2 Corinthians 1:1-2 Of, from, and through God and Jesus Christ

Instead of introducing 2 Corinthians before looking at the letter itself, I’d like us to look at Paul’s own introductory words and allow those words to give a doorway into this letter.

2 Cor 1:1-2 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, To the church of God that is in Corinth, including all the saints throughout Achaia: 2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (NRSV) 

Here Paul begins 2 Corinthians, this letter in which he gives the most concentrated attention to the life of ministry. Paul, as he introduces himself and the receivers of this letter, does some important defining even in these first two verses as he describes who he is and who the Corinthians are — and I think who we are as well — before God and Jesus Christ.

On one hand, his first words are very similar to first words of some of his other letters. On the other hand, words always take meaning from their placement in a particular document, and we can begin to think about these two verses in light of what we know of the rest of 2 Corinthians.

Probably more than in any of his other letters, Paul in 2 Corinthians is going to take care to explain his way of going about life and ministry. He’s in a situation where his own approach to Christian life and ministry has been questioned, and he’s going to need to define where he stands — especially on the role of weakness and suffering in that life, since the Corinthians have concerns about the presence of weakness and suffering in his life.

And here at the very beginning, Paul speaks of himself and his ministry as of, from, and through God and Jesus Christ.

So much of 2 Corinthians is about Paul defining his identity, his way of life, and his manner of ministry — with the ultimate goal of defining all of these things on behalf of believers and their lives. We will see that he does that while he, at the same time, is describing a standard for Christian leadership by what it means to live a God-centered life in deep unity with Jesus Christ.

The apostle Paul wrote in Greek; every Greek noun has case, the trait which makes the biggest difference for how nouns come together with other words to make meaning. “The basic function of the genitive case is to describe or define” (Croy 1999:13). We see the genitive case when Paul says he’s an “apostle of Jesus Christ”. And he calls the church not just the church, but the church “of God”, or “God’s church”. Genitives frequently identify belonging. As an apostle, he belongs to Jesus Christ. And the church belongs to God. Moreover, Paul affirms that grace and peace come “from” God and the Lord Jesus Christ. Genitives can identify the source or origin of something. Paul uses the genitive case over and over in the first two verses – ten nouns in all.

It’s no accident that there are so many genitives in the first two verses, because there’s a lot of defining and identifying happening here, as Paul will do throughout this letter.

Let’s take a closer look at some of Paul’s particular phrases and expressions he uses to identify himself and the believers to whom he’s writing.

“Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus”

An interesting thing about scholarship on 2 Corinthians is that commentators have often said that 2 Corinthians is about Paul’s apostleship and about Paul defending his apostleship. They see that Paul calls himself an apostle, and they see him being a little defensive in the pages that follow. But in this first big section of the letter, 2 Corinthians 1-9, Paul only mentions that he is an apostle once, here as he introduces himself in 1:1. Paul actually does not act very interested in making himself distinct from other Christians in his position and authority. We’ll notice that Paul will normally speak with the word “we”, not “I”, especially in the first nine chapters. He’ll tend to place himself with fellow Christians, not apart from them or different from them. From Paul’s own words, we will see that Paul seems to focus on life and ministry in union with Jesus Christ, a way of life that’s available to all the saints, not just to an apostle. I don’t think Paul speaks often enough about apostleship to be defending his apostleship; instead, he defends a manner of life and a manner of ministry that arises from deep union with Jesus Christ, a way of life that says yes to all that Jesus Christ is – his weakness, suffering, and death, as well as his power. And this way of life is for all who are in Christ.

Scholars have also said Paul is preoccupied with his authority in 2 Corinthians. Paul does mention his title and role from the very beginning. It states his authority. But only sort of. Paul is calling himself an apostle partly to demonstrate his authority. In this letter Paul is going to describe what Christian leadership looks like. Namely, it is shaped and conditioned by the one who authorizes, the one the apostle represents, Jesus Christ. An apostle is one sent by Christ. That involves authority, but we will also learn that it means service, servanthood, and sacrifice. Paul will tell the Corinthians, “Death is at work in us, but life is at work in you” (4:12). Paul not only proclaims Christ but takes on the traits of Christ – his meekness, his gentleness, and his suffering, as well as his power.

