Background Information

Andy Naselli talks about the role of background information in understanding Scripture. He rightly (at least in my view) pushes back against the idea that we never need such information. He notes this is how Wayne Grudem seems to describe it, but Grudem’s hesitancy and a questionable assumption or two make his position difficult. I think it is hard to deny Naselli’s point and be credible.

Having made that point, he does go on to note some dangers, for which there is a bit of justification. One can certainly find something in the historical background (especially if the historical record is fragmentary, which it almost always is) which might distort one’s understanding. See the mirror reading link for some examples. Nevertheless, it seems a good deal of his cautionary notes are directed against (or at least constructed against) N.T. Wright’s use of background material. Both his point #2 (citing Schreiner) and his further observations from Piper’s book against Wright’s account of justification reflect that background. The problem with that debate is not the use of background information, at least not exclusively. Both sides of the justification debate have used background material; the “traditional” view interpreted Judaism as very legalistic based on a reading of rabbinic material as I recall. Or perhaps that was merely confirming material (though it seems less confirming today!). It is a question of how to understand the significance of things like circumcision (which Paul does talk about) versus a full understanding of Paul’s opponents (which we don’t quite ever get). The question is which version is better.

Beyond that, looking at Piper’s cautions ( The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright [Wheaton: Crossway, 2007], 34-36) in particular leads to further potential problems. Here are Piper’s points:

  1. We might misunderstand the sources.
  2. We might assume agreement with a source when there is no agreement.
  3. We might misapply the meaning of a source.

It seems to me that one problem is that lacking background sources [or using or presupposing the wrong ones] might cause us to:

  1. Misunderstand the biblical passage
  2. Assume agreement with our theological system or other presuppositions when there is no agreement
  3. Misapply the meaning of a biblical passage to something never intended.

Aren’t we back to the hermeneutical spiral and the recognition that interpreting a biblical passage is a complex thing? Using every resource we have and using them with humility seems the only responsible thing to do.

One other thought. It seems to me that the role of tradition in interpreting texts might also be a factor. How do we weight a solid stream of traditional interpretation, when can we overturn it, what kind of evidence is sufficient to do so, and so on are important questions that also are in the mix. And I’m open to new interpretations, sometimes due to new background information. But it is interesting how this rarely is mentioned in these kind of discussions (at least among evangelicals).

In the end, I agree that clarity is sufficient for the main message of the Bible with plenty of interpretive diversity on the particulars. One only need to look around the Christian world to see confirmation of that. That’s all the statements on clarity promise in the various confessions as well. They normally use “all things necessary for salvation” or some similar qualifier to explain clarity. I think we should respect their wisdom on this thorny one.


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