After having a great conversation with some friends in regards to interpreting Scripture I came away with a series of questions:
1.) How important is "literary context" to understanding the Bible properly?
2.) What are several principles that I could use to guide me in my practice of interpretation?
3.) What is the difference between immediate context, book context, and Bible context?
4.) Which one of these do you think is most useful for me to understand in hermeneutics?
5.) If I had to teach a class on interpretation, how could I explain the task of understanding the literary context of a passage?
6.) Why would it be important in your opinion?
7.) What problems could arise if someone doesn't take the literary context into consideration?
What references could I seek out to learn more about literary context?
Superb questions. In my view, the real place to begin is from those who actually put the Bible together in the first place, the fathers and doctors of the ancient church, both eastern and western. Their authority is immense: they were masters of Greek and Latin; they were the inheritors of the philosophical and rhetorical world of antiquity; they transmitted the ancient philosophical ontology and brought it to a Christian context; they (and this is often overlooked) had access to sources long since lost.
Think of it this way: if you want to know about the US constitution, do not go to present day constitutional scholars in the university. Instead, read Madison, Adams, Henry, Mason and Hamilton. This is the best method here as well.
What I will do is give the general patristic view on these questions.
How important is "literary context" to understanding the Bible properly?
It is of immense importance. Scriptures, in the ancient view, are a record of how mankind has responded to the divine message. The central concept is that the literary context is not something dead and in the past, to be uncovered by archeologists and decoded. It is a living, breathing tradition taking its roots from that original context. Importantly, the ontological assumptions of the ancient world were not all that different from the realities that the patristic age had to work with.
The real rupture came at the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the domination of Islam over formerly Christian areas, the rise of nominalism and the science (sort of) of the Renaissance. I might also add the rise of nominalism in the west around the same time. Suddenly, words, texts and symbols became obscure. What was once instinctively grasped as an important verbal icon now was just "words" to be interpreted at the desire of the reader. This means that we, in 2013, have a far tougher time than if we were born in 213.
Making matters worse, recall that 1000 years ago, "Scriptures" or "The Divine Writings" did not merely refer to the 74 books of the bible. It referred to the writings of the fathers, canons and the deeds of the great saints, emperors and martyrs. Since St. Polykarp was a student of St. John, and St. Clement of Rome, as well as St. Ignatius of Antioch, were students of St. Peter, to ignore their testimony seems ridiculous.
What are several principles that I could use to guide me in my practice of interpretation?
There are many. It is difficult to distill the most important.
The great theologian Platon of Moscow (18th c) took the ancient writings and extracted five general principles for biblical interpretation relative to the literary history.
1. The concept of the "literal meaning" refers to our obligation to grasp the words, phrases and actions as deriving from a specific moment in history. Political, economic and intellectual trends must be taken seriously. Once the conceptual apparatus of the time is understood, much that was obscure in scripture becomes clearer.
2. Our first obligation is the literal meaning as historical product and, underneath that, the universal reality. This is not the same thing as to grasp some mystical sense available to the few. That is not the issue. There is both a historical context and a universal truth. These do not contradict.
3. Ancient authors on the scriptures need to be consulted always.
4. There is no understanding without inner purity. This is an essential patristic concept. Those who struggle to live the ascetic life and are content with few ...
The concept of the "literal meaning" refers to our obligation to grasp the words, phrases and actions as deriving from a specific moment in history. Political, economic and intellectual trends must be taken seriously. Once the conceptual apparatus of the time is understood, much that was obscure in scripture becomes clearer.