Context and Meaning
Context is essential to understanding all communication, yet why is this the case? In this article, I contend that context both limits and reveals textual meaning so that texts can be used. Texts of every sort are “multivalent”; they have a wealth of meaning potential. A text is meant to say something but could be used in an infinite number of ways; it has numerous potential applications,1 numerous meanings. A commandment, such as “You shall not kill,” can be used to create legislation, to command behaviour, describe God’s character, state a moral principle (“killing is wrong”), or to govern ones choices. Texts are thus multivalent in the sense of “use.” The meaning of words, considered on their own, is also multivalent. Each word could “say” many different things.
That texts are multivalent in this sense can be wonderful! The multivalency of Biblical texts is the reason they apply to cultures and situations far beyond those in which they were originally written. However, misunderstood, a text’s multivalency can lead to its abuse or neglect. If a text has infinite meaning potential, for example, it is practically meaningless. That is, all its meaning is derived from the reader and not the text itself. For example, the three symbols “רוץ” on its own is meaningless; what good would it do to have a document with only “רוץ” written on it? For the person who does not read Hebrew, it could mean anything they want it to—for nothing constrains their reading. For the person who reads Hebrew, it could mean any number of things (to run, flee; one running, fleeing; etc…). Without an appropriate restraint on meaning potential, a text can be used for any purpose or no purpose at all. For any word or text to have meaning it needs context, a larger unit of text in addition to the language with which to understand combinations of symbols (such as רוץ).
Context constrains the meaning of a text, reduces infinite meaning potential to finite meaning potential. This is how texts mean: they use symbols to make words in specific morphological forms and give them meaning by putting them into combinations. For a language to have meaning it needs context. Context constrains the meaning of words and syntactical combinations, producing a text with a finite meaning potential. It is by constraining meaning that context gives meaning.
Where there is context, and therefore meaning, there are valid and invalid interpretations of a text.2 For example, careful attention to the context of the Ten Commandments, especially the word I rendered “kill” above, reveals that the meaning “killing is wrong” is actually an invalid meaning of the commandment (deriving the proposition “killing is wrong” is an invalid application, or use, of the text). The Hebrews word refers more specifically to “murder.”
Because there can be valid and invalid meanings of a text and these are given by the context, context is essential for understanding and using a text. Context, the surrounding texts and thought in which a text is found, hedges the meaning potential of a text.
Context tells the reader what is being said by restricting the meaning potential a text would otherwise have. Context also excludes potential uses of a text and guides the reader to those that are most appropriate.3 Context can also illuminate for a reader meaning potential that is originally obscure, such as revealing a shade of meaning for a word or structure previously unknown or alerting one to a detail that went previously unnoticed.
Consider the following. The four symbols “h-e-a-t” could be one of two words, each with a wealth of meaning potential (1. to cook, warm up, prepare; 2. the attribute hotness or a manifestation of hotness). The sentence, “Tim enfolded an empanada in tin foil in order to heat it up” limits the potential “heat” has substantially. It is now clear what these four symbols (h-e-a-t) mean here. However, though what is being said is clear enough, how it could be used (“application”) is vague: who is Tim, and why does it matter that he heated his empanada in tin foil? The uses at this moment are near infinite: any Tim may be the subject of the action and his action could have infinite applications. Adding further context, however, will restrict the uses we could make of this sentence significantly and also illumine the appropriate uses (I concede that the following is preposterous):
A doctor is treating a victim with substantial burns over his upper body. Readying the admission form, he reads the description of the incident that led to this hospital visit as recorded by Tim’ s mother. Apparently, during his lunch break, “after coming home, Tim enfolded an empanada in tin foil in order to heat it up; he then put it in the microwave for 10 minutes!! Shortly thereafter, Tim opened the microwave to investigate his food and flames and sparks burst forth, covering the poor boy!”
This sheds much light on the word “heat,” and on the sentence as a whole. We now know how it can be used and how we shouldn’t use it. We can imagine another scenario where “heat up” actually means that the action in a basketball game is intensifying. For one who is unfamiliar with this idiomatic use of “heat,” the context of a sports game will reveal what was, up to this point, unknown meaning potential.
Therefore, the primary function of context is limiting: it restricts meaning (as in the case of Tim and the empanadas\). A secondary function is illuminating: it reveals meaning (as in the case of a sports game). Reading within appropriately defined contextual boundaries will achieve both purposes, but it is fruitful to explore how a specific context may limit the material enclosed within. How does the context of Habakkuk, for example, limit and illuminate our reading?
Case Study in Context: Habakkuk
Scripture: Habakkuk is part of God’s authoritative self-revelation. It is thus pertains to YHWH and His redemptive activities, and it possesses the divine-word attributes (inspiration, inerrancy, authority, usefulness, etc.).
Old Testament: Habakkuk is part of the Old Testament and thus concerns the Old Covenant and the Old Covenant people Israel. It also anticipates Jesus (Luke 20:44).
The Prophets: Habakkuk is not a collection of aphorisms but a progressive piece of literature directed at making God’s interpretation of history and His required response known to His people. Habakkuk depends on the Torah and specifically functions as an indictment based on this Law and as a call for faithfulness to this covenant. Habakkuk will also interweave the themes of indictment, judgment, and salvation together, as the rest of the prophets do.
