Hermeneutic Humility

I was honored to have read a tall stack of excellent books in 2012, but when I think back on the year I’m reminded of one specific excerpt that drop-kicked me to the floor when I read it for the first time and led me to repent over how I approach my Bible. It comes from Jonathan Pennington’s new book Reading the Gospels Wisely: A Narrative and Theological Introduction, a book worth reading from cover to cover, but this is the excerpt I refer to (pages 139–141):

The Mother-in-Law—Jeremiah 29:11 Refrigerator Magnet—Diet Principle

Imagine yourself as a seminary student. Now imagine yourself as a young, male seminary student with a semi-educated, somewhat emotional, faithful churchgoing but biblically untrained mother-in-law. You like her well enough, but as your own seminary training has increased your exegetical skills, knowledge of church history, and theological acumen, you have found a corresponding increase in discomfort when talking to her about God and the Bible.

She is very passionate about the latest devotional book she is reading and the new insights she has gained into passages of Scripture from looking up Greek words in Vine’s Expository Dictionary. Every time you see her, you sense with increasing intensity that she could be on the cover of the next edition of Carson’s Exegetical Fallacies. On your better days you just nod and smile politely. In your grouchy moments you daydream about ripping the books out of her hands, mocking them, stomping on them a few times, and throwing them into the fireplace while quoting Greek paradigms.

But then when you arrive at her house one Thanksgiving, you see something that pushes you over the edge. On the refrigerator, holding up her unrealistic diet plan, is a magnet with a nice flowing script of Jeremiah 29:11—”For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.” It is obvious that this verse and this diet plan are organically related in her mind. She is taking this verse to heart every day as a promise from God for her success in shedding a few pounds.

How will you respond?

Your exegetically and theologically trained mind immediately populates a list of problems with her use of this verse: this is a horrible translation of the Bible; this verse is taken out of context; this is a word spoken to the nation of Israel in the Old Covenant and therefore can’t apply to her; God doesn’t care about her diet, and on and on. Thankfully, you have enough sense and wisdom not to attack or mock her and her refrigerator magnet, but in your quiet moments later you face a couple of crucial questions.

These questions are ours as well when we read Scripture and when we read and hear interpretations of Scripture. First, what is wrong with her interpretation/reading/application of this verse?

What is wrong with this use of Jeremiah 29:11? In the first instance, we are right to emphasize that what a text or verse means is best approached in its own literary and theological context. Her ignorance of the overall story of the Bible and the fact that this verse is from a letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent to the elders and priests of Jerusalem who were then in exile in Babylon is a regrettable oversight. This knowledge would deepen and contextualize the significance of these lines. We may also register some concern that not every word to the nation of Israel necessarily has a direct application to the individual Christian. Other examples come to mind including details of the Mosaic law concerning diet and clothing or promises of physical blessing for obedience to Torah.

However, we must also ask what might be good about her reading. And herein lies much that we might initially overlook. Even though her reading and application of this verse may not be very sophisticated or theologically astute, I would suggest that ultimately what it possesses is greater than this deficiency.

At one level her reading is in fact more theologically perceptive than, our systematized view might be. That is, in a very real sense a promise like Jeremiah 29:11 does apply to the individual who is in Christ (in whom “all the promises of God are Yes and Amen”; 2 Cor. 1:20). Jeremiah’s words are God’s words; they reveal God’s heart and disposition toward his people, who are now defined no longer ethnically but based on faith response in Jesus—that is, all Christians. To read Jeremiah Christianly is to receive this as God’s promised to us, albeit in light of the full picture of Scripture in which the church is now in a time of sojourning exile awaiting the return of the Son.

Moreover, what is good—even glorious—about her reading of Jeremiahs 29:11 as applied to her diet is that she has the right posture toward God and Holy Scripture as she reads. That is, she is going to the Bible looking for God to speak and guide and direct her life very personally. She expects the living God to speak to her, and she is willing to listen. She has chosen the better part. Certainly we might want her to grow in her theological knowledge and interpretive skills, but not at the expense of this simple God-ward faith and posture.