Paul expects Christian leaders to follow a path of ministry that embodies Jesus Christ. Paul lives in a state of fellowship with Christ but also a oneness with Jesus Christ that affects all aspects of life. Paul leads and preaches, Paul influences others, and he believes this cannot be separated from living in the manner of Jesus. For Paul, this is not at all optional. Those who preach Jesus Christ model a deep integration between the message they preach and the way of Jesus Christ. “For we do not preach ourselves but the Lord Jesus Christ, and ourselves as your servants because of Christ” (4:5). It’s a standard of Christian leadership that cannot allow anything but an integration between message (preaching Jesus Christ) and way of life (living out the manner of Jesus).

It is not exactly theology that turns Paul against some Christian teachers who oppose him; it’s the lack of integration between the gospel and the Christian life that Paul will attack in 2 Corinthians. To put it differently, we could say that Paul’s approach to Christian theology does not allow him to separate preaching Jesus Christ from living a life that arises from fellowship with Christ. Paul teaches a deep unity between Christ and Christian leaders, and between Christ and all believers.

This is part of what makes 2 Corinthians so powerful and penetrating as a letter. It has been among the least studied of Paul’s epistles. Yet if it had been kept more closely at hand, it could have helped Christianity to avoid some of its greatest mistakes. One thinks immediately of the fateful combination of political power with the Christian faith after the conversion of Constantine in the 4th century. And the sins committed during the crusades of the medieval period. And the entanglement of Christian mission with colonialism. The deep integration between Christian proclamation and Christian living demonstrated in 2 Corinthians could have helped the church avoid such epoch-making mistakes.

by (dia) the will of God

Anyone who reads Paul’s letters or the book of Acts can recognize that Paul was a man with a powerful will. Yet this phrase, “by the will of God“, is one of his favorites when introducing himself and his ministry (Guthrie 2015: 56). Paul’s life was not mainly about his will, but God’s, as part of his overall God-centered approach to life.

“By the will of God” is a good translation, but the word behind “by”, dia in Greek, gives the idea of a means by which something is done over time, a process that may take a long time. The phrase διὰ θελήματος θεοῦ, most literally, “through the will of God”, suggests the “circumstances by which something is accomplished” (Guthrie 56, BDAG 224). Paul uses that same word dia when he says, “we walk by faith (διὰ πίστεως), not by sight (διὰ εἴδους)” (5:7). Paul’s word dia fits walking, a process, a journey. It’s not just that Paul got to be an apostle by the will of God. God did not just get it started, then leave it up to Paul. The long journey of it, from start to finish and everywhere in between, is through the will of God.

For Paul, it’s crucial in his ministry that God’s agency is primary; Paul acts in response to God and in cooperation with God. God makes the first moves and keeps making the first moves. No matter how active we are as Christians, we are people who receive our ministry, who respond to God. We are not firstly people who act, who make decisions, who make things happen. Behind and before any desire or action on our part, there’s God’s will, God’s desiring (see also 1 Cor 9:16; Gal 1:15-16).

The life of ministry is God centered. It’s not mainly about our will, but God’s.

“and Timothy the brother” – 2 Corinthians is a letter in which Paul is going to say a whole lot about himself. And yet he is very collaborative, always involving someone else (Thiselton 2019:20). He names Timothy from the beginning. Paul knows that to get anywhere far or reach any big goals, he needs persons at his side. He acts in light of the reality that the work is far bigger than himself.

Calling Timothy “the brother” at the start of 2 Corinthians, I think Paul sees Timothy as “Exhibit A” for what Paul hopes to see in the Corinthian congregation itself. Paul holds up Timothy as representing what Paul is about as he ministers. He will call the Corinthians “brethren” in 1:8 and occasionally in the letter (8:1; 13:11). Yet he tends to use the term to refer to those who minister with him (9:3, 5). Timothy is the kind of person he hopes the Corinthians themselves will become.

