Zondervan has a new Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible that they are marketing with the tag “Context Changes Everything.” One probably should not read too much into a marketing slogan. Even though the promotional video is titled “Context Changes Everything,” neither John Walton nor Craig Keener, the editors of this new study Bible, make that claim in the video.*
Nevertheless, the marketing claim does raise the question of what the context of Bible background does change and should change for an interpreter. It certainly should not change “everything.” For it to do so would threaten the perspicuity and sufficiency of Scripture.
Perspicuity and Sufficiency
Timothy Ward defines perspicuity:
We are right to trust that God in Scripture has spoken and continues to speak sufficiently clearly for us to base our saving knowledge of him and of ourselves, and our beliefs and our actions, on the content of Scripture alone, without ultimately validating our understanding of these things or our confidence in them by appeal to any individual or institution. [Words of Life, 127]
So there are certain things, namely, that which is essential for “our saving knowledge of [God] and of ourselves” and the knowledge of how we ought to live, that should be discernable from Scripture without the need for background information (helpful as that information may be).
Ward defines sufficiency:
It is regularly distinguished into two aspects. “Material sufficiency” asserts that Scripture contains everything necessary to be known and responded to for salvation and faithful discipleship. . . . “Formal sufficiency” claims that Scripture as the word of God ought not ultimately to be subject to any external interpretive authority, such as the teaching authority of the church or a Spirit-filled individual, and so is significantly “self-interpreting.” [DTIB, 730]
Scripture is not sufficient if background material is deemed necessary for us to understand from Scripture what is “necessary . . . for salvation and faithful discipleship.” In addition, if background studies become interpretative authorities that tell us how certain passages must be understood, then it begins to function as an “external interpretative authority” that stands over the authority of Scripture.
Scripture and Tradition
Interestingly, the challenge of how to handle Scripture and background studies parallels the challenge that the church faced with how to handle tradition. Anthony Lane outlines several different approaches to tradition in church history in the article “Scripture, Tradition and Church: An Historical Survey,” Vox Evangelica 9 (1975). One of the earliest view is the “complementary view” of Scripture and tradition (called Tradition I by Heiko Oberman). On this view Scripture and tradition have the same content. The function of tradition in this view is to provide the correct interpretation of Scripture. Problematically, this view makes tradition an “external interpretive authority.” What is more, by the time of the Reformation it had become clear that tradition was a faulty “external interpretive authority.”
The magisterial reformers, however, did not reject the use of tradition altogether. They adopted an approach that Lane labels “the ancillary view.” On this view, tradition held no authority, but it remained a useful tool for rightly interpreting Scripture and guarding against potential errors. Tradition was held in high regard, and extensive use was made of it, but it held no interpretive authority (or if it did, in the forms of creeds and confessions, it was a ministerial authority subject to the greater authority of Scripture itself).
In my view the ancillary approach to Scripture and tradition is the correct one. It correctly values tradition, but it rightly subjects tradition to the authority of Scripture.
Tradition and Bible Background
There seems to be a tendency among those who greatly value study of background or comparative materials to devalue tradition. For instance, John Walton writes:
Some object to the use of comparative study on historical grounds. Christians and Jews are intentionally dependent on the interpretations and decisions of those who have preceded them. Tradition and the creeds are nearly as foundational to doctrine as the biblical text itself. In such an environment, innovation and originality are not necessarily welcomed. How could God leave all of those generations without the wherewithal to read his Word accurately? Furthermore, if the likes of Augustine and Calvin were hampered or even crippled by the lack of cultural studies, and could perhaps even have misinterpreted passages because of their ignorance of ancient culture, the fear that Christian doctrine might be exposed as a house of cards would seem too real and threatening. [Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, 37]
Walton raises this objection to his emphasis on background or comparative study, but he never engages it. He simply dismisses it as ungrounded and based on fear. The overall sense is that he thinks tradition and creeds are overvalued. He values more the innovation and originality that background study brings to the text.
However, there are two things that those who promote comparative and background studies should learn from the debates over Scripture and tradition.
First, they should learn the value of tradition. The ancillary view doesn’t devalue tradition. It simply places tradition in its proper role. Differing scholars may develop their own specialties, with some specializing in how Scripture texts have been interpreted throughout church history while others devote themselves to studying the cultural milieu in which the Scripture texts was written. But the one set of scholars should not despise the labors of the other set. The fruit of both labors should be brought together.
Second, scholars would specialize in background studies should be careful that these studies remain ancillary to and not authoritative over Scripture.
Bible Background in Hermeneutical and Pastoral Perspective
One way to for background studies to move from in an ancillary role to a magisterial one is to state one’s conclusions from them with more certainty than is warranted. Walton often speaks confidently of how the original readers of Genesis must have thought in light of ancient Near Eastern background. For instance, in his discussion of day seven of the creation week, he says:
A reader from the ancient world would know immediately what was going on and recognize the role of day seven. Without hesitation the ancient reader would conclude that this is a temple text and that day seven is the most important of the seven days. [Lost World of Genesis One, 72]
But how can Walton be so sure that this interpretation would be accepted “without hesitation” and “immediately”?**
In the context of the debate over the New Perspective of Paul John Piper cogently argues that the interpretation of background material is not necessarily more reliable than traditional interpretations of the Bible:
First, the interpreter may misunderstand the first-century idea. It is remarkable how frequently there is the tacit assumption that we can be more confident about how we interpret secondary first-century sources than we are of how we interpret the New Testament writers themselves. But it seems to me that there is a prima facie case for thinking that our interpretations of extra-biblical literature are more tenuous than our interpretations of the New Testament. In general, this literature has been less studied than the Bible and does not come with a contextual awareness matching what most scholars bring to the Bible. Moreover, the Scripture comes with the added hope that there is coherency because of divine inspiration and that the Holy Spirit will illumine Scripture through humble efforts to know God’s mind for the sake of the glory of Christ. Yet there seems to be an overweening confidence in the way some scholars bring their assured interpretations of extra-biblical texts to illumine their less sure reading of biblical texts. [The Future of Justification, 34-35]
Misreading background material is not uncommon. Many of the alleged parallels between customs at Mari or Nuzi and biblical texts have turned out to be false parallels. Local customs were assumed to be widespread across the ancient Near East when they were not. Noel Weeks notes that conservatives should have known better than to appeal to these alleged parallels to authenticate Scripture since doing so required re-dating events and claiming that the biblical authors “misunderstood the ‘real’ background” that the scholars had discovered [Noel K. Weeks, “The Ambiguity of Biblical Background,” Westminster Theological Journal 72, no. 2 (Fall 2010): 220.].
