Research Notes

Contextualization of Preaching/ Bible Interpretation

Contextualization of Preaching

        Grant R. Osborne has developed his spiral hermeneutics which moves from text to context, and then goes back to text.  He aggressively adopts missiological methods and the strength of his hermeneutical approach is in his achievement of the unity of textual and contextual studies. 

        According to Osborne, what missiologists call "contextualization" is identical with what homileticans call "application."  He defines contextualizaion as "that dynamic process which interprets the significance of a religion or cultural norm for a group with a different (or developed) cultural heritage" (1991:318).  Thus, at the heart contextualization entails cross-cultural communication.

        Osborne suggests three basic steps in the process of deciding whether a particular command is normative or cultural, whether it applies at the surface or deep (principal) level.  To summarize his three steps: (1) Note the extent to which supercultural indicators are found in the passage.  (2) Determine the degree to which the commands are tied to cultural practices current in the first century, but not present today.  (3) Note the distinction between the supercultural and cultural indicators (1991:328-329).

        Using the passages on women in the church as a test case, Osborne attempts to note supercultural indicators.  The appeal to creation and the Fall in 1Timothy 2:13:14 would indicate that Paul is appealing to eternal principles in the passage.[2]  This points toward normative force, but in itself it does not solve the issue.  This issue of meat offered to idols in 1Corinthians 8-10 is linked to the principle of the stumbling block (8:7-13).  This points to but is not proof of normative or supracultural force (328-329).

        Now, what Greidanus describes as ‘a continuity between biblical and modern experiences’(1988) may clarify what Osborne means by ‘supercultural indicators.’  For Greidanus, since life experiences are rather universal and “the Ancient Israelites were involved in the same struggle for the coming of God’s kingdom as we are today” (1988:100-101), he puts emphasis on the relevancy of biblical accounts for contemporary application.

        Osborne proposes a six-stage process for the task of contextualization as it moves from the biblical text to our modern context, from original meaning to current significance.  This method blends theoria and praxis with the goal of enabling the church in diverse cultures to affirm and live out biblical truths with the same dynamic power as did the early church (See fig. 2).

Fig. 2.  The Six-Stage Process of Contextualization (Osborne 1991:337)










         In Osborne’s model, the first step of hermeneutics is contextual approach.  The goal of this step is to find the way the original message was communicated, or to determine the surface message as Osborne expresses it.  The second step is to find out the biblical theology or “structure principle.”  The “surface message” is often the contextualized version of the biblical author’s theology.

        1.  Determine the Surface Message.  The Interpreter should determine the original intended message of the passage.  This should be done with contextual approach in mind.  In other words, ask the way the biblical author addressed his original readers.  Biblical books are situational in nature; they were written with a specific message addressed to a particular situation in the life of Israel or the church.  The preacher as interpreter wants to distinguish both aspects: the original message and the way it was communicated to the reader (1991:336).

        2.  Determine the deep structure principle behind the message.  The surface message often contextualizes the deeper principle in order to address a specific problem in the original audience.  For instance, the “alien” and “sojourner” passages in 1Peter (1:1, 17; 2:11) build upon the early church’s teaching on home or citizenship in heaven (such as Phil. 3:20; Eph. 2:19; Heb. 12:22).  Paul and other authors of biblical writings would stress one aspect of a larger theological truth in order to speak to a particular issue. It is helpful for the interpreter to discover the biblical theology behind the print of text and to see exactly what issue is been addressed.  This is a critical aspect in delineating cultural from supercultural passages (:336-337).

        3.  Note the original situation.  We must first know the world behind the text before we can determine its relevance for our world.  The situation behind the text determined why the author chose the particular aspect to stress in the surface message (:330, 337). 

        Earnest Best’s definition of  'situation' may serve to illustrate Osborne’s point here :

By situation is meant the actual circumstances which call out a New Testament writing; these will be circumstances both in the life of the writer and in the community to which he writes. For example the situation of First Corinthians is what was taking place in Corinth and through a visit by some of the church leaders. The situation of Romans consists of these elements: the nature of the church there, the successful outcome of the struggle against the Judaizers in Galatia, Paul's proposed journey to Jerusalem with the collection and possible contribution with the Christians leaders in that church (1978:14-15).

Emphasizing the significance of this stage, Osborne, however, observes that this is not always easy to determine the original situation.  For instance, what are the exact identities of the false teachers in the Pastorals, the heresy in Colossians, or the super-apostles in 2 Corinthians?

        Narrative books require special attention since there are two types the historical situation in them.  One is depicted in the text and the other is Sitz im Leben (“situation in the life of Israel and the church) behind the text.  Osborne finds that the situation in the story itself is more valuable than the Sitz im Leben.  For instance, it is almost impossible to detect the Sitz im Leben behind the Jacob-Esau conflict (Gen. 27), but the situation in the text (rivalry over the blessing but God’s unseen hand in the background) provides tremendous contextualization opportunities (Osborne 1991:330, 337). 

        4.  Discover the parallel situation in the modern context.  A text should be applied in the same way it was used in the original setting.  In other words, we should contextualize our text in parallel situation in our current context.  We study the text not just to increase our cognitive understanding, but more “to act according to all that as written in it” (Jos. 1:8).  Proper contextualization is just as important as proper exegesis (:338). 

