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  • Writer's pictureMcYoung Y. Yang

Interpreting the Text: Context is King

Updated: Jul 26, 2023

How Far Does That Go?

Semantic range is a vital concept within the guise of human communication. It simply is the study of meaning. However, meaning—especially within the realm of linguistics—is not necessarily static nor stationary.[1] Rather, its meaning can vary depending upon influences. What do these words mean? How are they being used? What cultural baggage are tied to these words?


Not only are words in themselves important, but how they are used pay significant dividends in the guise of effective, human dialogue. This, then, presupposes that we, the communicator, acquaint ourselves with the cultural milieu of expression while, in turn, listeners must understand the usages of particular words in order to properly discern the message that is being conveyed. All that to say, human dialogue is no simple feat; it is a complicated, complex endeavor that takes intellect, wit, and a grain of self-understanding. This is captured in The Hobbit through a quasi-lighthearted interaction between the grand wizard Gandalf the Grey himself and the small, adventurous halfling Bilbo Baggins:

“Good Morning!” said Bilbo, and he meant it. The sun was shining, and the grass was very green. But Gandalf looked at him from under long bushy eyebrows that stuck out further than the brim of his shady hat.
“What do you mean?” he said. “Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on?”
“All of them at once,” said Bilbo.

The simple phrase “good morning” opens a quandary of questions serving to strike with pinpoint accuracy at the meaning and aim at what Bilbo was trying to convey; that is, a simple phrase—upon further examination—no longer remained simple (thanks to Gandalf).


The Mood of the Setting:


To this end, how does this impact our attempt at reading the bible reasonably and faithfully? How do we, 21st Century citizens, return to—in part—a 1st Century understanding? If meaning is somewhat flexible, how can we ever return to a biblical understanding of a particular word usage? How do we reconcile years upon years of distance culturally and linguistically?


Though the task before us seems daunting (and it is), we are not left to sheer subjectivism or any notion that meaning is out the window. Nor are we merely left with the idea that we—the reader—can make the text say what we want it to say (or “this is what it means to me”).[2] Rather, there are helpful tools and guiding principles which tether us to proper understanding and intentional meaning cemented amid the author herself. All that to say, the application and retrieval of context within our reading can serve to jettison any notion that meaning is arbitrary or capricious. Or, as the saying goes: “context is king!” Therefore, context provides substantial claims under three guiding categories: (1) literary context, (2) historical context, and (3) theological context. These three components—as Richard A. Fuhr and Andreas J. Köstenberger helpfully provide in their book Inductive Bible Study—will serve to clarify meaning as we strive to interpret the text of Scripture.


Literary Context. The first subcategory under the guise of context is composed under a literary format; that is, it is an assurance that meaning is not merely isolated within words floating amid the ether but rather words are interconnected parts serving one another with the purpose to convey a coherent, cogent idea.[3] Thus, the initial principle in the service of interpretation is what Fuhr and Köstenberger call “supporting context.” It is defined accordingly: “[words] and phrases have the capacity to convey multiple meanings (nuanced or otherwise), and ultimately it’s the surrounding context that determines the meaning of those words and phrases.” They go on to say, “In any coherent discourse, thoughts are expressed in association rather than isolation. Practically speaking, when you analyze the meaning of a word or phrase in the Bible, contextual meaning will always take precedence over lexical meaning.”[4] Or said simply, a meaning of a word is contingent upon its usage in relation to the surrounding and supporting words. To this end, meaning will depend largely upon how the “surrounding context” may support any given interpretive notion. This is similar to the previous blog’s point corresponding to questions of relationship and the example of the word “ball” (for further analyses, click here).

The next subcategory is literary genre. Genre, according to the Oxford Language, can be defined as “a category of artistic composition, as in music or literature, characterized by similarities in form, style, or subject matter.” Meaning, its form shapes its material. Or said more simply, the type of genre will shape how certain words are perceived and understood. For example, the Lord of the Rings Trilogy is written within a fictional genre with fantasy and adventure undergirding its motif. When J. R. R. Tolkien writes about talking trees, dragons, dwarfs, and elves, the readers do not take its depiction literally. But rather discerns through genre the thrust of the fictional story. Or similarly, when a lover tells his beloved that he would pull down the moon for her, it is not a literal ploy to conjure a mechanical device to quarry the floating rock from the sky. Rather, it is a ploy through the genre of romantic artistry to convey his devotion to her goodness. In addition, when a sports fanatic reads an ESPN article or an NFL Network post, they intuitively take that information literally because of the genre that is associated with its journalistic form (contrary to the Babylon Bee). To this end, understanding and discerning genre will shape and instruct the reader upon how to interpret texts and sayings.


