Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Bible Study 07 — Context [Part 1]

Another instalment in the re-presentation of our 2013-2014 series about studying the Bible using methods deduced from the Bible itself. The series introduction can be found here.

The second Bible study tool we are discussing is context. Our previous study led us to the conclusion that interpreting in context is foundational to any genuine understanding of the word of God.


We are seeking to use tools in our Bible study that are taught in the word of God itself. Let’s consider what the apostle Paul says on our subject:

“Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.”

The word translated “rightly dividing” in the KJV (and “accurately handling”, among other things in more modern translations) is the Greek orthotomeo, from orthos, meaning “upright”, and tomoteros, meaning “to cut”. 2 Timothy 2:15 is its only use in scripture, which doesn’t mean it was an uncommon word in the ancient Greek language, just that it was not commonly used in scripture by the Lord or apostles.

Paul Elliott, in a message on Zechariah, says there are two schools of thought about how the word should be understood:

1/ Cutting Up the Cadaver

The dispensationalist, Elliott says, translates it “cutting up”, and uses it [wrongly, he thinks] to advocate dividing the scripture into dispensations like one would dissect a cadaver.

Interestingly, the “dispensationalist spokesman” Elliott cites for the cadaver quote remains unnamed in his sermon but a footnote in Elliott’s online series on the subject identifies him as the relatively unknown George Parsons, connected with Middletown Bible Church in Connecticut. Let’s just say Parsons’ graphic imagery goes further than most would go in seeking to explain the meaning of the term. While Parsons is certainly a “spokesman” in the sense that he attempts to speak for dispensationalism, trotting him out as representative of the dispensationalist school of thought is not exactly sporting. A Bible teacher such as C.I. Scofield might more reasonably be referred to as a “dispensationalist spokesman”, but Scofield is a little less dramatic with his analogies and probably makes a harder target.

Citing Parsons’ fairly extreme example of extrapolation, Elliott goes on to skewer dispensationalism, claiming its adherents support “arbitrary dissection” of scripture, something even Parsons doesn’t seem to advocate. Whether you believe or don’t believe what dispensationalists teach, there is nothing “arbitrary” about their way of analyzing the word of God. Far from hacking it to pieces like crazed pathologists, one might well suggest that the dispensationalist way of looking at history provides a coherent and unifying view of scripture.

Another straw man. Oh well. On to Elliott’s second view of the meaning of the word.

2/ Accurately Teaching a Unified Whole

In contrast to dispensationalists, Elliott says covenant theologians generally understand the word to mean something like “accurately teaching a unified whole”.

Leaving aside for a moment that the words “a unified whole” are nowhere to be found in our verse, whether in the original or by legitimate linguistic assumption — and that either Elliott or the covenant theologians are essentially pulling them out of thin air — the obvious fact that the word of God ought to be taught accurately is not remotely arguable. No serious Christian, including dispensationalists — and, to be fair, quite probably George Parsons — takes the position that sloppy exegesis is a good idea. And most dispensationalists see the word of God as a “unified whole” despite recognizing differences in the way God deals with men throughout human history.

If Paul Elliott doesn’t like the idea of dispensationalism, that’s perfectly fine, but putting words in people’s mouths or citing a teaching’s outlying proponents is shooting ducks in a barrel.

The Meaning of the Word

Elliott does go on to give some useful background on the word orthotomeo:

“In New Testament times, orthotomeo was primarily a civil engineering term. It was used, for example, as a road building term. The idea of the word was to cut straight, or to guide on a straight path. The idea is to cut a roadway in a straight manner, so that people who will travel over that road can arrive at their destination directly, without deviation. Orthotomeo was also used as a mining term. It meant to drill a straight mine shaft so that the miners can get quickly and safely to the ‘mother lode’.”

So after trashing those who draw conclusions he doesn’t like from a word’s etymology, Elliott has just gone on to point out that the word means “cut straight” and that it was used in the Greek vernacular to describe, er, “cutting straight”.

It appears the very literal translation of “rightly dividing” or “cutting” is not a bad one. It’s the baggage you impose on it that makes it threatening or appealing, not the language of scripture itself. “Making a straight path” has a fine scriptural tradition going back to John the Baptist and the prophets and one can easily see how it can be applied to the study of the word of God. Hacking the “word of truth” to pieces is an interpretation of orthotomeo that nobody, including dispensationalists, is actually advancing.

But you can see that coming to scripture with your own baggage is definitely going to influence what you come away with.

That said, quite a lot of what Elliott points out in his various articles is fair and useful, but his mischaracterization of dispensationalism seems unworthy and obtuse to me.

Conclusion: The Bible Contains Divisions

Whether you look at it dispensationally or as a covenant theologian, the Bible contains divisions. Even covenant theologians acknowledge a distinction in God’s dealings with man under the Old and New Covenants, as Elliott recognizes. So the issue is not whether or not you “divide” the word of truth, the issue is how many pieces you divide it into: two, three, five, seven, nine — and how delicately you phrase your explanation to your onlookers of what you are doing as you cut.

George Parsons doesn’t phrase things delicately; Paul Elliott does, at least much of the time. But both recognize divisions or distinctions in scripture.

Moreover, there are not only distinctions in terms of God’s dealings with mankind under covenants. There are divisions based on type of literature. The Bible contains history, personal letters, poetry, songs, opinion, prophecy, and so on. There are further distinctions to be observed between individual authors in scripture in terms of their style and word use. It would be idiotic to lump it all together and seek to understand it all the same way.

Nobody does that when they read anything. Everybody makes distinctions.

Interpreting in Context

To avoid making nonsense of it, language must be understood within the “division” of scripture in which it naturally falls; within its context. A poet may employ hyperbole; a historian probably won’t. An OT Hebrew may employ a particular figure of speech or poetic construction; an NT writer to Gentiles may not. Specific instructions from God to Jews entering Canaan should not be assumed to apply to twenty-first century Christians. The tabernacle is not the temple is not a synagogue is not a modern-day church building. The examples could go on.

Of course we affirm that the Bible is a unified whole. But it is full of clear and obvious divisions and distinctions, many of which are observed by covenant theologians, dispensationalists and even Christians who have not given the issue much thought at all. To the extent that one fails to recognize these, one can neither “rightly divide” nor “accurately handle” much of anything.

The concept of interpreting specific verses and passages in their God-given context flows naturally and necessarily from our verse.

Next: Different types of context

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