January 3, 2011 Admin

The Importance of Understanding the Purpose of a Text

The Importance of Understanding the Purpose of a Text

“All Scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness…” (2 Timothy 3:16)

One of the problems in Protestantism since the time of the Reformation is that some preachers and Bible commentators have forgotten how important it is to understand the purpose of a text when they are interpreting it for us.

Let me explain what I mean. In the century or so after the Reformation, some Protestant scholars moved away from Calvin’s method of commenting on the text in relation to the obvious purpose of the passage, and instead discussed lengthy issues of systematic theology, sometimes based on a single word, that were completely unrelated to the Bible writers’ immediate purpose in the passage. The method became known as scholasticism.

For example, in Philippians 2:1-10, where Paul is primarily concerned with encouraging Christians to think of others’ needs before their own, some preachers would fill a book about the meaning of the self-emptying of Jesus, but forget that Paul’s overarching purpose was to teach us humility. They just got lost in theologizing about statements of Christ’s deity and humanity in the text. The Bible simply became a happy hunting-ground for new ideas that had nothing to do with Paul’s intention in writing to the Philippians about their personal rivalries.

Of course, there was no contextual warrant for interpreting the Bible this way. Whenever we read anything without proper regard for its context we are likely to miss the main point. As a wise man once said, “A text without a context is a pretext”.  It’s no wonder that many of the commentaries from this period were pretty wearisome.

When Paul writes to Timothy to encourage him to study the Scriptures, he reminds him that it is essential to look for ‘purpose clues’ in the text. In this passage, Paul tells us that the Scriptures have two broad purposes: “to make one wise to salvation” and to “teach, rebuke, correct and train in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:15, 16b).

Paul’s statement about the twofold purpose of Scripture reminds us that any text of Scripture has one of two aims: it is either evangelistic or edificational. First, in 3:15 Paul says that Scripture makes us ‘wise to salvation’. .”  The Word has the power to save. It is the instrument God uses to initiate spiritual life. Second, he says the Word is useful for teaching. It is profitable to teach all we need to know in order to live a godly life. Third, the Word rebukes false ideas and demolishes errors, and these are often major stumbling-blocks to our spiritual progress. Fourth, the Word is useful for correction, that is, it picks you up, straightens you out and sets you back on your feet. And finally, it shows you how to behave. That’s why it’s so profitable to read the Bible.