Paul mentioned Timothy twice in 1 Corinthians. Immediately after Paul says the Corinthians are his children in the Lord and invites them imitate himself, he speaks of Timothy as his “beloved son, faithful in the Lord, who will remind you of my ways in Christ” (1 Cor 4:17). Timothy was the kind of trusted friend and assistant who could deliver Paul’s letter and then stand in Paul’s place while visiting a congregation when he couldn’t be there himself. “He does the work of the Lord as I do” (1 Cor 16:10). Timothy was also bi-cultural, half Jew and half Greek, and perhaps naturally able to cross boundaries with the gospel as Paul did.

I find it interesting that the Bible first mentions Timothy in Acts when Paul visits Lystra, Timothy’s hometown (Acts 16:1; see also 2 Tim 3:11), where Paul was dragged and stoned, left lying on the ground, and thought to be dead (Acts 14:19). Timothy either witnessed this event or at least was intimately acquainted with this suffering of Paul in his hometown. Timothy knows Paul’s suffering, and yet stands close to him as a trusted partner and friend.

We’ll see that the Corinthians are in a position where they know Paul’s difficulties, and they’re deciding whether or not to stick with Paul. They’re asking, can an apostle, can a model Christian, be someone who suffers? Can someone whose personal presence is weak, and his speech appalling, be a model of Christian maturity for people in an up-and-coming city like Corinth (2 Cor 10:10)? That’s a big reason why Paul writes this letter. Due mainly to concerns about the presence of weakness and suffering in his life, Paul needs to defend his manner of life and ministry, and build trust. Timothy is there as one who knows Paul’s sufferings, and yet stands with Paul. Can the Corinthians become like Timothy? Will they be able to walk with their teacher who has gone through terrible hardship, and continue receiving his teaching, instead of turning their back on that leader or stigmatizing him? Will they be able to stay close to Paul, and see that he is an apostle of Jesus Christ, that he represents Jesus Christ, even amidst the hardship he has faced?

Like Paul, we all need persons at our side, persons we develop and trust, who continue the work of the Lord as we do, who teach the Christian way of life as we do. The Christian life is collaborative. It gets lived out in heartfelt partnership and friendship.

“to the church of God which is in Corinth” – Here Paul first names the Corinthians, whom he calls “God’s church”. They’re a called people, the ἐκκλησίᾳ who’ve been “called out” (the literal meaning of the word) and gathered by God. Here the genitive “of God” seems to indicate ownership. This group of people belongs to God.

I once went to a presbytery gathering, a gathering of ministers and leaders from a number of congregations meeting at one local church. One of the ministers asked, “Who’s the owner of this church?” Then the pastor of that congregation was identified as the owner of that congregation. Maybe I misunderstood something. I hope I did. But what I heard shocked me. Only God owns the church.

And this church, this group of people who’ve been called out by God, reside in Corinth. Place is not the same as belonging. Paul says they belong to God, but they live out this belonging in the city of Corinth.

We could say many things about the city of Corinth. Bustling, prosperous. But what’s especially relevant about Corinth for understanding 2 Corinthians is that the people of this city tended to care deeply about competition, success, appearance, status, and reputation. It was a city of opportunity, a place where people migrated for the chance to pursue an upwardly mobile life.

These realities arose from the city’s location on a little piece of land between the Aegean and Adriatic seas. Shipping brought the city a seemingly endless supply of goods and money and people. Corinth controlled this shipping and profited from it. Rome had destroyed Corinth two hundred years before Paul arrived there, but in 44 BC Rome re-founded and allowed the city to repopulate. But since it had gone so long without a population, it had no established aristocracy. So unlike most ancient cities, people who had never enjoyed high status could enter and gradually move into the elite class, if they competed well. So the people were concerned with having the kind of success and appearance and mannerisms that led to high status.

Though the members of the Corinthian church had become followers of Jesus Christ, “some competitiveness, self-achievement, self-promotion, self-congratulation, and self-sufficiency remained” (Thiselton 2019:7). And the church came to wonder if Paul met their standards of what someone who led them ought to look like and sound like. Some were saying, “his bodily appearance is weak, and his speech despicable” (2 Cor. 10:10).

