Ethics, context, and the biblical text
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.
- 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?
The Bible and the cultural influence
- Myrto Theocharous, “Ethics, Context, and the Biblical Text”
Myrto Theocharous warns about how ways of reading the Bible in one place can be forced upon believers in another place.
- Has church life in your country been strongly influenced by Christians from another country? If so, how has this influence been helpful? How has this influence been hurtful?
- Or, have Christians from your country had strong influence on church life in other countries? If so, how has this influence helped others? How has it hurt others?
- When has your background gotten in the way of hearing God’s word?
- When has your background allowed you to hear God’s word in ways that people from other background might not hear it?
- As brothers and sisters in Christ come from many countries, how can we relate better as one body with many members (1 Corinthians 12:12-31)?
Hearing the Bible read aloud
• Have one person read a Bible passage while the others listen without looking at a Bible.
Through much of the history of the church – and in much of the world today – the Bible is heard more often than it is read. The public reading of the Bible in church was and often is the main way that the Bible is received.
1. How does hearing this passage read aloud change the way that you receive it?
Have the passage read aloud at least once again.
2. What do you notice as you hear the passage repeated?
Hearing the Bible through audio and new media
• Listen to a Bible passage on an audio recording or through another technology.
Hearing the Bible is not just an experience from the past. It is growing today through audio recordings and other technologies in what some call a return to orality.
1. Which do you do more often, hear the Bible or read the Bible?
2. When you hear this passage on audio or through another technology, how does this change the way that you hear God’s word?
Listen to the passage at least once more.
3. What do you notice as you hear the passage repeated?
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.
 Africa Study Bible, 91.
 Craig Ott, “Globalization and Contextualization: Reframing the Task of Contextualization in the Twenty-first Century,” Missiology 43 (2015): 52.
 Ibid., 51.
 See Walter Brueggemann, “Futures in Old Testament Theology: Dialogic Engagement,” Horizons in Biblical Theology 37 (2015): 32-49.
 Marvin A. Sweeney, Tanak: A Theological and Critical Introduction to the Jewish Bible (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 2011), 6-7, 50-52.
 The term was invented in 1993 by George Ritzer in The McDonaldization of Society (8th edition; London: Sage Publications Inc., 2014). Ott applies it to ministry, “Globalization and Contextualization,” 45.
 Ott, “Globalization and Contextualization,” 43-58.
 Ibid., 47-48.
 Ibid., 48-49.
 See the discussion of this method juxtaposed with Karl Barth’s methods in Konrad Schmid, “What is the Difference Between Historical and Theological Exegesis?” on Academia.edu, an English translation by Peter Altmann of his “Sind die Historisch-Kritischen kritischer geworden? Überlegungen zu Stellung und Potential der Bibelwissenschaften,” JBT 25 (2011), 63-78. See also Paul Ricoeur’s evaluation of Bultmann in Essays on Biblical Interpretation (ed. Lewis S. Mudge; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980), 36-46.
 See the particular emphasis on Satan in the Application Notes symbol on page A14 of the Africa Study Bible: “these symbols remind readers of the safeguard of faith and of the great power of God’s word to defeat Satan.”
 Africa Study Bible, A15.
 See, e.g. Ellen Davis, Scripture, Culture and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2009).