Category Archives: Hermeneutics (A)

Importance of Biblical Backgrounds

Importance of Biblical Backgrounds

Jaymark Molo

As Seventh-day Adventist Christians we believe God speaks to us through the Holy Scripture of the Bible. It is our duty, then, to do our best to understand what the Bible says to us. Since the Bible was written a long time ago, many of the cultural references and literary styles used are unfamiliar to us today. It is the main presupposition of this paper that in order to understand the “proper sense of the text”,[1] we need to understand the background of the written Word. On this brief essay, we will lay down the importance of studying the background of a text, at same time; we will draw some helpful practical implications when it comes to interpreting a text.

Inseparable Union of the Divine and Human[2]

Multiple passages testify that the Scriptures did not come directly from heaven, but rather God utilized human instrumentalities. An inductive look at the biblical writings confirms that the Holy Spirit did not abridge the freedom of the biblical writers, did not suppress their unique personalities, did not destroy their individuality, and did not overpower their culture. And yet, through all of this thought-inspiration, the Holy Spirit is carrying along the biblical writers, guiding their minds in selecting what to speak and write, so that what they present is not merely their own interpretation, but the utterly reliable word of God, the prophetic word made more certain. The Holy Spirit imbued human instruments with divine truth in thoughts and so assisted them in writing that they faithfully committed to apt words the things divinely revealed to them (1 Cor 2:10-13). Since the Bible is not ultimately the product of the mind of God revealed through the Spirit (cf. 1 Cor 2:12-13) but also the of the human writer’s mind, it is not possible to separate “what it meant” to the human writer—to be studied without knowing the background of the text (with an aid from the Holy Spirit) from “what it means”—to be applied by the help of the Spirit. Thought inspiration calls not only an investigation of the text in the vertical plane, but in horizontal dimension too.

Hermeneutical Implications

Now that we have briefly sketched the importance of biblical backgrounds in the context of inseparability of union of divine and human, hermeneutical implications are inevitable. Ellen G. White recognized the importance of the historical and cultural setting of a passage. “An understanding of the customs of those who lived in Bible times, of the location and time of events, is practical knowledge,” she said: “it aids in making clear figures of the Bible and in bringing out the force of Christ’s lessons.”[3] She is in full agreement too that that in order to understand the “proper sense of the text”, that is the deeper meaning of the text, we need to understand the background of the written Word. She beautifully explains: “Understanding what the words of Jesus meant to those who heard them, we may discern in them a new vividness and beauty, and may also gather for ourselves their deeper lessons.”[4] D. A. Carson gives a practical example regarding Revelation 3:15:

A fair bit of nonsense has been written about the exalted Christ’s words to the Laodiceans: “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other!” (Rev 3:15). Many have argued that this means God prefers people who are “spiritually cold” above those who are “spiritually lukewarm,” even though his first preference is for those who are “spiritually hot.” Ingenious explanations are then offered to defend the proposition that spiritual coldness is a superior state to spiritual lukewarmness. All of this can comfortably be abandoned once responsible archaeology has made its contribution. Laodicea shared the Lycus valley with two other cities mentioned in the NT. Colosse was the only one that enjoyed fresh, cold, spring water; Hierapolis was known for its hot springs and became a place to which people would resort to enjoy these healing baths. By contrast, Laodicea put up with water that was neither cold and useful, nor hot and useful; it was lukewarm, loaded with chemicals, and with an international reputation for being nauseating. That brings us to Jesus’ assessment of the Christians there: they were not useful in any sense, they were simply disgusting, so nauseating he would vomit them away. The interpretation would be clear enough to anyone living in the Lycus valley in the first century; it takes a bit of background information to make the point clear today.[5]

So historical context may sometimes be necessary to understand the Bible accurately. Grant Osborne concludes the concern of this articles as follows:

Background knowledge will turn a sermon from a two-dimensional study to a three-dimensional cinematic event. The stories and discourses of the Bible were never meant to be merely two-dimensional treatises divorced from real life. Every one was written within a concrete cultural milieu and written to a concrete situation. It is socioscientific background studies that unlock the original situation that otherwise would be lost to the modern reader… On the whole, background analysis is an essential tool in the task of coming to understand Scripture in depth, and without it the exegete is doomed to a two-dimensional approach to the text .[6]

[1] Borrowed from Wayne Grudem’s words. He continues to explain: “Historical background information can certainly enrich our understanding of individual passages of scripture, making it more precise and more vivid. But I am unwilling to affirm that background information can ever be properly used to nullify or overturn something the text actually says. In addition, I am reluctant to affirm that additional historical background information is ever necessary for getting a proper sense of a text.” The Perspicuity of Scripture,” Themelios 34 (2009): 297.

[2] I am indebted to Richard Davidson’s illustration here, in his presentation paper to a group of Catholic theologians, see: “Interpreting Scripture According to the Scriptures: Toward an Understanding of Seventh-day Adventist Hermeneutics,” Geneva (May 2003): 1-19.

[3] Ellen White, Counsels to Parents, Teachers and Students (Washington, D.C.: Ellen White Publications, 1913), 518.

[4] Ibid., Thoughts From the Mount of Blessings (Washington, D.C.: Ellen White Publications, 1896), 1.

[5] D.A. Carson, “Approaching the Bible,” in his New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition ed. D. A. Carson, R. T. France, J. A. Motyer, and G. J. Wenham; 4th ed.; (Downers Grove: IVP, 1994), 15-16.

[6] Grant Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (IVP, 2006), 179.

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