Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Is the Bible enough for the pastor?

I ran across a short but interesting video clip yesterday. It features DA Carson and John Piper discussing to what degree a pastor needs to be familiar with the background of the Bible. Carson is professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and Piper is pastor at Bethlehem Baptist Church.

In the clip Carson argues why it is important for preachers to study and be familiar with the historical and cultural background of the Bible. Piper, however, is arguing that a preacher only needs to read the Bible. Piper seems to agree that understanding, for instance, the social and cultural background of Corinth is important, but he also suggests that you can get that information simply by reading the Corinthian letters. Carson makes some good points in response, but Piper does not agree. Here is the clip.

I am curious how Piper can say "the vast majority of contextually relevant things, both socially and linguistically are in the book". He seems to assume that only relying on an English translation is enough for a pastor. But I wonder how he can say this. Carson's question about Ezekiel is a good one, but Piper does not answer it.

Piper argues that spending more time on the passage is more important than learning about the backgrounds. He seems to be separating background study from exegesis and I don't think you can. I think they are both equally important and some passages require more time in background study than others.

What do you think? Can preachers do a good job without having a good grasp of the background to a text? It the Bible enough?


  1. I can see what Piper is getting at, another way of phrasing it is to say do you need to be a NT professor to preach on 1 Cor or an OT professor before you can speak on Exodus? but i would say as someone who has spent many years as an untrained preacher and who has since persued tertiary and graduate Biblical study that such study will either make your preaching better - or ruin it entirely! Bottom line preachers have to preach, whatever their level of education, but preachers also should study and do their best to make sure they actually know what they are talking about!

  2. Piper's words are discouraging, really. Seminary and university professors should encourage pastors to do research on the backgrounds of the Bible, not discourage it. I found this statement to be disheartening:

    "If you tell the average pastor that you have to do historical research to know the first century Corinth well before you can preach authoritatively from 1 Corinthians, I'm going to say I think preaching is just about over."

    I wholeheartedly disagree with this, and was a bit shocked to hear it. What is wrong with doing historical research, and why would going through such research result in preaching being "over"? Whew...

  3. If preaching was the only important job of a pastor, then I'd say Piper's position will, (and does), lead to shallow preaching. However, if we are to make disciples and lead people in the faith, then an understanding of the history, culture, and purpose, (re.: rhetoric), of the writers becomes pretty important. As Ben Witherington stated in his commentary on Revelation, we cannot make the text say something different than what the writer intended. How can that be done without some knowledge of these things?

  4. When Mark Twain wrote of a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's court, the visitor did not fit in until he discerned a degree of what was going on, how things were in that space and time. If we are seeking to make Scripture relevant to now, I believe by necessity we need to understand what the cultural setting was then. If, as Peterson and others posit, we are wanting our congregants to find their place in the overarching narrative-- well, how can they (or we) find our place if we do not understand what we are looking at?

    I suppose it is not unlike the idea that out of our faith in Jesus Christ grow good works, because our love and our desire make us want to do more, be more. So, too, as we delve deeper into Scripture, should our hunger for deeper understanding grow greater.

    Just my ops.

  5. in my humble opinion the biggest challenge I, myself a pastor, face today is trying to communicate the power and beauty in the scriptures for spiritual formation while jumping through cultural and historical contextual hoops.I believe wholeheartedly that a knowledge of the backgrounds is crucial in our preaching as well as understanding. Just got done spending some time studying honor and shame in the culture and life of the N.T. My reading, preaching, and teaching have been much more fruitful and true to the original intention of the writers of the N.T. I may keel over and die if I hear someone say this to my face (that you don't need to know the backgrounds). Sorry i am just passionate about context because I'm tired of the mess that lack of context (social/historical/literary/etc.) brings. great topic!
    Noah Schumacher

  6. First, I think Piper is wrong. There is no way I would know the things I do about the Bible if I did not pay attention to the social or political context of the text had I not gone to other sources than the Bible. The text does not reveal everything that is going on at that time. Second, you would think Piper would be smarter than that. But then again maybe what he believes you just need to believe the Bible....look where that's gotten us. I'm sorry but Piper is arrogant. I was for along time a supporter of John Piper but over the last few years I've become less and less.