Whenever a question of biblical interpretation comes up, the first and foremost consideration must be context. In my days at theological college, the absolute importance of context was drilled into us. So in my very first lecturing role in hermeneutics (interpretation) at Domboshawa College in Zimbabwe, I taught my students to remember the phrase: ‘Context is King’. Rote learning was common, so we repeated the phrase aloud together every week: Context is King. At the end of the term I set an exam, and feeling magnanimous, I gave a bonus question I knew they’d all get correct: ‘Blank’ is king. So I was dismayed to discover only half had gotten it right. What do you think the other half answered? Jesus! Of course. I should have known. (And I couldn’t exactly mark them wrong, could I?)
Okay, Jesus may be king of everything, but in biblical interpretation, it’s context. Why? Because God didn’t speak in a universal language through propositional statements to everyone who’s ever lived. He spoke through stories, shared experiences, personal trials or wonders or circumstances. He spoke to specific people and specific groups in their own language and their own time – and furthermore God saw fit to speak to his people in ways they would understand through their own worldview and conceptual framework. He used their words and terms and ideas. When we read the Bible today, we’re reading something that was written for us, but not to us (to borrow a John Walton phrase).
Why do we eat shellfish and wear clothes made of different materials when the Bible clearly says not to (Lev 11:10, 19:19)? Context. Why do we fail to wash one another’s feet when Jesus says we should (Jn 13:15)? Context. Why do insist the Bible is true even when it describes ‘pillars of the earth’ and windows of the firmament opening to release rain? Ancient Hebrew context. If we don’t get that we’ll be mis-reading the Bible through 21st century lenses. But these are easy ones. Context can be incredibly complex, like exploring a cave with numerous interconnected passageways.
In fact there are 5 major areas of contextual interpretation: textual context (as above), communication context, literary, biblical and theological context. Each of these are a whole discipline in their own right! And just like exploring a cave, it gets scarier as you go deeper – but ever more fascinating as well.