This current academic term I am teaching a course entitled Biblical Backgrounds here at Grace. The goal of the course is introduce students to how people thought, communicated, and lived in the ancient world during the Old Testament, New Testament, and Intertestamental periods. To do this I emphasize key people groups and political, cultural, theological, and literary developments that form the background to the Bible. Students are exposed to insights from geography, cultural anthropology, sociology, philosophy, politics, literature, and history for the interpretation of Scripture in light of the history and culture of the people to whom it was addressed.
But the study of background materials raises some important questions. After all, sometimes information from background studies is used to claim that a biblical text cannot mean what it seems to say. While it is true that background studies can shed important light on a text, I am convinced that God has spoken in Scripture in such a way that believers can achieve a sufficient, basic understanding of the text without advanced training in backgrounds. Yet the use of background studies does have the potential to greatly enrich our understanding of the Bible and as a result our understanding of who God is and how he expects us to live.
Here then are four summary statements on the value of background studies in Interpreting the Bible:
Special Note for Pastors & Teachers:
It is natural that those who have invested the time and energy necessary for studying background materials and languages to share the fruit of those labors. And pastors and teachers should use these tools to enhance their teaching and preaching of God’s Word. But it is possible to do this in a way that discourages people rather than edifies them. The person in the pew who hears a steady stream of “what the Greek actually says here” or “The [fill in Bible translation] gets it wrong here; the Hebrew should be translated…” is being taught to not trust their Bible. Why would the average layperson read their Bible on their own when they are constantly being taught that they really can’t know what it says since they don’t know the original languages?
Bottom line: Use the background tools to enhance people’s understanding of and confidence in the biblical text, not undermine it.
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Since 2006 Dr. Matthew S. Harmon has served as Professor of New Testament Studies at Grace College and Grace Theological Seminary in Winona Lake, Indiana. He is also a member of Christ’s Covenant Church, where he serves on the Preaching Team, leads a small group, and teaches regularly in their Life Education classes.
Find out more at his blog, Biblical Theology, which is a forum for all matters pertaining to biblical theology (and some entirely unrelated).
Follow him on Twitter: @DocHarmon