        5.  Decide whether to contextualize at the general or the specific level.  There are some issues which make it uneasy to remain true to Scripture yet produce a relevant, dynamic Christianity in the diverse cultural settling around the world.  For instance, missiologists must decide whether to retain a specific image or message (such as the “lamb” in cultures that know nothing about sheep, or substitute a dynamic equivalent.  Or what form should baptism take and how public should it be in Muslim cultures (:338)?

        In the sermon one can often choose to apply the message of the text generally or specifically.  For instance, passage dealing with persecution (James 1:2-4; 1Pet. 1:6-7) apply theology dealing with “trial of the faith” (“various trials” in James 1:2-3 and “test of your faith” in 1Pet. 1:6) to persecution.  The preacher is free to apply the principle in both direction.  For the early church, persecution was a specific type of trial (338).


Personal Involvement in Bible Interpretation

        When G. Walter Hansen read a passage in the diary written by his mother in Uzbekistan just a few days before she passed away, it became a special revelation to his Bible revelation.  There was something in that passage that touched his heart, not only the intellect.  There was something in that passage he could understand because he knew his mother, her faith-pilgrimage, and her missionary heart personally.  For him, it was an illustration of what should be the Bible interpretation about.

        Someone may read the same passage in her diary, study the historical background of that passage, and interpret it.  Others may study the same passage grammatically, analyzing the words.  But will these interpretation methods provide the same effect he had in his heart?  In this case, he could understand what she meant by that passage because he read it with personal involvement.  He himself being a theologian, it became a new revelation for Hansen for his Bible interpretation.  

Bible Interpretation as Convergence of World-view

        In his recent article, Walter Hansen presents an insightful observation that there is a polarization between those who insist that meaning is found in the author's intentions for writing the text and those who say that readers construct their own meaning out of the text.  His analogy is the attempt to bring those two perspectives together.  Meaning is found as the world-view of the author and the reader converge the text.  The text is always in some ways transformed by the reader's own personal point of view (1995:28).

        What Hansen notices is that the text is not only a mirror: it can also be a window.  If we believe that the Spirit of God is the ultimate author of the biblical text, then we believe that God's point of view is expressed in the biblical text.  The Spirit can use the biblical text to enable the reader "to look not at things which are seen, but on the things which are not seen, for the things which are seen are temporal, and the things which are not seen are eternal" (2Cor. 4:18).  Such a transformation of perspective is an ongoing process, an upward spiral that continually enlarges our horizons (28).

   Propositional vs. Personal Interpretation

        According to Hansen, a second false disjunction in contemporary discussion of biblical interpretation is the contrast between propositional and personal.  Some say that the revelation of meaning takes place only in propositional form.  Others assert that the disclosure of meaning is found only in personal encounter.  But Hansen discovers that personal encounter happens through words.  He illustrates that when he read the propositions in his mother’s text, he has the experience of hearing her heart .  He affirms that words from the heart, like letters we write, are the necessary means to personal encounter.  There is a revelation of meaning in the words given by the Holy Spirit through the human authors and the Bible.  But, their meaning will be grasped, Hansen argues only when we engraft what we read into our lives by the heart-opening action of the Spirit.  Then there is the disclosure of meaning found only in a personal encounter with God (1995:28).

        Accordingly, Hansen reaches the point that interpretation of the Bible demands involvement of the whole person.  He puts it:

While we can benefit form the work of scholars to define the meaning of the words, only an interpretation of love will lead to a transforming experience of their meaning.  If we accept the claim of the biblical text to be the word of God who loves us, then the words of that text have power to create, convict, forgive, heal, and empower (:28).

  •  Newbigin's Mission Theology

Thus, in his exposition of "How shall they hear without a preacher, and a how can they preach unless they are sent?" (Rom. 10:14), Newbigin remarks that it is universality of God's love which is the ground of his choosing and calling a community to be the messengers of this truth and bearers of his love for all people.  His point is that neither truth nor love can be communicated except as they are embodied in a community which reasons and loves.   

        The hermeneutical task involves recognition of God's revelation both in the past and in the present time through the life of the community of faith.  Especially vital to the revelation of "present truth" is the involvement of the Church in the public sphere.  As believers live out their faith in their secular environments, they show that because Christ's reigning kingdom is both present and future, they can meaningfully participate in challenging evil in the public sphere while affirming that the goal of history lies beyond the horizon of death.

  • The Characteristic of the Postmodern World

What coincidently followed the separation of the state from religion in the seventeenth century was the increasing disengagement of the art from its former ecclesiastical setting. In pre-modern world, European "culture" was closely connected to the Christian church. Especially in the Middle Ages, artistic productions—whether in music or in the fine arts—focused almost exclusively on religious themes and served the worship life of the church. However, beginning in the Renaissance (the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries) and advancing in the Enlightenment (the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries) art came to be increasingly disengaged from its former ecclesiastical setting, opening the way for the secularization of artistic work and cultural expression that typifies modern society.

According to Jean-François Lyotard, postmodernism is defined as “incredulity toward metanarratives.” In postmodernism, there is no universally applicable account of humanity, its goals, or its purposes. As Wyatt depicts it, “All of us see things our own way.

In the age of postmodernity, what Newbigin describes as the dichotomy of subjectivism and objectivism is dissolved. What is doubted now is not subjective knowing, but the human ability to create an unshakable relationship between the observing, classifying, and understanding subject and the world of objects immediately accessible to intelligent assessment. In other words, the fundamental distinction between the real world of nature and the fictitious world of imagination has been broken. The situation then becomes one of “hyperreality,” in which the distinction between objects and their representations becomes dissolved.

[2] Refer to Perkins’ Works, III, 430.


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