Sharpening Exegetical Perception

At first it appeared to be just another TV crime drama. Walking around a corner, a businessman was confronted by a victim lying in a puddle of blood. Hovering near the body, a youth was fixated upon the body while a gun loosely rested in his hand. Further down the block, a man was sprinting into the shadows, while across the street a small group of teens seemed to be disinterested and oblivious to the recent attack.
Suddenly, the crime drama reeled in unexpected directions as the show fast-forwarded to a police Sargent reviewing conflicting police reports. One claimed the cause of death was that the youth holding the gun had shot him. Another confidently affirmed that the mysterious man running down the street was the likely culprit, while the youth had simply stumbled upon the victim after the fact and unfortunately picked up the gun. A third report blamed the gang of teens because they were known to be violent.
What’s the point? Just because something is truly a part of a context does not guarantee that it is the cause for what has happened. The truthfulness that there was a group of teens, a man running away, and a youth standing near the body does not prove who caused the victim’s death. This insight has profound implications for applying the scriptures today.
Those interpreting scripture should pay special attention to the significance of the principle that to accurately describe a context does not prove causation. To assume that the background for a particular biblical teaching is the reason why a specific biblical message was given involves fuzzy logic which can lead to dangerous conclusions.
The unreliable method of using background description for claiming causation has been frequently used to alter how we should apply the biblical message to today. The first example is one I made up, but the second may sound familiar and even trigger other examples in your mind.
Imagine for a moment someone standing in a lecture hall accurately describing the role of baptism in the context of first-century Jewish conversion. Now imagine that speaker confidently asserting that it was because early Christianity arose out of that Jewish matrix that they used baptism as a conversion rite. Consider our fictitious lecturer, with nimble mental gymnastics, proceeding to claim that since the only reason why early Christians used immersion was because they were appropriating a cultural ritual familiar to them, we therefore need to seek new conversion rituals from our cultures in order for us to have an equivalent biblically dynamic practice. Of course, the error of such logic began with confusing an accurate description of a context to be the reason why scripture teaches what it does.
Consider the situation where someone accurately points out that during the first century many musical instruments carried immoral connotations as a result of pagan worship. Then that person authoritatively claims that the reason why the early Christians avoided instruments was to avoid the immoral atmosphere associated with instruments. The conclusion is then drawn that since the reason for avoiding the use of instruments in the first place no longer exists, the path to embracing them has been opened. Accurately describing the context does not prove causation.
To portray the description of a context as being the reason why the Bible teaches what it does can be used to deny just about anything as being relevant for our lives today. Thoughtful Christians concerned about hearing God’s message will want to pay attention to the method of argumentation and whether that method is reliable or not.

2 thoughts on “Sharpening Exegetical Perception

  1. There certainly are pitfalls in studying cultural background, but I am not sure that it is as simple as this article makes it sound. The head covering issue is one example. That is actually a real issue I know of. I don’t know of anyone who argues against baptism or music in the way they are presented here, but of course my experience is limited, so maybe there are.
    I am not sure if this article is trying to say that historical background studies should be disgarded, it certainly seems so. But if this is not the case, it would be helpful to follow this up with some principles to keep in mind when doing cultural and historical analysis alongside Bible reading and how to incorporate them.

  2. Thank you for the thoughtful comments. Historical studies can certainly illuminate our understanding of a text. Rather than proposing we should disregard the study of historical background, I had intended to promote a more responsible handling of it by highlighting the pitfall of naively embracing the leap from “we know this happened” (which can be demonstrated) to the claim “this is why ____” (which might not be the real reason). Perhaps a little background information will be helpful – this is not as ironic as it might first appear!
    Recently I heard an academic presentation in which a claim was advanced along the lines of “this group of people did such and such and that is why ____ .” Since no evidence was presented to confirm the claim of causation and since the professor’s claim seems to have been so readily accepted as being an accurate protrayal of history, it occurred to me that apparently some people conflate “what was” with “what caused.” I wrote this article as a result of musing about what I had witnessed.
    To illustrate the point I had intended to make, consider these historically true statements: 1) I have read several books on hermeneutics. 2) I have written a manuscript on hermeneutics which I have not sought to publish. 3) Recently I developed an evangelistic workbook which included one chapter outlining suggestions on how to respond to those who object to biblical baptism. 4) I have attended schools from different religious traditions. 5) I know of at least three different historical backgrounds which have been proposed as the reason why Paul needed to write to the Corinthians about head coverings.
    A future historian might sound authoritative in claiming that any one of these historical backgrounds provided the reason why I wrote this article. He would be wrong. A more cautious historian would either acknowledge he does not know why I wrote it or he might dig until he could discover the true reason.

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