The Problem of Context – Theological Hermeneutics Part 1

One needn’t be attending Church for long to discover that preachers, pastors, theologians and learned lay people spend a rather inordinate amount of time attempting to understand what the Bible says. It would make sense seeing as the Bible is, in the eyes of many both within the Church and without, a sort of constitutional document for Christians. It is generally understood to be the book from which God speaks – it is God’s word – and it is therein that we come to meet, know and understand him in some manner, and are thus able to faithfully live as and meaningfully be Christians. If one goes to any Protestant Seminary/Bible College that’s worth its salt, one will find that the primary emphasis of their education will be upon how to read the Biblical text and the techniques necessary to successfully achieve this end. More importantly, however, is that the underlying concern isn’t simply to read the Scriptures as if they were words on a page akin to any other type of letter or media we would encounter now, but to handle it with the due care and diligence that is required of what is potentially the word of God:  with the understanding that it is an historically enculturated and literarily constructed document. That is, these institutions are dedicated to making sure that the Bible is read in context.

This generally encompasses teaching an overall narrative picture of the Bible, to the history of early the Ancient Near East and the Roman Empire; from being taught particular exegetical [1] techniques such as (but not limited to) structural, form, rhetorical and textual criticism, to learning the linguistic constructions of multiple ancient languages. It is obvious that much effort is concentrated in attempting to understand the words of the text of Scripture as it was originally understood back when it was first written, and that the only way to appropriately read the text is to make sure that we read and understand as the original audiences would have done so. Pastors and teachers are trained such that they would look to the original Greek of the New Testament text, that they would read multiple commentaries on Scripture that would render various interpretations based upon the historical and literary data that are available, and are then required to teach what the passage is saying only having best discerned, as much as possible, what it once said. It is no surprise, then, that when one enters discussions with those who are knowledgeable about the Bible, and who are attempting to render an accurate interpretation of the Biblical text, that an appeal to context is inevitable, both in the historical and literary senses. This necessarily filters down into the laity, who inculcate a culture of understanding the scriptures within a framework that claims that the Bible has a, generally singular, set meaning invested within it by some past author, either an Apostle or Prophet of some sort, which is waiting to be unlocked through the appropriate investigation.

I can’t help but feel that this is a somewhat misguided venture in that it is based on false premises. Simply put, I think there is an over-reliance upon the notion of context in matters of theological importance, as if only learning a bit more history or reading in wider literary units will illuminate what can only be one singularly appropriate meaning that was meant by the author. Let me clarify, I am not saying that context is bad or unnecessary – in fact I agree that we need all the context we can possibly have when we are reading the Scriptures.  To reiterate – as I do not wish to be misunderstood at this point – I think appealing to context, both historical and literary, is both good and necessary, and as one hoping to enter the realm of Biblical Scholarship it would make little sense if I didn’t. However, as I hinted at above, this sort of reliance upon context constitutes a conjoint-twin presupposition: that the text has both a singular meaning, and that this singular meaning is bound by the horizon which the original composer had envisioned. In other words, my issue isn’t so much with the notion of context itself, but rather, what context has come to mean and imply, and this meaning and implication is that of a historically conditioned text which must necessarily be read as an historical document for us to hear God speak.

This double helixed assumption certainly has been incredibly fruitful for reading the Bible, yielding a wealth of knowledge into questions of authorship, dating, composition, historical background, genre, style, form, etc. I by no means believe we should discard it and do believe that the expounder of Holy Scripture, the teacher, the preacher, the academic, the learned lay man, should all engage with this aspect of Scriptural study. However, I do think that in and of itself the method is rather aimless and insufficient in rendering Christianity as Christianity. To quote Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) in his significant work, Jesus of Nazareth:

“… it is important … to recognise the limits of the historical-critical method itself. For someone who considers himself directly addressed by the Bible today, the method’s first limit is that by its very nature it has to leave the biblical word in the past. It is a historical method, and that means that it investigates the then-current context of events in which the texts originated. It attempts to identify and to understand the past – as it was in itself – with the greatest possible precision, in order then to find out what the author could have said and intended to say in the context of the mentality and events of the time. To the extent that it remains true to itself, the historical method not only has to investigate the biblical word as a thing of the past, but also has to let it remain in the past. It can glimpse points of contact with the present and it can try to apply the biblical word to the present; the one thing it cannot do is make it into something present today – that would be overstepping its bounds. Its very precision in interpreting the reality of the past is both its strength and its limit.”

That is, history certainly can provide a sufficient starting position into investigating the Biblical text, into rendering what is considered a “literal” sense meaning [2]  but it seems to be largely insufficient in and of itself when attempting to move beyond it to the present, which Christian theology necessarily requires. And so when “context” is used as a tool to justify theological positions, it is often done in the sense of attempting a more historically accurate reading of certain texts as if the theology of the Church is solely determined by historical criteria. Context, in this sense, cannot be used as a silver bullet, because this sort of silver bullet ends up killing not the monster of wrong doctrine, but the owner who wields it. The Bible is disassembled, becoming an ever-disappearing series of historical abstractions that are upheld by materialist presuppositions [3] such that all we have left is a Frankenstinian monster in its wake. Though the texts are normally bound as a unity, the historical-critical method disassembles them into a disunity. Not only this, but there is a sense of post-Enlightenment arrogance inherent in this claim of supremacy to this methodology. We must propose that, somehow, in some way, the ancients didn’t read the Bible correctly, and did so rather soon after the Jesus movement began, resulting in a religion of their own fancy. “This was obviously due to being hamstrung by an absurd method of reading the Bible,” we might say “involving allegory and typology”. “If only they knew 2nd Temple Judaism and the historic progression of human sacrifice” we might scoff, as assuming that simply because we have some context, they would have none at all. Simply because our historical reconstruction doesn’t match their claims, they must be wrong – nevermind that we are the ones reconstructing a partial picture, a partial context when they very well may have been living it.

And so it seems that we are left with a peculiar problem: if having more “context” isn’t going to help us better understand the Bible, and thus understand God and what it means to be a Christian, what are we to do? Oddly enough it seems that context is the answer – or at least another type of context in conjunction with the context I have been discussing. As I have already stated, historical context alone is insufficient because historical context causes the disassembly of the Biblical text into various biblical texts with no necessary unifying subject, topic or witness. What we need is the necessary binding context, which counteracts the tension which tears it apart – the binding glue which sees the Bible as an inspired singular document in the first place. What this means is that we necessarily require the context of the community in which the Bible was authored, meant to be heard, read, experienced and which viewed it to be as the witness to a greater unified reality in amidst what may have been differing and opposing voices and tensions. What I am suggesting is that the Ecclesiological context – the context that is the Church, the living body and bride of Christ, which is the pillar of truth in the world, and whom the gates of Hades will not overcome. This acts as the essential context for understanding the Bible.

I hope to explain over the next few weeks in my successive blog posts why I believe that this is the case (though I have briefly already touched on why), but before we get to that, though, I would like to, in conclusion, bring to a head the purpose as to why I am addressing this. I certainly find it an interesting discussion to have, and that in itself would be enough for me to write about it, but why I find it so appealing is that, in my observation, this above discussion particularly relates to Protestant churches. I believe that Protestantism as a whole necessarily requires and capitalises on a lack of critical reflection on how we conceptualise meaning and understanding in the first place, particularly as it applies to theology. This results in either slavery to a Christianity which is necessarily dictated by historical-critical methods – a liberalised Christianity – or one which, in being diametrically opposed to the resultant liberalism, shifts to the absolute opposing end of the spectrum and necessarily rejects all historical process altogether, resulting in a sort of alien, isolationist fundamentalism or quasi-fundamentalism. The historical-critical approach assumes that meaning is located within history – within the mind of an original, historically positioned author, who communicates in a certain fashion, to a certain audience, for a certain purpose, and thus the meaning of the text lays in these elements. The other believes that the Bible in and of itself is history, and that as a document, being the mediated word of God, it is sufficiently clear and self-attesting in most, or all, of its parts (or at least, the important parts). As such, misunderstanding and disbelief are because of stubborn refusal to read it properly and to submit oneself unto it. We have to ask, however, the question of why. Why is meaning located here in either situation? Why does the the author/composer the sole determinant of dictated meaning? Or, why do we say that meaning is easily found within the text itself, and is therefore easily gleaned and understood on a “plain reading”? Why is there necessarily only one meaning in the text – surely God isn’t constrained to simply just the text or the intent of the authors?