The Latter Prophets: Habakkuk is not a primarily narrative but a prophetic oracle.
The Twelve: Habakkuk delivers a complete prophetic pronouncement only in conjunction with its 11 other chapters, which unpack different aspects of indictment-judgment-salvation. Habakkuk is concerned with the covenant unfaithfulness of Israel and Judah and is intended to call them back to the Torah with an eye to God’s future redemptive action.
Layers of biblical context:
We can see from the example of Habakkuk some initial ways its various contexts shape our reading. We could of course go much deeper, but instead we will conclude this article with a survery of the various layers of context that shape our reading of Biblical texts.
The Context of the whole Bible:
Synchronic context: how does a text relate to the whole of Scripture?
Diachronic context: how does a text relate to the metanarrative related in Scripture (redemptive history)?
Structural Contexts: how does a book relate to other books of the Bible?
Structural Corpi: how are books grouped together according to the structure of the Bible? Structural context helps us discern the thematic and functional role a text plays: a book in the Prophets functions prophetically and focuses on the themes of indictment, judgment, and redemption.
Structural Juxtaposition: the presence of texts in sequential proximity emphasizes different features (cf. Malachi/Psalms, Chronicles/Matthew, Proverbs/ruth).
Corpi of Similitude: In the NT epistles, non-structural corpi are formed by authorial attribution. Where such an attribution is present, this context provides a necessary sphere for grammatical/lexical comparison (e.g., the Pauline letters, Luke and Acts, the letters and Gospel of John).
Such non-structural corpi, however, should not be set against the greater claims of Scripture to its unity and should not be used to rule out interpretive appeals to other books of the NT (such as using John to explain Paul). Though human authors share unique perspectives on God’s work and have distinctive styles, the unity of Scripture ensures that these perspectives and the way they are expressed are compatible and—indeed—illuminating for the others.
The context of a distinct work:
A Distinct Work, or Book: A distinct work is a unified whole designed in its final canonical placement to be read as whole and is only fully understood as such. A distinct work is often equivalent to the “books” of our English Bibles, though this is not always the case. 1-2 Samuel, 1-2 Kings, and 1-2 Chronicles are each a distinct work. They are stylistically, structurally, and internally bound together and historically treated as single books (the same is probably true of Ezra and Nehemiah). Luke and Acts, though historically united, are not a distinct work, for they are canonically separated and able to be understood separately. Their shared author and addressee, however, qualify both books together as a corpus (as discussed above).
The Book of the Twelve is a more difficult case. Historically and in many ways internally, it seems to be a distinct work. Yet each book also appears to be self-contained. At this moment it is hard to definitely call it a distinct work, yet the weight of historical and internal evidence strongly leans this way
Pericope: Pericopes are large sections of a distinct work, either a section of a letter or an act of a narrative (in scholarship on the Gospels, Pericope is often used for a scene).
Paragraph: A Paragraph is a smaller division of a distinct work, a paragraph in a letter, strophe in a poem, or scene in a narrative. A paragraph is a complete strophe, full scene, or syntactically self-contained group of more than one sentence.
Sentence: a single clause or set of clauses that is completed with final punctuation, forming an independent whole. Therefore, either an independent clause (“and Bob sat”) or an independent clause with any number of dependant clauses (“and Bob sat because of his weariness”).
1I am using meaning and application interchangeably to refer to the use that is made of a text. What a text “says” is the text understood in its context. We apply it, in this sense, when we make use of the text, when we communicate what is says in another language (translation); when we apply it to a specific situation (traditional application); when we explain it (exposition); and when we reduce it to a philosophical proposition. None of these “applications” replaces the original text—none say what the original says—instead they apply the text to a number of various situations, giving “meaning.” רוץ in a speech of warning means in English, “run!” It means as an English proposition, “There is a reason for the addressee to run in situation A.” It means in grammatical parsing: Qal imperative 3MS from the root רוץ. For the addressee it means, “I should run!” The various valid “meanings” of these symbols could be expounded at length, yet it is evident that some of these are more appropriate for different situations. For an English speaker studying the text to learn Hebrew grammar, what it means in English and its grammatical meaning are most appropriate. In the moment of its original utterance, or when it was written, the most appropriate meaning is that for the addressee.
2 It should be observed that not all context is explicit. For example, one liners and short quotes presuppose—if they are to have meaning—a shared context of meaning, such as a similar experience (experience of the same T.V. show) or a worldview in which the words used have the same meaning for the speaker and the listener.
3The idea of appropriateness qualifies what we mean by valid interpretations. It is possible to have a valid interpretation that is not appropriate. For example, it is valid to use the text “you shall not murder” to formulate the proposition, “‘murder’ is the fourth word in the command ‘you shall not murder.’” This is true, yet it is irrelevant to the author’s purpose in giving the command: it is a trivial use of the text, a inconsequential and so—in a sense—a interpretation that is not appropriate (irrelevant). Appropriateness is not a measure of the validity of an application, but its worth. (If validity describes the legitimacy of an application, appropriateness describes its usefulness.)