Out of Context

Increasingly often I seem to be learning that the more you know, the more you realise you don’t understand. There’s a particular kind of things I’m learning at the moment – English as a Language of Wider Confusion. Words that I’ve been using turn out to mean different things to my hearers than I intend and I keep realising that I’ve probably been misleading people completely unwittingly.

So far BUSH and JARGON have fallen. The latest victim is CONTEXT.

In recent weeks I had been pleased that some of the student pastors I was teaching were coming to see how you can’t talk about meaning of words in isolation, because every word exists in a context. So to understand a passage of the Bible and to translate it you have to examine it in its context. You have to bear in mind what has just been written and what the main thrust of the communication seems to be. There’s nothing radical there.

I’m not quite sure how it happened, but a nagging doubt wandered into my mind a few days ago. Perhaps it came from reflection on how I have heard Nigerian friends using the word ‘context’. I asked my class, and indeed it seems that everyone understood context to mean the social situation (‘our context here in Nigeria’, ‘your context in the UK’) but definitely not ‘what the writer just said’ or ‘what the writer says next’.

Helpful friends have suggested ‘co-text’ or ‘schema’ or other possibilities, but those aren’t consistently recognised either, so for now I think I’m just going to fall back to saying ‘what the author just said’.

This is important because the way we understand any individual part of the Bible (or any communication) depends substantially on how this part fits into what the writer has already written. It also fits into a particular situation – time and place and culture – but if we rip parts of communication out of what the writer just said, and the shared situation writer and audience first had, replacing it with a few words in our own context… then we may end up with a substantially different meaning than the original authors intended.

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