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The Historical-Cultural Context

Authors J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays argue that, “To grasp God’s Word we must understand the meaning of the text in context and apply that meaning to our lives.”[1] There are two major forms of context to consider when reading Scripture: the literary context and the historical-cultural context.[2] This particular chapter is concerned with the latter. Duvall and Hays remind us that God chose human writers of Scripture to address the needs of certain peoples in a time and place in history. Our job is to glean the theological (what the authors refer to as “eternal”) principles in Scripture and apply it to all peoples across all cultures.

In order to truly understand these theological principles we need to seriously consider the historical-cultural situation at the time of the particular biblical book’s writing. The authors provide an essential interpretive principle: “If our interpretation would not have made sense back then, we are probably on the wrong track.”[3] Identifying the historical-cultural context involves examining three things:

  1. The Biblical Writer: Strive to know the author’s background, ministry, the specific relationship between himself and the people he was addressing, and why he is writing the book/letter.
  2. The Biblical Audience: Familiarize yourself with the audience and their circumstances.
  3. Other Historical-Cultural Elements: Focus on the historical, social, geographical, religious, political, and economic elements that shape the passage.[4]

When identifying these factors, Duvall and Hays warn us to watch out for inaccurate background information as well as “elevating the background of the text above the meaning of the text.”[5] With regard to the latter, consider the example of the Pharisees. While it is helpful to do your homework and understand these men and their interaction with Jesus in their historical-cultural context, do not miss the underlying theological principle: God judges those who are proud.

Check back next week for Chapter 7: What Do We Bring to the Text?

We’ve barely scratched the surface with Grasping God’s Word! We highly recommend you purchase this excellent book here.

[1] J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays, Grasping God’s Word, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 115.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid, 117.

[4] Ibid, 120.

[5] Ibid, 123.

Speaker, Educator, President of A Clear Lens, Inc. and host of A Clear Lens Podcast. B.Sc., M.Ed. Lives in Las Vegas with his wife, two sons, and dogs.


  1. Proper hermeneutics is so important. It’s too bad that we can’t get unbelievers to disagree in the proper context. If someone is twisting scripture or reading something unintended into the text, he may as well argue their case by quoting Dr. Seuss.

    • Completely agree, Ted! There’s already so much work to do. Dealing with arguments trading on bad hermeneutics takes that much more time and effort. Oh well. Keep the fighting the good fight for Him!

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