When using the hermeneutical approach of contextual analysis, What are the main tenets of this approach? How much context is usually necessary to consider?


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I'm not sure contextual analysis rises to the the level of an "approach", but it's a tool used by many other schools of hermeneutics—especially those that put significance on understanding what the original author intended to communicate. The basic idea is that when an author makes statement A it's in the context of a network of statements B, C, D, and so on that all fit together somehow.

Take, for instance, Jesus' statement in Luke 14:34a (ESV):

"Salt is good."

Without context, you could easily interpret that to mean that doctors are wrong to order patients with hyper-tension to reduce their sodium intake. But as you start to look at the statements surrounding this one, that interpretation becomes harder and harder to justify. In fact, Jesus isn't really making any medical advice in this passage at all.

As for what context we need to consider, different hermeneutical schools will have different priorities. Here is my hierarchy of context, which I think coincides well to the Grammatical-Historical approach:

  1. Grammatical
  2. Immediate
  3. Narrative context
  4. Thematic context within a work
  5. The author's other (especially prior) works
  6. Social context an author worked within
  7. Previous works by others the author may have referenced

[I could not find a reference to back this up or refute this list. Any suggestions?]

Generally, the higher up the scale and the stronger the affinity, the better evidence a context offers. In the example above, the historical context might suggest that Jesus is talking about a soldier's salary, but the immediate context makes clear the culinary uses of salt are in view. Even so, since an author usually has a choice of several words, they may have multiple and interlocking connotations.

Usually, meaning of a particular statement can be found by examining wider and wider circles of context. We do need to be careful not to impose an inappropriate context on text, however. It's possible that some obscure passages will never be fully understood as we have lost the original contextual framework in which they were written.

  • Very good stuff here, Jon. I see you've been busy today too. ;) Nov 10, 2011 at 0:00
  • In Living By The Book (p. 233 in my edition), Howard Hendricks notes five contexts to consider. Literary, historical, cultural, geographic and theological. Nov 10, 2011 at 0:08
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    Also, a general literature approach to contextual analysis. Nov 10, 2011 at 0:10
  • @GalacticCowboy: The link reminds me that genre is often important context. I'll need to update my answer after thinking about my framework some. Thanks for the pointers. Nov 10, 2011 at 0:19

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