Engaging Exposition (13): Issues Concerning Context

The inspection stage of exegesis moves toward completion once we have identified the genre and developed a genre-specific outline. These two elements are required to properly examine the content of a text.

The next stage can be called the inquiry stage. “Inquire” means to ask a question. In this stage, our attention shifts from observing the content of a text to inquiring about its context. Understanding the author’s context is important for understanding his content. Consequently, you must be prepared to study the particularized context of every biblical text to the best of your ability and the available evidence.

When interpreters think about the context, they are focusing their attention upon the unique cultural, historical, geographical, and theological factors that existed when the author recorded his particular content for a particular audience. The biblical authors addressed the specific needs of their own day in their writings. Consequently, the significance of the historical context of every biblical text is important. A failure to understand the context of a text may lead the interpreter to misinterpret the author’s content. There are four questions which can help us discover the context of the text.

1) Who? – The Cultural Context

The author and readers of every biblical book lived in a particular context-often it was the same, but sometimes it was very different. When attempting to discover the cultural context of a biblical text, you should consider three specific areas.

Author
In most cases, you will know who the biblical author is with a great deal of historical certainty. In other cases, opinions on authorship may vary. The author’s personal circumstances can also add insight into his particular place in the culture. There are three questions to ask about the author and his place in the culture: a) Who wrote the book? b) What do we know about him? c) How did his unique experience in his culture shape his purpose in writing?

Actors
Much of the Bible is written as Historical Narrative. Every author had to make choices about which characters or personalities to include in the story and what dialogue and events to highlight. As a result, the characters themselves often provide insights into the unique culture of the time. For instance, both David and Goliath provide a window into the different military cultures of Israel and Philistia. When studying Historical Narratives, you should ask the following questions: a) Who are the characters in the story? b) How are they described? c) What unique, culturally relevant factors are revealed by how the characters speak, dress, and act? d) How do those factors contribute to the meaning of the text?

Audience
Every biblical text was written with a specific audience in mind. Often, understanding the cultural context of the audience is the key to understanding the meaning of a text. When analyzing the audience, you should focus on these questions: a) Who is the primary audience for this text? b) What is the unique cultural setting for this audience? c) What cultural issues are discussed in the text? d) How are those cultural issues addressed in the text?

2) When?-Historical Context

The author and readers of every biblical book lived at a specific time in history. As a result, every biblical event took place in a specific historical context. There are several areas to consider when assessing a text’s historical context.

Time
It is important to place biblical accounts into the world calendar when possible. While biblical interpreters are focused primarily on God’s redemptive plan for the world as revealed in Scripture and God’s Messiah, his plan is accomplished within the context of human history. In fact, God uses world events, even the choices of pagan nations, to accomplish his will on earth. For example, Habakkuk struggles to understand God’s use of the Babylonians to judge Israel for their idolatry. When analyzing the time of a text, there are some questions you should ask: a) When is this story or event occurring in secular history? b) Does any event in secular history influence the story or event? c) Where does this story or event fit in redemptive history? d) How does this story or event contribute to our understanding of redemptive history? However, when precise historical information is not possible, it does not negate the legitimacy of the text or hinder accurate interpretation since the location of meaning resides within the text, not behind it or in front of it.

Political Climate
Political realities are often the backdrop against which, or because of which, certain biblical events occur. God routinely accomplishes his will through the political drama and intrigue of Israel as well as pagan nations. When considering the political climate in any biblical text, consider the following questions: a) What is the dominant nation during this time? b) What, if any, is Israel’s relationship to this nation? c) Are there any unique, localized, political issues in play in the text? d) Does politics have a direct impact on the characters or events depicted in the text?

Religious Climate
The Bible reveals God’s redemptive plan accomplished through the nation of Israel. As you study Scripture, however, you will discover that Israel had encounters with nations that had unique religions and gods. When you study the historical context of a book or passage, you should ask these questions about the religious climate: a) What religion did a nation practice? b) What gods did they worship, and what does history reveal about those gods? c) How were their religious beliefs different from those of Israel? d) Did the religious climate of a secular nation influence the characters or events in the text?

