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Book, Chapter, and Verse

Often when seeking justification for a particular Christian belief or practice a person will ask for “Book, Chapter, and Verse.” This rightly flows from our belief that the Bible is the ultimate source for everything about our Christian lives. When we are encouraged to adopt a practice that has questionable biblical support for it, this insistence on letting the Bible be the final arbiter in such matters brings us back to our foundation.

There is, however, an inherent danger in this type of request, because the emphasis on “verse” makes it too easy to use proof texts to support our beliefs. Certainly what individual verses say is essential for understanding God’s will for us. The problem comes when we fail to pay enough attention to the context in which it is set.

Consider some of the factors that may be important in a verse’s context:

· The specific issue the author or speaker is addressing

· The position of the verse in the flow of the author or speaker’s narrative

· The historical and cultural setting to which the content of the verse is addressed

· The meaning of key words in the immediate context, the book in which the verse appears, the author’s writings, and the Bible itself

· The recipients of the statement in the verse

All these and other considerations could impact the way we understand a verse.

A few examples should suffice to illustrate the need to take account of the context in coming to a proper understanding of a verse:

· John 20:23: Forgiving and retaining the sins of others

· I Tim. 5:9: Enrolling widows for church work and support only if they are at least 60 years old

· James 5:14: Elders anointing the sick with oil

· I Cor. 7:39-40: Advice to widows not to remarry

· I Tim. 5:14: Insistence that younger widows remarry

· I Cor. 14:39: Not forbidding the speaking in tongues

Certainly these and many other verses that could be produced from the Bible underscore the need to consider more than just the verse when interpreting it. So, is there a better approach than “Book, Chapter, and Verse”? Perhaps all we need to do is reverse the order: “Verse, Chapter, Book. . . .” In other words, rather than focusing on the verse in isolation, it should be our starting point. Beginning with the verse, we look at the various elements in its context and let them inform our understanding of the verse. We start with the verse, then spread our net wider to the immediate context, then to the whole book in which it occurs, then to the writings of the author himself, then to the rest of the Bible. We consider the historical and cultural setting and the people to whom the verse is addressed.

We don’t have to go to these extremes to understand every verse in the Bible, but the method is what is critical. It stresses the importance of refusing to use a verse as a proof text as if it were written, like many proverbs are, in isolation from its surroundings. On the contrary, an understanding of the wider context is what gives a verse its flavor and helps us gain a better grasp of its meaning.

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