Contextualization: Discovering the Significance of the Bible1
Bible Study: A Three-part Process
There are three basic divisions of Bible study (biblical interpretation): analysis, interpretation, and application. Bible knowledge is of little or no value if you do not know how it applies. Remember, you cannot know how the Bible applies until you first know what it means. But, you cannot know what the Bible means until you know what it says. As a rule, in applying the process of Bible study, we must distinguish between what the Bible says, what it means, and how it is significant to us.
After we as interpreters discover the meaning of a text (what it meant to its first readers or what the author meant to say), we must seek to discover its significance (what it means to us). In order to know what it means to us (its significance or application), we must bridge the time and culture gaps between Bible times and now. This is done by stripping the teaching of its cultural and situational trappings (particulars) and applying the principle (i.e., universal and eternal truth) to ourselves in our cultural and situational context.
This process is called “Contextualization” [by missionary translators and Grant Osborne], “transferring the message” and “transformation” [by Sidney Greidanus], “transposing the word” [by John R. W. Stott], “fusion of horizons” [by Hans Georg Gadamer and Tony Thiselton], “hermeneutics” [by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart], “significance” [by E. D. Hirsch, Jr.], exposition [by Berkeley Mickelson], application [by homileticians and Grant Osborne], and “homiletical usage” and “principlization” [by Walter Kaiser].
Application: The Task
Sidney Greidanus (The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text) discussed the relevance of the sermon. He said, “Without genuine relevance there is no sermon. Relevance for the church here and now is the final goal of sermon preparation, yet sermons that have remained on the right track through the process of text selection, theme formulation, and form selection often derail at the point where the message for Israel or the early church must be transformed into a relevant sermon for contemporary congregations” (157). Greidanus warned against selecting a text, formulating a sermon theme, and selecting a sermon form “without an eye to the congregation.” He also warned against reflecting on the relevance of the sermon “without an eye to the text” (157).
In his Toward an Exegetical Theology, Walter Kaiser said that “after the interpreter has met all the requirements of investigating the grammar, syntax, literary structure, and history” of the text, something further is needed. He called what is needed further “theological exegesis” (131). He pointed out that the expositor could get caught in the trap of “historicism” or “descriptionism.” Then he immediately added, “The Achilles heel for men among the trained clergy is the failure to bring the Biblical text from BC or first-century AD context and to relate it directly and legitimately to the present day” (131).
Grant Osborne, in The Hermeneutical Spiral, emphasized the need for application calling it “contextualization” (318). He said, “We cannot finally separate exegesis from application, meaning from significance, because they are two aspects of the same hermeneutical act” (118). “The preacher’s task is to ensure that the Word speaks as clearly today as it did in ancient times” (318). “Contextualization is ‘that dynamic process which interprets the significance of a religion or cultural norm for a group with a different (or developed) cultural heritage'” (318). “The key issue is ‘relevance’; religious principles constantly must be adapted to meet new cultural challenges” (319).
In The Contemporary Christian, John R. W. Stott said that the sense of remoteness and difficulty we often experience when we read the Bible is “not due primarily to the passage of time . . . nor to the mere distance . . ., but to the cultural differences which remoteness of time and place have caused”. He called this experience “a collision of cultures between the biblical world and the modern world.” He also said that this cultural gap often causes readers “to ask impatiently, ‘What on earth has that old book got to say to me?'” (186).
Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart said, in How to Read the Bible for all it’s Worth, “The big issue among Christians committed to Scripture as God’s Word has to do with the problem of cultural relativity, what is cultural and therefore belongs to the first century alone and what transcends culture and is thus a word for all seasons” (61, 62).
Ultimately, the application of the Bible to modern day people involves historical analysis and structural analysis to establish the cultural, ideological, and situational contexts and the purpose for which a statement was written. Additionally, textual analysis reveals what the Bible actually says. After we know what the Bible says and the context of what is said, we can understand what it means. Knowing what the text means, we can then strip the principles (i.e., eternal and universal truths) of their cultural and situational particulars and apply the principles to our own situations we experience in our own culture.
In the following, I will share with you some suggested activities for applying the message of God and presenting the message in the form of a contemporary and living message from God.
Application: Kinds of Imperatives
As we study the Bible, we must decide which imperatives are binding on man today and which are not. We are dealing with a question of transfer. We must let biblical evidence show us whether or not a teaching has transfer from that time and place and applies to our time and place. If it has transfer, then we must decide whether just the principle or both the principle and particulars transfer. Some imperatives are universal and eternal—have had, now have, and always will have application to people everywhere. Other imperatives are local and temporary—were intended only for particular people in particular situations at particular times.
