Course: Bible Study Methods
Introduction and Review
We come now to our final session and our final session relates to the topic of contextualization, moving from the ancient world to ancient texts to modern contexts. Let me remind you of what our goal of contextualization is; it is to bridge the gap between the biblical world and our own.
Let us return to our bridge diagram that we have been using through this whole session, this whole series of lectures. On one side of the bridge is us, on the other side is them, between us and them there is a great chasm, a chasm, a gorge of time and place, culture and language separating us from them.
The goal of biblical interpretation is two-fold; first it is exegesis, determining the author’s original meaning, crossing the culture and linguistic bridge to discern the original meaning. Most of what we have talked about in this course has been exegesis, how do we get from here to there.
We gave ten steps of exegesis, we gave several principles, key principles, of how to determine the author’s original meaning, but once we have returned across the bridge to the world of the text and determined the message for them, the meaning for them, we must determine the significance for us. Because the Bible is God’s word, because it is both human and divine, it has a message in its first-century context from a human author to human recipients, but is also has a meaning from God to us. And determining that meaning is the process of contextualization; bringing the significance of the text back from their culture to ours, because as we said, though the Bible was not written to us, the Bible was written for us and determining how, in what way, it is for us is what contextualization is all about.
Two Extremes to Avoid
Imitating Biblical Culture Exactly
Now, with reference to contextualization there are two extremes to avoid. One extreme is imitating biblical culture exactly. We have to recognize that not every passage in the Bible was meant to be applied to believers for all time.
This is obvious when we look at the Old Testament for example. Exodus 29:38 says, “This is what you are to offer on the altar regularly each day, two lambs a year old,” while most of us do not offer lambs on the altar regularly despite the fact that that is commanded in the Old Testament.
Deuteronomy 21:18 says, “If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son, then all of the men of his town shall stone him to death,” most of us in our culture do not practice the stoning of rebellious teenagers.
Exodus 35:2, “For six days work is to be done, but the seventh day shall be your holy day, a Sabbath of rest to the Lord. Whoever does any work on it must be put to death,” doing work on the Sabbath in the Old Testament results in execution. The Sabbath, of course, is the seventh day, which would be Saturday, so anyone who works on Saturday would be killed, would be executed. Obviously we do not apply that truth, that message, directly to us.
Leviticus 25:44, “For your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around them, from them you may buy slaves;” here is a permission, an allowance to buy slaves from the nations around us. There is a command in the Bible that you can buy slaves. Leviticus 25:44, obviously we do not follow that permission today.
Leviticus 11:9-11, “Of all the creatures living in the waters, of the seas and the streams, you may eat any that have fins and scales, but all creatures in the seas or streams that do not have fins and scales you are to detest.” Any shellfish is off limits even though most of us would eat shellfish without concern.
So, we can see, we simply do not obey many commands. Why not? Well, some would say those are Old Covenant commands given to the Old Testament people of God, not to us today.
But what about New Testament commands, do we obey all New Testament commands? I have a long list of New Testament commands, many of which we do not, many Christians at least do not directly obey.
1 Peter 5:14 says, “Greet one another with a kiss of love.”
1 Timothy 5:23, “No longer drink water exclusively, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.”
Mark 6:8, “Take nothing for the journey except a staff, no bread, no bag, no money in your belts.”
1 Corinthians 11:5, “But every woman who has her head covered while praying or prophesying disgraces her head.” In many of our churches women do not cover their heads.
1 Corinthians 14:34, “Let the women keep silent in the churches for they are not permitted to speak.”
1 Timothy 2:9, “I also want women to dress modestly, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothing.”
John 13:12-17, “Now that I your Lord and teacher have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.” Many commands in the New Testament Christians do not feel like they are required to obey them.
1 Timothy 2:8, “I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer without anger or disputing.”
1 Corinthians 7:27, “Are you married, do not seek a divorce; are you unmarried, do not look for a wife.” Is this a command not to go looking for a wife? So that extreme, that one extreme is imitating biblical culture exactly.
Letting the Culture Govern the Message
Here is a second extreme, contextualizing completely, or letting the culture govern the message. There are a variety of examples of this.
I have in front of me the Cotton Patch Gospel. The Cotton Patch Gospel was written by Clarence Jordan in the 1960’s and 1970’s. It is a re-contextualization of the gospel to America during the Civil Rights movement.
