Wednesday, February 19, 2014

An Email on Background Study of the Bible

I just sent an email to a Sunday school class I am teaching on the necesity of background work on the Bible before even dreaming of applying the message of Scripture to our lives.  I thought it may be worth sharing.

In this Gospel of Mark class I am teaching at a local church, I am trying to emphasize the need to understand Scripture fully as one can before applying it to one's life.  An important part of this understanding is its historical background.  In the class I have attempted to illustrate this need by  having two class-members read the appropriate section for the week out of Craig Keener's NT Background Commentary.  I then have these "experts," as I call them, report the next week during class time on a couple points that they found especially helpful for their understanding of the text.  It provides me a moment to stop monologue-ing, and for the class to interact on a critical level together as a community interpreting Scripture.  I, and they, have found it fruitful, but even still I am always pushing back on the error or the "read-then-apply" error of personal bible study and "quiet-time". 

Here is the relevant part of the email:

Second, on another subject (this is a long comment but PLEASE read it.  It is important!).  This morning I was reading Martin Luther's Postal on Luke 8, which is the same seed-sowing passage that we read together on Sunday.  It provided a good illustration for our rigorous study. 

Luther, in his comment, says, the first "ground" is where "all heretics, sects, and fanatics belong... who understand the Gospel in a fleshly way and explain it however they want according to their own mind.  They all hear the gospel but produce no fruit."  On a number of occasions I have said that our initial desire is to apply the text of Scripture directly to our lives without exploring the background of Jesus' time, hoping that "the Spirit will illumine our understanding." I have said this is lazy bible study, and we are not fulfilling our task of reading Scripture in community by reading and immediately applying - many steps exist in between!  This is why we have been doing our "expert" time.  Luther in this same Postal provides a great example on how the "read-then-apply" error works out.  He says, "It is to be noted that Mark [4:8] and Matthew [13:8] say the seed produced some thirty, some sixty, and some a hundredfold.  According to the explanations of all [previous commentators], this is to be understood of the three types of chastity -- that of virginity, married people, and widows.   The hundredfold fruit is ascribed to virginity; thirtyfold, the least of all, to the married state; and sixtyfold to widows.  But that is such a coarse, worthless babbling that it is a sin and a shame that it has remained so long in Christendom and has been taught by so many teachers, and no one has noticed it."  BUT WE HAVE NOTICED IT AS A CLASS!  What did Leslie say after doing some rigorous background work?  All three are examples of excellent produce of a fruitful ground (believer).  Right?!  If the background was not explored, and rigorous study was not pursued, what might you have said they were examples of?  Good, better, best?  I may have...  I think it is good encouragement to keep pressing on in hard study so we can lead well, and follow well.

I find that the study I think is thrilling is by many deemed as worthless, or at least boring.  Via these "expert" times I hope that little by little folks can see that historical background is very important to a better understanding of Scripture.  I am thankful for Keener's work!  On that note: there is EVERY type of study bible in the world! Seriously.  We should have a "historical background SB"!  I would promote that.

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