Contextual Hermeneutics

A wholistic view of biblical interpretation

Keith A. Burton is associate professor of New Testament at Oakwood College, Huntsville, Alabama.

I am always hesitant when asked to define my hermeneutics. If I say "historical- . grammatical" I will immediately be grouped with the fundamentalists. If I say "historical-critical" I will be labeled liberal.

These labels are so loaded that none of them takes into account the complexity of the interpretive process.

My approach to hermeneutics seeks solutions by utilizing one or a combination of several methods. In that way I am not limited to any one stricture. It is presumptuous to claim that any one interpretive method is the only valid method to be used when deciphering the meaning of Scripture. It is also inadvisable to reject certain approaches simply because they may have been abused by those who have a low view of inspiration. My hermeneutical approach adapts the necessary tools needed to analyze the various contexts that comprise the interpretive process. With all this in mind, if I were to label my method, I would term it "contextual."

The contextual approach tries to recognize the Bible's multifaceted scope. It takes into account that while the Bible is a historical record of God's interactions and revelations to humankind, it is also relevant for both the present and the future. Contextual hermeneutics therefore acknowledges that in order to determine the precise relevance of a part of the Bible to a specific present situation it is necessary for the interpreter to evaluate the historical and textual context of the biblical passage. Although this may appear obvious, witness the Waco debacle as an example of ignoring such realities in the text.

In applying the contextual approach, I find it helpful to use four primary contexts: faith, history, literary data, and the contemporary situation.

The faith context

Responsible interpreters have long recognized that no one approaches the Bible without a presupposition of some kind. Whether we approach the Bible from a confessional-experiential or an objective-scientific stance, we all have different encounters with the text as it either informs, encourages, or repulses. The truth is that we approach the text from all kinds of differing perspectives: as men, women, Adventists, Methodists, racists, ethnic minorities, etc. While various presuppositions will affect the way in which the text is read, it is essential for the interpreter to try to be as neutral as possible so that the text can speak unimpeded.

However, there is one presupposition that is absolutely necessary to the nature and understanding of Scripture and for the Christian interpreter: faith. For the Christian, the Bible is not just another book to be added to the library. The Bible is God's story of His interaction with humanity. The Christian's presupposition is that this Bible is God's Word and its accounts are authentic and reliable.

For me, the Bible is the written revelation of God to humanity. While the complex and diverse nature of the Bible text does not permit me to accept the idea of literary inerrancy, I nevertheless believe strongly that the Bible is a supernaturally based and completely reliable record of God's reality and His interaction with the human race.

Confidence in the reliability of the biblical record is often based on experiences. This has led many Bible readers to reason that since the Bible contains actual accounts of God's supernatural interactions in history, it can also be trusted as a guide for everyday living, and as an accurate predictor of the future. Because the Bible reflects the will of God, the faithful interpreter sees it as a sourcebook of divine guidance in every area of life, whether it be political, social, ecclesiastical, spiritual, or personal.

The historical context

Since the Bible is a historical document, before its teachings can be applied to the Christian's contemporary situation, its writings must first be understood in their original setting or context. For the Old Testament, the historical context is primarily that of the societies and cultures that are associated with the ancient Near East. In terms of salvation history, the historical context also involves the calling of Israel as Yahweh's special people who were to act as His agents among the nations. This context must inform our reading of the Mosaic civil laws, and our reaction to the seemingly heartless commands from God as He sends the chosen people to conquer and plunder.

The historical context of the New Testament is chiefly the Greco-Roman world, which includes the expressions and traditions of post-Hasmonean Judaism. From the standpoint of salvation history, the New Testament reflects a period where God's special people are comprised of those who view the death of Jesus on Calvary as an indication of the inauguration of the New Age. This context allows us to understand the anticipatory setting of many of the New Testament writings. For example, with reference to the parousia, the authors themselves expected to witness and experience the glory of the second coming of Jesus.

