Updated: Jul 12, 2022
In Diving Into The Bible (Part One), I wrote about reading the Bible in context with an eye on language, history and culture. There are two more ways we read the Bible and understanding both are part of diving into the God's Word:
Pretext - where our primary concern is how the text relates to us. This is where the interpretation of the reader is more important than the intent of the author. In other words, what we think a verse means is more important than what the author was trying to say.
Prooftext - where we take a verse and pluck it out of a book and chapter to make a point. This is commonly referred to as cherry picking.
Pretext is important because what a verse says to us, and how we apply it to our lives, is extremely important. As it relates to diving, pretext is like jumping on the diving board or getting into just the right position on the platform. Prooftext is like the brief seconds a diver is in the air. In competitive diving, the diver may be doing impressive twists and somersaults in multiple directions. Still, the diver isn’t in the contextual waters at this point. Further, everyone’s attention is on the diver.
Some may ask: Don’t the Newer Testament (NT) writers prooftext verses from the Older Testament (OT)? In a way, yes, the NT writers do grab an OT verse or verses out of their original context. But, there are some key differences between a modern day prooftext and being inspired by the Holy Spirit (as I believe the NT authors were). First, a NT prooftext is more correctly thought of as retrospective reading. Often, the predictive aspect of a verse is “… apparent only after the event is 'fulfilled (The Bible With And Without Jesus, pg. 49).'" For example:
Matthew 2 records that King Herod sought to kill the baby Jesus, a rival king. Warned in a dream to escape Bethlehem, Jospeh takes Mary and the baby and decamps to safety in Egypt. When Herod dies, Joseph receives a dream alerting him that he can return home. Matthew then comments, “This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son (Matt 2:15).’” The quotation comes from Hosea 11:1, where it refers to the Exodus of Israel, an event in the past (Ibid, 50).
So, is Hosea 11:1 a historical recollection or a prophetic prediction? It’s both! Fulfilled means to more fully fill, not to empty and refill. When the NT quotes from the OT, it is to make a connection and give additional meaning, not to disconnect and give a brand new meaning.
There is something else important to consider when the OT is referenced in the NT. Be very careful with the idea that Jesus and the Apostles often only alluded to OT Scriptures because the OT was in someway being replaced by the NT. The truth is, in the NT writings, Jesus and the Apostles were building on the OT Scriptures and they rarely said more than they needed to. Remember, the Bible was written by Jews in a Jewish culture. Jesus and the Apostles would use a word or a phrase that would cause a mental explosion in the minds of their hearers, as the word or phrase would be an allusion to a well-known passage, chapter, or book. In using the word or the phrase as an allusion, it would formulate or reconstruct the whole chapter or theology in their minds. For example, consider when Jesus was asked about paying taxes in Matthew 22:15-22. Why didn’t Jesus fully explain His answer regarding paying taxes? He didn’t have to. Jesus was Jewish, His followers were Jewish and the Pharisees were Jewish, so everyone on the scene was extremely familiar with Genesis 1:27, “God created humankind in His image, in the image of God He created him, male and female He created them.” Those listening to Jesus’ answer knew right away Jesus was telling them they belong to God. Caesar’s image was on the money, so give the money to Caesar. God’s image is on you, so give yourself to God.
Pretext - what a verse in the Bible says to us, and how we apply it to our lives, is extremely important. However, context affects interpretation and interpretation affects application. If we interpret a verse incorrectly, it is not likely we will apply it correctly.
Prooftext - cherry picking a verse or two from a chapter or book in the Bible is often very dangerous. The book of Proverbs is really the only book in the Bible you can take a single verse out of context and safely apply it to your life.
Reading any part of the Bible is good, but reading the entire Bible in context is better!