What is Context?

The other day I had a friendly disagreement with another believer over the interpretation of Romans 8:26 in which Paul said,

“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (ESV).

Actually, our conversation began with reference to the gifts of the Spirit, particularly that of healing and then moved to speaking in tongues. I’ll spare you the details because neither is the point of this post. Romans 8:26 came into the discussion and my friend assured me that this couldn’t possibly have anything to do with us praying since it clearly says that the “Spirit himself” prays.

He claimed that this excludes us from being the ones who pray because it is an activity of the Spirit. I wanted to provide some context for why I disagree with this interpretation. I noted how in Galatians Paul speaks of the Spirit of God’s Son crying, “Abba! Father!” My friend said that he’d need to see this and that he didn’t think that’s what it said. Fair enough. Nobody has exhaustive knowledge of the entire Bible. So we looked at Galatians 4:4-7 and he was satisfied that it said what I claimed.

I then noted that when discussing the same thing (i.e., adoption) in Romans Paul has the believer, who has received the Spirit of adoption, crying, “Abba! Father!” We both agree that Paul is consistent and that he doesn’t contradict himself so my point was that the Spirit cries “Abba! Father” through the believer who has received adoption. Likewise, my contention is that the “groanings to deep for words” (or “inarticulate groanings”) is the Spirit praying through the believer.

He told me that it’s not what the text says and that I’m reading into it. He told me that the number one rule of hermeneutics was to deal with a text in its context and that when we have to leave the context then that means we can’t deal with it on its own. But that’s the point I want to discuss in this post. All of this was setup for me to say that context is much more than what my friend would have us think.

You see, he wanted to look at this singular verse. I wanted to look at this verse within the argument of the chapter and book but also within the context of Paul’s overall theology. I noted that Galatians was one of Paul’s earliest letters; Romans was one of his latest. I wasn’t leaving Romans to run to Galatians. I was reading Paul’s later theology in light of his earlier theology. My understanding of Galatians informs my understanding of Romans.

Context is more than the verse before and the verse after the particular verse we’re reading. Context is knowing the situation of the author and his audience. It’s following the flow of the argument being put forth before us. It’s having an overarching understanding of the author’s theology. As I said, my understanding of  Galatians informs my reading of Romans, no differently than my understanding of Deuteronomy informs my reading of 1 Corinthians 8:1–10:22 or my understanding of Leviticus informs my reading of Hebrews.

But the immediate context of Paul’s very argument in this section of his letter does, I believe, point to the Spirit groaning in our groans but I’ll write about that another time.


3 thoughts on “What is Context?

  1. I’ve wondered too how much we can be sure that pneuma is the Holy Spirit or the spiritual faculty in man. But I wonder that all over Romans 8 largely because of A) Paul’s apparent steeping in stoicism and B) the distinction between prayer with the mind and the spirit in 1 Cor 14.

    But the details of all the issues at play elude me as I haven’t given the verse much thought lately.

  2. Geoff: Great to hear from you! I pray that all is well.

    As I see it, Romans 8 is all about our life in the Spirit and the Spirit’s activity in us. Paul goes through all this wonderful stuff about us receiving the Spirit of adoption by which we cry Abba! Father!, which as I noted in the post is the activity of the Spirit himself in Galatians 4:6. He then says that the Spirit bears witness with our spirit that we’re children of God (Rom 8:16). This is the last thing that the Spirit does before we get to vs. 26. In between 16 & 26 we have all of creation groaning (8:22) and we ourselves who have the firstfruits of the Spirit groaning inwardly as we await another adoption as sons (8:23). Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness because we don’t know for what we should pray. He steps in an intercedes *with* groanings too deep for words (8:26) and he intercedes for us according to the will of God because God knows the mind of the Spirit (8:27 – this is significant for my case because of what 8:6 says about the “mind of the spirit” which is our mind).

    Now I can see 2 possible antecedents for the “likewise” of 8:26. The first is 8:16 which would have us understand Paul to be saying something like, “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God… Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness.” On this reading the Spirit is already working with our spirit in bearing witness so now he is working with our spirit in praying. We don’t know for what we should pray. He does. How does he do this? He does this *with* groanings too deep for words. Notice that it doesn’t say that he groans, but rather that he intercedes *with* groanings. 8:23 already has us, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit groaning inwardly. So it is possible that the groanings he intercedes *with* are ours.

    The other antecedent would be 8:23 which would have us read Paul to be saying something like, “And not only the creation [groans], but we ourselves who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly… Likewise… the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” In other words, the Spirit does what we do.

    I think the first option makes better sense of the passage as a whole but either is possible. Paul certainly wants us to see the connection between all the groaning. But 8:27 brings is all together for me since the Father (he who searches hearts) knows the “mind of the spirit.” I take this in the same sense as I take 8:6, which is referring to the mind governed by (or set on) the Spirit. He knows our mind because the Spirit intercedes for us according to his will.

    Anyway, I could say more but I have to get ready for work. Feel free to poke some holes in my reading so I can hopefully sharpen my thinking.

  3. Things are well, and I covet your prayers. I work at a small private school and wife and I just had baby 2. Exciting times. And I will think about your reading and get back with you!

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