3) Where?-Geographical Context

Just as every biblical event occurred within a specific cultural and historical context, it also occurred in a specific region of the world. Understanding these regions often increases an interpreter’s understanding of the events themselves. As you study the geographical context, pay close attention to the following locales:

Cities

When you encounter the cities mentioned in the Bible, you should ask the following questions: a) Where was the city located? b) What was the size and scope of the city? c) Were there any unique features or historical landmarks associated with the city? d) Has the city been discovered through modern archeology? e) Does the city exist today?

Region

When you are studying a region mentioned in a biblical text, you should ask the following questions: a) Where is the region located in a nation? b) What cultural factors define the region? c) Is the region unique in some way topographically, industrially, militarily, or religiously?

Country
You should ask the following questions when you encounter the nations mentioned in the Bible: a) What nation is mentioned? b) Where is that nation geographically in relation to Israel? c) What is the relationship of that nation to Israel? d) Is that nation used by God to further his redemptive plan for the world in any way?

4) Why?-Theological Context

Theology is the final contextual element to consider as you conclude the inquiry stage of Exegesis. This is one of the most challenging aspects of your interpretive work. It is important to remember that the Bible is first and foremost a book of theology. Every event in the Bible has a theological purpose. When you begin analyzing the theological context, you should consider the following areas:

The Text
As we noted earlier, all biblical interpretation must begin at the level of the individual text. You will discover the theological context as you reflect upon the significance of the content and context of every biblical text. Further, you will discover that the individual texts in a book are working together to communicate the message of the entire book. Finally, the theological themes you discover in individual texts will be connected to the primary thesis of the book as well.

When searching for the theological context of a text, you should ask the following questions: a) What theological themes are mentioned? b) What theological themes are implied? c) Which of the stated theological themes are developed? d) What do the theological themes reveal about God and his redemptive plan?

The Canon
Every individual text is part of the canon. As a result, you must attempt to discover how the truths revealed in a particular text fit within the totality of Scripture. Every text in the canon is revealing truth about God and his plans for creation. Furthermore, every text adds important information to the developing story of redemption.

When you are contemplating a particular text within the theological context of the canon, you should ask the following questions: a) How would the reader have understood this theological theme within his own canonical context? b) Does this theological theme have some level of correspondence within the other testament, either Old or New? c) How does this theological theme point to Jesus or reveal Jesus?

Theology & Culture (12): My Favorite Colleges, Persons, Blogs, Journals, and Books

By way of conclusion, allow me to point out a few institutions, persons, and publications which seek to approach to theology and culture in a robustly Christian manner. Please keep in mind that I must be concise to the extreme; even in an attempt at concision, this last installment is more than twice as long as I intended.

Institutions of Higher Education

I am happy to mention The College at Southeastern (C@SE), where I serve as a dean and professor, as a unique evangelical and Baptist institution of higher learning which takes seriously the integration of faith and learning. One unique aspect of our college is our core curriculum which centers not only on biblical-theological studies but also on the great books and ideas of western civilization. Each student who enrolls to pursue their baccalaureate education at C@SE will take at least four seminars in History of Ideas. In these seminars, they read philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Locke, Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche; they read theologians such as Augustine, Aquinas, Erasmus, Calvin, and Luther; they read literature by Homer, Virgil, Dante, Milton, Chaucer, Sartre, and DuBois. As they read these texts and many others, they trace the influence of ideas, they critique those ideas theologically and philosophically, and they develop their own rational and creative capacities. All of this is done with an eye toward bringing their core theological convictions into conversation with the arts, the sciences, the public square disciplines, etc.