Yet Paul loved the Corinthians and didn’t give up on them. He had spent some eighteen months in Corinth during his initial visit (Acts 18:11), and as far as we know, he wrote more to this church than to any other. His challenges in Corinth were enormous, but he saw himself as a father; he saw them as his children (1 Cor 4:15). He also must have seen the worth of having a church and center for the gospel at such a crucial crossroads in the Mediterranean world. Such strategic ministry was worth personal sacrifice.

“with all the saints in all Achaia”

Paul calls these believers saints even though he will reveal that, in some ways, the Corinthians themselves have wounded him. What a history they have, in light of 1 Corinthians. Yet he dignifies them with the name “saints”, people set apart by God and for God. Both the term “saints” and the previous term “God’s church” signal that these people belong to God and God’s purposes. Sometimes we’re tempted to give up on God’s people, but Paul did not give up on the Corinthians, and will say to them in 2 Cor 1:6 “Our hope for you is firm.”  

The believers who are in Corinth are part of a larger body of Christians in that broad southern region of ancient Greece called Achaia, which also included Athens. It might seem that some of what Paul says is so specific that surely it pertains only to a small group of people in Corinth.  So it is interesting that Paul addresses this letter to all the believers throughout Achaia, a broad area, well beyond the city of Corinth (see also 11:10). In ancient times, Chrysostom took this to mean that the believers dispersed in this broad area were all involved with the same problem, and thus needed the same solution. I’m sure there’s truth to that, as the believers from this area must have dealt with similar issues and likely composed a fairly tight network of Christian fellowship with one another.

On the other hand, I think it likely that some of the believers living well beyond the confines of Corinth would hear the reading of this letter, and they would not understand some details of issues mentioned by Paul. For instance, they might not understand why Paul’s reputation seems to be at stake.  And yet Paul meant the letter to be shared broadly. This bears early witness to Paul’s confidence that the letter could speak beyond its immediate circumstances. Paul must have seen that his situation with the Corinthians fit a pattern of events that could easily occur elsewhere, or at least that the realities he spoke of in response to the problem fit a pattern that could speak beyond one context. Paul’s reputation has been attacked, but Paul has a message which will benefit not just himself or the congregation in Corinth, but the church as a whole.

So, either the problems spread beyond Corinth throughout Achaia, or Paul implies that the lessons speak beyond the particular context of Corinth – and the latter might even say something about Paul’s confidence that it could speak to us, today, as well. Paul wanted the letter shared. He had confidence that the truth we have and speak in Christ is translatable truth. It needs to go public. It can leap over boundaries, beyond the original circumstances. And God can speak to us today through these words of 2 Corinthians even if we don’t know the whole story of what’s behind Paul’s words or there’s something here or there we don’t fully understand.

We’ve seen that in the first verse, Paul marks his identity as an apostle, one sent by Christ Jesus through the will of God, and he addresses a group of people he calls saints and “God’s church”. Paul recognizes himself first as who he is in relation to Jesus Christ and God. That will always come first. Not that he’s Jewish, not that he’s educated, not that he’s a citizen of Rome, but that he’s sent by Jesus Christ. And he is who he is by the will of God. We are what we are, and we are who we are, through the will of God. We can be tempted to put other identities first, and maybe without realizing it. The verse first verse presents us the opportunity to ask if we are allowing ourselves to be defined by God and Christ.  

1:2 “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” (NRSV)

On one hand, Paul greets the Corinthians in a way modelled after a traditional Greek letter greeting (Thiselton 2019: 21), including a slight adjustment of the word χαίρειν “greetings” (see James 1:1) to become “grace to you” χάρις ὑμῖν. This is normal for Paul’s letters, along with the word “peace” (εἰρήνη) which indicates holistic well-being, based on the Hebrew concept of shalom.

Even in Paul’s greeting, he expresses deep ministry-shaping convictions: Grace, which as we will see in 2 Corinthians is what enables vitality and ministry during any difficulty, comes from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ (see 2 Cor 12:8-10). Moreover, peace – wellbeing, flourishing – comes from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ (see Guthrie 2015:59).

Paul identifies a key direction of movement that lays the basis of our life as Christians: Grace and peace come “from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ”. Paul will repeatedly identify this pattern throughout the letter. In the Christian life and the life of ministry, we have what we have from God and from the Lord Jesus Christ, the source and sustainer of all grace and every blessing.

