Proper application flows from correct interpretation, and good interpretation pays attention to the context. Early in my years as a Bible student, I was taught to look for the context among the verses before and after the passage in question. That is correct, but there is much more to context. On top of the immediate, surrounding verses, there are layers of context.
Nine Facets of Context
Köstenberger and Fuhr point three levels of context within each of the three members of their interpretive triad:
Historical Context: Geopolitical Context, Situational Context, Cultural Context
Theological Context: Thematic Context, Revelational-Historical Context, Covenantal Context
Literary Context: Surrounding Context, Canonical Context, Literary Genre of Subgenre
The Example of Corinth
Anthony Thiselton's commentary on I Corinthians provides a helpful example. The opening chapters of I Corinthians talks much about wisdom. From 1:18 until the end of chapter 3, the contrast between the foolish and wisdom is Paul's focus. He expresses this truth in a paradox:
For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men (I Cor. 1:22-25).I have heard Bible study lessons and the occasional sermon where the discussion of wisdom and folly in I Corinthians is used as a springboard to criticize academic study. Fields of study such as philosophy, psychology, sociology, and science are identified as the kind of "worldly wisdom" Paul is talking about, and immediately pushed aside. But when we take the time to examine the cultural context of Corinth in Paul's day, we see that there is more going on.
According to Thiselton, Corinthian society, especially those of the Sophist tradition, loved the pursuit of wisdom, but it was not necessarily the pursuit whose end was truth or understanding. Rather, it was the ability to persuade others. What the Corinthians loved was rhetoric, not truth. They loved the debate, and especially the prestige it could afford one. As Thiselton says: " . . . some provincial centers, especially Corinth, were influenced by a kind of rhetoric that was more concerned with "winning" than with truth."
Paul discourages a wisdom for the sake of prestige:
"When Paul rejected the way of "high-sounding rhetoric or a display of cleverness" (1 Cor 2:2), he was rejecting the status accorded to a Sophist rhetorician to which the Christians in Corinth wanted him to aspire."Sophist rhetoric loved the recognition, but that was not Paul's desire. His defense in 2:2 is not a rejection of education or learning; rather, it is Paul saying that the wisdom he came with was of God, not the wisdom prized by the Corinthians. By having a close look at the cultural context of Corinth during Paul's time, we can better interpret Paul's words.
The Value of Commentaries
Context is more than the surrounding verses, although those are important. Being able to understand Revelation demands we understand its genre, i.e. prophecy and apocalyptic literature. Accurately interpreting Old Testament narrative sometimes demands knowing the geopolitical context, especially during the days of the Kings and when Israel was captive in Babylon. Remembering that Proverbs is wisdom literature keeps us from turning them into promises. Understanding all the layers of context is very helpful.
I recently had a conversation with someone who discouraged the use of commentaries. She believes that she will allow the Holy Spirit to speak better if she refrains from using them. For my part, I find the background information from a commentary or a Bible background book are invaluable as I work to make sense of what is happening in the text. The Bible was written in a particular context for a particular context. Our goal should be to understand that before we bring it into our own.