Let me read you a section from the Cotton Patch Gospel. This is Matthew 2. It says, “When Jesus was born in Gainesville, Georgia during the time that Herod was governor, some scholars from the orient came to Atlanta and inquired where is the one who was born to be governor of Georgia. ‘We saw his star in the orient and we came to honor him.’
“This news put Governor Herod and all his Atlanta cronies in a tizzy. So he called a meeting of the big time preachers and politicians and asked if they had any idea where the leader was to be born. ‘In Gainesville Georgia’ they replied, ‘because there is a prophesy which says, “And you Gainesville, in the state of Georgia are by no means the least in the Georgia delegation, from you will come forth a governor who will wisely guide my chosen people.”’”
Here is a passage from Matthew 3 about John the Baptist: “One day John the Baptizer showed up and started preaching in the rural areas of Georgia. ‘Reshape your lives,’ he said, ‘because God’s new order of the Spirit is confronting you. This is what the Prophet Isaiah meant.’ This guy John was dressed in blue jeans and a leather jacket and he was living on cornbread and collard greens. Folks were coming to him from Atlanta and all over north Georgia and the backward of the Chattahoochee and as they owned up to their crooked ways he dipped them in the Chattahoochee.”
What Clarence Jordan has done is he has completely rewritten the gospel and applied it to a different context. Now, his point, let me read you a bit of his introduction to show you what he is trying to do, “The purpose of the Cotton Patch approach to the Scriptures is to help the modern reader have the same sense of participation in them which the early Christians must have had.
“By stripping away the fancy language, the artificial piety, and the barriers of time and distance this version puts Jesus and his people in the midst of our modern world, living where we live, talking as we talk, working, hurting, praying, bleeding, dying, conquering alongside the rest of us. It seeks to restore the original feeling and excitement of the fast-paced news, good news, rather than musty history.”
Now, Clarence Jordan knew that he was not doing a legitimate translation of the Bible, but his purpose was to re-contextualize the message. Now, the problem, of course, with that is you lose so much of the historical significance.
Jesus was not born in Gainesville; he was born in Bethlehem and that Bethlehem had significance. Bethlehem was the place, the hometown of King David and King David, of course, was the model and prototype of the Messiah, the one who was promised that one day his descendent would rein on his throne forever. So something is significantly lost when you contextualize completely in that regard.
So, those are two extremes to avoid. Imitating biblical culture exactly or contextualizing completely, which means letting the culture govern the message. We have looked at some other examples of that. Liberation theology has a tendency to let the culture or context govern the message. The culture or context of economic or physical oppression becomes the determining factor of our definition of sin. Instead of allowing the Bible itself to define sin as rebellion against God we allow the cultural situation to define it. So that is another example of contextualizing completely, allowing the culture to govern the message.
Principles of Contextualization
So why do we need contextualization? Well, because not every passage in the Bible was meant to be applied to believers of all time. So that brings up a significant question. How do we decide what commands are meant for all time and which are meant for a particular cultural context? How do we decide? Let’s look at some basic principles of contextualization or principles of application.
1. Proper contextualization begins with sound exegesis.
Here is our first principle. Proper contextualization begins with sound exegesis. That is determining the original meaning. Proper contextualization or application begins with sound exegesis. Fee and Stewart said a text cannot mean what it never meant. In other words, the application has to be drawn directly from the original meaning of the text.
I mentioned a cartoon previously where a young man is reading his Bible with his sister standing beside him and he says don’t bother me, I am looking for a verse of Scripture to back up one of my preconceived notions. If we do not understand the original meaning, we will not properly apply the passage.
Ask these questions – What is the original intent of the passage? Ask yourself, what is the cultural and historical setting in which the message was given? Basic questions of exegesis, what did the text mean in its original cultural and historical context?
2. All Scripture is authoritative, because it is inspired by God.
Here is a second principle of application or contextualization and that is that all scripture is authoritative. All Scripture is inspired by God, 2 Timothy 3:16. Application concerns not whether a particular passage is relevant because all passages of scripture are relevant. The question is how to apply it to our contemporary situation.