Some universal and eternal principles are such because they are rooted in and reflect the moral and ethical character of God. Since God does not change relative to time or location, these principles do not change relative to time or place. They transcend time and cultural context and are required in all cultures in every age. The following is an example of these universals: “Thou shalt love . . . thy neighbor as thyself” (Mk. 12:29-31). This is true of all moral teachings of both Old Testament and New Testament.
Some universal and eternal principles apply moral and ethical law and transfer directly from culture to culture and era to era. These are supra-cultural and transcultural imperatives. They are specific and apply the moral and ethical principles above in a more particular way. They are particulars that are not culture bound, but can be applied in any and all cultures. Following are some examples of these universals: “Do . . . not share in the sins of others. Keep yourself pure” (1Tim. 5:22). “The commandments, “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Rom. 13:9).
Some universal and eternal imperatives reflect or relate to salvific events, i.e., redemptive acts in salvation history. Therefore, some particular forms or even cultural particulars were bound and have transfer because they are related to (or symbolize) important aspects of God’s nature or salvific events in salvation history–redemptive acts. For example, the form of baptism relates to the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, and declares that we are trusting in these events for our salvation, and not trusting in who we are or what we do to merit it (Rom. 6). The bread and fruit of the vine in the Lord’s supper relate to the body and blood of Jesus, His payment for our sins (1 Cor. 11).
Some imperatives are culture-specific or culture-bound, (i.e., tied to ancient, even specific ancient culture, and do not transcend culture). Indications are that these imperatives are rooted in the cultural particulars, experiences, and situations of particular people. Also, there is no evidence that these particulars are rooted in the nature of God nor anything that relates to core matters in Christianity or salvific events. Neither is there any indication in the text that they are related to anything that transcends that particular culture or time.
Application: The Problem Area
Our problem in determining significance or in applying Scripture relates to the third kind of imperatives above. How do we distinguish cultural and situational particulars that are local-and-temporary from particulars that are universal-and-permanent?
We must not dismiss the Bible as irrelevant because the culture reflected in it is out of date. Granted, if we cling to cultural particulars, rather than principles, we make the Bible seem to be “out of date.” Nevertheless, if we disregard all particulars, including those that are rooted in the nature of God or related to salvific (core) matters, we will depart from the norm established by God. Even cultural and situational particulars that do not have transfer illustrate and establish principles that are universal and eternal.
Just as we should not consider the Bible irrelevant because the culture reflected is out of date, we must not give authority to cultural particulars equal to the authority of the principles illustrated by these cultural particulars. To maintain a biblical stance, we must recognize unbound particulars as unbound incidentals. Yet we must also recognize the binding nature of particulars that the Bible assigns universal and eternal value. Not all particulars change. Although some cultural particulars and application may change, divine truth or eternal principles do not change.
Osborne said, “The major difficulty in contextualizing Scripture is deciding exactly what are the cultural or time-bound elements in a passage and what are the supra-cultural or eternal principles” (326). He added, “All biblical statements are authoritative; some, however, are so dependent upon the ancient cultural setting that they cannot apply to today since there are no parallels (such as foot washing or meat offered to idols). We need hermeneutical criteria to enable us to make such decisions on firm ground” (327). We must remember that the principles honored (obeyed) performing these optional particulars are timeless standards. For example, the act foot washing observes the principles of brotherly love and hospitality. Abstaining from meat might honor the principle that the feelings and the salvation of our fellow Christians are more important than our own cultural preferences or personal freedom.
In contextualizing and applying biblical truth, we engage in two activities. (1) We must strip-away unbound cultural and situational particulars and retain the principles behind them. (2) We must also apply these principles by performing other specific acts that are appropriate in our situation and culture. Also, as interpreters and expositors, we are obligated to explain why. (1)We must show reasons for retaining and observing some patterns and forms established by bound particulars. (2) We must also show reasons why we do not feel obligated to imitate other particulars that we have stripped away as culture-specific or culture bound.
Biblical Statement/Account Principle Being Applied Significance/Application
Discontinuity–Ancient Culture Eternal Principle Continuity–Principle Applied to
and Specific Situations Not Timeless and Universal Present Culture and Situations
Found Today Truth
Gen. 6–Build an Ark according to Only obedient faith will save you Only those who obey God’s instructions will be
specific instruction of God and you from the judgment of God. saved from judgment. If the command is
will be saved from the judgment of specific, you must keep the specifics of it.