Among universities, it would be difficult to find a more exemplary institution than Union University, led by David Dockery whose Renewing Minds (Nashville: B&H, 2008) sets forth a coherent and compelling vision for how Christian higher education can serve the church and society. Union’s faculty members are publishing serious academic research in their respective disciplines, and doing so precisely because they take seriously the integration of faith and learning. Houston Baptist University is a research institution with which to be reckoned, and which is serious about faith and learning, as is exemplified in the hiring of Robert Sloan and the subsequent launch of their new journal The City (a journal of intellectual, social, and cultural consequence, even after only two years of publication). There are quite a few other exemplary institutions, but for the purposes of this brief blogpost, I have focused on the aforementioned three, all of which are aligned with my network of churches, the Southern Baptist Convention.

Exemplary Persons

Over the course of the past 50 years, there have arisen some great men and women who exemplify Christian interaction in various dimensions of American culture. In the discipline of philosophy, I think of Alvin Plantinga, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Arthur Holmes, David Cook, and William Lane Craig. In the arts, I am reminded of Leland Ryken, Gene Veith, and Alan Jacobs. In the natural sciences, I think of Michael Behe, Stephen Barr, and Charles Thaxton. In public theology and the public square, I am reminded of Francis Schaeffer, Richard John Neuhaus, Lesslie Newbigin, and Al Mohler. And the list could go on, but this short list suffices to point out that younger evangelicals have some excellent (though imperfect) models of faithful cultural engagement and cultural work.

Informative Blogs

Al Mohler’s Blog. I began reading Al Mohler’s blog soon after I returned from my two year stint in Central Asia. Dr. Mohler blogs daily about a wide range of issues, and does so from a conservative evangelical perspective. If you would like to be acquainted (from an evangelical perspective) with the latest books being published, the most important issues surfacing in public discussion, and the most influential thinkers in contemporary life, this blog is perhaps the best place to start. For students who are interested in expanding their mind, I would say to you: Mohler’s blogposts can be read in 5 minutes or so, and are much more profitable than espn.go.com. (Although there’s nothing wrong with ESPN. Just sayin’.)

Justin Taylor’s Blog. This blog aggregate points its readers to the best books and blogs in the Christian world, many of which deal with theology and culture.

Arts & Letters Daily. I’ve just recently started browsing this website, whose niche is linking to significant blogs and essays daily. These blogs and essays are “here comes everybody.” They are written by men and women from across the ideological spectrum, and therefore are helpful for keeping the pulse of contemporary society and culture.

Substantive Journals

First Things. Richard John Neuhaus started this journal, which is published by the Institute on Religion and Public Life. First Things is founded on the premise that ideas matter, and that the ideas that matter most are those involving religion, culture, and politics. Its essays are written by world-class scholars and cover nearly any topic at the intersection of theology and culture. For eleven years, I have looked forward to the day that this invigorating monthly arrives in my mailbox.

Touchstone. This magazine is a journal of “Mere Christianity,” styled after the likes of C. S. Lewis and G. K. Chesteron. Worth a read.

The City. This elegant journal, published by Houston Baptist University, is an evangelical counterpart to First Things, covering nearly any topic at the intersection of theology and culture.

Exemplary Books

In this section, I will note a few books, journals, and websites under various dimensions of theology and culture. My intention is to provide a few basic books for those readers who would like to begin reading and thinking in various areas of theology and culture. These lists are nowhere near being comprehensive, nor are they necessarily the best books to begin reading on any given topic. Instead, they are selections from my own shelves. They are books that I have found helpful in thinking through the task of living faithfully and thinking Christianly within my own (American) cultural context.

Christianity & Culture (General)

Crouch, Andy. Culture Making: Recovering our Creative Calling. An engaging and persuasive treatise on the Christian community’s calling to “make culture” rather than merely “engage the culture.”

Goheen, Mike and Craig Bartholomew. Living at the Crossroads: An Introduction to Christian Worldview. In my opinion this is the best one-stop introduction on how the biblical narrative fosters a worldview that in turn shapes the entirety of the Christian life, including especially culture work and cultural engagement.

Horton, Michael. Where in the World is the Church? A fine introduction to the role of the Christian in culture.