What I am trying to point out here is that there are specific a priori assumptions that have been made, which exist at the foundational cognitive level, ultimately forming a philosophical basis and subsequent methodological practice for how we understand understanding itself – of what meaning is and how determine and harvest meaning, if indeed we do any of these things. In the liberalising case, we are required to say that to hear what God is saying, we must go back to what the original authors have said, and thus equate their with that of God’s. In the fundamentalising case we insist on reading Scripture alone, digging into its various parts and attempt to understanding the whole, and then see where all the parts agree and disagree, and always attempt to gain a good sense of the linguistic and grammatical constructions such that we can see the clear, plain meaning within. [4] This sort of questioning and thinking belongs to the realm of what we call Hermeneutics – the philosophy (and art) of interpretation and understanding, encapsulating both critical reflection on how understanding of texts occurs at a cognitive/conceptual/linguistic level, and the appropriate methods one can apply to reading to gain understanding. This has particular relevance for theology, as theology is concerned with how to read its sacred texts which is ultimately driven by a more central philosophical and relational concern: how can a finite and created humanity come to understand that which is not of itself, that which is transcendent and other, and how can it come to love this very transcendent reality? Thus, it is my hope that you will join me on this brief venture into Theological Hermeneutics and come to see why understanding isn’t as simple as it seems, and what ramifications this has.


[1] That is, to draw meaning out of the text, as opposed to eisegesis, which means imputing meaning into it.

[2] Literal in this context is to be understood as the plain meaning of the text having given appropriate consideration to how the text desires itself to be read. That is, a literal reading of a parable will still understand the parable to be a story, and not necessarily an historical event. This is opposed to a modern “literalist” understanding of the text which claims that most of, if not all, the Bible is to be read at face value and is necessarily an accurate historical account.

[3] The historical-critical method inherently amplifies the human aspect of Scripture, as it requires assuming that it itself is a document like all other documents written by people. In doing so, it allows itself to be compared with literature outside of the Bible, and thus comparisons and contrasts can be drawn, and thus a greater understanding of the world around it is conceptualised. This is all well and good, for the most part, as Scripture is understood to be entirely the product of the collegial efforts of both divine inspiration and human authorship. There is an issue, however, in that it requires a necessarily materialistic, Newtonian cause-and-effect view of the world which necessarily brackets out the miraculous. As such, it can only take us so far, and so the texts are viewed as independent entities subject to the process of the natural world, often driven by a misleading Darwinian approach to intellectual development, and that, therefore, unity between disparate parts cannot be found.

[4] It should be said that neither of these are necessarily bad approaches, or that they are uniquely distinct from one another such that there is no overlap. The former is very concerned with an internally consistent meaning, though it usually doesn’t like attempting to identify certain meanings by appealing to other places in the Bible which may have come earlier or later, or were written by another author. Likewise the latter is usually very concerned with historical context, but understands that Scripture is in some sense unique and unlike other human documents, and so comparisons between the two can be problematic. Any context which supposedly disagrees with the biblical accounts  are a priori screened out as incorrect.