God (the flood).
Gen. 24–God gave Isaac a wife who God will aid his people in finding God will give his Sons wives in response to
honored God in response to prayer godly companions (i.e., for marriage) prayer that is properly motivated and
properly motivated and accompanied when their prayers are properly accompanied by faithful action.
by faithful action. motivated and accompanied by faithful
Rom. 14–Don’t make whether to eat Don’t allow cultural differences or Don’t allow cultural differences and personal
meat or to esteem some days above personal differences to cause you preferences concerning worship or personal
others (cultural differences) a basis to condemn each other or exercising conduct to cause division or serve as a cause of
for judging one another personal rights to serve as a cause fellow Christians to stumble.
or to become a stumbling block. for brethren to stumble.
Rom. 16:16–The Romans were Christians should warmly greet Christians should greet one another with warm
commanded to greet one another with one another. words, a handshake, or a hug.
a holy kiss.
Note: When contextualizing a biblical principle, the meaning of the text must always dominate. If we allow, anthropology, sociology, or history to become dominant in the application of Scripture, we plunge into traditionalism or relativism. Meaning and significance are both part of the process of interpretation (i.e., ascertaining biblical truth and applying it to the human situation). However, we must always keep meaning and significance separate, or we will drift into biblical relativism. Since significance is culture-specific and situation-specific, significance (i.e., application) is relative. Consequently, when we confuse meaning and significance, we unconsciously become relativists. Don’t ask, “What does this text mean to you?” Rather ask, “What is the meaning of this text, and how is it significant to you?” The meaning of a biblical text (i.e., principle) is supra cultural and supra situational.
Application: Some Suggested Rules
I have gleaned and evaluated some guiding rules for determining significance (contextualizing) or applying the biblical teachings. At the present or at least tentatively, I think the following have merit.
1. We must always establish the historical meaning of a text (discover what it meant to them, then, and there) before we try to understand its current significance (what it means to us, here, and now) distinguish between meaning and significance.
2. Clearly stated didactic (i.e., teaching) passages should be used in interpreting historical passages (accounts of action) and even other didactic passages that are difficult to interpret.
3. We must interpret Scripture and seek application that is in harmony with the canonical context of the Bible (the broader central message of the whole) and with the theological context of the Bible (biblical view of God). If an interpretation or application is in conflict with the central teaching of the Bible or the nature of God, it is obviously being misinterpreted or misapplied. When we read Paul’s statements about Christians being predestined (Rom. 8:29-30; Eph. 1:5, 11), we know what the Bible says, but we need to study this in context to know what it means. When we consider both “canonical context” and “theological context,” we must conclude that he does not mean unconditional predestination. To assign the meaning of unconditional predestination contradicts the canon’s teaching on freedom of will, faith, obedience, et. al. and the nature of God (biblical theology) as a just God (who is no respecter of God) with a desire for all to repent. We must conclude that predestination to salvation is conditional.
4. When considering an imperative that requires a particular form of expression, look for indicators of whether the form is required by a supra cultural core principle of Christianity or an eternal moral principle. For example, if love for neighbor, Christ’s death for sin, the resurrection of Christ (core principles) make a particular form necessary, the form, as well as the action, has transfer and is required of us also. If not, then the requirement of that form does not have transfer (continuity) and is not required of us. For example, the form of baptism is related to the core truth that our salvation is related to the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ (Rom. 6). Christ’s death is the source of our justification; his resurrection is the source of our life in Christ. Baptism by immersion expresses two features of our faith: 1) belief in the fact of the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ; 2) belief in the efficacy of the death, burial, and resurrection as the only basis of our salvation. Thus, the form has transfer to all people of all ages. On the other hand, the place of immersion, natural stream, natural pool or man-made baptistery, has no relationship to the core principle that Jesus died, was buried, and was resurrected. Therefore, this particular is not required.
As an extension of this principle, we should look in the text for any link to that which is supra cultural. For example, Paul links the role of women (the regulation that they not teach men, exercise authority over men, or preach) to supra cultural matters. The regulations of 1 Corinthians 14 are tied to the way it is “in all the congregations of the saints” (v. 33), what “the law says” (v. 34) and the fact that the word did not originate with them (v. 36). The charge that women not teach men or exercise authority over men (1 Timothy 2) are also tied to the fact that “Adam was formed first, then Eve” (v. 13), and that “Adam was not the one deceived” (v. 14). The instructions of Ephesians 5 present woman’s honoring her husband as her head to being filled with the Spirit and submission to Christ (vv. 18-25).