Take for example a passage that I just mentioned, 1 Peter 5:14, “Greet one another with a kiss of love.” The question is not whether that passage has relevance, has application, it certainly does, the question is how do we apply that passage to our lives.
3. Scripture can be applied at the surface level, or at the level of principle.
Here is a third principle. Scripture can be applied at the surface level, that is directly, or at the level of principle. Greet one another with a kiss of love, well the surface level would mean that we are commanded to kiss one another in greeting. The principle would mean something like, this verse affirms that Christian affection should be shown. If we look at kissing in the first century it was generally between family members, it was a sign of familial love and affection and so Paul, or Peter in the context, is telling us to show Christian affection.
4. Distinguish between the culutral, which is relative, and the super-cultural, which is absolute.
Here is a fourth principle. To apply correctly we must distinguish between the cultural, which is relative, and the super-cultural or above culture, which is absolute. Take one passage in 1 Corinthians 11:5, “But every woman who has her head uncovered while praying or prophesying disgraces her head.” Our goal is determine whether this passage is a command for all time or whether it was a specific cultural command for the Corinthian church. Alright, this fourth principle can be unpacked into a number of factors or sub points and here is the first. Questions to ask, some factors to consider to determine whether a text is cultural or super-cultural.
a. Is the command inherently moral?
The first factor to consider is, is the command inherently moral? Now, the definition of what is moral can be a difficult one. I would define moral as something that is directly related to the character of God. Something that is right or wrong not based on culture or external circumstances but based directly on the character of God.
Here is an example of a moral command. Ephesians 4:25 says, “Therefore, each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor.” Speaking truthfully is a moral command, it is directly related to God’s character, God is true.
Ephesians 4:28, another moral command, “He who has been stealing must steal no longer.” Stealing is a moral issue; it runs contrary to the nature and character of God.
b. Does the context give indications that the passage is above culture?
Here is a second factor to consider. Does the context give indications that the passage is above culture? Ephesians 6:1 says, “Children obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.” A statement, a kind of a universal statement that “this is right” would suggest that Paul is making a command that is not just culturally specific.
c. Do we share comparable particulars?
Here is a third principle. Do we share comparable particulars, that is, similar, specific life situations with the first-century context? If so, the command is likely to apply today.
Let me give you an example of this. Ephesians 5:18 says, “Do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit.” Do not get drunk with wine. We can ask the question as, do we shape comparable particulars with the first century context in which this statement was written? In other words, is drunkenness the same basic issue today as it was in the first century? And I think we can certainly say it is, it is the same basic issue. The abuse of alcohol causes family problems today just like it caused family problems in the first century. It causes lack of judgment, it can produce violent behavior, it can result in poor work habits, it can result in difficult family relationships. So drunkenness is the same issue, basically, today as it was in the first century, we share comparable particulars.
Here is another verse though, “I also want women to dress modestly,” Paul says in 1 Timothy 2:9. “Not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes.” Here the question is, is the issue of braided hair or gold or pearls the same today as it was in the first century? Well, braided hair today is not a sign of lack of modesty or ostentatious behavior. Wearing gold or pearls is not usually viewed as flaunting wealth. So, Paul is clearly directly addressing a specific cultural situation where Greco-Roman women would wear large coiffure, large hairdos with jewels and pearls, precious stones in it to show off their wealth and he calls on the women of Ephesus not to dress in that manner.
So, obviously that passage does not have a comparable particular or a similar life situation to today. Now here is an interesting verse however because first of all Paul states the universal, “I want women to dress modestly;” there is a moral command right there, and then the cultural application, “not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes.” So a good example where we see both the universal principle followed by the cultural application.
d. Is the command connected to cultural practices current in the first century but not present today?
Here is a fourth factor to consider as to whether something is cultural or universal. Is the command connected to cultural practices current in the first century, but not present today?
Take John 13, for example, where Jesus says, “Now that I your Lord and teacher have washed your feet you also should wash one another’s feet.” The command to wash feet, that cultural practice is very significant in the first century where roads were dusty. People walked barefoot or wore sandals; when they arrived at a home where they received hospitality, a slave or servant might wash their feet. It was a task designated only for someone of the lowest cultural and social status.
So, Jesus’ calling on his disciples to function as servants, lowering themselves, submitting themselves to one another. Now we practice foot washing, many churches practice foot washing today, but it does not quite have the same cultural significance. Often times the person who is embarrassed or who feels humbled is the one who has to take off their shoes and have their foot washed.
