Interpreting Scripture Contextually

If the Old Testament served as the historical basis on which Jesus and the apostles understood God’s revelation, the New Testament served to solidify the new revelation of Christ in the Early Church through a contextual interpretation of OT texts and imagination. In other words, the apostles (especially Paul), were informed by a shared historical imagination but interpreted revelation in light of the foreground in which they lived. The world behind the text was meaningful in understanding what God was doing in the world in front of the text.

At the time of the Apostles, only the Old Testament was considered Scripture. The Gospel was the kerygmatic expression that emerged out of a contextual interpretation of Scripture that identified the coming of Christ as the representation of missiological motifs found in the Jewish imagination. The Gospel was the message with a sender and a receiver. It became the Word of God, which announced the coming of God’s Kingdom in a particular context and time. The Apostles used the Hebrew Scriptures, their shared history and their context as part of the hermeneutic cycle that constructed the message that became known as Gospels and Epistles. That interpretive exercise was largely done in community, as the disciples recalled what Jesus had said and done.

The Church became an interpretive community of the Jewish Scriptures in light of Christ’s revelation. In a way, this was the practice of what we know as narrative criticism. Whereas historical criticism may be said to treat biblical narratives as windows that enable us to learn something about another time and place; narrative criticism treats these same texts as mirrors that invite audience participation in the creation of meaning. The Scriptures are brought to life as the living Word of God when interpreted contextually by a local community. The inspiration of Scripture acts to reform people’s self-perception and imagination regarding how they fit in God’s larger story.

In what ways did the Early Church interpret the life of Christ and Scripture as the evangélion of God’s Kingdom? Contextual interpretation and narrative criticism allow for artistic creativity in order to tell God’s story and inspire worship. This was done in the Early Church through the clever use of literary devices such as allegories, analogies and typologies. Allegorical interpretation was a common hermeneutic tool in premodern times. Jesus himself used parables as illustrations to communicate deeper theological truths. Allegorical interpretation was used to convey a literal meaning in a way that made sense to the listeners. It applied Scripture intertextually based on the precedence of a shared knowledge. In the same way, contextual interpretation uses a community’s shared story and experience in order to communicate divine revelation. In Romans and Corinthians, Paul also uses analogies from Israel’s history to make sense of the Christian faith. Typology was another prevalent tool used by the disciples for contextual interpretation. The New Testament writers interpreted Jesus by using typologies from the Jewish Scriptures. It is interesting to highlight the variety of contextual Christologies found within the Biblical canon itself. For instance, in Matthew, Jesus is the King of the Jews. In Mark, he is the Suffering Servant. In Luke, he is a friend to all, and in John, Jesus is the preexisting Word of Life. In Paul, Jesus is the Second Adam and the prototype of a new creation.

As with the first disciples, the other facet of contextual interpretation is reading Scripture in light of our modern contexts today. The last one hundred years has provided a dynamic shift in the centrality of Christianity. Christianity has moved away from the Global North for the first time in over a thousand years, and is now predominantly found in the emerging world. The average Christian today is a non-white, non-western individual, most probably female, from an emerging country. Consequently, the process of interpreting Scripture has also become diverse. This trend is evidenced by the variety of contextual theologies that can be found today. Some interpretive approaches that are present in this spectrum are Liberation, Black, feminist and post-colonial theologies. Each of these theologies seeks to represent their particular contextual reality of discourse. The practice of contextual interpretation brings Scripture from the sacred to the secular, allowing it to illuminate our sociological practices and presumptions in the quest for discerning our reality and promoting justice.

Contextual interpretation is seen as the process of doing theology from below. A risk of doing theology from below is that an individual or community may infer dominant philosophical or ethical frameworks in the process of interpreting of Scripture. These frameworks are often expressed in the form of absolute concepts that reflect what is believed to be ideal at the present time. Scripture then becomes a tool to empower or justify a certain practice, rather than to inspire a set of new ideals. Because of this, the interpreting of Scripture from below tends to concentrate on humanistic aspects of the divine revelation. Christ becomes the Galilean movement leader who leads his band of militant activists to implement new social policies by confronting oppressive religious systems and the Roman Empire. Christ is no longer the incarnation of God, who calls people to repentance so they may think differently (metanoia) and give continuity to God’s mission of reconciliation that started with the fall of humanity. Therefore, contextual interpretations run the risk of overlooking the timeless salvific story in order to implement timely ideals of justice.

The New Testament sets a paradigm for contextual interpretation. In it, we see the Church as an interpretive community who brings its own story into God’s story in order to form a shared story of future hope. The interpretive community must begin from its existential reality. It is impossible to presume a complete neutrality or objectivity, as higher criticism proposed. Nonetheless, interpretation is a theocentric practice where the Church complies its mission to God’s agency in the world, which is seen since the beginning of time. Scripture shapes the community in order that it may communicate the Gospel of the Kingdom of God contextually. By doing so, the Church becomes the embodiment of a new community where humanity is set at peace with itself and creation through the mediation of Christ.