Q&A: Context is Key

Context is Key

What are the most important hermeneutical principles we should follow?

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One of the questions I get asked all the time is, "what principles do Christians need to use to interpret the Bible?" And I usually sum it up by saying, context is key. You've got to have the right context if you're going to understand the Bible. But context is multi-layered, and one of the things I tell people is, there's really three different contexts that you use to interpret Scripture. First is the "immediate context." You want to make sure that you understand that passage and the surrounding texts right around it. What argument is the author making? What book does it fall in? Things like this. The second layer of context is what I call a "canonical context," or maybe a redemptive-historical context. Where does that passage fall in the larger Scriptures? And so, when you're interpreting one passage you use other passages of Scripture outside of that immediate locale to interpret it. And the third layer of context is what I call an "ecclesiological context." We don't interpret Scripture in isolation from the church. We interpret Scripture in conjunction with the church, both in the present and also throughout the ages. What have the church fathers said about this passage? What have theologians said about this passage? What's the collective wisdom of God's people about this passage? Now, when you look at all three of those levels of context together, they really work in a harmonious way to help people understand what the Scripture says. And a mistake can be made in any of those three areas. But if they're all checked, usually that can lead us to a good understanding of what that passage says.

Answer by Dr. Michael Kruger

Dr. Michael Kruger is President and Samuel C. Patterson Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte NC