Hunter, James Davison. To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. A recent and influential argument that Christian strategies for “changing the world” are doomed from the start, because they fail to recognize the role of the cultural elite in fostering such change.

Kuyper, Abraham. Lectures on Calvinism. A classic text discussing Reformed theology as a life-system, fleshing out its implications in religion, politics, science, and art.

Moore, T.M. Culture Matters: A Call for Consensus on Christian Cultural Engagement. A brief little book arguing for Christian cultural engagement based upon the lessons learned from five historical case studies (Augustine, Celts, Calvin, Kuyper, Milosz).

Niebuhr, H. Richard. Christ and Culture. This text has become the modern benchmark for discussing Christianity and culture.

Schaeffer, Francis. How Then Shall We Live? The modern classic on the subject by the doyen of evangelical cultural analysis.

Veith, Gene E. God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life. An introduction to Martin Luther’s theology of vocation.

Christian Faith & Learning

Dockery, David. Renewing Minds: Serving Church and Society through Christian Higher Education. An excellent and accessible treatise on how to recover a robust and authentic view of faith and learning.

Holmes, Arthur. The Idea of a Christian College (rev. ed.) An evangelical classic. A slim little volume that packs a powerful punch as it sets forth the distinctive mission and contributions of a Christian college.

Marsden, George. The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship. A 20th century classic which provides a compelling argument that mainstream American higher ed needs to be open to explicit expressions of faith in an intellectual context.

Noll, Mark. The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. A compelling argument that evangelicals should value the life of the mind.

Plantinga, Cornelius. Engaging God’s World: A Christian Vision of Faith, Learning, and Living. A deep and sustained interaction with the biblical narrative and its implications for faith, learning, and living. Very accessible.

Wolterstorff, Nicholas. Educating for Life: Reflections on Christian Teaching and Learning. A collection of essays in which Nicholas Wolterstoff applies his high-octane brain to the notion of faith and learning in Christian high school education.

________. Educating for Shalom: Essays on Christian Higher Education. An collection of essays in which Wolterstoff thinks publicly about faith and learning in higher education.

The Arts

Gallagher, Susan V. and Roger Lundin. Literature Through the Eyes of Faith. An excellent introduction that shows how the reading of literature helps us interpret life and experience.

Godawa, Brian. Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films with Wisdom and Discernment. This is the single best guide to a theologically astute analysis of movie plots.

O’Connor, Flannery. “The Church and the Fiction Writer” in Mystery and Manners. This essay provides insight into the relationship of faith and writing from the consummate Christian author.

_________. “Novelist and Believer” in Mystery and Manners. This essay provides insight into the relationship of faith and writing from the consummate Christian author.

Rookmaaker, H.R. Modern Art and the Death of a Culture. A modern classic that offers penetrating insight into modern art and the intellectual context beneath it.

Ryken, Leland. Windows to the World: Literature in Christian Perspective. A primer on the subject of literature and truth that shows the importance of the imagination in reading.

Schaeffer, Francis A. Art and the Bible: Two Essays. Two brief essays on how to think about art from a biblical perspective from one of the patriarchs of evangelical cultural analysis.

Veith, Gene E. State of the Arts: From Bezalel to Mapplethorpe. A useful guide to understanding both the biblical foundations for art and the contemporary art world.

Wolterstorff, Nicholas. Art in Action: Toward a Christian Aesthetic. A fairly technical treatise on the reality that art does not exist merely for aesthetic contemplation but that it functions in everyday life.

The Sciences

Behe, Michael J. Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution. A fetching read about a central problem with Darwinian theory by a working biochemist. The book is technical but accessible to the lay reader.

Carlson, Richard F., ed. Science and Christianity: Four Views. Not surprisingly, four views on the relationship of science and Christianity.

Davis, John Jefferson. The Frontiers of Science and Faith. A terrific exploration of ten current scientific issues and their intersection with Christian theology and life.

Hunter, Cornelius. Darwin’s God. A biophysicist examines the theological issues underlying the formulation of Darwin’s theory of origins.

