A nicely dressed man walks onto a large stage. He places on an easel a framed oil painting depicting a variety of contrasting gray shades. As the man walks off the stage, another enters and proceeds to a microphone.
This dignified-looking individual announces that the reason why this painting was chosen for this event is because it represents pessimistic complexity. As the audience stares deeply at it, they can perceive an unending despair, bleakness and lifelessness.
However, as he leaves the microphone, another gentleman arrives with a different explanation. He claims the painting’s masterful technique in combining subtle contrast and shadow at multiple levels explains why it was selected.
Sure enough, as the audience studies it even from a distance, they see sophistication and profound complexity. For some, gone is its bleak and lifeless nature as beauty and subtlety emerge.
Claiming to know the inspirational motivation provides a powerful interpretive tool. I recently heard a professor state that he relishes explaining the background and reasons lying behind the biblical text.
To be sure, explanations wield tremendous interpretative influence. Understanding the background forces can empower a profound comprehension. Many a speaker or book through the years has promised us insight into the behind-the-scenes motivation for why Jesus taught something or why an apostle picked up his pen.
In fact, based upon what I’ve heard and read, it is quite easy to paraphrase an assemblage of such claims. Unfortunately, contradictions also occur.
“The reason Paul wrote these instructions is because the socio-religious situation in Corinth empowered women to be unduly outspoken.”
“Paul’s instructions to the Corinthians are based upon preserving God’s created order within the Christian assembly.”
“To accurately understand this topic we must realize that not only did all Jews embrace a neoplatonic worldview, but these ideas shaped how Paul communicated his thoughts.”
“We have encountered a barrier in accurately understanding this topic because we have falsely assumed neoplatonic categories of thought. Rather, the ideas Paul explains are rooted in Judaic thinking.”
Explanations can inspire confidence that we possess the inside scoop of what is going on. However, caution in embracing those claims seems to be prudent.
For starters, existence does not prove causation. Even a little bit of reflection makes this obvious. Neither the fact that our grey painting can be perceived as being pessimistic, nor whether it possesses a sophisticated composition proves why it was chosen for an event, nor why it was created. Similarly, something can be historically accurate without it influencing the biblical message.
Caution is also warranted since powerful explanatory frameworks can encourage a blindness to a text’s actual message. While accurately understanding a background’s influence can greatly enlighten our comprehension, superimposing a false influence equally obscures our understanding.
Others may think differently. However, when I use secondary sources in studying God’s word, I am cautious against blindly accepting the claim “this is the reason why.” After all, if we are seeking an author-centered message, merely discovering a plausible explanation may not be helpful at all.