The last subcategory is called, according to Fuhr and Köstenberger, canonical context.[5] The bible—from Genesis to Revelation—is built amid a (for a lack of better term) salvific timeline. Meaning, we stand as readers in a particular position within the storyline of Scripture and that shapes how we interpret and understand meaning within the bible. For example, Exodus 29:14 reads, “But the flesh of the bull and its skin and its dung you shall burn with fire outside the camp; it is a sin offering.” As New Testament believers, we do not read this passage in isolation. Rather, we read it in light of Christ Jesus who is our sin offering.[6] Or, as Fuhr and Köstenberger states, “[canonical] context infers that the interpretation of any part of this corpus must be understood in light of the whole collection. . .”[7] Simply put, texts must be interpreted in light of the entire bible.


Historical Context. The second, contextual subcategory is framed under the guise of history. Prior to diving into the thrust of this principle, it is paramount to state that “historical context does not eliminate the text; it illuminates it.”[8]Consequently, history encompasses three undergirding components. The initial referent, according to Fuhr and Köstenberger, is the geopolitical context. They go on to assert that the “biblical authors regularly [assumed] that their audience had geopolitical awareness of their day, today’s audience must engage in additional historical research to access and visualize the geopolitical context of the Scripture.”[9] This sets the stage as well as postures the mood to interpret the text and discern the usage of language, imagery, and metaphors. This, in turn, helps to decipher the intent and aim of the author. Or said differently, this fills in the gaps in grasping the background thrust of the text.

The next component under the historical ruse is the cultural context. By capturing the cultural milieu of the biblical author, the reader closes the distance that naturally separates—in our 21st Century predicament—the author from her readers. “As interpreters,” infer Fuhr and Köstenberger, “considering cultural context requires that we learn the customs and manners of biblical cultures, including their religious mores and expectations. There are literally thousands of examples where cultural understanding will provide clarity to the interpretation of the text, and in a sense one must always read Scripture with cultural context in mind.”[10]


The final component within the historical interplay is called situational context. According to Fuhr and Köstenberger, this “pertains to both levels of historical context (geopolitical and cultural). In some sense, all of the events that take place in biblical narrative were occasioned by other events and circumstances in the world of the Bible.”[11] Understanding the situational context allows the interpreter to gauge and measure under what circumstances were these words used and, therefore, discern the content accordingly. This, in turn, postures the message in its proper category.


Theological Context. The third and final subcategory under the guise of context is theological context. Theology, as a discipline, may seem like an end-product or even a presuppositional ploy in the scheme of interpretation. But, in actuality, theology shapes how we interpret, theology matters.[12] Craig A. Carter reinforces this notion when he says, “Theology must shape the philosophy that shapes hermeneutics.”[13] In saying that theological context centers “on either the thematic content of the Bible or the process of God’s revelation of Himself through that content.”[14] Thus, the first component under the theological context is its thematic context. In this ploy, according to Fuhr and Köstenberger, the

Thematic context involves the consideration of theological motif as a form of context. The theological message of the Bible is communicated through repeated themes; when a theme repeats itself and carries prominence, it is labeled a “motif.” Motifs can be seen in each book of the Bible, and certain motifs transcend individual books. Some motifs in Scripture can relate to practical matters, while others are of a theological nature. Situation and genre naturally influence the motifs within books, and ultimately motifs are nothing more than a reflection of the interests of a biblical writer.[15]

The next component is the revelation-historical context. This context strives to posture the reader within the proper timeframe of when they are entering into the storyline of Scripture. For example, when you walk in on your family watching a movie, your first inclination may be to have them catch you up to speed on where the storyline is going. This is done in order to situate and temper your expectation on the development in the movie. Similarly, understanding where you enter into the storyline of Scripture will give you intuitive expectation on how to interpret and comprehend the content that is being communicated through the genre of narrative or didactic literature.


The final component under the guise of theological context is covenantal context. As Fuhr and Köstenberger assert, “[covenantal] context entails the consideration of the theological covenants that regulate God’s relationship to His people through salvation history. These covenants provide the theological grounding that often explains God’s relationship to His people in narrative text.”[16] Or said differently, covenant is the setting by which all of the storyline and relations within the bible can be understood.[17] To overlook this foundational point is to miss the crux of the plotline.


Thinking the Author’s Thoughts After Him:


The God of Christianity is a speaking God who has not left His image bearers to fend for themselves. Rather, He has spoken revelationally and definitively through the covenant documents themselves—the Holy Bible. These texts have been given to the people of God as a means to know and enjoy Him as the covenantal Lord of the universe. The church, then, would do well to study, examine, and apply the truths of the Gospel found through the sacred Scriptures of the Christian faith.


