Schultz Clarifies Biblical Context and Use

Review of Richard Schultz's Out of ContextRichard L. Schultz. 2012. Out of Context: How to Avoid Misinterpreting the Bible. Grand Rapids: Baker Books.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Although most Christians discount the importance of hermeneutics (the study of interpretation), hermeneutic concerns defined Christian denominations historically and lie at the heart of numerous controversies today. The mere observation that seminarians require intense training in the languages of the Bible (principally Hebrew and Greek) speaks to the subtly of scripture and the need to understand those subtleties. Less frequently noted, however, are hermeneutical keys given in the Bible itself. For example, after God gives Moses the Ten Commandments (the second time), he describes who he is:

“The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (Exod 34:6-7 ESV)

God’s character is critical in interpreting the commandments wherever a question arises.[1]The phrase, What Would Jesus Do?(WWJD), is a similar interpretive key, just not one directly focused on scripture itself.


In his book,Out of Context: How to Avoid Misinterpreting the Bible,Richard Schultz describes his objectives with these words:

“The purpose of this present book, similar to the one Augustine wrote at the end of the fourth century, is to correct the common misuse of the Bible by presenting the ABCs of proper biblical interpretation.” (137)

This focus on biblical interpretation is important because the Christian faith fundamentally rests on the teachings of the Bible, an important principle (solo scriptura—Latin for only scripture) reiterated in the Reformation.

Context is Important

As suggested by his title, Schultz view taking scripture out of context as the single, most important misuse of scripture (41). Context, according to Schultz, “refers to the flow of thought in a passage, for example, how a specific sentence is related to the sentences that precede and follow it.” (40) He cites four types of biblical context:

  1. Literary context—the “text surrounding an individual verse or passage”(41).
  2. Historical-Cultural Context—“biblical authors wrote with a particular readership in mind, who share a common knowledge of key events in Israelite History, religious practices and core theological beliefs…”(45)
  3. Salvation-Historical Context—the Bible “offers one extensive ‘story’ (today sometimes called ‘macronarrative’), which stretches from the creation to the consummation of human history, as we know it, climaxing in the creation of a new heaven and new earth.”(49)
  4. Theological-Thematic Context—“when studying a text, it is helpful to identify its dominant themes…” (52).

The tendency among those who misuse scripture is to ignore the context of the passage being cited and to substitute their own context, which may or may not correspond to the original context in scripture.

Who is Schultz?

Richard Schultz is the Blanchard Professor of Old Testament in the Graduate School at Wheaton College in Chicago, Illinois. His masters of divinity is from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and doctorate is in Old Testament studies from Yale University. Interestingly, he taught for a decade at the Freie Theologische Hochschule in Giessen, Germany.[2] Schultz is widely published.


Schultz writes in seven chapters:

  1. The ‘Jabez Prayer’ Phenomenon: Flunking Biblical Interpretation 101.
  2. The Roots of Faulty Interpretation: Examining Our Convictions about Scripture.
  3. The Consequence of Ignoring Context.
  4. Divine Truth Expressed in Human Words: Challenges with Language.
  5. Understanding the Literary Menu: How Genre Influences Meaning.
  6. Caution—Prooftexting in Progress: Avoiding Pitfalls in Applications.
  7. What’s So Bad about ‘Textjacking’. (5)

These chapters are preceded by an introduction and followed by chapter endnotes.

Proper Use of Scripture

While I found Schultz’s critique of popular twists (such as the Jabez prayer) on scripture fascinating, his advice on how to avoid misuse of scripture is more instructive. He offers seven specific suggestions:

  1. Care about understanding.
  2. Catch nuance.
  3. Clarify context.
  4. Check terms.
  5. Consider genre.
  6. Consult expert [texts].
  7. Correlate application [with text]. (139-140).

Schultz’s first point is instructive. In seminary I found studying scripture in the original languages to be an eye-opener, in part, because the texts were too familiar—I thought that I knew what the text was saying, but often missed the details and main point of a pericope.[3]Reading in Greek or Hebrew forced me to slow down and consider each word. Scripture is laconic in having a minimum of words so each word is there for a reason.


Richard Schultz’s Out of Context: How to Avoid Misinterpreting the Bible is a helpful, accessible, and interesting read. Seminarians and pastors are the obvious audience for this book, but anyone serious about studying scripture will benefit.

[1]The Gospel of Matthew offers another interpretative key in the middle of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:17-19). More commonly cited is the admonition on how to use scripture(2 Tim 3:16-17)

[2] those unacquainted, German biblical scholars are unparalleled in the Christian world in spite of the secularization of German society. My own year in Göttingen, Germany as an exchange student proved unexpectedly helpful in my seminary studies.

[3]A pericope is a self-contained unit of scripture, such as a story or parable. Usually, a pericope is more than a couple verses but less than a chapter.

Schultz Clarifies Biblical Context and Use

Also see:

Vanhoozer: How Do We Understand the Bible? Part 1 

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