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Rightly Understanding God’s Word: Context of Genre, Part 3, by Craig S. Keener

What do we do with texts that address situations very much unlike our situations today?

We provide here a summary of our guidelines for understanding and reapplying (contextualizing) the Bible’s letters:


Re-Application Guide

How to Distinguish Principles from Application

  1. Read the letter as addressed to real people.
  2. Learn the situation.
    1. What is the culture (as best as we can tell) and what situation does he addresses?
    2. Rhetorical criticism: are there cultural reasons for why he constructs his argument a particular way?
    3. Determine how the writer address the situation? Does he agree, disagree, some of both?
  3. Find the principles that transcend culture.
    1. In different cultures or situations, does the Bible present alternative teachings?
    2. Does the writer agree or disagree with majority views in his culture?
    3. If he agrees on some points, he may be embracing morally neutral elements of his culture for the sake of relating to it positively.
    4. If he disagrees on some points (or if he takes a firm position and his culture holds diverse views), he is likely articulating a transcultural norm.
  4. Apply principles to equivalent situations today.
    1. What situations today are almost exact analogies to those of the first audience?
    2. What situations today (in our lives, others’ lives, society, etc.) are similar to the original situation in various respects?
    3. What other situations might the principle address (provided we have correctly ascertained the principle behind the application)?
    4. Make sure your application fits the kind the original writer would have given. If he had lived in our day, what would he have said to this situation?


Many prophecies appear in the Bible’s historical books, but we also have books that consist primarily of prophecy with merely some historical summaries in them, such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, or Hosea or Nahum. In the historical books, it is usually clear when prophecies address a specific king or period in Israel’s history, in which case we study them the way we study God’s other actions in historical narrative (see the previous section on Narratives). Yet, how do we interpret books of prophecies that do not provide the full background concerning the situations they address? Below we provide some principles that should prove helpful.


Find out who and what circumstances the prophecy addresses in context.

To ascertain the circumstances prophecies addressed, you can usually discover the specific era in which a prophet prophesied by looking at the beginning of the book, which usually (though not always) lists the reigns of the rulers during which the prophet prophesied. Then you can turn to 1 & 2 Kings and 1 & 2 Chronicles to learn what was going on in Israel in that period of time.


Use the law and earlier prophets as background.

When a prophecy was not fulfilled but deals with God’s unconditional promises, how much of it remains future?

The prophets saw themselves as calling Israel back to the covenant; many judgments they announce simply fulfill the warnings of curses in Deuteronomy 27-28. Their language regularly echoes and recycles the language of earlier prophets for their own generation. Many of the prophets repeat the same basic message over and over, except in creatively new, poetic ways.

Some surrounding cultures claimed prophets, but none of them had a succession of prophets with the same basic message generation after generation. For example, the city of Mari had prophets whose most “moral” reproof to a king might be that he was in danger of losing a battle because he was not paying enough money to the temple. Egypt had prophetic writers who denounced injustices of past rulers, which is a little closer but still not like the Bible’s prophetic succession.

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Category: Biblical Studies, Fall 2005

About the Author: Craig S. Keener, Ph.D. (Duke University), is F. M. and Ada Thompson Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. He is author of many books, including Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Baker Academic, 2011), the bestselling IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, Gift and Giver: The Holy Spirit for Today, and commentaries on Acts, Matthew, John, Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, and Revelation. In addition to having written more than seventy academic articles, several booklets and more than 150 popular-level articles, Craig is is the New Testament editor (and author of most New Testament notes) for the The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. He is married to Dr. Médine Moussounga Keener, who is from the Republic of Congo, and together they have worked for ethnic reconciliation in North America and Africa. Craig and Médine wrote Impossible Love: The True Story of an African Civil War, Miracles and Hope against All Odds (Chosen, 2016) to share their story. Twitter: @keener_craig

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