We as trained exegetes and theologians can and should also have this posture, but honest self-reflection reveals that for most of us, our learning often creates layers of distance between us and hearing the Bible as God’s Word to us. Although it was obtained for the supposed goal of bridging the gap between us and the biblical text, our training in fact often creates in our hearts and minds an elaborate structure of paper walls and divisions that create a maze of distance between us and Scripture.

Is extra-biblical historical and cultural background research of any real importance for preachers?

That’s a good question and one take up by Dr. Don Carson and Dr. John Piper in this 5-minute video exchange:

It’s a good conversation. Piper argues for preachers to simply focus on the text, and his model of arcing is commendable. And Carson makes good points about historicity of Scripture. But after watching the video this question about the value of extra-biblical historical and cultural background research for preachers is a question that lingers in my mind. So I pulled off my shelf Grant Osborne’s book The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (IVP, 2006). I commend it to you if you want to think more about this topic, or really any/every topic related to Bible interpretation.

Here’s how Osborne begins chapter 5: “Historical and Cultural Backgrounds”:

Background knowledge will turn a sermon from a two-dimensional study to a three-dimensional cinematic event. The stories and discourses of the Bible were never meant to be merely two-dimensional treatises divorced from real life. Every one was written within a concrete cultural milieu and written to a concrete situation. It is socioscientific background studies that unlock the original situation that otherwise would be lost to the modern reader. …

Since Christianity is a historical religion, the interpreter must recognize that an understanding of the history and culture within which the passage was produced is an indispensable tool for uncovering the meaning of that passage.

“History” is the diachronic aspect, relating to the milieu within which the sacred writers produced their works; it refers to the events and times within which God’s sacred revelation is couched. “Culture” is the synchronic aspect, referring to the manners, customs, institutions and principles that characterize any particular age and form the environment within which people conduct their lives.

Biblical literature has two dimensions: historical intentionality, in which the author assumes certain shared information with the original readers; and literary intentionality, in which he encodes a message in his text.

Authors either address (prophetic and epistolary literature with a present historical thrust) or describe (historical narrative with a past historical thrust) background situations. In both of these cases there are shared assumptions between the author and the original readers, information not found in the text, data that they knew but we do not. While semantic research and syntactical analysis can unlock the literary dimension, background study is necessary in order to uncover that deeper level of meaning behind the text as well as within it.

Later in the chapter he writes, “On the whole, background analysis is an essential tool in the task of coming to understand Scripture in depth, and without it the exegete is doomed to a two-dimensional approach to the text” (179). That’s well said, and quite strongly.

So is extra-biblical historical and cultural background studies of any real importance for preachers today? Yes, I think it is. And that’s because inspired Scripture is both eternal truth and is rooted in a particular historical context. Only because the Bible is historically true does background research matter in the first place.

At the end of the chapter Osborne offers pastors some wise pointers on how to apply historical research, which I think speak to Piper’s concerns in the video:

  • “Make certain the [Biblical] passage has been studied thoroughly along grammatical-semantic-syntactical lines. The results of detailed exegesis will form the control for determining the proper background parallels to adduce in deepening the meaning of the text” (179). Amen, that’s a crucial point.
  • “The text is primary and not the background material. We must remember that historical-cultural exegesis is a supplement to the text and not an end in itself” (180). Amen.
  • “Do not exaggerate the importance of the sociological aspects to the denigration of the individual or spiritual dimensions. Remember that the text must control the background data and not vice versa!” (180). Amen and amen! This I believe is Carson’s main concern with so-called socio-rhetorical commentaries.

So I guess all I’m saying is that if you’re a pastor interested in this topic and you want a fuller look at the challenges and benefits of historical background study, read Osborne’s chapter.

And if you’re still not persuaded of the value of background research after that, I commend to you Eckhard Schnabel’s 2-volume 2000-page work, Early Christian Mission (IVP, 2004). Schnabel is a first-rate theologian and historian bringing first century Greco-Roman world into 3D.

And in case you’re interested, here is one example of how cultural background research helped me make an important theological connection about the cross.