Saturday, July 30, 2011

How much historical context?

Mastered By the Book from The Gospel Coalition on Vimeo.

Historical context is a very useful tool as Carson argues in this short clip. The historical context of a passage will allow the main idea of the passage to be better preached, understood and applied. In other-words historical context is the servant of the passage.  Carson and Piper, who are both theologically conservative, offer differing nuances to the role of historical context but neither would support the idea that historical context is essential in determining the main idea of a passage. This is an important distinction.


Nathan said...

I'd say historical context is possibly essential for firing out what the big idea of a passage is not.

Nathan said...


Andrew Bowles said...

Depends upon what you mean by 'text'. You can just refer to the bare words on the page, but a text is actually a communication event involving the author, the words, the audience, the context, the culture, hermeneutics, application, etc. Carson is being more realistic here.

Piper's point would be better if said that once the contextual 'meaning' of a passage has been established by historical and linguistic research, then the application of it in a preaching context arises more from reflection and prayer rather than scholarship.

The issue seems to be clouded because both of them are playing the old game of 'who loves the Bible more?'.

Avery said...

I'm glad they're both talking about the issue. It carries far more weight in modern biblical hermeneutics than people seem to realize.

A question I have is, 'Does God intend all of the cultural and historical context of the original speech act to be understood by the modern reader?'

Carson says, 'Somebody has to explain reclining at a first century feast.' But do they? Granted some nuance is lost if it isn't explained, but did God always intend the modern reader to catch that nuance?

It seems that at minimum we're forced to admit that there are nuances in the ancient text that are hidden from us because of our limited knowledge of the ancient world. Historical criticism has created the illusion that we have encyclopedic knowledge of ancient times, but we don't. Does our exegesis therefore contain 'needless mistakes' that affect our relationship with God?

I'd like to hear their perspectives on that question.

Luke Isham said...

Hi Avery,

Welcome. (BTW comment moderation kicks in after seven days, in case you were wondering.)

I agree.

Hi Andrew,

To a degree you're right, what exactly constitutes the "text"? We need to be careful at that point.
However I disagree that the meaning has to be established by historical research, because that would make the most 'scholarly' meaning the most accurate which begs the question which scholarship is most reliable and does Scripture presuppose this approach?

Hi Nathan,

I think this is the error Bruce Winter makes in with the "New Roman Women" theory. He assumes that because his evidence supports up a certain theory about first century Roman women, certain portions of the NT epistles should be understood in the light of that theory. This is the classic example of allowing historical context to wrongly shape hermeneutics.
(How accurate/relevant is the research? Should this research be "allowed" to shape our interpretation?)

(Sorry to pick on your old principal!)

Avery said...

A further thought:

This isn't just a problem for the modern reader; it was a problem for ancient readers who read texts more ancient than themselves.

How did the apostles manage to read Genesis, or the Psalms, without historical criticism by their side?

They seem to have managed, and I think it's beecause a text does not need to be understood exhaustively to be understood truly, and for the purpose it was given for.

Andrew Bowles said...

'However I disagree that the meaning has to be established by historical research'.

Defend this thesis, in relation to the translation 'In my Father's house there are many mansions'. :)

Luke Isham said...

"In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you." (John 14:2 NIV)

I've thought about it and I'm not quite sure what you mean?

Andrew Bowles said...

I notice you used a more correct translation in your quote, which was established by linguistic scholarship. I could 'soak' myself in the KJV for as long as I wanted and as prayerfully as possible and still be left with the impression that God the Father has a house that somehow contains a lot of other large and palatial houses. That was my point about the value of historical scholarship.

No matter how high our view of Scripture is, we can still be chained to misunderstandings that proper study can clear up. I wouldn't expect to be commended for saying that 'the text says mansions, and since God said it, I believe it'.

Luke Isham said...

"Many mansions" versus "many rooms", would only be more problematic because we were bringing to much of our own cultural assumptions to bear on the text.

I also don't think the argument is taking place an individual word level. The debate about how much historical context to be used is taking place within, paragraphs and sentences as opposed to individual words, which importantly lack any sort of context.

I've yet to see the argument for making historical context primary justified by Scripture or the secondary issues dealt with to do with moderating and evaluating scholarship.

Andrew Bowles said...

"I've yet to see the argument for making historical context primary justified by Scripture or the secondary issues dealt with to do with moderating and evaluating scholarship."

I honestly do not know what you mean by 'primary' in that sentence. My point in an earlier post was just about basic exegetical method where we work on the language and contextual issues before considering theology and pastoral application. I don't see how that can be theologically objectionable or require a specific Scriptural justification.

Luke Isham said...

It was awkwardly worded sentence!

I mean that I haven't seen someone make the case (I'm happy to read it if it's presented) that Scripture says 'we need historical context to determine the meaning' of Scripture or then explain how to deal with secondary issues of if that is true, determining which scholarship is the most reliable.

Like I've said before, I'm happy to look up the meaning of a particular word in BDAG knowing that historical context has played a part in determining its meaning, but if the paragraph or book as a whole implies I should take a different meaning I will.

I think philology, while connected to hermeneutics, shouldn't determine our exegesis, that comes from the context of the passage. Historical context makes our path clearer and easier but shouldn't be determinative at the level of sentences and paragraphs.

Andrew Bowles said...

I see more clearly what you're saying now. Though I think any cursory reading of commentaries would make the point that even the grammatical and structural elements of the Scriptural text are themselves up for a bewildering array of scholarly discussion. That's before you consider the relevant historical data.

In any case, I don't think there is a way of dealing with this without rolling up our sleeves and doing diligent analysis of the scholarship available. We can use tradition as a shortcut but of course unfortunately the tradition itself is contested. I think Piper is happy to downplay historical research because he feels that his tradition has got biblical interpretation about right and all we need to do is properly apply it. That leaves a few questions begging though...