As a principle, keeping in something in context is everything. In our Bible study, taking something out of context can be disastrous. It is easy to cherry-pick passages, use them as proof-texts, and make the Bible say whatever suits our fancy.
But sometimes the phrase, “keep it in context,” is also abused. It can easily become a phrase that substitutes for, “I disagree with you, and because I am always right then you are obviously taking things out of context.”
“Keep it in context” is not a catch-all for showing others how wrong they are when they disagree with us. Using the phrase (or other such terms like, “contextually”) does not automatically put a passage in context, nor does it prove we are right because we said the magic words. In all fairness, if we believe that someone has taken something out of context in a discussion, instead of just saying, “keep it in context,” we might want to point to what we believe that context is. If we cannot show how or where something is taken out of context, then do we have a right to say that others have taken something out of context?
In short, there is a difference between actually keeping something in context, and simply invoking the terminology to prove we are right.
To keep something in context requires a number of observations. For example, we might ask the following questions:
- What is the overarching context? What is the immediate context? What is the historical context? What’s going on in that time and place that may affect why or the way something is said?
- What is the occasion for the writing (particularly in the epistles)? What is the purpose of the work?
- What is the literary context? Is this historical narrative? Poetry? What is the genre? What is the nature of the symbolic language employed? How is language being used?
- Who is speaking? To whom? When? Why? How? (You know, the typical questions are never out of place)
- Is this meant to be limited to its own setting, or does it cross over time and culture? (Is anyone supposed to be building an ark today?)
This is not exhaustive, but these illustrate the kind of questions we would want to ask of a given text. Keeping something in context takes thought and study. Let’s not just say it. Let’s work at it.