Reading the Bible Contextually: Eugene Peterson on the Antidote to Prooftexting

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1611KJVGen1The Bible was read without chapter and verse numbers for well over 1000 years. When the New Testament was first written not only did it lack verse numbers (remember these were letters and biographies) but they also lacked punctuation, capitalization and any meaningful formatting at all!

What compounded things further was that early English translations like the KJV formatted the text into a single verse per line (see picture to the right). No paragraphs, no formatting for poetry like the psalms. Every verse was formatted the same every time. It looked like a list of laws, almost like the entire Bible was the 10 commandments.

Complicating things even further was the advent of the concordance which enables us to have a single word in mind and find every occurrence as a stand alone verse! While that has been an invaluable tool in my Bible study it must be used for its intended purpose…getting you to a word or verse and then allowing you to study that in context.

No wonder we have learned to read the Bible like a list of facts and figures. Our forefathers unwittingly set us up for failure! Reading verses as a list is destined to get people prooftexting, taking things out of the immediate context because the immediate context and flow of what is being said is already all broken up before you get there. Fortunately this has been fixed in modern translations and yet the generations who have gone before us have certainly impacted the culture and definition of what it means to be “biblical”. Biblical used to mean you could quote a bunch of verses but that doesn’t always mean you really understand the Bible!

In Eugene Peterson’s book “Eat this book” he discusses this problem and gives what he believes is the solution,

“The practice of dividing the Bible into numbered chapters and verses…gives the impression that the Bible is a collection of thousands of self-contained sentences and phrases that can be picked out of combined arbitrarily in order to discern our fortunes or fates. But Bible verses are not fortune cookies to be broken at random. And the Bible is not an astrological chart to be impersonally manipulated for amusement or profit.

Meditation is the primary way in which we guard against the fragmentation of our Scripture reading into isolated oracles. Meditation enters into the coherent universe of God’s revelation. Meditation is the prayer employ of imagination in order to become friends with the text. It must not be confused with fancy or fantasy…meditation does not make things up. We are wedded to a historic faith and are rightly wary of the intrusion of human intervention. But meditation is no is not intrusion, it is rumination – letting the images and stories of the entire revelation penetrate our understanding. By meditation we make ourselves at home and conversant with everyone in the story, entering the place where Moses and Elijah and Jesus converse together. Participation is necessary. Meditation is participation.” (Eat this book, 101-102)

The meditation he is talking about is not some sort of mystic activity. He is talking about really taking the text in and really listening to it, in context as if we were there.

3 Responses

  1. I agree. I never understood why the Bible could not be read intact in the cofC. The passion narrative, the resurrection narrative, the incarnation, nor the parables were read out loud. It took watching the televised or radio broadcast Methodist or episcopal church service to get to hear the bible read in church.

    Sermons began with an instruction to turn to book chapter:verse where we would begin our lesson.


  2. And yet meditating on a verse or two for a week or more can really let His Word get into our understanding and into our life/spirit/heart also.

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