Pearcy, Nancy R. and Charles B. Thaxton. The Soul of Science: Christian Faith and Natural Philosophy. An analysis of the way in which Judeo-Christian thought funds the scientific enterprise, including a look at mathematics and scientific “revolutions,” and the discipline called the “History of Science.”

The Public Square

Audi, Robert and Nicholas Wolterstorff. Religion in the Public Square: The Place of Religious Convictions in Public Debate. A somewhat technical discussion of Christian convictions and the way in which believers should dialogue in the public square. Audi argues that Christians should appear “naked” in the public square, while Wolterstorff (himself a political liberal), argues Christians should come “fully clothed.”

Budziszewski, J. What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide. A useful explication of the way in which natural law benefits discussions about morality in the public square written by a former nihilist turned Christian who teaches philosophy at the University of Texas.

Mouw, Richard J. and Sander Griffioen. Pluralisms and Horizons: An Essay inChristian Public Philosophy. An unpacking of the problem of political consensus in a pluralist environment, which includes a helpful comparison and contrast of major thinkers on the topic, including Rawls, Nozick, and Neuhaus.

Nash, Ronald. Social Justice and the Christian Church. Nash offers an impassioned plea for social justice founded upon biblical principles wedded with free-market ideals.

Neuhaus, Richard John. The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America. A very influential and well-argued text on the place of Christian conviction in public political discourse. (Fear not, there are no pictures.)

Newbigin, Lesslie: Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel & Western Culture. An enduringly influential work on confronting western culture with the gospel.

Novak, Michael. The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism. A vigorous examination of capitalism and democracy with a particularly good articulation of a “theology of democratic capitalism.”

American and Western Culture

Anderson, Walter Truett. Reality Isn’t What it Used to Be: Theatrical Politics, Ready-to-Wear Religion, Global Myths, Primitive Sheik, and Other Wonders of the Postmodern World. An entertaining little romp through contemporary Western culture.

Barzun, Jacques. From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life. A one-volume history of modern Western culture with particular attention to the intellectual underpinnings of cultural movements.

Bloom, Alan. The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students. Though this book is a bit dated, it is still an important treatise on the cataclysmic changes in Western civilization in recent years and the influence of higher education upon them.

Cantor, Norman F. The American Century: Varieties of Culture in Modern Times. An interesting tome about 20th century American cultural movements.

Himmelfarb, Gertrude. One Nation, Two Cultures: A Searching Examination of American Society in the Aftermath of Our Cultural Revolution. A fine little analysis of American society and culture with particular attention to the influence of the sexual revolution upon various spheres of culture.

Sorokin, Pitirim A. The Crisis of Our Age. An influential and unfortunately too much ignored monograph that shows the crisis of the materialistic nature of contemporary Western civilization.

Worldview

Goheen, Mike and Craig Bartholomew. Living at the Crossroads: An Introduction to Christian Worldview. In my opinion this is the best one-stop introduction to Christian worldview, ordered by the biblical narrative and applied to such issues as culture work and contextualization.

Nash, Ronald H. Worldviews in Conflict: Choosing Christianity in a World of Ideas. A good introduction to the subject that shows how to adjudicate between worldviews.

Naugle, David K. Worldview: The History of a Concept. The seminal work on the history of the concept of worldview.

Sire, James W. The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalog, 3d. ed. A readable presentation of major worldview options.

Wolters, Albert M. Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview. A concise theological reflection on worldview.

Theology & Culture (11): Why The Academy Matters to God

The university is perhaps the most influential institution in American society. It certainly is a funnel though which hundreds of thousands of young people pour out annually into every sector of American life. Further, many universities and academic disciplines have become breeding grounds for adamant (if not militant) resistance to Christian belief and practice. In fact, when 18 year old believers enter college, they will often find a scenario in which the smartest people they now know are opposed to the core convictions of Christianity. It is likely that these same students are utterly unprepared to think critically and therefore tend to either (1) compartmentalize their religious life and their academic life, allowing the two lives to run on parallel tracks and holding the two in an ever-unresolved tension; or (2) allow their academic influencers to overturn their Christian convictions, largely because they (the students) are unaware of any top-shelf minds in their disciplines who take seriously the charge to integrate their Christian faith with their academic learning.

