To say that understanding the historical context of a given biblical passage is important for interpretation is such a commonplace notion, that it is hardly worth dwelling upon at length. However, it is only recently that we have begun to appreciate more fully the crucial significance the context of the reader plays in that same interpretative process. Context is like the air we breathe: it is always there, we rarely think of it, and we cannot exist outside it.
It is so natural to who we are and what we do that it is usually invisible to us. Due to that semi-invisible quality, we might be under the impression our context doesn’t play a large role in our reading habits and interpretative decisions. In fact, nothing can be further from the truth. Context impacts our interpretation of the Bible more significantly than we often realize. It not only suggests to us the questions we ask but also influences the answers we come up with.
Let me illustrate this with the help of a specific example, one which is both theologically complex and practically significant. What does the Bible say about the way we should react to authority?
How we answer that question will be influenced by a number of factors. One is whether we are in possession of power.
Those who have power naturally think that power should be obeyed. Pastors are more likely to want to stress verses like Hebrews 13:17: “Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account” (NIV). Church members who have been victims of abusive leadership will probably look for guidance elsewhere.
Our social and political circumstances also impact our thinking. Those who live in safe, well-ordered societies, will generally regard government as something good. It provides order, security, and justice. Admittedly, these malfunction every now and then. Nevertheless, in the grand scheme of things the benefits far outweigh the occasional flaws.
Obedience to authority in such contexts is tantamount to furthering the common good. Disobedience leads to disruption and chaos. Therefore, it is natural for Christians from such communities to go to passages like Romans 13:1–7 when discussing their attitudes to authority.
Within modern-day liberal democratic societies, for example, Paul’s advice here makes perfect sense.* However, not all societies are democratic and liberal. There are oppressive and evil governments. Not all rulers are “terror to bad conduct”, some of them are “bad conduct” par excellence. In many situations the advice: “Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval” is not going to work. How does one read the Bible in such contexts?
One of the passages that afford guidance on the subject is the first chapter of the book of Exodus (1:15–21). Pharaoh orders the Hebrew midwives to kill all male children born to the people of Israel and to let only the girls live. In Egyptian thinking Pharaoh was not just the king, but the mediator between the human and the divine spheres. He was responsible for maintaining the order of the created world. Disobedience to his authority was an act of ultimate evil because it constituted a blow against the very fabric of creation (a bit like modern-day treason, but with cosmic consequences attached).
The midwives disregard the royal command and let the male children live. When summoned by the king and questioned about their behavior, they do not confess openly their unwillingness to comply. Instead they create the impression they strive in good conscience to carry out the deadly royal injunction, but are prevented from doing so by the Hebrew women. The women have already given birth by the time the midwives arrive on the scene, making the murderous act impossible. So the midwives not only disobey their government but also use deception to conceal their disobedience and escape the consequences. To put it starkly, they commit a crime and then lie to cover it up.
For this they are congratulated by the narrative and blessed by God himself: “because the midwives feared God he gave them families” (1:21).
Many people live in the contexts where the story of the midwives will be a lot more helpful in shaping their attitude and responses to authority than Paul’s advice in Romans. Context not only suggests the questions we ask of the Bible but also guides the answers we get from it.
There are practical implications of all this for a fellowship, such as IFES. A global Christian network like ours facilitates the exchange of experience, ideas, and teaching across borders and continents. This in and of itself is enormously enriching and inspiring. Yet it comes with its own particular challenges. A biblical reading born and bred in one context does not always connect to or translate well in another. Sometimes it can impose upon Christians from other places attitudes and ideas that are not simply irrelevant, but positively harmful. Contextually conditioned interpretations elevated to the status of universal truths do not build up and strengthen the Church.*
The difficulty is that our context is like the air we breathe. We do not see it and often do not factor it in. That is why it is so easy for us to assume that what is right in our own context must be right in every context. To us it appears natural, self-evident. What is natural for us is not necessarily natural for others. Learning to read the Bible aware of our context poses before us the dual challenge of humility and caution: humility, so that we do not arrogantly presume our opinions to be automatically applicable to all, and caution, so that we do not accept uncritically all the stuff that comes to us from other lands and exotic places.
