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 

Books, Films, and Ministry

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Chapters 2-3 of Revelation: Tools in Interpretation

CloudsBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

When you are lost, how do you find your way home? In my training as a boy scout, I learned to read a map and to work with a compass during the day and to follow the stars at night. Revelation is one of those books in the bible that tests your skills in biblical interpretation.

Role of Genre in Interpretation

One form of interpretation starts by asking a simple question: what kind of writing (genre) are we looking at? Possibilities include: narrative (simple stories or history), Gospel, poetry, song, wisdom literature, prophecy, parable, epistle (a letter), law, genealogies, or apocalyptic. We tend to look at each of these a bit differently and particular books of the Bible often have multiple genre. Revelations, for example, contains prophecy, history, narrative, song, poetry, and even law.

Role of Perspective in Interpretation

Another important aspect of interpretation is to ask which perspective on the text to take: the author’s, the scripture itself, and the reader’s.  When you see a commentary talking about the audience or the historical context, this is an attempt to understand the author’s intent in writing. Or when you hear a pastor citing Old Testament (OT) references that explain a New Testament (NT) passage, this is using scripture to interpret scripture. When you hear someone explain what a particular passage means to them, this is using the reader’s perspective. John Calvin used these three principles of interpretation, but added one more of interest to pastors–use of the texts in the original languages–which leads to word studies, issues of grammar, literary criticism, and other questions of syntax.

Role of Interpretation in Church Controversies

Biblical interpretation is a bit technical and boring, but it is important. Many of the controversies of our day in the church have at their root differences over issues of biblical interpretation. For example, when the Apostle John writes prophetically in Revelations is he writing primarily to the seven churches in Asia Minor or is he writing to us? If you answer the seven churches, then you are taking the author’s perspective. If you answer to us, then you are taking the reader’s perspective.

New Covenant in Christ

An obvious interpretative pallet for understanding Revelation is John’s Gospel. What is striking about John’s Gospel is that John seems to suggest that the New Covenant in Christ is not a written document or teachings, but rather the person of Jesus.[1] So when John gives us a vision of the son of man in Revelations 1:13, an allusion to Daniel 7:13, we find ourselves witnessing an image of judgment under the New Covenant. Christ has returned to take stock of those he left behind. What is perhaps shocking is that John sees this judgment[2] starting with the seven churches.

Why are the seven churches the first focus of this heavenly vision of judgment and not the gentiles, especially not the Romans, John’s jailors at Patmos, who were persecuting the church at his point?

Questions for Revelation 2

  1. Do you have questions from last week? Did any important events happen in your life this week? Do you have any thoughts that you would like to share?
  2. Which four churches does John address in this chapter? (vv. 1, 8, 12, 18)
  3. Why does John starts with Ephesus? (Acts 18:9-19:5) Or do we really know?
  4. What are the strong points of the Ephesus church? (vv. 2-3) What are the weak points? (v. 4)
  5. What blessings/curses are attached to the judgment of the Ephesus church? (vv. 5-7)
  6. Who is John addressing in verses 7, 11, 17, and 26-29?
  7. What is the morning star reference about? (v. 28; Matt 2:2, 2 Peter 1:19)
  8. What are the blessings and curses faced by the church at Smyrna? (vv. 8-10)
  9. Read Deuteronomy 4:30. What is prophesied?
  10. Read 1 Samuel 26:22-25 and Matthew 5:44. What is enemy love; what is tribulation?
  11. Who are victorious? What is the second death? (v. 11)
  12. What strong points does John mention in the church of Pergamum? (v. 13)
  13. What weak points afflict the Pergamum church? (vv. 14-16)
  14. What is the sword of the mouth? (v. 16; Rev 1:16, 19:21)
  15. What new name are they to receive? (v. 17)
  16. Who is known from the city of Thyatira? (Acts 16:14)
  17. What strong points are mentioned about the church of Thyatira? (v. 19)
  18. What sins afflict the church of Thyatira? (vv. 20-25)
  19. Read Psalm 2:9. What is the reward for the victorious? (vv. 26-27)
  20. Who is Jezebel and what are Satan’s dark secrets? (vv. 20, 24; 1 Kings 16:30-31)

