The Merits of Studying Hermeneutics and Extrabiblical Sources

This video wonderfully pictures the two main dominant views in Christianity today. As part of the Gospel Coalition videos, Tim Keller, D.A. Carson and John Piper are discussing the importance and the place of studying hermeneutics and extra biblical sources.

In my assessment of this video, I do not intend this post to be a harsh critique of an elderly pastor who has received enough criticism over the last couple of years. I do not wish to get on the same wagon. However, what is discussed in this round table discussion is vitally important to our church life in general and not limited to people who are more academically minded or people who have masters in theology. The interaction that is happening between D.A. Carson and John Piper has relevance to all Christians of all life and the way they read their Bible and how they draw conclusions from it. On my Facebook post, I voiced my disappointment with what John Piper was arguing in this video and one of my good friends asked me to elaborate on that and here it is…

D.A. Carson begins the discussion by emphasizing the importance of hermeneutics and be mindful of the ways we employ to interpret the Bible as opposed to the mentality that all we need to do is simply to read the Bible and we don’t need to worry about the rest. And at this point, Piper chimes in and states his problem

John, Piper says : “I hear some people say, You need to know the social and cultural milieu of Corinth to know what’s going on there” and he says that to push this will paralyze people unless what we mean by that is that you can see it and discern it best in 1 Corinthians. And if you tell me, you have to know the historical background of the Corinthians before you preach from the epistles to the Corinthians authoritatively, then I would say, preaching is just about over”

Now for starters, neither Carson there nor I here advocate the view that unless you have a perfect background knowledge, you should not even open your Bible and try to understand it. This is not the issue that is being discussed here and that is not the view that John Piper is arguing against. Also, not to mischaracterize him, I need to add that Piper does not deny the importance of looking at a text in its own context. He does not come out and say this in this video, but in his other works and in his preaching he tries to do his best to be faithful to this principle.

So what is the problem? The problem is Piper’s view that if historical studies are made mandatory for sound exegesis, then this will have a negative impact on the church. I understand his concern. I don’t think (neither Carson does, I assume) one has to know the entire historical background of the entire Scriptures to understand them. We are not talking about German theological monographs here. As a pastor, Piper wants to safeguard the notion that people should not be worried about not knowing enough of the history of the Bible. This is a valid concern but I do not believe it grants us the freedom to ignore the necessity of studying the historical background of the Scriptures. Why?

1) As D.A.Carson has pointed it out, the Scriptures are given to God’s people in a specific time and to a specific people. This fact, coupled with the understanding of inspiration and a high view of Scripture, should make us excited about learning a particular text in its own linguistic, historical, and cultural context.

2) It is not a suggestion in hermeneutics (the art of interpretation) but a mandatory discipline. Even in non-Christian hermeneutics, no one is free to take a text and offer an interpretation without taking into account the historical milieu of that particular text. No professor at Columbia University has the right or freedom to understand and interpret Cicero’s works in light of New York’s culture and worldview.

3) In interpretation, it is impossible to do it in a vacuum. If one decides to interpret a passage without a recourse to its historical context, he or she must provide some sort of historical context to make sense out of it. This is usually known as anachronism, meaning, importing our own presuppositions or concerns into a text which did not have that concern in its own time.

4) Piper’s claim that one can understand what was going in the culture by simply looking at the Corinthian text is unsustainable. Let’s try that on the Gospels or Revelation or some other parts of the Scripture, especially the Old Testament. There is a huge cultural and worldview difference between us and the authors of the Bible. Unless we have some sort of an Islamic view of Scripture, that is, that the Scriptures are timeless truths given for all people of all times and their historical character is only peripheral, then not to go the extra biblical sources to understand what the author was dealing with flies in the face of all hermeneutics. No one reads history like that. But the real problem is much deeper. By his own statement, Piper put himself in a difficult position. How is he going to convince me or any one else for that matter that his understanding of the problems in Corinth are historically viable than anyone else’s, who also did not go to the historical sources but listened to Piper’s advice and yet came up with a different interpretation? Who is right? According to what? To me that is more paralyzing for the health of the church than what he is originally afraid of.

As there is no brute (uninterpreted) facts, there is no ahistorical interpretation. The vital question is which history? N.T. Wright does an excellent job of exposing Piper’s own mistakes on this front in his book, “Justification”. To quote Wright on this topic:

“In our effort to understand the Scripture itself – a never ending quest, of course, but one to which every generation of Christians is called afresh – we are bound to read the New Testament in its own first-century context. That is a highly complex task, which keeps several highly intelligent people in full employment all their lives, but the attempt must be made. This applies at every level – to though forms, rhetorical conventions, social context, implicit narratives and so on – but it applies particularly to words, not least to technical terms. To take an example which is controversial, but not in our present context: in 1. Thessalonians 5:3, Paul says, “When they say, ’There is peace and security’, then sudden destruction will come upon them.” Now, of course, it is easy to read this text against the background of a placid German society on, say, October 30 1517, or a placid American scene on September 10, 2001. But it helps to understand Paul if we know – as we certainly do- that phrases such as “peace and security” were part of the stock in trade of Roman imperial propaganda at the time.”

When one rejects to make use of first century maxims, and worldviews in understanding Jesus or Paul, he or she will fill the void with the concerns of other centuries ( medieval, patristic, modern or post-modern).

Ok now I criticized Piper’s view in this video but what can I offer as something constructive. Someone may say : But how am I going to find all that information? I do not simply have all that time to understand the backgrounds to the Bible.

My answer: It will take time and studying and understanding an ancient text such as the Bible, no matter how much Holy Spirit we think we have, no matter how easy to understand we think the Bible is. It is God’s Word and God did not inspire it to confuse people but as soon as God committed the Bible to be a historical records of events, it made it impossible to understand it properly without the history behind it. Understanding the Bible in its proper historical context is a hard task but not an impossible one. If we do not want to read the Bible anachronistically, if we do not want to read it only to hear what we already knew, then we must pay attention to what D.A. Carson advocates in this video. We want to hear what the authors wanted to say, not what we want them to say in advance.


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