D.A. Carson with John Piper on the Importance of Background

Over at the Gospel Coalition, there is a round table with Carson and Piper discussing how necessary it is to study the background culture and context for good preaching. This formed one of my criticisms of Piper in my recent JETS article in that I think Piper (needlessly) diminishes the value of historical study for preaching and teaching. Piper is unimpressed with the notion that one “must” be conversant with all these materials if one is to preach effectively. I understand his concern, I don’t want to say that unless you have a Ph.D ancient near eastern literature or Palestinian archaeology that you are unfit to interpret the text, but I think Carson is absolutely right, study of social, historical, and cultural contexts is a necessity and is not antithetical to concerted textual study of the passage. You have to know this stuff in order to explain veils, foot washing, etc. to your audience. If you’re preaching through 1 Corinthians, do 10 hours of study on ancient Corinth, read books by Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, Bruce Winter, and Gerd Theissen, check out some inscriptions if you can find them in print or on-line. Then launch into your study of Corinthians week by week, passage by passage, with a good historically sensitive commentary on hand like Anthony Thiselton, Gordon Fee, David Garlington, or Brian Rosner and Roy Ciampa.

  • Nathan

    wow, Piper really doesn’t seem to ‘get’ Biblical interpretation at all??

  • Nathan

    wow, Piper really doesn’t seem to ‘get’ Biblical interpretation at all??

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1513149313 Steve Walton

    Mmm…Piper continues to pose the false antithesis between knowing the historical context and knowing the text – and Carson rightly says this is a false antithesis. I’m with you on this Mike!

    • Paul Van

      Would it make sense to suggest that we must *choose* between driving a car and knowing how its engine works?

      Even though driving is the ultimate goal (Piper’s point) it is still necessary to understand what’s going on under the hood as well (Carson’s point). The “either/or” antithesis is false, but the primacy argument is valid. The primary purpose of revelation is not make us into “Biblical mechanics” but rather “biblical drivers.” Necessity requires that we are at least reasonably good mechanics (and pastors should be highly trained mechanics), but the goal must be to finish the work, put the tools back in the tool box, and actually let the car be the transportation vehicle it was made to be.

      Carson emphasizes both as *necessary* and Piper emphasizes one as *primary* … and in that sense, they are both right. At least that’s my take on it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1513149313 Steve Walton

    Mmm…Piper continues to pose the false antithesis between knowing the historical context and knowing the text – and Carson rightly says this is a false antithesis. I’m with you on this Mike!

    • Paul Van

      Would it make sense to suggest that we must *choose* between driving a car and knowing how its engine works?

      Even though driving is the ultimate goal (Piper’s point) it is still necessary to understand what’s going on under the hood as well (Carson’s point). The “either/or” antithesis is false, but the primacy argument is valid. The primary purpose of revelation is not make us into “Biblical mechanics” but rather “biblical drivers.” Necessity requires that we are at least reasonably good mechanics (and pastors should be highly trained mechanics), but the goal must be to finish the work, put the tools back in the tool box, and actually let the car be the transportation vehicle it was made to be.

      Carson emphasizes both as *necessary* and Piper emphasizes one as *primary* … and in that sense, they are both right. At least that’s my take on it.

  • Wayne Ennis

    I think Piper is one of those who uses scripture to further his own agenda rather than discovering what the background can do to help him understand the scriptures and what they might suggest is God’s agenda and then conforming his agenda to them. Wayne

  • Wayne Ennis

    I think Piper is one of those who uses scripture to further his own agenda rather than discovering what the background can do to help him understand the scriptures and what they might suggest is God’s agenda and then conforming his agenda to them. Wayne

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  • Paul

    I think Piper has a good point, even if it is overstated.

    I have seen far more mistakes made by preachers and teachers with “background information” than I have with those who have been closely attentive to the text. I don’t say this as an obscurantist, but as someone who is trained in sociology and history and who likes to use all of the scholarly aids he can in exegesis because I know understanding social context matters.

    Recently, I was in an adult Bible class at church where someone “explained” the meaning of one of Jesus’ parables with piece of spurious background information from the NIV Study Bible commentary. I had a study Bible (a Catholic one), however, and the notes by Henry Wansbrough highlighted how tendentious this “explanation” was by placing the parable within the literary context of Matthew’s Gospel.

    Most preachers, let alone their listeners, do not have the competence to evaluate background information or its relevance. Too often it is accepted as a proxy for explanation, and to confirm one’s theological prejudices (as it was in this NIVSB comment).

    In sermons, I find setting a passage in its literary and theological context far more engaging for the audience. But I agree with Carson that background information can be a valuable check in one’s preparation for preaching.

    • Christopher

      In response to the last paragraph: yes, but whose “theological context”? Therein lies the catch, I think, which makes me side more with Carson than with Piper :)

  • Paul

    I think Piper has a good point, even if it is overstated.