We will find a triple use of “father” in verses 2 and 3. For Paul, in this context, God as Father means source, and the language highlights the personal and relational nature of God. Paul uses the personal language available to him, and Paul will help his readers see what kind of Father God is – he is the Father of mercies (2 Cor 1:3). And in Paul’s thinking, gifts come from God in, and by means of, Jesus Christ (1 Cor 1:5; 8:6). We will also see much more of “Lord” after this first mention by Paul. “We do not preach ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord” (2 Cor 4:5). The Lord Jesus is the one Paul seeks to honor and please (2 Cor 8:19, 21).

As we have seen through verses 1-2 God and Christ make Paul and the saints who they are. Paul knew who he was. His identity, calling, and way of life are rooted and centered in God and Jesus Christ. Through God and through the Lord Jesus Christ, Paul knew who he was and affirmed who he was with strong conviction, and he was able to affirm certain realities about his audience with the same strong conviction.

Let’s remember that God and Christ make us who we are. We’ll learn in 2 Corinthians that Paul’s circumstances also made him who he was, and that God used circumstances to make him who he was. We’ll explore that later. But behind and in our circumstances, God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ make us who we are as God’s church, as saints, and as those who minister. Paul’s initial words invite us to see ourselves as defined by and belonging to not ourselves or our own will but to God, God’s will, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Each one of us has a life and identity shaped by many factors. But most primary and determinative of all, is that we are of, from, and through God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. We receive our identity, our life, and our ministry from God and through Jesus Christ

Questions for reflection, conversation, and prayer

  1. From what do we take our sense of identity and purpose? What’s primary – our history, our education, privileges we enjoy, our belonging to a particular group of people? Do we define ourselves in and through God and Jesus Christ, or do other voices prevail?
  2. In light of Paul’s words and your own convictions, what do God and the Lord Jesus Christ enable you to affirm about yourself?

 

Works Cited

Croy, Clayton. 1999. A Primer of Biblical Greek. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Guthrie, George H. 2015. 2 Corinthians: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. 2015. Baker Academic: Grand Rapids.

Thiselton, Anthony C. 2019. 2 Corinthians: A Short Exegetical and Pastoral Commentary. Cascade Books: Eugene, Oregon.

Two instructive examples of how to approach the Old Testament

In this first video, I appreciate Walter Moberly’s insights into Genesis 1 and also into how to approach a text of the Old Testament.

And in this next video, Stephen Chapman models an approach to 1 Samuel that can work for many narratives in the Old Testament. Both of these videos could be useful in a course on how to interpret the Bible, especially for their descriptions of what theological interpretation of the Old Testament is about, and the kinds of questions the Bible speaks to.

Expanding Africa’s Model of Biblical Interpretation: Toward More Promise and Less Peril from Contextual Hermeneutics

This is a summary of a piece I’m writing…

This paper seeks to introduce the concepts of inductive Bible study and attending to the literary context of passages of Scripture to those who teach and practice African contextual hermeneutics. The essay engages my experience teaching biblical interpretation in Zambia (2010-2017), the observations of Justo Mwale University (JMU) student researchers, and literature from scholars of biblical hermeneutics in Africa, Europe, and the United States. The paper argues that in order to preserve the promise of contextual hermeneutics and to avoid its pitfalls, those who teach Scripture and theology in Africa need to expand contextual hermeneutics, so that it integrates inductive Bible study and attention to the literary context of biblical passages.

 

Contextual Hermeneutics: Promise and Perils for Africa

Contextual hermeneutics, as an approach to interpreting the Bible, elevates the question, “What does the Scripture mean to us and our community?” above other questions.[1] Contextual hermeneutics is highly valued in Africa for multiple reasons. It takes readers and the needs and experiences of their communities seriously. It goes further than traditional Western approaches in acknowledging the importance of what readers themselves bring to the interpretive process. It is highly practical — focusing not on the biblical past but on the Bible’s current impact. It also accords honor to ordinary readers, instead of privileging the readings of experts. By valuing the process of African readers in producing interpretations for their own communities, this method also encourages the individuation of the African church as it comes out from under colonial powers. For many reasons, contextual biblical hermeneutics is a natural fit for Africa’s approach to the Bible.