In addition, one of the assumptions of comparative study is that the thought of the Bible is more similar to the thought of the ancient world than it is to present-day Christian thought. Noel Weeks notes that this methodology can have a negative effect on attempts to apply Scripture to the present: “If the Bible speaks in the time-bound concepts and ideas of its time, which are not applicable to our time, and if the Bible is to play any role on the contemporary scene, then there must be a complex process of translation.” The end result is that this approach will “undermine the effective authority of Scripture and the center of authority and certainty must shift to the church” [“Ambiguity of Biblical Background, 235].***
Carl Trueman provides a helpful observation that helps with the problem that Weeks highlights:
Human beings remain essentially the same in terms of their basic nature as those made in God’s image and addressed by his word even as we move from place to place and from generation to generation. God remains the same; his image remains the same; his address to us remains the same. . . . In short, a biblical understanding of human nature as a universal will temper any talk that seeks to dismiss theological statements from the past on the simplistic ground that there is nothing in common between us and the people who wrote them. [The Creedal Imperative, 63]
This is not to minimize the cultural distance between a contemporary American and someone who lived in the ancient Near East. Nor is it to diminish the value of studying the ancient Near East and Greco-Roman cultures. It is, however, to places these studies in proper perspective.
Just as the ancillary view of tradition values tradition, so an ancillary view of background studies values these studies. If Craig Keener writes a commentary I buy it (or at least put it on my wishlist).**** Seeking to come to a better understanding of the cultures and worldviews that existed in the world of the Bible can help us better understand the Bible. The argument of this post is not to dispense with background studies. The argument is, rather, to make use of these studies but with a theologically informed methodology and alongside tradition as a companion ancilla.
*Walton does, however claim that comparative studes are “crucial to the theological understanding of the OT.” His argumnet is: “If: (a) comparative studies provide a window to the ancient worldview; and (b) Israel in large measure shared that ancient worldview; and (c) revelation was communicated through that worldview; and (d) that revelation embodies the theological teaching of the text; Then: comparative studies become crucial to the theological understanding of the OT” (DTIB, 41). I would grant point (a), though with the hermeneutical qualifiers noted above. I have serious questions about points (b-c). For one, I’m doubtful about a single “ancient worldview.” More significantly, since a worldview is religious in nature and the revealed religion of the OT, and thus its worldview, is distinct from the surrounding worldviews. In developing why and in what ways the revealed religion of the OT is similar to and different from the surrounding worldviews and religions, there needs to be interaction with a theology of religion such as Daniel Strange’s Their Rock Is Not Like Our Rock.
**Walton wishes to argue from the fact that many ancient Near Eastern temple dedications lasted seven days to the conclusion that the seven day creation week is an indication that Genesis 1 is about the inauguration of the cosmic temple. But this conclusion is by no means clear. As Walton himself notes, temple dedications were not uniformly seven days in length [Lost World of Genesis One, 181-82, n. 1]. Walton’s argument would be more impressive if Moses had emphasized a seven day tabernacle dedication in a way that made clear connections to Genesis 1. If Moses intended the readers to understand the creation week as a temple inauguration, it would make sense for him to reinforce this with the tabernacle narrative. Thus its absence there is striking. The best Walton can do here is note that the Bible does not say whether the events in Exodus 40 took place in one day or over multiple days. He tries to bolster his case by noting that it did take place in connection with the new year (Ex. 40:2, 17), and in Babylon the new year was often a time for reenacting the temple inauguration (the Akitu festival). This observation does not help much, however, since there is no evidence that Israel had yearly inauguration reenactments. Thus Walton is forced to speculate: “The Bible contains no clear evidence of such festivals, but some see hints that they think point in that direction. It would be no surprise if they had such a festival and would be theologically and culturally appropriate” [Lost World of Genesis One, 89-91. This seems more like wishful thinking than marshaling convincing argumentation. And yet Walton says the ancient reader would have known “immediately” and “without hesitation” that the seven days of creation marked Genesis 1 as a temple text.
***Weeks also observes that an emphasis on the similarity of the Bible its ancient context can correlate with “a lack of distance of present Christian culture from the surrounding culture.” In other words, if ancient Israel was so similar to the surrounding cultures of its day, Christians have a reason for living in conformity to the cultures of their day. Weeks asks of the emphasis on comparative studies, “might it be another manifestation of reaction to separationist Fundamentalism?” [“Ambiguity of Biblical Background, 235].
****I do try to keep up with Walton’s writings, but I typically use the library for those. With Keener, despite theological differences, I feel as though I’m getting a lot of good data. With Walton I typically feel like he is arguing a point (and often a theologically dubious one in my opinion) about cosmology or about Scripture and using his knowledge of ANE background to shut down the opposition. His pronouncements of why interpretations must be as he claims because of ANE background often sound overly confident to me, especially when I probe them.