In saying that, the believer’s aim is not merely to accrue intellectual knowledge nor sheer cognitive inquiry. Rather, the highest motivation for the follower of Christ is to think His thoughts after Him in order that she might enjoy Him forever. Or as Jesus clearly states in John 14:21, “Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.” Therefore, the interpretative enterprise in the life of a believer is to know and be known by the Lord Jesus and, in that knowing, to “be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2). To this end, to think God’s thoughts after Him is to see the world in accords as He has created it. This, in turn, is to engage in the truthfulness of reality which is God Himself. Soli Deo Gloria!

 

***footnotes***

[1] I am not asserting that there is no objective truth nor am I inferring that reality is whatever we make it. Rather, I am emphasizing the notion that words—especially amid the popular level usage—has a malleable component depending upon the cultural and historical context.

[2] For further analyses see Craig A. Carter, Contemplating God with the Great Tradition: Recovering Trinitarian Classical Theism (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2021), 39-40. “There is more than one way to read meaning into the text; it can be done by deciding in advance what the text must mean, but it can also be done by deciding in advance what metaphysical doctrines the text is not allowed to contradict. If meaning is truly to arise out of the text, then the text's own metaphysical implications must be understood and accepted. Meaning can be obscured by reading the text on the basis of metaphysical doctrines that are foreign to, and incompatible with, the teaching of the text, and this is the basic reason why modern liberal theology is so unorthodox and unbiblical.” [3] Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All its Worth, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), 27. [4] Richard Alan Fuhr Jr. and Andreas J. Köstenberger, Inductive Bible Study: Observation, Interpretation, and Application through the Lenses of History, Literature, and Theology (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2016), 194-195.

[5] See Richard Lints, The Fabric of Theology: A Prolegomenon to Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1993), 290-311. Lints goes on to say, “Canonical analysis seeks to bring to light this sort of historical matrix that holds biblical history together and provides the conceptual framework through which all of history is to be understood. The Old Testament believers hoped not only that God would continue to act as he had in the past but that he would do so on an unprecedented scale. The faith of Israel was forward-looking—specially, look forward to the fulfillment of the promises made to Abraham and the promises made to David. People look forward to something more than a mere repetition of God’s acts in history, for this would have brought only joy mixed with suffering. They awaited the ‘day of the Lord’ when Israel would be exalted more gloriously than ever before and the other nations would be judged.” [6] See Duguid, Iain M. Seeing Christ in All of Scripture: Hermeneutics at Westminster Theological Seminary. Glenside, PA: Westminster Seminary Press, 2016. [7] Fuhr and Köstenberger, Inductive Bible Study, 203. [8] Andrew David Naselli, How to Understand and Apply the New Testament: Twelve Steps from Exegesis to Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2017), 163. [9] Fuhr and Köstenberger, Inductive Bible Study, 188. [10] Ibid., 189. [11] Ibid., 191. [12] See Carter, Interpreting Scripture with the Tradition, 16. “Classical interpretation of Scripture—which was the approach in Western culture from the early centuries up to the Enlightenment and still is the approach followed in the preaching and teaching of much of the worldwide church today—cannot adopt methodological naturalism without rendering inoperative the doctrine of inspiration. This is so because the doctrine of inspiration requires a Christian Platonist metaphysics in which supernatural divine revelation can take place at the moment that the prophets and apostles write the text, in which divine providence can ensure the preservation and transmission of the text to readers in every century. There has to be a metaphysical framework in which God is able to speak into history on an ongoing basis in order for special revelation to be possible. This metaphysical framework depends entirely on a uniquely Christian doctrine of divine transcendence that comes from the Bible.” [13] Ibid., 31. [14] Fuhr and Köstenberger, Inductive Bible Study, 204. [15] Ibid., 205. [16] Ibid., 207-208 [17] See Gentry, Peter J. and Stephen J. Wellum. Kingdom through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants. 2ndEdition. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018. See also Renihan, Samuel. The Mystery of Christ, His Covenant and His Kingdom. Cape Coral, FL: Founders Press, 2020.

 

McYoung Y. Yang (MDiv, SBTS; ThM, MBTS) is the husband to Debbie and father to McCayden (14), McCoy (13), McColsen (11), and DeYoung (7). He is a Pastor of Preaching/Teaching at Covenant City Church in St. Paul, MN. Along with his ministerial duties, he is a homeschool dad. In addition, McYoung is continuing his doctoral studies at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, MO. His ambition is to use his training as a means to serve the local church in living life through the Gospel lens.

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