In a sense, there is no non-contextual reading of the biblical text. All interpretation is contextual because every interpreter is informed by experiences in specific religious, social and economic contexts. However, when people refer to the need for “contextual” interpretation they often mean the need for the text to be indigenously interpreted in non-Western contexts. This need was felt by African leaders and motivated the production of the Africa Study Bible: “The research clearly showed that meanings of words and expressions in modern English from the United States or the United Kingdom were not always clear for English-speaking Africans.”*
As the quotation shows, the need for “contextual interpretation,” as this expression has come to be used, arises when the interpretation of a particular context (Context A) is imposed or uncritically adopted by another context (Context B) in ways that cloud the meaning of the text for Context B, silence the interpretive voice of Context B and eliminate its particularities. In this sense, contextual biblical interpretation is not simply about application of a pure universal meaning recovered by Context A into Context B but about context B contributing to the production of the meaning of the text.
On the occasion of celebrating the achievement of the Africa Study Bible, I would like to share a few thoughts regarding contextual biblical interpretation, by no means exhausting the topic, but with the hope of triggering some reflection on it.
What is a context?
First of all, context or the environment within which people exist is not static. It is a fluid and rather porous reality. Television, cinema, translated books, Facebook, and Twitter make it possible for cultural elements to leak between contexts, so we must maintain an awareness that foreign cultural elements become continually absorbed. Context, therefore, is not a fixed entity and since context is difficult to pin down, contextual interpretation will be just as challenging.
Moreover, context is not a homogenized entity, and so it is impossible for an interpretation to speak for or to ever person and every community within one’s context. While there may be stereotypical elements that represent a contextual unit, the truth is that diversity exists within each context. For example, the Greek context looks different in Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox circles. The experience of a Greek Jew or a black Greek is extremely different from the experience of other Greeks, and some of these people’s Greekness is often questioned by dominant groups. Therefore, “the ambivalence of ethnic identity makes the idea of contextual theology ambivalent.”*
Sometimes an impression exists that contextual interpretation should be engaged in preserving a romantic, traditional view of one’s context, rather than responding to contemporary rapid changes within that context. As Ott comments, “contextualization must be focused more on understanding and responding appropriately to rapid social change now, and less on preserving or transforming the ‘traditional culture’ of the past.”* Greek contextual interpretation, for example, that is based on or propagates a purist ideal of Greekness is not in touch with Greek realities. The Greek polymorphous context must be faced head on, with eyes fearlessly wide open to how things are, not to how things should be according to some group’s aspirations that may nevertheless be far from actual realities on the ground. The complexities of context require us to consider the ethics of contextual interpretation.
The ethics of contextual interpretation
As already mentioned, a purist understanding or presentation of context is misleading and is in fact perpetuating the faults contextual interpretation is striving to correct in the first place. Instead, contextual interpretation should be active in critiquing dominant narratives that are oppressive and dismissive of silenced particularities, not only outside one’s context, but primarily within (Context B1 vs. Context B2).
Additionally, ethical contextual interpretation should assume responsibility for the effects its reading has on its audience. In other words, the interpreter is ethically accountable for his or her reception of the text and should be aware of the fact that that reception is not neutral but it feeds into particular ideologies. So what may be a harmless reading in one context, may be highly flammable in another. Even the most “impartial” reading of a text that claims to be engaged in neutral critical-historical interpretation is still a reception and should be critiqued as such. Does it receive a “tamed” text in a way that preserves the status quo, choosing a silent consent to one’s context, or does it unleash into the present those challenging voices in the text that were emancipatory, justice-driven, prophetic, and socially critical?*
It is no news, for example, that a negative judgment on the formation of Judaism arises from Julius Wellhausen’s model of the history of Israel as a development from pure and vibrant prophetic forms into a deteriorated lifeless cultic system of the priestly source.* In other words, the contextual interpreter must be alert to national ideologies his or her scholarship may be feeding and welcome the critique and exposure of its blind spots from different communities. Ideologies are present at all levels of scholarship beginning from the most basic “scientific” practice of translation or text criticism or simply selecting one’s data.
Another ethical dimension of contextual interpretation concerns the relationship between contexts. First, we must not deny the reality of contextual unevenness. Certain contexts are excluded from the global conversation for economic reasons. One example is lack of resources for research. Editors will often require that in order to get published one would need to interact with this or that monograph and in many cases these sources are extravagantly priced and not available in one’s country. For many scholars it is necessary to fly out of their country in order to get hold of some of these works, and while this is easier within Europe, at the present time, it is extremely difficult for other countries facing visa restrictions and expensive ticket prices. The same applies for participation in international conferences. Scholarship, therefore, can be an economic privilege.