However, contextual hermeneutics also has shortcomings: Despite the reality that numerous African ways of seeing bear resemblance to biblical ways of seeing, the Bible presents human interpretation as prone to error and in need of direction from beyond itself. Contextual hermeneutics places too much confidence in human judgments; it fails to recognize that readers need guidance and limits. It too readily allows interpretations to mirror the aspirations and values of readers, so that the Bible becomes overly affirming of culture. It does little to encourage finding content which calls preconceptions into question. It also gives implicit permission to overlook or relegate to what is irrelevant the parts of Scripture which do not seem to speak to African values of healing, material well-being, and protection against enemies. In short, contextual hermeneutics tends to prioritize the culture and perspectives of readers somewhat above what is actually written in Scripture, so that the Bible means (mostly) what the readers’ community wants it to mean. Despite its key advantages for the African church, contextual hermeneutics is also perilous for God’s people in Africa because it turns the experience of readers and their community into a canon beyond the canon of Scripture.

The prevalence of the prosperity gospel in Africa supplies evidence that the aspirations of readers tend to trump the actual content of biblical texts. For example, a JMU student researcher, also a Malawian pastor, is writing on the meaning of the phrase “abundant life” (John 10:10) — one of African Christianity’s most prominent phrases. She is thinking through whether preachers in her synod should define “abundant life” according to how people in their communities define it, or if they should give first priority to how the context of John’s Gospel itself speaks to the theme. In surveying her fellow pastors, 75% say priority should go to how people in the communities define their need for prosperity in all areas of life. Scripture should be of high priority, but the needs of the community should come first in determining the message to be proclaimed. Other examples could be shared.

 

The Promise of Inductive Bible Study and Literary Context for Contextual Hermeneutics

Who gets to define the message that the African church proclaims? African culture? The Bible? Or some fruitful combination of the two? Proponents of African contextual hermeneutics usually prefer the third option over the first, and expressly concern themselves with reading for the sake of transformation. Yet how much transformation occurs if we go to Scripture looking to affirm our culture and do not get hold of content which challenges how we think and what we value? Contextual hermeneutics needs intentional and structured ways to help readers grasp more of the transforming content of Scripture. If those who teach Scripture and theology in Africa expand contextual hermeneutics, so that it also integrates inductive Bible study and attending to the literary context of biblical passages, this can empower people to discover biblical truth for themselves. Scripture reading is most transformative when readers are given skills to see what is present in Scripture and also space to let dialogue happen between text and context.

Inductive Bible study, as an evidential approach, focuses on developing readers’ skills to attend carefully to the words, phrases, and thoughts of Scripture. Inductive Bible study seeks to foster a “radical openness”[2] to what will be found in the words of Scripture. As readers discover what is in Scripture, this leads to a “critical interaction between their pre-understandings … and the witness of the biblical text”.[3] In other words, inductive Bible study leads to critical contextualization.

To attend to the “literary context,” we interpret words and verses according to what we find in the immediate and surrounding passages. We interpret small sections of verses in light of chapters and larger sections of a book of the Bible. Words, sentences, passages, and chapters “take their meaning from the biblical book of which they are a part”.[4] When we read something in its literary context, we have to face what is really in the text. We deal with a verse in light of what the rest of its own context is saying. The literary context is important because it helps to keep us on track.

 

How We Might Combine These Methods

Inductive Bible study, like contextual hermeneutics, fosters skills in ordinary readers and opens dialogue with readers’ context. These aspects ease the way for it to be combined with contextual hermeneutics. However, contextual hermeneutics tends to start with questions and conversation about the needs and realities of the readers’ context instead of starting with the text itself. This is an issue I am still sorting through. However, in my own teaching, I have found that the methods may be combined by training students to ask questions which open the text of Scripture and questions which open their context in conversation with the text. My experience is that while the latter occurs naturally, the former is more difficult and requires patience and practice. The eyes of most students need to be trained to follow the line of thought of something they read, and to attend patiently to the literary context of a passage. I am developing a biblical interpretation course which trains students to work at skills of inductive Bible study and attention to literary context, in which we spend each class period in the practice of asking open questions of passages from a variety of genres of biblical literature. The midterm and final assignments/exams are used for students to describe how the students would go about teaching these same methods in their own congregations.