In addition to establishing the religious and socio-political context of the original writings, it is also necessary for the interpreter to reconstruct the original audience situation. This is particularly true for the prophecies of the Old Testament and the letters of the New Testament. An understanding of the situation surrounding the biblical time and circumstances of writing greatly enhances the interpreter's ability to exegete the text.

The literary context

A third context that is essential in the interpretive process is the literary framework. The language of the Bible is an expression of the literary culture surrounding the then contemporary scene in which the biblical writing was done. If one is going to take the interpretation of the biblical text beyond the average, it is necessary to have an understanding of the biblical languages (Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic), and to be prepared to evaluate them in the light of reliable linguistic methodology.

It is also essential to analyze the literary genre of the document under investigation. For biblical literature, the macro-structure includes such categories as history, prophecy, poetry, apocalyptic, rhetoric, and epistolary, exemplified by the Pauline letters. The majority of Paul's letters, for instance, are best understood via the lenses of classical rhetoric, since that was the major mode of interpersonal communication in the first century. Similarly, the Gospels, Acts, and Exodus, are best understood as history.

While evaluating the text in its literary context, one also takes into account the micro-units that may include maxims, analogies, parallelism, and other identifiable categories. Only with an understanding of the workings of these micro-units can the meaning of the text in its literary context be more fully derived.

On a more basic level, the semantic, grammatical, and syntactical components of the literature need to be assessed. This process takes into account the regular rules of grammar and the ways in which words function in the sentence. When investigating the text on this level, special attention should be paid to those details because they are indispensable in finding fuller meaning. An example of the value of this level of hermeneutics is seen in Ephesians 2:8 where Paul uses the perfect passive participle to express the fact that we have already been saved by grace.

Contemporary context

Fourth, hermeneutical method needs to be informed by the contemporary context. Since the Bible is the Living Word of God, it can and will speak to those who listen. However, before the application of any biblical principle can be made to the contemporary situation, it must first be determined if and how the textual context is analogous to the present situation.

When seeking contemporary meaning for the text, we must seek the historical and literary contexts before we can declare "thus saith the Lord" in a specific contemporary situation. It is not enough merely to scratch the surface of the text or blindly accept another's interpretation. Only when we have carefully done our spiritual and interpretive homework can the will of the Lord be reliably determined.

Having said this, I must affirm that I recognize that at some point every honest interpreter is forced to face the chilling reality that there is no clear "thus saith the Lord" for every current situation. Another reality that has to be accepted is that just because the Lord has said something in a specific historical context, does not mean that an apparently similar contemporary con text will demand the same divine communication. Nonetheless, I believe that the voice of God can be heard if we try our best to shed our presuppositions and political agendas.


To conclude: one must ever re member the complexity of the hermeneutical process and the inadequacy of any one "pet" method. Those of us who have tenaciously clung to an exclusive, particular method and heralded it as sacrosanct ought to acknowledge the limitedness and thus the danger of our presuppositions and allow the text to provide its own parameters. Having said this, some explicit things can be learned from the contextual principles presented here.

Firstly, since we belong to a church that claims to be built on and directed by the leadings of the Holy Spirit and the Word of God contained in the 66 books of the Bible, we all need to approach the Bible in a context of faith. If we don't believe that the Bible is divinely—as op posed to merely ethically—authoritative, then it loses its ultimate thrust and usefulness among us.

Secondly, we need to understand the historical nature of the Bible and skillfully discern between those biblical mandates that are culturally and historically bound, and others that convey a universal relevance.

Thirdly, we need to remember that the Bible is written in languages and literary genres that were once used in social intercourse. Consequently, the words therein are not from a cryptic lexicon, but can be understood after responsible exegesis.

Finally, when applying our findings to the contemporary context, we need to be willing to accept the results of our search for meaning, even if they go against our most cherished personal opinions.

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Keith A. Burton is associate professor of New Testament at Oakwood College, Huntsville, Alabama.

March 2000

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