Questions on Revelation 3

  1. What strong points does John mention about the church at Sardia? (vv. 4-5)
  2. What weak points does he mention? (vv. 1-2)
  3. What metaphor of judgment does John use? (v. 3)
  4. What does it look like to be victorious? (vv. 4-5) What is the metric?
  5. Is this judgment applicable only to the church at Sardia? (vv. 6, 13, 22)
  6. What complaint does John offer about the church of Philadelphia?
  7. What praise does he offer? (vv. 8-10)
  8. What encouragement does John offer Philadelphia? (vv. 8, 10-11)
  9. What open door is John referring to? (v. 8)
  10. How does John describe Christ in verses 14, 19-21.
  11. What complaint does John offer against the church at Laodicea? (vv. 15-18)
  12. How does John’s complaint compare to Paul’s observations in Colossians 2:1-3?
  13. Read Proverbs 10:13 and 13:24. How is Christ’s love expressed? (v. 19)


Osborne, Grant R.  2006. The Hermenutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretations. Downers Grove: IVP Academic.

Thompson, John L. 2004. “Calvin as Biblical Interpreter.” Pages 58-73 in The Cambridge Companion to John Calvin. Edited by Donald A. McKim. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Vanhoozer, Kevin H. 1998. Is there Meaning in this Text? Grand Rapids: Zondervan. (Review)


[1] Unlike Matthew or the author of Hebrews, John never uses the word covenant, not even in reference to the last supper (John 13:1-14). And John uses the word commandment consistently to refer to the double-love commandment. For example, John writes: A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another (John 13:34).

[2] When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades” (Rev 1:17-18).

Chapters 2-3 of Revelation: Tools in Interpretation

Also see:

Chapter 4 of Revelation: The Times and The Seasons 

Chapter 1: Alpha and Omega 

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

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Webb: Analyzing Culture in Scripture and in Life

Webb_08192014William J. Webb.  2001.  Slaves, Women and Homosexuals:  Exploring the Hermaneutics of Cultural Analysis.  Colorado Springs:  IVP Academic [1].

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Toxic waste is a term once used in Washington to describe issues that could not be openly discussed without tainting the person discussing them.  High on the list of such issues were race, gender, and sexuality.  Hopefully, it is now possible to engage in reasoned conversation about these issues.  William Webb’s book Slaves, Women and Homosexuals:  Exploring the Hermaneutics of Cultural Analysis clearly attempts to begin that conversation.

Webb begins with a question and an answer.  The question is:  So how does a Christian respond to cultural change?  His answer is:  It is necessary for Christians to challenge their culture where it departs from kingdom values;  it is equally necessary for them to identify with their culture on all other matters (22).  The tough part arises in distinguishing:  between kingdom values and cultural values within the biblical text (23).   This is what Webb sees as the interpretative (hermaneutical) task.

Webb applies his hermaneutical framework primarily to 3 issues:  slavery, women, and homosexuality.  He picks slavery because he believes the issue to be settled within today’s church.  Clearly, the role of women and the issue of homosexuality are under active conversation—at least across denominations and, in some cases, within denominations.

Webb (26-28) defines these 4 positions as held on the role of women within the church:

  1. Hard/strong patriarchy—unilateral submission of women with an extensive power differential;
  2. Soft patriarchy—unilateral submission of women with a moderate power differential;
  3. Evangelical egalitarianism—mutual submission with equality of power between male and female; and
  4. Secular egalitarianism—equal rights and no gender-defined roles.

Webb (28) likewise defines 3 positions within the church on issue of homosexuality:

  1. Marital heterosexuality only—homosexuality is not an acceptable lifestyle for Christians;
  2. Covenant and equal-partner homosexuality—homosexuality is an acceptable lifestyle for Christians provided that the partners are equal-status, consenting adults, and the relationship is one of a monogamous, covenant, and lasting kind; and
  3. Casual adult homosexuality—homosexuality is an appropriate lifestyle for any member of society provided it involves consenting adults.