 

Conclusion

What defines the message that the African church proclaims? African culture? The Bible? Some fruitful combination of the two? Scholarship on African biblical hermeneutics usually says that the answer is found in the third option; but in actual practice, the needs, expectations, and values of readers and their communities tend to dominate. Contextual hermeneutics, all too often, identifies messages from Scripture which affirm the pre-understandings of local culture. Although we should embrace contextual hermeneutics, we should also incorporate inductive Bible study and attending to the literary context of Scripture. By doing so, believers will learn to recognize where Scripture speaks words that are different from the values and beliefs of local culture. Training believers in inductive Bible study and attending to the literary context of passages could give contextual hermeneutics what is needed to be truly transformative, and thereby make a substantial contribution to the practice of biblical interpretation in Africa. By taking in more available evidence from the world within the biblical text, readers position themselves to hold genuine transformative dialogue between their own world and the world which Scripture describes.

[1] Justin Ukpong states: “Methodological priority is given to the context of the readers”. See “Inculturation Hermeneutics: An African approach to biblical interpretation”, in Dietrich and Luz (eds.), The Bible in a World Context: An Experiment in Contextual Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 28.

 

[2] Bauer and Traina, Inductive Bible Study: A Comprehensive Guide to the Practice of Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), 18

[3] Ibid, 1.

[4] Jeannine Brown, Scripture as Communication: Introducing Biblical Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 213. In contextual hermeneutics, words take meaning from the community of readers. I take both of these to be true, but the community needs the literary context of biblical passages to guide the interpretive process.

A Guide for Studying a Theme (or particular word) in a Book of Scripture

  1. Read through the entire book of the Bible to see where it mentions the theme. If the book is very long, consider using a concordance instead to see everywhere the book uses the word. Trace the theme’s use and development through the book as a whole. Look for repetition of key nouns, verbs, phrases, images, and ideas. Remember that a theme can be expressed in many different ways. Keep in mind that a key word in Greek might be hidden behind two or three different English words in translation (if you have access to the Greek text and/or Greek concordance, try to use these).
  2. Notice how this theme intersects and overlaps with other key themes in the book. For instance, if you are studying trials and temptations in James, what other themes in James shed light on these themes? Also, does the book contain contrasting or opposite themes that shed light on the theme you are studying? For example, if you are studying “endurance” in Hebrews or Revelation, how does the book contrast endurance with another theme?
  3. How does the theme relate to the book’s rhetorical situation and aims, and what role does it play in achieving the author’s aims? For instance, John states his aim in writing his Gospel in 20:30-31, and he mentions “belief” and “life”, and other key themes in John tend to relate to these themes.
  4. Attempt to arrive at this book’s specific understanding of this theme by making use of all the book says about the theme. Be open to variation and complexity, and to seeing things you didn’t expect. What observations can you make regarding the theme’s role in the overall theology of the book?
  5. Be careful not to assume that this book of the New Testament (NT) speaks about the theme in precisely the same way that another NT book deals with the theme. Can you pinpoint clarifying comparisons or contrasts between the theme in this book of the NT versus other NT books?
  6. What does your study of the theme reveal about this book’s perspective on the Christian life? Has your study shed light on how the Christian life works, according to this book?
  7. During your study of this theme, have there been particular ways that you relate personally to this theme? Are there ways the theme helps you see your life a little differently or more clearly? How does this theme speak to you personally? How might this theme speak to your family? How might it speak to your church?
  8. After you have followed through on the above steps, consider secondary sources that might help you gain greater insight into your theme (a study Bible, commentary, Bible dictionary, an article, etc.) or correct any misperceptions. If you are writing a paper and take an idea from such a source, you must reference that source and clarify exactly what you took from it.
  9. If you are writing an essay or preparing a teaching, read and reread your observations until you can develop an outline that organizes your material in a thoughtful and meaningful way.

