Mastered By the Book from The Gospel Coalition on Vimeo.
Roy Ciampa’s eye-opening article on identity mapping (posted here) is a stunning real-life case study of the issue being debated by John Piper and D.A. Carson in this video. Just how important is the study of the cultural, historical, and social background of the Bible in our understanding of the Bible’s message? Worded another way, How much time should a pastor or Bible teacher spend studying the Bible vs extra-biblical sources?
What may sound rather academic on the surface, is actually about as down-to-earth as a person can get and hugely important for those who preach and teach God’s Word. Based on the feedback I’m getting to Roy’s article (mostly on FaceBook and in emails), there’s no question that his historical/cultural research into first century marriage has brought a game-changing clarity to Paul’s instructions to husbands and wives in Ephesians 5.
Frankly, I think the Piper/Carson debate misses the point and, to be honest, actually borders on nonsense. They focus on how much time one spends studying the text vs studying the historical/cultural context in which the text was written and which it addresses. It is as though one approach is more spiritual than the other, rather than that the two aspects of Bible study go hand-in-hand.
In my opinion, Carson is on the right track and is wisely concerned about the neglect of historical/cultural study, but concedes too much ground to Piper. I find it disturbing that Christian leaders would do such a delicate dance around an issue that is costing all of us too much. Nowhere is that high price more evident than in the handling of biblical passages concerning women.
Isn’t the real issue what study is needed to more clearly understand the text? Does it really matter how much time we spend in the text vs digging into the history that will illumine that text if, in the end, we come closer to understanding what the writer actually meant? Who’s watching the clock, if the purpose of study is to unearth the writer’s meaning and making use of every available resource to reach that goal? What kind of preaching results when the preacher assumes they can understand and explain the Bible without investigating the ancient world they’re interpreting? With all due respect, a little digging into the cultural background (or even some recent commentaries) would have made a dramatic difference in the recent book John Piper wrote on the Book of Ruth. If you want to see the contrast, read The Gospel of Ruth—Loving God Enough to Break the Rules.
Roy’s article on Christian marriage underscores just how high the stakes are in this discussion. We are misguided to assume cultural research is incidental to the study of God’s Word. We are dealing with an ancient text from a world vastly different from our own. If we fail to investigate the past to find out what life was like back then, we inevitably default to our own American/Western culture. And for that, we pay a price that is too dear. At best, we drain the text of richness, power, and meaning. At worst, we completely miss the meaning.
Questions of culture are absolutely relevant to all of us—not only the first century culture, but our own cultural context. None of us is culturally neutral. Inevitably, we bring our own cultural assumptions with us when we study God’s Word. We need constant reminding (and this should begin a more humble approach to Scripture) that the Bible is not an American book. It is an Ancient Near Eastern book. And we are foreigners to that world, who have a lot to learn.
What about our culture drives our thinking and thus impacts our interpretations of the Bible?
What do you think?