Do pastors really need to know the “background” of the Bible?

In an interesting exchange, D. A. Carson and John Piper discuss whether pastors really need to understand the social and historical context of the Bible in order to preach well. Piper pushes pretty hard for the idea that good preaching really just requires one to be “steeped” in the biblical texts. Unsurprisingly, though Carson agrees that this is primary, he maintains the importance of background material. They come together in the end, but there still seems to be some difference on this point.

I have to admit that I can see both sides of this one. On the one hand, those arguing that we only need the text often seem to offer a false alternative here: steep yourself in the text rather than get distracted by background studies. But, it’s never that simple. How do you steep yourself in a text unless you understand enough about it to grasp what the author is trying to say? The preacher needs some background information even to understand the language (vocabulary, grammar, syntax, etc.), let alone the cultural ideas and practices they convey. Piper seems to believe that you can get most of this information from the text itself, but that hardly seems possible since you need some understanding of these things to interpret the text adequately in the first place.

But, on the other hand, it’s easy for us academics to become elitist with our claims that you really can’t understand the Bible without our advanced degrees, thick books, complex theories, and countless hours of uninterrupted study. At that point, we lose sight of the fact that the Bible is not just another ancient text requiring for its proper interpretation the acquisition of academic arcanity. It’s also a divine text through which the Spirit has always worked powerfully, even among poorly educated people or those who just lacked an adequate understanding of its original socio-historical context.

Background material has value, and disciplined preachers will seek it out to deepen their sermons. I’ve heard enough ill-informed expositional “nuggets” over the years to know the importance of doing your homework. So, if you have the time, education, and resources to study such issues carefully, please do. What you have is a gift to be used for the benefit of the body. Don’t squander it.

But, faithful ministers can and do preach powerful sermons even without this information. God is both gracious and powerful. He has always worked through vessels that were less-than-perfect. That can’t become an excuse for sloppy sermon-prep, but it should encourage all of us to know that, in the end, the power of the sermon is in the Spirit and not the preacher.


About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on July 27, 2011, in Preaching. Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. I adore John Piper. He’s a powerful voice for the Lord in this age of constant noise. But after reading through Professor John H. Walton’s books on Genesis, I am convinced that it is crucial to teach the who and why of a text just as strongly as how it applies today. If we don’t, we end up skewing the Word to our own world view. God is timeless, His Word is eternal and we need to understand everything about it to the best of our ability.

    • Walton’s is a fascinating work, and it definitely throws some light on the importance of reading in context. But it also suggests the flip side. People have preached powerfully from Gen 1 for millennia without any concept that this is what it is all about. That doesn’t remove the need for careful study, but it does suggest that the Sprit will continue to move powerfully in its absence.

  2. I think preaching from the text makes it easy to find verses that agree with one’s theology. What if the preferred text of a preacher is a paraphrase version auch as the NLT or The Message?

    From my perspective, the context of the text can shed light in the text and convey meaning that was understood at the time of the event amf therefore not written out for us to conveniently know 2,000 years later.

  3. Thanks for sharing, Dr. Cortez. As I see it, what seems to be the issue here is what Anthony Thiselton considers, “The Pastness of the Past.” The issue of attempting to understand the nature of historical knowledge and the plausibility of ascertaining a first-century mindset, well discussed in H.-G. Gadamer’s Truth and Method, is an incredibly complex issue. Carolyn Sharp’s recent monograph, Wrestling with the Word, is a great resource for one to consider in how historical consciousness is relative to a hermeneutical philosophy (in which case Derrida and Foucault, Deconstructionism, Saussure, Structuralism, Canonical Criticism, etc. all have a stance towards historical knowledge).

    I’ve also been giving some thought to background knowledge in terms of what Logic is used. I’ve not fully developed my understanding on the issue yet, as I am doing reading and research into the role of Abductive Logic (AL), seeking to understand the role of plausibility (noetic persuasiveness) that AL may have over inductive logic.

    • That is a great example of what I am talking about. Your studies sound fascinating and very worthwhile. But they are obviously far from the kind of thing that the average pastor would have available when prepping a Sunday sermon. And, that is just in the “educated” west. Pastors throughout the world (and throughout time) have had to make do with far less. Yet the Spirit still works. So, I still think both perspectives have value.

      • I wasn’t intending for my comment to abnegate your premise—namely that the Holy Spirit is able “to work powerfully” in settings of people with academic degrees and not. On the other hand, I would suggest that the issue is something to which Pastor’s ought to devote thought and energy. To understand how Scripture means is as essential to understanding the meaning of Scripture.

        I acquiesce to your analysis. Pastor’s most likely don’t engage this type of material in a Sunday Sermon Prep Time, and nor should they in a such a venue. Are there occasions in which a Pastor should, Yes, most certainly (a paragon example would be a weary parishioner who is attempting to understand God’s will and purpose for their life). Will the pastor ever need to use the name of H.-G. Gadamer in counsel to such a person, no, probably shouldn’t or how what logic is used my change the conclusion of our understanding, no, probably not. I was merely commenting—whether it be for someone in a pastoral role in Cambridge, Massachusetts or Uganda, Africa—that understanding how Scripture bears meaning for today is a worthy question to pursue. Do both perspectives have value? Yes. I agree with you here as well.

      • “Pastors throughout the world (and throughout time) have had to make do with far less. Yet the Spirit still works. ”

        And yet, I suspect if someone was arguing with Jon Piper regarding the merits of knowing the original languages, he’d be a lot more nuanced.

  1. Pingback: August 2011 Biblical Studies Carnival « Daniel O. McClellan

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