In laying out these positions, Webb is simply defining the field of inquiry.  He is not at least initially advocating for any one of these positions.  Near the end of the text, however, he identifies himself as an evangelical egalitarian on women’s issues and argues for a marital hetersexuality only position with respect to homosexuality.

An important contribution of Webb’s work is a concept that he calls as a redemptive-movement hermaneutic.  In defining this concept, he outlines a model:  X=>Y=>Z.  The X stands for the original culture;  the Y stands for scripture; and the Z stands for the ultimate ethic (30-33).  This model permits us to ask 2 important questions.  First, does scripture move beyond the cultures of surrounding nations in addressing an issue? (X=>Y)  Second, does scripture point to an ethic beyond that actually embodied in scripture? (Y=>Z)  These 2 questions allow us to isolate the redemptive movement implied in the text of scripture.  Webb uses this model to examine several scriptural passages that today sound bizarre, but which would have been at least slightly redemptive to the original audience.  One example was the taking of female prisoners as spoils of war:

“When you go out to war against your enemies, and the LORD your God gives them into your hand and you take them captive, and you see among the captives a beautiful woman, and you desire to take her to be your wife, and you bring her home to your house, she shall shave her head and pare her nails. And she shall take off the clothes in which she was captured and shall remain in your house and lament her father and her mother a full month. After that you may go in to her and be her husband, and she shall be your wife. But if you no longer delight in her, you shall let her go where she wants. But you shall not sell her for money, nor shall you treat her as a slave, since you have humiliated her.
(Deuteronomy 21:10-14 ESV)

Webb (32-33) argues that this is clearly an ugly text in today’s culture [2], but in relation to the customs of ancient times was redemptive in its application under the X=>Y criteria.

Today’s application of the text would not follow the exact words prescribed in the text, but rather to observe the redemptive spirit of the text and draft an appropriately redemptive, modern policy dealing with female captives (33).  Webb describes an attempt to apply the exact words of the scriptural text in a new context as a “static” interpretation (36-38).  Ignoring the redemptive spirit of the text leads to wooden or misleading interpretations and may lead to the text being discredited in the eyes of believers and non-believers alike.  Clearly, much more could be said about this redemptive-movement hermaneutic.

Webb writes his book in 8 chapters preceded by a foreword, acknowledgments, and an introduction and followed by a conclusion, 4 appendices, a bibliography, and a scriptural index.  The chapters are:

  1. Christian and Culture;
  2. A Redemptive-Movement Hermaneutic;
  3. Cultural/Transcultural Analysis:  A Road Map;
  4. Persuative Criteria;
  5. Moderately Persuasive Criteria;
  6. Inconclusive Criteria;
  7. Persuasive Extracriptural Criteria;
  8. What If I Am Wrong; and
  9. Conclusion:  Arriving at a Bottom Line.

The foreword is written by Darrell L. Bock of the Dallas Theological Seminary [3].

Webb’s Slaves, Women and Homosexuals is a readable and engaging text that focuses on applying scripture rather than simply arguing over it.  It is gutsy for a writer to take on the ugly texts of scripture and to find both redemption and application in them.  Personally, my initial response was to reject cultural analysis because it lies outside the twin authorities of scripture and God’s direct revelation.  However, I realized that I was guilty myself of discounting or skipping over the difficult texts rather than engaging them.  In effect, I was already doing cultural analysis, just not employing a consistent method.  This internal struggle led me to reconsider Webb’s analysis.

I am sure that some readers will simply not be able to engage in conversation about politically incorrect topics, but I would challenge them to stretch their own views a bit for the sake of understanding scripture better.  Webb’s own words are helpful when he says:  I must thank our modern culture for raising the issues addressed in this book.  But our cultural only raises the issues…it does not resolve them (245).


[2] This exact issue was in the news this past week in the Middle East war in Iraq as ISIS fighters rounded up women hostages to the horror of the onlooking world.


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