Now I am not saying this cannot be a significant ceremony and something that has great spiritual significance and devotional significance, but clearly the issue of washing the feet has a different significance in the first century than it does today.
e. What cultural options were open to the writer?
Here is a fifth factor to consider when asking whether a passage is cultural or universal and that is, what cultural options were open to the writer? When only one option was open the passage is more likely to be culturally relative.
Paul says in Ephesians 6:5, “Slaves obey your earthly masters with respect and fear and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.” Repeatedly in the New Testament Paul and others command servants or slaves to obey their earthly masters. In other words they seem to affirm the practice of slavery, which we know is an abhorrent and evil institution. How can this be?
Well, we have to recognize what options were open to Paul. Slavery was a fundamental institution in the Roman world where over half of the population, by some estimates, were slaves. The Roman Empire was built on the backs of slaves. When there were occasionally slave revolts, they were violently put down. Anyone who would call for the manumission, for the freeing of all the slaves, would quickly be arrested and almost certainly executed.
Now what cultural options were open to Paul? Paul had been called by God to be the apostle to the Gentiles. Paul’s commission is to take the gospel to the ends of the earth. For him to call for the freedom for slaves would certainly distract from that task. Paul would immediately be arrested and would lose any opportunity for proclaiming the gospel further.
In addition to that, Paul probably felt like Christ was returning soon, so the greatest task, the most important task, was not to free the slaves, it was rather to get the gospel to the ends of the earth as quickly as possible.
So here again our point, what cultural options were open to the writer. It really was not an option for Paul to call for the manumission of slaves in that particular context, if, in fact, he was going to obey God and accomplish the commission that he had been given.
f. What is the ultimate purpose of this command in its cultural context?
Alright, that is our fifth factor, here is our sixth factor to consider when trying to determine what is universal and what is culturally specific and that is, what is the ultimate purpose of this command in its cultural context? What is the ultimate purpose? Purpose is a critically important question when looking at a biblical text. What was the author’s ultimate goal and purpose?
Was Paul’s ultimate purpose to make sure women covered their head in worship or was Paul’s ultimate purpose propriety of worship? Then we have to ask, how would this purpose best be fulfilled in our cultural context? How would propriety in worship best be fulfilled in our cultural context?
Now we have to bear in mind all the other principles we have just mentioned, but this issue of purpose can function as something of a guiding rule, because if we can get to the heart of God, if we can get to God’s ultimate purpose and recognize what he would desire, based on the nature of God, based on the nature of us as human beings, we will be able to face a wide variety of issues, issues that are not dealt with specifically in the Bible.
A whole range of issues are not even mentioned in Scripture. Take an issue such as drug abuse, an issue only mentioned with reference to wine and alcohol in the Bible. Take modern issues of euthanasia or genetic manipulation, or stem cell research. Take issues like gambling or pornography, issues that simply are not even mentioned in Scripture because they are not a part of the cultural context of Scripture. How do we make a decision about those? Well, we determine God’s nature and purpose, who God is and who we are as human beings, and building from that nature and purpose we can then draw appropriate conclusions.
Alright, we have seen six sub-points, six factors to consider when seeking to determine whether something is culturally relative or absolute.
5. Individual statements must be placed in the broader context of Scripture.
A couple other principles of contextualization, here is a fifth principle of contextualization, a main point. Individual statements must be placed in the broader context of Scripture. We call this the analogy of Scripture. And I can give you two sub points under this larger point.
a. Is all of biblical teaching uniform or does it reflect differences of perspective?
The first is the question, is the New Testament teaching uniform or does it reflect differences of perspective? Is the New Testament teaching, we could actually say all of biblical teaching, uniform or does it reflect differences of perspective?
Let us just take a couple of issues, the issue of homosexuality, for example. Scripture uniformly condemns homosexual behavior. I want to stress this, I am not referring to homosexual inclination, because obviously some people feel attraction to the same sex, but they do not act on that. Scripture condemns, not homosexual feelings, but when those feelings become lust or when those feelings are acted upon.
