If there is anything that the last few years of study has taught me, it is to beware of appeals to "context." Of course, when we come to interpret any piece of literature, particularly scripture, it is important to observe an author's flow of thought. One needs to pay attention to usage in order to determine word meaning. When we engage in arguments about meaning, an appeal to context is very important.
However, I have noticed how some of the best and brightest of theologians have simply appealed to the "context" in order to sustain a cherished system of thought. This presupposed conceptual system can determine the interpretive options, and may end up blinding us to other valid interpretations. It may cause us to think in false either/or dilemmas.
Take the "All Without Exception vs. All Without Distinction" dilemma as an example that some theologians use. When this dilemma is posed, there is the inevitable appeal to "context." If you ever hear this, beware. Someone may be serving you a contextual cow patty!
The following passage will serve as an illustration:
NKJ 1 Timothy 2:1 Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, 2 for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence. 3 For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, 4 who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
Verse 4 is quite controversial. If your theological system allows for the idea that God desires the salvation of all men, whether elect or non-elect, then the verse can be explained accordingly. If, however, your theological system does not allow for God to desire the salvation of the non-elect, then the verse is explained accordingly. When discussing verse 4 in a debate, you might hear, "Is this 'all without exception' or 'all without distinction'?" What do these alternatives mean? Well, it all depends on the context :-) You would have to ask the person who presents the dilemma to you.
Let's take the first example, i.e. all without exception. What are the possible meanings? It seems to me that the options are:
A) Every human being that will ever exist, or already exists, even those in hell.
B) Every human now existing on earth.
C) Every living human in a given location on earth, i.e. in a city or country for instance.
Let's consider the second alternative in the either/or dilemma, i.e. all without distinction. The possible meanings, according to some Calvinists who use the expression, seems to be:
D) Every elect person who will ever exist.
E) Every elect person who exists on earth, but not yet believing in Christ.
F) Every elect person who exists on earth and presently believes in Christ.
As strange as these options seem, these are the categories that some Calvinists (not all) may have in mind when they say, "All without Exception, or All Without Distinction?" When it comes to the particular interpretion of the "all" in 1 Tim. 2:4, some see it as referring to God's desire to save the unbelieving elect who are scattered abroad. So, in their case, "all without distinction" really means E) Every elect person who exists on earth, but not yet believing in Christ. What are they putting this in contrast to? If you follow their argument carefully, they will say "All Without Exception" is A) Every human being that will ever exist, or already exists, even those in hell. What we have then is an either/or dilemma between A and E. You are not given any other options in their argument, hence the "dilemma." Doesn't choice E look much better when only put in contrast to option A?! I mean, who would want to say that God is desiring to save those already in hell?! Option E really looks good, until it's further examined in light of other alternatives.
Look at Paul's writing again. NOTA BENE: There is no reason to think he's shifting or equivocating in his senses of "all" throughout the passage. He's using it in a consistent sense.
He begins by exhorting Timothy and other disciples to pray for "all men," whether kings and other officials over them. Is Paul making distinctions concerning classes of men? Sure he is. He is specifically instructing believers to pray for governing officials etc., according to the "context." He clearly isn't telling disciples to pray for those former kings who are now in hell. Such a view would be an absurd reading of the text. But is Paul encouraging them to only pray for the elect who don't yet believe? No, since we don't know who they are. Even though Paul is making distinctions between "kinds" of men, he isn't discriminating between elect kinds and non-elect kinds of men here. Also, Paul doesn't seem to be commanding them to pray for kings in China in their day that they probably didn't know about, but one may argue, by implication, that God wills them to repent and be saved as well (option B).
According to the "context," he seems to be commanding them to pray for officials that they know about in their given locations, so that they "may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence." We may validly infer (make the application) today that the Holy Spirit wants us modern believers to pray for officials in China, or other distant locations, that we know about in order that believers over there may live quiet and peacable lives, even if we do not live there ourselves. Nevertheless, the meaning, as I stated above, seems to be that he is commanding them to pray for officials that they know about in their given locations so that they "may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence." Doesn't this explanation of "all" appear to be C) Every living human in a given location on earth, i.e. in a city or country for instance? It certainly seems that way to me. But hey, that's just context :-)
Even though Paul uses "all" in a sense to make distinctions among men (i.e among various kinds of rulers), this also includes the idea of all without exception (i.e. all kinds of men without exception, whether elect or non-elect, in a given location). All without distinction is not contrary to all without exception, if properly understood in Paul's sense. Furthermore, some Calvinists who think that the sense is that God wills to save the elect really don't mean "all kinds of men." They mean "some of all kinds of men," i.e. the elect from among all kinds. So, their "all without distinction" really means "some of all without distinction." Strange, huh?
None of this confusion is necessary. Paul is clearly expounding the preceptive will of God in this passage (his precept that we pray, and his precept that all repent). "Coming to the knowledge of the truth" is functionally equivalent to the idea of repenting. God wills for all men to repent, therefore we should pray for all in that respect, realizing that the change of heart in officials can result in a better quality of life for us, that is, a quiet and peaceable life. Rather then being bitter against them for persecuting us, we should pray for them.
This interpretation would not be so controversial to some if they would grant that there is a sense in which God wills to save all men, even the non-elect. It's only problematic to those working with a theological system that excludes this as an option. In order to explain the text in a decretal sense, they appeal to "context" and present a false either/or dilemma between options A and E, when C makes much more sense. Option C or B are particularly scary to the E advocates when it comes to verses 5 and 6 of the same chapter, but I have already dealt with the vicarious substitution, or death of Christ issue extensively on my blog. I will not expound on it here.
In conclusion, beware of "contextual" cow patties. Appeals to "context" may just be appeals to a presupposed and cherished system that will not allow for other viable alternatives. In these cases, "context" may just be eclipsing the real meaning. Fear may also be driving our hermeneutic.
I have demonstrated elsewhere that the letterhead argument for 2 Peter 3:9 is also a contextual cow patty. Be sure to read that as well.