Published under a Creative Commons (Attributions — No Derivatives) licence.
- What do you think? You can highlight text from this article to make a comment on it or add your response below.
- Why not get together a group and talk through this issue of Word & World with our discussion questions?
- Exodus 1:15-21
- Romans 13:1-7
Charlie Hadjiev says that our political context shapes how we read passages of Scripture that deal with authority.
- Who has political authority in your country? How do they use that authority?
- Which passage is easier to relate to in your country, the Exodus passage or the Romans passage?
- Which passage is harder to relate to in your country?
- What can you learn from these passages about how to respond to authority?
Works on reading the Bible in context include the following. The authors in this issue of Word & World suggested most of these titles. The works come from a range of Christian traditions.
Adeyemo, Tokunboh, ed. Africa Bible Commentary. Nairobi, Kenya: WordAlive Publishers; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2006.
Brueggemann, Walter. “Futures in Old Testament Theology: Dialogic Engagement.” Horizons in Biblical Theology 37, no. 1 (2015): 32–49.
Coffey, John. Exodus and Liberation: Deliverance Politics from John Calvin to Martin Luther King Jr. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.
Davis, Ellen F. Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
Dykstra, Laurel. Set Them Free: The Other Side of Exodus. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2002.
Ekblad, Bob. Reading the Bible with the Damned. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005.
Escobar, Samuel. A Time for Mission: The Challenge for Global Christianity. New ed. Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 2011.
———. “Doing Theology on Christ’s Road.” In Global Theology in Evangelical Perspective: Exploring the Contextual Nature of Theology and Mission, edited by Jeffrey P Greenman and Gene L Green. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2012.
———. The New Global Mission: The Gospel from Everywhere to Everyone. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2003.
———. “The Social Impact of the Gospel.” In Is Revolution Change?, edited by Brian Griffiths. London: Inter-Varsity Press, 1972.
Green, Gene L, Stephen T Pardue, and K K Yeo, eds. Jesus without Borders: Christology in the Majority World. Majority World Theology Series 1. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; Carlisle: Langham Global Library, 2015.
———, eds. The Trinity among the Nations: The Doctrine of God in the Majority World. Majority World Theology Series 2. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans; Carlisle, Cumbria: Langham Global Library, 2015.
Greenman, Jeffrey P, and Gene L Green, eds. Global Theology in Evangelical Perspective: Exploring the Contextual Nature of Theology and Mission. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2012.
Griffiths, Brian, ed. Is Revolution Change? London: Inter-Varsity Press, 1972.
Judge, E A. The Social Pattern of the Christian Groups in the First Century: Some Prolegomena to the Study of New Testament Ideas of Social Obligation. London: Tyndale Press, 1960.
McLean, Bradley H. Biblical Interpretation and Philosophical Hermeneutics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
Neville, Robert C, Amos Yong, and Peter Heltzel, eds. Theology in Global Context: Essays in Honour of Robert Cummings Neville. London: T&T Clark, 2004.
Oden, Thomas C. A Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2014.
———, ed. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1998-.
———. How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind: Rediscovering the African Seedbed of Western Christianity. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP, 2007.
Ott, Craig. “Globalization and Contextualization: Reframing the Task of Contextualization in the Twenty-First Century.” Missiology 43, no. 1 (2015): 43–58.
Padilla, C René. “My Theological Pilgrimage.” Journal of Latin American Theology 2 (2009).
———. “Revolution and Revelation.” In Is Revolution Change?, edited by Brian Griffiths. London: Inter-Varsity Press, 1972.
Parratt, John, ed. An Introduction to Third World Theologies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
Patte, Daniel, ed. Global Bible Commentary. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2004.
Richards, E Randolph, and Brandon J O’Brien. Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Books, 2012.
Ritzer, George. The McDonaldization of Society. 8th ed. Los Angeles: SAGE, 2015.