The Prosperity Gospel and the Use of Context when Interpreting the Bible*

Is the gospel of prosperity biblical? That is, does it communicate what Scripture itself teaches, and does it express what is true of the Bible as a whole?

Certainly those who preach prosperity present it as a message from Scripture. They point to a wide array of key verses that seem to guarantee financial breakthroughs. For instance, prosperity preachers repeatedly quote 2 Corinthians 8-9, including: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9, NIV).  They also repeat, “And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work” (2 Cor 9:8, NIV).

However, these verses which prosperity preachers quote tend to be removed from their original context of 2 Corinthians. This is one of the biblical books most quoted by prosperity preachers, but as a whole it teaches something very different than the prosperity gospel. It is the same letter where the Apostle says twice that he has often gone hungry (2 Cor 6:5; 11:27) and where he teaches that the sufferings of Christ are abundant in the lives of believers (2 Cor 1:5). It is also in 2 Corinthians that Paul tells of the thorn in his flesh that would not leave him, despite his repeated pleas to God (2 Cor 12:7-10). In fact, one of the main themes of 2 Corinthians is that the Christian life is not about escaping or moving beyond weakness and suffering; this letter teaches that we experience and administer God’s power and presence in the midst of hardship. For this reason, it is quite strange to use verses from 2 Corinthians to guarantee success to believers.

If 2 Corinthians as a whole does not promise prosperity to believers, then how is it that prosperity preachers keep turning to 2 Corinthians for promises of financial breakthrough? The answer lies in their interpretive method: They tend to rely upon scattered verses in the New Testament that are removed from their original context, and they tend to overlook the main aims, major lines of thought, and key themes of biblical books from where the verses originate. Prosperity preachers’ removal of verses from where they originate leads them to misinterpret the verses they quote. In the case of 2 Corinthians, the result is a contradiction of the overall message of the book. As preachers, we need to be careful about relying upon a few scattered Bible verses pulled out of their historical and literary context. We need to be wary of utilizing these as proof texts that run against the main themes of the books of the Bible where they were originally found. Yet this is precisely the error that many who preach the message of prosperity fall into.

Understanding communication, and interpreting it wisely, always requires context. Imagine trying to view an impressionist painting by looking at only a few of the artist’s dots, while ignoring the whole. Or imagine the proverbial blind person trying to describe an elephant by touching only one part of its body. In both cases, the resulting picture is quite different than reality. The same might be said of prosperity preachers’ approach to quoting the Bible.

* A version of this was published earlier in this blog and also in In Search of Health and Wealth: The Prosperity Gospel in African, Reformed Perspective, ed. Hermen Kroesbergen (Wellington, Republic of South Africa: Christian Literature Publishers, 2013; Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock, 2014).

Literary Context

If we grow in our ability to interpret the Bible, that can always help our relationship with God, because we will hear God speak to us through Scripture more clearly. Perhaps the most important skill to learn for interpreting Scripture is to read a passage in its literary context. What does it mean to read Scripture in light of the literary context, and why is the literary context so important?

By giving attention to the literary context, I mean that we interpret words in light of the verses of the Bible in which they’re found. And we interpret verses in light of the immediate sections of Scripture in which they’re found. And we interpret small sections of verses in light of chapters and large sections of a book of the Bible. And we interpret chapters and large sections of a book of the Bible in light of the book as a whole. Words, sentences, passages, and chapters “take their meaning from the biblical book of which they are a part” (Jeannine Brown, Scripture as Communication, 213). In short, making use of the literary context means that we interpret words and verses according to what we find in the immediate and surrounding passages.

The literary context is important because it helps to keep us on track. Too often we try and make a piece of Scripture fit our own preconceived notions. When we read something in its literary context, we have to face what’s really in the text, so that we don’t accidentally (or purposefully) make Scripture say whatever we want it to say. When we read a verse in its literary context, we must deal with the verse in light of what the rest of its own context is saying. A good literary approach allows Scripture to have its own voice. The literary context is also important because it’s clarifying. It’s very hard to see the meaning of a text if we don’t understand what the author says before and after that given piece of text. Many meanings are possible when we don’t read something in context. The literary context gives us much more to work with, so that we have the author’s own guidance to clarify the meaning.