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.

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

  1. I’m wondering if you are using the historical approach to enhance your interpretation, do you first try to determine what time the book was writen and use that history/cultural background, or do you use the historical/cultural background for the time period the story actually occured. Many of the books, particularly the OT, were written much later than the stories they tell – so do you focus on the authors culture, or the culture of the story being told. I think God explains what he needs to in the text if is worthy of our knowing, and because of that, when we focus too much, or at all, on the cultural ‘things’ that are not explained in the text, we are probably missing the point. In other words, I would say that focusing on the historical background probably does more to harm our interpretation of the text.

  2. I would look at all the relevant historical contexts. For example, the prophets refer to past events when speaking at strategic moments in Israel’s history so the context of the historical event and the context of the reference to the event are both worthy of study. As to your second question I think this is the antithesis that flustered Dr Carson a bit in the video — do we study the Bible or do we study extra-biblical research? It’s not an either/or decision. Further, I think Osborne’s point is really important about the text acting as the control for what historical information is brought to bear: “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.” The text itself centers any/all other historical research.

  3. Bingo, Jeff! I love Mike Bullmore. The topic head coverings is one area where extra-biblical cultural data plays an important role in interpretation and, as you can hear in Mike’s sermon, it becomes critically important in helping a pastor apply the biblical principle in a modern church context (btw, his example when he equates the practice with couples sitting together is really fitting and wise). In this sermon I get the sense that the biblical text was the control for his choice of other historical and cultural information for his sermon, which is what Osborne argues for in his chapter. Fwiw, the best book on women in the Greco-Roman world is by Bruce Winter, Roman Wives, Roman Widows: The Appearance of New Women and the Pauline Communities (Eerdmans, 2003). I assume this is where Mike gets his view of the women’s liberation movement. This was the book that first convinced me of the value of extra-biblical historical research. I read and I was stunned. Nevertheless social-historical research can be mishandled or used to manipulate the text so it takes a scholar like Winter with strong biblical, theological backbone to wisely sift through the relevant material. Nevertheless, a guy like Winter is a real gift to the church and a gift to pastors preparing sermons.

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