Schmid, Konrad. “What Is the Difference Between Historical and Theological Exegesis?” Translated by Peter Altmann, 2011.
Selby, Gary S. Martin Luther King and the Rhetoric of Freedom: The Exodus Narrative in America’s Struggle for Civil Rights. Studies in Rhetoric and Religion 5. Waco, Tex.: Baylor University Press, 2008.
Stott, John. “Culture and the Bible.” InterVarsity Christian Fellowship: International Student Ministry, December 16, 2013. http://ism.intervarsity.org/resource/culture-and-bible.
Sweeney, Marvin A. Tanak: A Theological and Critical Introduction to the Jewish Bible. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012.
Tennent, Timothy C. Theology in the Context of World Christianity: How the Global Church Is Influencing the Way We Think about and Discuss Theology. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2007.
Tiénou, Tite, and John Jusu, eds. Africa Study Bible. Wheaton, Ill.: Oasis International, 2017.
Volf, Miroslav. Captive to the Word of God: Engaging the Scriptures for Contemporary Theological Reflection. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2010.
Walzer, Michael. Exodus and Revolution. New York: Basic Books, 1984.
Warrior, Robert. “Canaanites, Cowboys, and Indians: Deliverance, Conquest, and Liberation Theology Today.” Christianity & Crisis 49, no. 12 (September 11, 1989): 261–65.
Wintle, Brian C, ed. South Asia Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2015.
Yeo, K K. “Chinese Christologies: Images of Christ and Chinese Cultures.” In The Oxford Handbook of Christology, edited by Francesca Aran Murphy, 393–407. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.
———. “Culture and Intersubjectivity as Criteria of Negotiating Meanings in Cross-Cultural Interpretations.” In The Meanings We Choose: Hermeneutical Ethics, Indeterminacy and the Conflict of Interpretations, edited by Charles H Cosgrove, 81–100. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament. Supplement Series 411. London: T&T Clark, 2004.
———. “Introduction: Trinity 101: Kaleidoscopic Views of God in the Majority World.” In The Trinity among the Nations: The Doctrine of God in the Majority World, edited by Gene L Green, Stephen T Pardue, and K K Yeo, 1–17. Majority World Theology Series 2. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans; Carlisle, Cumbria: Langham Global Library, 2015.
———. Musing with Confucius and Paul: Toward a Chinese Christian Theology. Eugene, Ore.: Cascade Books, 2008.
———. What Has Jerusalem to Do with Beijing? Biblical Interpretation from a Chinese Perspective. Harrisburg, Penn.: Trinity Press International, 1998.
Adeyemo, Tokunboh, and Solomon Andria, eds. Commentaire biblique contemporain. Marne-la-Vallée : Éd. Farel, 2008.
Angers, Dominique. La méditation biblique à l’ère numérique. Marne-la-Vallée : Farel éd., 2012.
Berthoud, Pierre, and Paul Wells, eds. Texte et historicité : récit biblique et histoire. Cléon-d’Andran: Éd. Excelsis, 2006.
Blandenier, Patrick. Les pauvres avec nous : la lutte contre la pauvreté selon la Bible et dans l’histoire de l’Eglise. Valence : Ligue pour la lecture de la Bible, 2006.
Blocher, Henri. La Bible au microscope. Vol. 2. Vaux-sur-Seine : Édifac, 2010.
———. La Bible au microscope : exég̀ese et théologie biblique. Vaux-sur-Seine : Editions Édifac, 2006.
Brisebois, Mireille. Des méthodes pour mieux lire la Bible : l’exégèse historico-critique. Montréal : Société catholique de la Bible, 1983.
Courthial, Pierre, and Paul Wells, eds. Dieu parle! études sur la Bible et son interprétation en hommage à Pierre Courthial. Aix-en-Provence : Éd. Kerygma, 1984.
Escobar, Samuel. La mission. Marne-la-vallée : Farel, 2006.
Fee, Gordon D., and Douglas K. Stuart. Un nouveau regard sur la Bible. Deerfield, Fla. : Editions Vida, 1990.