So, we are talking about homosexual behavior here and there is no question that Scripture uniformly condemns homosexual behavior, both in the Old Testament, the Levitical Law, Leviticus 18:22, 29; 20:13. Then in the New Testament, Romans 1:18-32 where Paul views homosexual behavior as a distortion of God’s created order, God’s created order of sexual relations between a man and a woman. 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, 1 Timothy 1 8-11. You cannot find teaching to the contrary in Scripture, so Scripture is uniform in its condemnation of homosexual behavior.
On the other hand, if you take another issue, let’s say women in leadership positions within the church. We see what is at best a mixed picture in Scripture, though Paul makes specific commands that he does not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, 1 Timothy 2.
Yet, in other cases we see women who seem to be functioning in some kinds of prominent positions of authority. Women like Priscilla, wife of Aquila, who is almost always named first. Women like Phoebe who is identified as a deaconess, possibly a deacon. Women like Junia, who may be identified, in fact, as an apostle. Women like Euodia and Syntyche who are identified by Paul as his coworkers. And so we get at least a fairly mixed picture of whether women were exercising any kind of leadership role. I did not mention Lydia who appears to have a house church in Philippi in her home, possibly a leader of that house church.
Now I am not making definitive statements that these women were leaders, but I am suggesting that New Testament teaching does not seem to be absolutely uniform nor does Old Testament teaching when we consider a woman like Deborah fulfilling the role of a judge. And so we at least need to be cautious when making application of passages like these that do not seem to reflect absolutely uniform teaching, in contrast to the issue of homosexual behavior, where we seem to see universal condemnation in Scripture.
So here is our point once again, our sub point under individual statements must be placed in the broker context of scripture. Is the New Testament teaching uniform?
b. Is this part of core biblical teaching or it is peripheral?
Our second sub-point is, is this part of core biblical teaching or it is peripheral, is it on the edge, is it something that occurs only once or twice and is obscure in Scripture?
A classic example of something that is certainly not core biblical teaching is 1 Corinthians 15:29. 1 Corinthians 15:29 says, “Now if there is no resurrection, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all why are people baptized for them?” Paul is arguing for the resurrection and he refers to this practice of baptizing for the dead. He does not state he approves of it nor does he state he disapproves of it. He never refers to it elsewhere.
Was this something that was happening in Corinth? Was it happening in other places in the empire, among the other churches? What were the Corinthian believers doing? Was this baptism for those who had died as unbelievers? Was this baptism for those who were believers but had not yet been physically baptized? We simply do not know and commentators list dozens of possibilities here. This is an extremely obscure verse; it does not command baptism from the dead, it does not explain baptism from the dead. To practice something or to command the practice of baptism from the dead would be totally inappropriate from this passage since it is clearly not part of core biblical teaching.
On the other hand, something like living a moral life, faithfulness to a wife, abstaining from sexual immorality, not lying or slandering or gossiping about others; these kinds of commands occur again and again in Scripture and so are clearly part of core biblical teaching and so we can safely assume that they are commands for us today.
Alright, we have examined various principles to determine how we apply, whether we apply passages directly or whether we apply passages at the level of principle. And let me just summarize a few of our main points. We apply passages directly when they are inherently moral commands, when they reflect the nature of God, when it is a question of morality.
We apply passages directly when there are contextual factors pointing beyond human culture, when it does not seem to be an issue merely of human culture such as issues of head coverings, or hairstyles, or so forth.
We apply passages directly when there is a parallel life situation today. Foot washing does not have a direct parallel in most cultures today; however, drunkenness certainly does, the abuse of alcohol is very parallel to today.
And finally, we apply passages directly when there is uniform biblical teaching, when it is clear that Scripture again and again affirms or condemns certain behavior.
Okay, we have seen that contextualization is once we have done our exegesis, once we have determined the meaning of the text in its original context, it is taking that message and determining how it applies today. It is an essential part of all biblical interpretation, because as Paul says in 2 Timothy 3:16-17, “All Scripture is inspired by God and it is profitable for instruction and for teaching and for rebuke, for training in righteousness.”
God’s word is meant not just to be read and understood; God’s word is meant to be applied to our lives. So, the ultimate task of biblical interpretation is to allow God’s word to transform us, to allow it to make us into the image of Jesus Christ so that we can boldly proclaim his message to the ends of the earth so that we can bring the knowledge of God to all people everywhere.