    I have seen far more mistakes made by preachers and teachers with “background information” than I have with those who have been closely attentive to the text. I don’t say this as an obscurantist, but as someone who is trained in sociology and history and who likes to use all of the scholarly aids he can in exegesis because I know understanding social context matters.

    Recently, I was in an adult Bible class at church where someone “explained” the meaning of one of Jesus’ parables with piece of spurious background information from the NIV Study Bible commentary. I had a study Bible (a Catholic one), however, and the notes by Henry Wansbrough highlighted how tendentious this “explanation” was by placing the parable within the literary context of Matthew’s Gospel.

    Most preachers, let alone their listeners, do not have the competence to evaluate background information or its relevance. Too often it is accepted as a proxy for explanation, and to confirm one’s theological prejudices (as it was in this NIVSB comment).

    In sermons, I find setting a passage in its literary and theological context far more engaging for the audience. But I agree with Carson that background information can be a valuable check in one’s preparation for preaching.

    • Christopher

      In response to the last paragraph: yes, but whose “theological context”? Therein lies the catch, I think, which makes me side more with Carson than with Piper :)

  • Brianmaiers

    I don’t think Piper realizes that he is basically a post-liberal at this point. They should get him a job at Duke Div.

  • Brianmaiers

    I don’t think Piper realizes that he is basically a post-liberal at this point. They should get him a job at Duke Div.

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  • Kevin

    I agree with Tim Keller.

  • Kevin

    I agree with Tim Keller.

  • Anonymous

    I wonder if behind Piper’s comments is his ongoing debate with NT Wright.

  • Anonymous

    I wonder if behind Piper’s comments is his ongoing debate with NT Wright.

  • http://www.facebook.com/andrewfaris Andrew Faris

    There are some needlessly harsh (and frankly, dumb) comments about Piper in this comment thread. saying “Piper is using Scripture to further his own agenda” and “Piper doesn’t ‘get’ Biblical interpretation” is ridiculously overstated. Can we at least try to exercise some exegetical humility? Let’s not forget that he has a Ph.D., has taught in seminary, and has preached the text with exegetical faithfulness for years. I know that many here, including Dr. Bird, will have problems with some of his views, but in general, it’s not like Piper is totally flubbing passages because he refuses to look at background, right? Far from it. If Piper isn’t enough of an exegetical preacher for you you should quit going to church and just start attending chapels at a local seminary three times a week.

    Anyway, more to the point, this strikes me as a pendulum issue. Piper wants to push really hard on “get in the text”. Why? Because a lot of well-educated preachers really do spend so much time on background info that they miss the text itself. That is a real problem. One of my old theology profs used to call it “exegetiphobia”, where students come out of their Bible education more scared than before to interpret the text because they learn about all the scholarly info out there that they haven’t actually read.

    Piper does overstate his case, and Carson nails it: this is one of those things that you can’t, in fact, escape. It’s not whether you speak historically, but how well you’ll do it. Every time you talk about the text, you’re talking about a historical document. Every time you do a word study, you’re talking about history and background. It’s like the old saying about theology: every Christian is a theologian; it’s just a matter of whether or not they are good ones.

    But again, I just don’t want his point to be missed: what we need most in the church are pastors who are assiduously committed to the text. I like your idea, Dr. Bird, for a good way to study the background without being over the top.

    Andrew Faris
    Someone Tell Me the Story

    • Geoff Smith

      Faris, you’re such a balanced guy. (This is Trey’s friend, Geoff)

      You hit it on the head. I personally wish that Piper would not make things like this a pendulum issue.

      Besides, that, if you’re a busy preacher, like with a full time job, you do not need to spend ten hours on any passage to preach it with authority (you really just have to read it and the Holy Spirit works Jesus’ authority into God’s people).

      On average I can read a 500 page book in somewhere between 2-5 hours if depending on my understanding of the subject prior to reading. It usually takes about 30 minutes to make a syntactical outline/diagram of paragraph of Greek, and if you have reading comprehension, very little time to translate.

      My understanding is that these are minimum abilities for any seminary graduate. The point is that in less than ten hours the average person could easily amass background information, scholarly opinions, create a smooth translation, and since they made a syntax diagram, have a sermon outline. And since they should already exegete their congregation regularly by hanging out with them, they know how to communicate the passage appropriately as a matter of course. And if the average pastor reads and reviews Greek regularly, which Piper and Carson recommend then they should have a large enough frame of reference to merely fact check on a great deal of information. (Though, Piper recommends reading books by Augustine, Lewis, and Calvin more than by Barrett, Wright, Bultmann, and Bruce, see Brothers We’re Not Professionals) There’s really no need to imagine that only one or the other is necessary.

      You went to a much harder school than I did, so my guess is that you know what I’m talking about in terms of reading speed/language/prior research mitigating sermon prep time.

