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The Literary Context

According to authors J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays, “When it comes to interpreting and applying the Bible, context is crucial.”[1] As mentioned previously, there are two major kinds of context: Historical and literary. Historical context was already relayed in “Funsized Bible Study: Historical-Cultural Context.” Literary context deals with the literary genre and surrounding context.

Literary Genre: “simply refers to the different categories or types of literature found in the Bible.”[2] The Old Testament has narrative, law, poetry, prophecy, and wisdom. The New Testament has gospel, history, letter, and apocalyptic literature. Within those particular genres are subgenres, such as parables, riddles, and sermons. The takeaway at this point is: we need to identify which literary genre we are reading so we can fully understand the context.

Surrounding context: “think of it as the textual world in which your text lives.”[3] This entails the words, sentences, paragraphs, and discourses that come before and after the passage you are reading. For example, Peter’s words of encouragement in 1 Peter 5:7 (“casting all your anxiety on Him because He cares for you.”) stands in the middle of reminders to submit to authority with all humility because God opposes the proud (vv. 5-6) and to resist the devil knowing that all believers everywhere are enduring the same kinds of suffering (vv. 8-9).

Duvall and Hays encourage us to “give highest priority to the immediate context when determining the meaning of your passage.”[4] Never forget, the Bible doesn’t mean any old thing; it means only what God intends it to. Therefore, do the work necessary to stay true to God’s intentions and discover that meaning.

Check back next week for Chapter 9: Word Studies.

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), 149.

[2] Ibid, 150.

[3] Ibid, 152.

[4] Ibid, 153.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Having read of the previous “chapters,” I thought I would comment here. You used the word “meaning” several times without actually going into it (unless I missed it somewhere). I am wondering how these authors (and yourself) define ‘meaning’ — is it the author’s intention? Is it the horizon (the world and context) of the author? It seems like they are essentially following E.D. Hirsch’s ‘Validity in Interpretation.’ Perhaps this is not the forum on which to have the meta-conversation, but I think that needs to be questioned. Meaning could not be re-created if it is solely the author’s intent, nor could it even be if it is defined merely be the author’s context. In a text, I would argue (along with H.G. Gadamer) that meaning is created by the author’s and the reader’s horizons merging, fusing, touching. Most of their (and your) comments are extremely helpful, especially in this post and the last chapter, but I want to wave a flag of caution. Interpretation is not an exercise in repetition, but a creative performance that is either good or bad.

    Just some thoughts.

    • Hey thanks for the comment, Jeremy! I apologize for the extreme lateness in my response but the last 3 months have left little time for anything beyond what was scheduled out in advance. Way out in advance!

      Anyway, I hear your concerns about aligning with Hirsch’s view of interpretation. And I appreciate your concern and for waving the flag of caution. You’re right, “interpretation is not an exercise in repetition.” Rather it’s aiming at a successful grasping of a sharable meaning.

      I’m going to wave my own flag of caution with your reference to Gadamer’s view. I (and probably the authors as well as Hirsch) do not think, as Gadamer did, that we can act as co-determiner in the meaning of a text. And I don’t see how that follows when I think about authorship. Look, I’m essentially communicating to you the thoughts that are in my mind. As I am writing my own words, I am not imagining or countenancing your (or anyone else’s) context; I am formulating my own thoughts and intentions for the words I mean to write. Someone else (next week or next year) can come along, read what I’ve written here, and claim to co-determine the meaning of this paragraph based on his own experiences. But that would be absurd to me. These words that I am writing are solely a snapshot in time of what I am intending to convey. And I don’t see how anyone else can change (even to a degree) what I intend to convey. My meaning can be received (or mistakenly received) but it can’t be changed.

      I think Hirsch has identified the process that you and Gadamer are describing but he doesn’t call it meaning, he calls it significance. In other words, Gadamer is right; there is a relationship that springs out of a reader’s own experiences and context when he engages with a text. But that relationship does nothing to the meaning that the author intended to convey when he originally wrote it. Gadamer is also right; the reader will not be able to match what is going on inside the author’s head. But that’s not necessary. It is the linguistic signs, the words themselves, constructed grammatically in such a way that visibly shares the author’s meaning with the rest of us that we can try to grasp. And that process of grasping the author’s sharable meaning (entailing considering the historical context and other factors) will get us as close as we can to it.

      Thanks again for the comment Jeremy and the opportunity to discuss!

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