5. If we can determine how much the underlying core principle and the application overlap, then we have insight into the extent to which the particulars of the application are binding. For example, the form of baptism greatly overlaps with the fact that it is an expression of faith in the reality of the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ which it symbolizes and a declaration of faith in the efficacy of the death, burial, and resurrection in giving us a new life in Christ (Rom. 6). Thus, there is a core principle that underlies immersion as baptism and makes it universal and permenant. On the other hand, there is no more overlap between Christian love and a “holy kiss” than there is between Christian love and a handshake. Therefore, it is not the “holy-kiss” form of greeting that is binding, but greeting one another, even with a handshake or other form, that is binding universally and permenantly.
6. By the same principle, when a teaching transcends the cultural forms (or situational demands) of the author and first readers, it is very likely normative. Conversely, when a command is wholly tied to a culture or a situation, it does not constitute a timeless norm
7. Biblical commands that involve morals or theology are closely tied to and reflect the changeless nature of God (Romans 1:18-20; 2:14-15). Therefore, they are as timeless and universal in their application as God is timeless and universal in his nature and authority.
8. When the New Testament presents actions as inherently moral or immoral (e.g. 1 Cor. 6:9-10; Gal. 5:19-26), we know that those standards are as eternal and universal as God is.
9. Observe whether there were other possible forms of expression (cultural options) available or if the particular form found in the text was the only one available. This raises the question concerning whether the author had a divine mandate (i.e., background command or antecedent theology) to choose this particular form as exclusive and binding (e.g., the importance of and form of baptism).
10. Observe whether a change in form had divine mandate (subsequent command or theology) that required or demanded the change. Any norm that is changed or repealed by subsequent revelation (i.e., later biblical writers) is changed or repealed for us. When by the Cross Christ repealed the law requiring the keeping of the Sabbath, this demanded change (Col. 2:13-17).
11. Observe whether the New Testament itself consistently demonstrates observance of a particular form of action (e.g., the form of baptism). Consistency implies that the form of action must be nonnegotiable (e.g., the Acts accounts of men always telling others what to do to be saved and baptism being by immersion).
12. We must distinguish whether a particular form was bound upon the first readers or not. If a form was not binding but just an optional form for them (e.g., baptism in running stream), it is not binding on us. Likewise, if the form was bound on them because the principle required it to meet the needs of that culture (e.g., greeting by kissing or foot washing), but the form was cultural rather then supra cultural, the form is not bound on us. However, if the form proves to be both bound and supra cultural (e.g., modest dress), it is binding upon us.
13. We ought to consider the distance between the supra cultural principle requiring an action and the form of the action in a particular culture. For example: the supra cultural principle of headship given in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 gives normative status to the principle of submission, but not to the cultural act of wearing a veil to show submission?
14. We must seek to understand the command behind any account of action. Any command that was local and temporary was binding on them, but is not binding on us. Any command that is universal and eternal was binding on them and is binding on us. Any command that did not bind a specific form of action required the action but not that particular form of action. Any command that bound a specific form of action required that particular form of action. From these accepted principles, we conclude the following guidelines. (a) Any biblical account of action that is backed by a local and temporary command that required the action, but was general and did not require he particular form of action, bound the action but not the specific form on them, but does not bind even the action on us. (b) Any biblical account of action that is backed by a universal and eternal command that required the action, but was general and did not require the particular form of action, bound the action but not the specific form on them, and also binds the action (but not the particular form) on us. (c) Any biblical account of action that is backed by a local and temporary command that was specific and required both the action and particular form of action, bound the action and the specific form on them. It also excluded other forms of action. But it does not bind action nor form on us; and it does not exclude other forms of action. (d) Any biblical account of action that is backed by a universal and eternal command that did require both the action and particular form of action, bound the action and the specific form on them. It also excluded other forms of application. It also binds the action and particular form on us and excludes other forms of application.
15. We must learn to exercise Christian love and grace toward others who are acting in faith but differ from our conclusions, just as Jesus exercises love and grace toward us as faithful but imperfect people (Rom. 14:1-23; 15:1-7).
© 2004, William T. (Bill) Lambert, EdD
Professor Emeritus – N. T. Literature and Interpretation
College of Bible and Religion
1 Please understand that this is an early effort to better understand how to apply the ancient
message in our lives today. I hope to have a clearer understanding of this matter when I have had
time to explore it more.