptly summarizes: “ignorance of” church history “causes the vagueness and superficiality of much theological discourse today.”

Read your Bible in conjunction with Christians of the past.

Pastor Dan

To start reading the Bible with Christians in the past, you need to know the history of Christianity. You can learn about 2,000 years of church history in fourteen 45-minute lessons here.