Text Without Context

I suppose it’s fairly easy to join the chorus of those lamenting ignorance of Scripture today, particularly in evangelical churches.  But it is precisely evangelicals who have long taken Scripture less seriously than anyone else.  I don’t simply mean that we have fewer Bible readings than more orthodox traditions, nor even that the preaching is often unrelated to the portion of Scripture read.  I wonder whether our ignorance of Scripture runs far deeper and manifests itself in insidious ways.  And I wonder whether the problem is simply that of Chapter and Verse.


Only in medieval times was the system of chapters and verses imposed upon Holy Scripture.  It makes it much easier to navigate our way around the Bible.  But the question it leaves us is whether this is a good thing.  The more Scripture comes under our control, the more it falls prey to our conquering mentality, the more we regard it as mystery to be unlocked, or a tool to be used, the less Holy it becomes.  In a technological age, the living word of Holy Scripture is all-too-easily domesticated, tamed, brought under control.


The result is that it becomes a source for ‘proof texting’ our treasured views of the world.  Scripture is infallible, so if we can find a verse to back up our assumptions, we too are infallible.  Hurray!  Christian conferences, bible studies and paperbacks are full of self-help strategies, management theory and pyramid selling techniques, all justified by the use of chapter and verse.  My contention is simply this: that without chapters and verses we would have a much more biblical way of engaging the text.


To be sure, Jesus himself was happy to quote Scripture.  But he never did so as chapter and verse because chapters and verses had not been invented.  This means that any biblical figure or author, when quoting Scripture, was unable to use it merely as proof text in the crude manner we often hear today.  Any text that was quoted would, in the mind of both speaker and hearer, express the entire context from which it arose.  There was no such thing as a disconnected verse – it always came to you with the entire context most definitely in tow!  This is a million miles from contemporary books, sermons, debates and conversations in which Scriptural texts are randomly plucked from varying places merely to show that your own position is ‘biblical’.  


If there were any possible way to abandon use of chapters and verses, it would probably not be a welcome move.  You would be removing control from people.  Making it harder to find your way around Scripture, harder to quote, harder to find certain passages.  Well, all I can say to that is ‘hurray’.  It would only lead us either to take scripture more seriously, or to cease using it altogether.  Both results are most welcome


Scripture was never written to be ‘used’.  It is a strange new world which we enter with peril, with awe and wonder.  We walk in the company of a host of authors, all of whom are drawing our attention to the reality of how God acts in the world.  And this only begins to come clear as we get to grips how the stories of our lives find their place in the stories of Scripture.  Chapters and verses offer little help in such a quest; they simply make it easier for us to join the devil misusing the words of scripture.    


Published in BT, 2008