Hoggarth, Pauline. La graine et le sol : une parole qui libère. Champs-sur-Marne (Seine-et-Marne) : Farel, 2012.
Imbert, Yannick. “L’instrumentalisation Des Ecritures Par Les Idéologies.” La Revue Réformée 268, no. 44 (2013).
Kuen, Alfred. Comment étudier la Bible. Marpent : Éditions BLF, 2001.
———. Comment interpréter la Bible. Saint-Légier, Suisse : Emmäus, 1991.
———. Comment lire la Bible. Vennes sur Lausanne : Ligue pour la lecture de la Bible, 1978.
Marguerat, Daniel, Yvan Bourquin, Marcel Durrer, and Florence Clerc. Pour lire les récits bibliques : initiation à l’analyse narrative. Paris : Les Éd. du Cerf; Genève : Labor et fides, 2009.
Nisus, Alain, ed. L’amour de la sagesse : Hommage à Henri Blocher. Vaux-sur-Seine : Édifac, 2012.
Padilla, C. René. “L’interprétation de la Parole.” In L’Évangile et le monde urbanisé, 5e édition. Montréal : Direction Chrétienne, 2009.
Padilla, René, Samuel Escobar, and Hans Ferdinand Bürki. Évangile, culture et idéologies. Lausanne : Presses bibliques universitaires, 1977.
Romerowski, Sylvain. Les sciences du langage et l’étude de la Bible. Charols : Excelsis, 2011.
Smith, Glenn. “La mission de Dieu et la vocation évolutive de l’Église au Québec.” In L’Évangile et le monde urbanisé, 5e édition. Montréal : Direction Chrétienne, 2009.
Smith, Sandra, and Glenn Smith. La méthode inductive d’étude biblique. Montréal : Direction Chrétienne, 2014.
Wiher, Hannes, ed. Bible et mission. Vol. 2. Charols : Excelsis, 2012.
———, ed. Bible et mission : vers une théologie évangélique de la mission. Charols : Excelsis, 2012.
———, ed. La mission de l’Église au XXIe siècle les nouveaux défis. Charols : Excelsis, 2010.
Wright, Christopher Joseph Herbert. La mission de Dieu : fil conducteur du récit biblique. Charols : Excelsis, 2012.
Arana Quiroz, Pedro. Progreso, técnica y hombre: algunas reflexiones histórico-bíblicas pronunciadas en diversas universidades latinoamericanas. Barcelona: Ediciones Evangélicas Europeas, 1973.
———. Providencia y revolución. Lima, Perú: El Estandarte de la Verdad, 1970.
Atiencia, Jorge, Samuel Escobar, and John Stott. Así leo la Biblia: cómo se forman maestros de la Palabra. Barcelona; Buenos Aires: Certeza Unida, 1999.
Escobar, Samuel. Cómo comprender la misión. Barcelona: Certeza Unida, 2008.
———. Diálogo entre Cristo y Marx y otros ensayos. Ed. rev. Lima: AGEUP, 1969.
Escobar, Samuel, C René Padilla, and Edwin Yamauchi. ¿Quién es Cristo hoy? Buenos Aires: Ediciones Certeza, 1971.
Padilla, C René. Misión integral: ensayos sobre el Reino de Dios y la iglesia. Barcelona: Ediciones Kairós, 2015.
Salinas, Daniel. Nuestra fe: Integrando la Palabra en la vida cotidiana. Certeza México, 2013.
Wright, Christopher J H, and Jonathan Lamb. La versatilidad de la Biblia. Lima, Perú: Ediciones Puma, 2015.
Schmid, Konrad. “Sind die Historisch-Kritischen kritischer geworden? Überlegungen zu Stellung und Potential der Bibelwissenschaften.” Jahrbuch für biblische Theologie, Schmid 25 (2011): 63–78.
杨克勤 = K K Yeo. 庄子与雅各: 隐喻生命, 遨游天恩 = Zhuangzi and James. 上海市 = Shanghai: 华东师范大学出版社, 2012.