    • Nathan

      I don’t disagree, however, Piper doesn’t ‘get’ biblical interpretation because (at least what we saw in the few minutes of the discussion with Carson) he continually keeps the antitheses between reading the text and doing background work etc…you are right Carson nails it but Piper just couldn’t seem to agree

  • http://www.facebook.com/andrewfaris Andrew Faris

    There are some needlessly harsh (and frankly, dumb) comments about Piper in this comment thread. saying “Piper is using Scripture to further his own agenda” and “Piper doesn’t ‘get’ Biblical interpretation” is ridiculously overstated. Can we at least try to exercise some exegetical humility? Let’s not forget that he has a Ph.D., has taught in seminary, and has preached the text with exegetical faithfulness for years. I know that many here, including Dr. Bird, will have problems with some of his views, but in general, it’s not like Piper is totally flubbing passages because he refuses to look at background, right? Far from it. If Piper isn’t enough of an exegetical preacher for you you should quit going to church and just start attending chapels at a local seminary three times a week.

    Anyway, more to the point, this strikes me as a pendulum issue. Piper wants to push really hard on “get in the text”. Why? Because a lot of well-educated preachers really do spend so much time on background info that they miss the text itself. That is a real problem. One of my old theology profs used to call it “exegetiphobia”, where students come out of their Bible education more scared than before to interpret the text because they learn about all the scholarly info out there that they haven’t actually read.

    Piper does overstate his case, and Carson nails it: this is one of those things that you can’t, in fact, escape. It’s not whether you speak historically, but how well you’ll do it. Every time you talk about the text, you’re talking about a historical document. Every time you do a word study, you’re talking about history and background. It’s like the old saying about theology: every Christian is a theologian; it’s just a matter of whether or not they are good ones.

    But again, I just don’t want his point to be missed: what we need most in the church are pastors who are assiduously committed to the text. I like your idea, Dr. Bird, for a good way to study the background without being over the top.

    Andrew Faris
    Someone Tell Me the Story

    • Geoff Smith

      Faris, you’re such a balanced guy. (This is Trey’s friend, Geoff)

      You hit it on the head. I personally wish that Piper would not make things like this a pendulum issue.

      Besides, that, if you’re a busy preacher, like with a full time job, you do not need to spend ten hours on any passage to preach it with authority (you really just have to read it and the Holy Spirit works Jesus’ authority into God’s people).

      On average I can read a 500 page book in somewhere between 2-5 hours if depending on my understanding of the subject prior to reading. It usually takes about 30 minutes to make a syntactical outline/diagram of paragraph of Greek, and if you have reading comprehension, very little time to translate.

      My understanding is that these are minimum abilities for any seminary graduate. The point is that in less than ten hours the average person could easily amass background information, scholarly opinions, create a smooth translation, and since they made a syntax diagram, have a sermon outline. And since they should already exegete their congregation regularly by hanging out with them, they know how to communicate the passage appropriately as a matter of course. And if the average pastor reads and reviews Greek regularly, which Piper and Carson recommend then they should have a large enough frame of reference to merely fact check on a great deal of information. (Though, Piper recommends reading books by Augustine, Lewis, and Calvin more than by Barrett, Wright, Bultmann, and Bruce, see Brothers We’re Not Professionals) There’s really no need to imagine that only one or the other is necessary.

      You went to a much harder school than I did, so my guess is that you know what I’m talking about in terms of reading speed/language/prior research mitigating sermon prep time.

    • Nathan

      I don’t disagree, however, Piper doesn’t ‘get’ biblical interpretation because (at least what we saw in the few minutes of the discussion with Carson) he continually keeps the antitheses between reading the text and doing background work etc…you are right Carson nails it but Piper just couldn’t seem to agree

  • http://www.thinktheology.org Luke Geraty

    Piper actually tweeted this: “My admiration and affection for Don Carson overflows, watching him tolerate my intransigence. http://dsr.gd/rbIZSF

    Sure doesn’t seem that he is nearly as “agenda driven” as stated. That seems kind of silly to me.

    • Anonymous

      Thank you for your email. I am out of the country until August 10 and will not have access to the internet to return emails while away.
      All good wishes,


      Joel Willitts, Ph.D.
      Associate Professor in Biblical and Theological Studies
      North Park University
      3225 W. Foster Ave
      Chicago, IL 60625
      773.244.5714
      http://www.patheos.com/community/euangelion

  • http://www.thinktheology.org Luke Geraty

    Piper actually tweeted this: “My admiration and affection for Don Carson overflows, watching him tolerate my intransigence. http://dsr.gd/rbIZSF

    Sure doesn’t seem that he is nearly as “agenda driven” as stated. That seems kind of silly to me.

    • Anonymous

      Thank you for your email. I am out of the country until August 10 and will not have access to the internet to return emails while away.
      All good wishes,


      Joel Willitts, Ph.D.
      Associate Professor in Biblical and Theological Studies
      North Park University
      3225 W. Foster Ave
      Chicago, IL 60625
      773.244.5714
      http://www.patheos.com/community/euangelion


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