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

Gordon Fee, in one of his chapters on “Epistles” in his book co-authored with Doug Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (Zondervan, 1993), suggests two main general principles for interpreting letters. First, “a text cannot mean what it never could have meant to its author or his or her readers” (p. 64). He notes, for instance, that one cannot argue that the “perfect” in 1 Corinthians 13:10 refers to the completion of the New Testament—since Paul’s readers had no way of knowing that there would be a New Testament. Second, “Whenever we share comparable particulars (i.e., similar specific life situations) with the first-century setting, God’s Word to us is the same as his Word to them” (p. 65). Murmuring, complaining, sexual immorality and greed will always be wrong, no matter how much or little any culture practices them.

What do we do with texts that address situations very much unlike our situations today? Jewish and Gentile Christians divided over food laws and holy days, and Paul warned them in Romans 14 not to divide over such secondary matters. If we are in circles where we do not know any Christians who keep Old Testament festivals and who abstain from pork, do we simply skip over this chapter? Yet Paul’s advice in this chapter works from a broader principle in addressing the specific situation. The principle is that we should not divide from one another over secondary issues, issues that are not at the heart of the gospel and Christian morality.

Once we understand the situation, we can usually understand how the writer is addressing that situation.

Paul wrote to specific, real-life congregations. Because he was not expecting Christians for many centuries later to keep reading his letters in different cultures and situations (cf. Mk 13:32), he did not stop to distinguish for us his transcultural principles on which he based his advice from the concrete advice he gave to these congregations in their situations. Fee lists several principles for distinguishing transcultural principles from the specific examples the Bible gives us, the most important of which we have adapted here. First, we should look for the “core,” or the transcultural principle in the text. This is important so we keep the emphasis on Christ’s gospel and do not become legalists on details like some of Jesus’ enemies were. Second, the Bible presents some matters as transcultural moral norms, such as in Paul’s vice lists (Rom 1:28-31; 1 Cor 6:9-10). But in different cultures the Bible allowed different customs in terms of women’s work outside the home (Prov 31:16, 24; 1 Tim 5:14) or various forms of ministry (Judg 4:4; Phil 4:3; 1 Tim 2:12). If different passages allow different practices, we see these practices as providing guidelines in a specific culture, but not a transcultural principle behind them without exceptions.

From Chapter Two: Learning Context

You need not agree with our interpretation of every example cited below, but these examples will suffice to illustrate how frequently we have ignored context. They should also illustrate how context makes a difference in our understanding. In no instance are we challenging specific doctrines people have sometimes based on these verses; we are challenging methods of interpretation. (If some texts in context do not support a doctrine, the doctrine might still be defended if other texts support it.) You will learn context principles best if you actually work through the passages yourself before reading our interpretation of them; this way you will recognize what students in my classrooms usually recognize: when most the students come to the same conclusions independently, they recognize for themselves how clear the point of the text is.

Third, we need to understand the cultural options available to the writer. For example, biblical writers wrote in an era where no one was trying to abolish slavery; that the Bible’s writers do not explicitly address an issue that no one had raised does not suggest that they would have sided with slavery’s supporters had the question been raised! On the other hand, Greeks in Paul’s day held various views regarding premarital sex, homosexual intercourse, and so on, but the Bible is unanimous in condemning such practices. Fourth, we need to take into account differences in situation: in the first century, men were far more apt to be educated, including in the Bible, than women; would Paul have written exactly the same applications for today, when women and men are more likely to share equal opportunities for education? Fee’s principles resemble those we articulated above on the use of cultural background.

We may provide one stark example of how we need to take Paul’s situation into account. In two texts, Paul requires women to keep “silence” in church (1 Cor 14:34-35; 1 Tim 2:12). If we press this to mean all that it could mean, women should not even sing in church! Few churches today press these verses this far, but are they ignoring the passages’ meaning? Not necessarily. In other texts, Paul commends women for their labors for the kingdom (Phil 4:2-3), and in Romans 16 commends more women for their services than men (even though he mentions more men!) Moreover, he at least occasionally uses his most common terms for his male fellow workers to some women: “fellow worker” (Prisca, Rom 16:3); diakonos (“servant,” Phoebe, Rom 16:1); and once even “apostle” (Junia, according to the best translations; Rom 16:7)! Even more importantly, he accepts women praying and prophesying with their heads covered (1 Cor 11:4-5). How can they pray and prophesy if later in the same letter he requires them to be completely silent in church (1 Cor 14:34-35)? Does the Bible contradict itself here? Did Paul contradict himself in the very same letter?

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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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