In an interesting exchange, D. A. Carson and John Piper discuss whether pastors really need to understand the social and historical context of the Bible in order to preach well. Piper pushes pretty hard for the idea that good preaching really just requires one to be “steeped” in the biblical texts. Unsurprisingly, though Carson agrees that this is primary, he maintains the importance of background material. They come together in the end, but there still seems to be some difference on this point.
I have to admit that I can see both sides of this one. On the one hand, those arguing that we only need the text often seem to offer a false alternative here: steep yourself in the text rather than get distracted by background studies. But, it’s never that simple. How do you steep yourself in a text unless you understand enough about it to grasp what the author is trying to say? The preacher needs some background information even to understand the language (vocabulary, grammar, syntax, etc.), let alone the cultural ideas and practices they convey. Piper seems to believe that you can get most of this information from the text itself, but that hardly seems possible since you need some understanding of these things to interpret the text adequately in the first place.
But, on the other hand, it’s easy for us academics to become elitist with our claims that you really can’t understand the Bible without our advanced degrees, thick books, complex theories, and countless hours of uninterrupted study. At that point, we lose sight of the fact that the Bible is not just another ancient text requiring for its proper interpretation the acquisition of academic arcanity. It’s also a divine text through which the Spirit has always worked powerfully, even among poorly educated people or those who just lacked an adequate understanding of its original socio-historical context.
Background material has value, and disciplined preachers will seek it out to deepen their sermons. I’ve heard enough ill-informed expositional “nuggets” over the years to know the importance of doing your homework. So, if you have the time, education, and resources to study such issues carefully, please do. What you have is a gift to be used for the benefit of the body. Don’t squander it.
But, faithful ministers can and do preach powerful sermons even without this information. God is both gracious and powerful. He has always worked through vessels that were less-than-perfect. That can’t become an excuse for sloppy sermon-prep, but it should encourage all of us to know that, in the end, the power of the sermon is in the Spirit and not the preacher.