By the time I entered seminary, I had begun to read widely in various academic disciplines because I had encountered faculty members and students on multiple university campuses who seemed to make a good case against Christianity from within their own disciplines. In other words, the broad intellectual milieu in the United States is one in which secular forms of rationality are privileged. As David Dockery puts it, “The ‘cultured despisers’ of religion regard faith, Christian faith in particular, as irrational and obscurantist. They consider that it may be necessary to tolerate and perhaps even accommodate faith on campus by providing or recognizing denominational chaplaincies, student religious groups, and so forth. But religious faith, even when tolerated, is understood as at best irrelevant to, and at worst incompatible with, serious and unfettered intellectual inquiry and the transmission of knowledge to students.”*

I was driven to “vindicate” God. In reality, I knew that I did not have to, and was not able to, “vindicate” God. But I did want to be able to show God’s glory and the truth of his word in every academic discipline and by extension in every dimension of human intellectual life and culture.

After seminary, I lived in the former Soviet Union for two years, at which time I gained an even clearer grasp of what the university looks like bereft of Christian influence. My best Russian friends were taking undergraduate and graduate degrees in philosophy, psychology, philology, and physics, as well as other disciplines. They continually articulated to me a sort of nihilistic worldview, as well as a fragmented and disordered view of the academic disciplines, which is precisely what one would suspect when truths of God’s existence and creation are “banned” from the classroom. Those truths are exactly the truths upon which the academy was founded and began to flourish.

In fact, the founders of Harvard College published a pamphlet in 1643, containing their mission statement: “Let every Student be plainly instructed, and earnestly pressed, to consider well [that] the maine end of his life and studies is to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternall life, Jn 17:3, and therefore to lay Christ in the bottome, as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and Learning.”** Other Ivy League schools had similar Christian foundations which enabled them to view their colleges as “uni-versities,” places of learning in which one could find a “u-nity” of truth, a unity that revolved around a God who created all things, who sustains all things such that they consist in him, and who endowed man with the ability to learn about what he created.

The founders of many of our best universities understood that one of the most profoundly good ways of loving God is to know his handiwork and the most fruitful way to do our learning is to approach the data of our discipline with a Christian framework and core presuppositions. For this reason, Cornelius Plantinga writes, “Learning is therefore a spiritual calling: properly done, it attaches us to God. In addition, the learned person has, so to speak, more to be Christian with.” Indeed we should want to “knead the yeast of the gospel” through everything that happens on campus, so that all of a student’s rational, creative, and relational capacities would be “permeated with the spirit and teaching of Christianity.”***

As we discussed this in our seminar, I observed that my Theology & Culture students came to a consensus on at least several matters: (1) the university is an institution of formidable and formative influence on many or most of our American young people, and God’s people would be naïve and even unfaithful to neglect it; (2) our attempts to be faithfully present in the academy should not be limited to explicitly Christian universities, but also should extend to our public and private universities; (3) a robust biblical theology of culture is deeply consonant with a robust biblical theology of education, such that we should be driven to foster an environment in which our evangelical young people seek earnestly to glorify God in their studies. In a sentence, we should fight the a-theological, non-academic, and even anti-intellectual impulses within the evangelical community; and (4) everything we had discussed in our Theology & Culture seminar, and therefore everything we have discussed so far in this blog series, finds its expression and its deepest and most abiding challenge within the four walls of our educational institutions.

____________________

*David Dockery, Renewing Minds (Nashville: B&H, 2008), xiii.

**”New England’s First Fruits,” quoted in Perry Miller and Thomas H. Johnson, The Puritans (New York: American Book, 1938), 702.

***Cornelius Plantinga, Engaging God’s World: A Christian View of Faith, Learning, and Living (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), xi; xiii.