Contexts enjoying this privilege, instead of helping to level the field of opportunity among contexts, will often engage in what has been termed the “McDonaldization”* of ministry or theology. Albeit with innocent motives, Context A will flood Context B with large amounts of books and other resources of a particular theology they wish to propagate. This method is considered more effective than the actual engagement of local theological contexts. Rather than partnering on an equal level with indigenous efforts, this method is keener on exporting its own trusted product to the world. This is part of a broader model of transplanting one’s own church and ministry models into the global context.* The difference is subtle, but it essentially views Context B as consumers rather than partners or contributors.
However, the fostering of egalitarian reciprocal relationships between contexts is a far superior ideal than the dissemination of a supposedly effective product. (See, for example, Paul’s goals for church relations in 2 Corinthians 8:13–15.) The latter is often done at the expense of the former. Ott appeals to the recipients of these exports who must become discerning rather than expect exporters to change their approaches.* He speaks of a “glocalization” or a “hybridization” model which means critically assimilating global elements into the local and rejecting others. The local remains dominant and in control.*
Contextual interpretation is not nationalistic interpretation. Scholarship is often produced to compensate for a sense of inferiority in one’s identity and overpraises the contextual while demonizing the foreign. This does not foster equality in the relationship between contexts either. Instead, an approach of unity and reconciliation should be a priority. Contextual interpretation should not cause or perpetuate the isolation of the interpreters from the global conversation nor raise up walls between contexts. Contextual reading should be reconciliatory and this does not mean that Context B offers no critique of Context A. Among other things, critique should be precisely about whether the interpretations of Context A were reconciliatory or power-abusive with respect to other contexts. While one is serving their local community and strives to be sensitive to their contextual issues they are simultaneously citizens of the world and heirs of a context that has not developed in a vacuum but was partially formed by global forces. Therefore, contexts are and should be interdependent and inter-accountable.
The particular and the universal are also interdependent. African theology, for example, is not produced to be relevant only within its particularity. One must be cautious of the impression that African scholarship deals with African issues and is therefore relevant and useful only for Africans. While particularity is significant and in fact unavoidable it is informative and contributes to universal knowledge. Understanding the human condition is only possible through the path of particularity and its embrace. Only by heeding particularities can one possibly discern universal patterns.
The contextuality of the text
The text we read is also contextually produced and we are all aliens to it. The act of translating, not simply in language and idiom, but also applying the text to our present context is a serious and difficult process. Are cultural elements of the text meant to be eternally applicable or are we to distinguish the cultural from the universal? Can one differentiate between the two with ease? Are we to follow Rudolph Bultmann’s demythologizing attempts that strip the culturally bound from the pastoral message of the word in order to make the message relevant for the present day?* And who decides what is universal?* Is the presence of demons, for example, a cultural element or a universal? Shouldn’t demythologized readings of the text also be scrutinized for elements of the demythologizer’s cultural or ideological context?
The complexity involved in engaging with the “otherness” of the text should perhaps caution against standing over the text as surgeons by an operating table, letting our culture determine what is valuable in it. At the same time, we are not deniers of our times, unthinkingly applying the text without intelligent appropriation. A dialectic must be maintained as we bring our culture under the text’s exposing light while also casting our own light on the text, a “fusion of horizons” as Hans-Georg Gadamer would say. Simultaneously, we are to “hear what the Spirit says” to other churches in other contexts and remain inter-accountable.
In the light of the above considerations, one may begin defining what contextual interpretation is or should be. Contextual interpretation often means that interpreters of Context B will be alerted to certain elements in the text that are overlooked by Context A. It does not necessarily presuppose a different method of reading the text that is alien to the one practiced by Context A. Sometimes it simply means throwing another set of eyes on the same text and allowing neglected parts that concern interpreters from Context B to come to the surface. As the editors of the Africa Study Bible write, “Often, African cultures are much closer to the culture of the Bible than the cultures of North America and Europe. This is a key area where the African church can speak about the significance and impact of Scripture to the worldwide church.”*
Usually this alertness to certain overlooked elements of the text will arise out of an awareness of local needs and issues that are less pronounced in Western contexts. An agricultural society, for example, will have a more direct relationship to the soil, the cycle of seasons and various threats to the crops than an urban society that does not participate in the daily anxieties of farming.* Often this kind of context will be much closer to issues the biblical text wrestles with and the interpreter’s questions may align much more closely to the questions the text is addressing.
Contextual interpretation is in fact an imitation of what the text was doing in the first place. The biblical writers wrote with respect to what people needed to hear in order to repent, to survive, and to live well in their specific contexts. They saw in the received testimony of their community what other writers or previous generations were not able to see, or simply overlooked. As they mediated between text and context, this testimony was kept alive and active through the ages.
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