The In-the-Neighborhood Principle of Bible Interpretation

Principle #3: The In-the-Neighborhood Principle of Bible Interpretation

I have heard people talk about the value of real estate: location, location, and location. I have always tried to buy the least expensive house in the most expensive neighborhood, so I understand that real estate maxim. Location, location, location also helps us think about another principle to guide Bible interpretation.

The In-the-Neighborhood Principle (also known as the contextual principle) sets the passage you are studying in context. Just as you look at a house and then think about the next door neighbors, and the houses on the street, and the neighborhood and the city, we look at a passage and what surrounds it.

To put a passage in context, look at the passage’s “neighbors:”

  • What do the verses before the passage say?
  • What do the verses after the passage say?
  • What does the chapter around this passage say?
  • What does the book or letter that contains this passage say?
  • How does the passage fit into other books or letters by the same writer?
  • How does this passage fit into the testament setting (Old Testament or New Testament)?
  • How does this passage fit into the whole message of the Bible?

In some curricula resources, the editors will set the passage to be studied as the “focal” passage and the contextual passage around it as the “background” passage.

Here is an example. Look at Philippians 4:13 (ESV), “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” This verse is often used for losing weight, facing physical challenges, playing sports, or even passing final exams. But, are these applications supported by the context? So, look at the neighborhood. Read the verses before and after this verse (vv. 10-20). Is weight-loss, running marathons, or passing exams mentioned? No. The context is about how Paul has financial needs but how, depending on God’s strength, he can live well with poverty or with riches. While we may be able to apply the principle of this verse to other challenges, the meaning of Philippians 4:13 is about God’s strength for financial challenges.

Reflection: Read and meditate on 1 Peter 1:16-21. Ask the questions suggested above as you interpret this passage.

Learn More: Read How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart.

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