What is Biblical Interpretation? Part 4
The first post of this series provided a few basics of biblical interpretation. I stated the goal of biblical interpretation is to understand the author’s intended meaning in the text and to think carefully about how to apply the text in modern contexts, so that we would be transformed by the Spirit as God uses the text to conform us into the image of Christ.
In the second post, I discussed biases. I suggested everyone brings biases to the text and that these biases may help us or hinder us from understanding. If we admit our biases, then we might be more willing to let the text expose them instead of importing them onto the text. I also suggested studying the bible in multi-ethnic contexts can help us see our interpretive blindspots.
In my third post, I suggested the reason Christians should give time and energy to bible study is because the bible is the living and breathing word of God. It is sufficient for everything pertaining to eternal life and godliness.
In this fourth and final post on a few basics of biblical interpretation, I focus on the importance of studying the bible’s context as a means to understanding authorial intent and responsible application to our specific and distinct cultural contexts.
What is Context?
As one of my former professors taught me, “Context is king.” Understanding the context of a verse can help us understand the verse in the way the biblical author intended it. Of course, one can understand the context and still misinterpret a verse, because we are sinful and fallen bible readers.
But bible readers are more likely to understand the biblical author’s intent if we have a basic understanding of the context in which a verse or biblical book was written.
Context is complex and has many different layers to it. But context basically refers to the “setting.” This setting could be the historical setting (when the book was written), the social/cultural setting (where the book was written and the customs practiced by both author and recipients), the linguistic setting (the language in which the book was written), the literary setting (the kind of genre/style of writing in which the book was written [narrative, poetry, etc.]), the immediate context (the setting of the verses studied in relation to other verses in the text), and the remote context (the setting of the verses studied in relation to verses more distant from the verses studied), etc.
A Few Examples of Historical Context
Understanding the context of the bible is an affirmation that bible study is both historical analysis and spiritual reflection. We study the text on its on terms (historical work) as we rely upon the Spirit. We both study the text and rely upon the Spirit to help us understand and apply the text to our personal lives in responsible ways.
Our goal as Christian bible readers is to labor to understand the meaning of the biblical text for the purpose of being conformed into the image of Jesus Christ and to be transformed by God’s word. Our goal is NOT simply the acquisition of more information for information’s sake.
The following mentions a few examples of historical context kinds of questions. (1) Why do certain Jews get so mad at Jesus in the gospels when he pronounces judgment on the temple? (2) What’s significant about Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman in John 4? (3) What does Paul mean by Gentile? (4) Why is Gentile-ness a bad thing in certain places in the bible? (5) Why does John use so much symbolism in Revelation? (6) What was Moses’ intent when he wrote Deuteronomy? These types of questions, and a host of others, are contextual questions.
Why Should We Study the Context of the Bible?
I list a few reasons below. There is overlap between these examples.
(1) Chronological Distance
The books of Genesis-Revelation were written a long time ago. Thus, virtually everything in the bible is chronologically distant from us.
OT Examples: 1. The garden of Eden (Gen. 2:8, 10). 2. Sacrificial System (Leviticus). 3. Judges over a nation (Judges). 4. A calf-idol of Beth Aven (Hos. 10:5). 5. Assyria as a world power (Hos. 10:6).
NT Examples: 1. The celebration of numerous Jewish festivals related to God’s salvation of Israel in the Hebrew Bible (Gospels). 2. Anti-temple rhetoric in 1st century Palestine (Gospels). 3. Worshipping at the temple (Gospels and Acts). 4. House churches (Acts). 5. The problem of eating meat sacrificed to idols at the pagan temple (1 Cor. 8:1-13).
(2) Sociological/Cultural Distance
The bible’s culture(s) is different from ours in many ways.
OT Examples: 1. The sacrificial system (Leviticus). 2. The importance of land for theological purposes (Joshua). 3. Theocratic government.
NT Examples: 1. The problem with plucking grain on the Sabbath (Mark 2:23-28). 2. Jew-Gentile division (Gal. 2:11-14). 3. Dividing wall of the law between Jews and Gentiles (Eph. 2:11-22). 4. The problem with gluttony and drunkenness at the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:17-34). 5. The exhortations of Paul and Peter to slaves (Ephesians 5; 1 Peter 2). 6. Roman imperial rule.
Literary Context (=Genre/Kind of Literature)
The bible is written in different literary forms. Yes, the bible is the living and breathing and inspired and perfect and authoritative word of God! We must also remember that God inspired men to write his word. That is, Spirit-inspired men wrote God-inspired texts. Under God’s sovereign, Spirit-inspired guidance, these men chose specific ways in which to communicate what God inspired them to write. They chose certain words, illustrations, metaphors, and genres by which to communicate authoritative God-breathed scripture.
For example, many biblical books are narratives (e.g. Genesis, the gospels, Acts, etc.). Other books are poetic (Psalms) or prophetic (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, etc.). Others are personal letters to either churches (Galatians), a church (1 Corinthians), individuals (Timothy, Titus, Philemon), or to general Christian communities (1 Peter). Revelation is a letter, a narrative, a prophecy, and an apocalypse all in one.
Because the context of the bible is different from our context as American bible readers, to understand the author’s intent requires us to gain a basic understanding of the different layers of context.
- When you read the bible, try to discern the context. Ask yourself what’s the context of these verses. And, then, look for the answers to these contextual questions within the bible.
- Get a good study bible that helps understand the context. We who read the bible in a different cultural context from which the bible was written must work hard to understand the bible’s cultural context. Good study bibles and accessible books (commentaries, etc.) about biblical interpretation can provide assistance with contextual types of questions.
Study bibles will usually give historical overviews of every book of the bible. Certain study bibles even provide maps and additional charts that will help the bible reader understand some basic things about historical context.
- Read a good and accessible book on biblical interpretation. One of my favorite books on biblical interpretation is called 40 Questions about Interpreting the Bible (Kregel, 2010). This is one of the texts I make my Master of Divinity students read in my introduction to biblical interpretation course.
The book clearly and accessibly discusses important principles for bible study: such as how to read narrative, poetry, etc. It also provides a helpful bibliography of bible study resources for readers who want to go deeper in their bible study.
- Remember, as bible readers, we must rely upon the Spirit every step of the way as we labor to understand and apply the text. True understanding leads to obedience. As Christians, we need the Spirit to help us discern the author’s intent as we study, and we need the Spirit to help us submit to and obey what the text demands of us.
- As bible readers, we must rely upon our churches as we sit underneath faithful, expositional preaching in community with other Christians. Thankfully, Christians have the Holy Spirit and the church to help us understand the bible.
Of course, scholars help us understand the bible too. But the fundamental place where Christians should study scripture is in the context of the church as we sit under the authority of faithful, expositional preaching with fellow and like-minded believers.
May God help us as Christian bible readers to love his word, to read it faithfully with the time and skills we have, and to pray the Spirit will apply God’s word to our hearts so that we would be transformed by it and live in a transformed way in our homes, our churches, and in our communities.