Today I was thinking about why I study the Bible and why I’m at seminary. I mean, what’s the point of all this hard work of studying Scripture? Is it a neat historical investigation to satiate my curiosity? Is it to build a perfect systematic theology so that I can place God, myself, and the world into tidy little categories? Is it to cultivate piousness and conviction to do something with my life and change the world? Is it to jumpstart my (hopeful) career in teaching? Or is it about something else?
Well, after thinking for about 10 seconds, I decided that the number one reason we should study Scripture is to know God. What is the Word? Not only revelation from God but revelation of God himself through Jesus Christ. And why do we want to know God – again, so we can have an exclusive relationship with him? Certainly knowing God personally is paramount and really a life-long endeavor that won’t be completed until eternity. Yet, beyond coming to know God ourselves, I think we study Scripture to know God for a missional purpose: to bring the gospel of Jesus Christ and the truth and reality of God to a lost world (which of course will only happen if you do know God first!). Thus, the reason we study Scripture is both relational and missional. And these go together since the first is the motivation and justification for the second. When we share the gospel we aren’t just sharing advice about how to live a good life and become a better person, but we are sharing a story, the story of God’s creation, love, and redemption. We are sharing about somebody. And ultimately, the purpose of all of this is redemptive: to redeem the world and the people in the world (Rev. 21-22).
In seminary, we emphasize that a responsible and necessary part of biblical exegesis beyond learning the original languages, is doing serious historical-cultural background studies. Why is this? Well, the key to accurate interpretation of any biblical passage is to uncover the original intent of the author. Of course this isn’t easy, especially when a book was written 3000 years ago and has possibly been redacted multiple times, copied thousands more, and a million interpretations have been given since rabbinic literature and the early church fathers. Needless to say, you could spend your entire life in Bible background studies: ancient Near Eastern cultures, religions, and societies; exilic studies and the Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian empires; intertestamental Second-Temple Judaism, the influence of Alexander the Great’s Hellenism, the Roman conquest and fusion of Jewish, Greek, and Roman thought in the NT writers (esp. Paul), etc., etc. Okay, okay, you get the point. And what’s that? First, that background studies are immensely important in order to understand the original setting and culture within which biblical writers wrote. What motivated them? What circumstances were they responding to? What other religious, rhetorical, and cultural elements might have impacted nascent Christianity? Second, all of this is important to determine the original meaning of the text. By no means does it guarantee a perfect interpretation, but no interpretation can stand without such background research.
So let’s say we do all that work and finally settle on a translation and interpretation of a specific text. “This (proposition x) was the author’s original intent and this (proposition y) is how it would have impacted his readers.” Now what? Well, now that we have reached original intent we have to move 2000-3000 years from one culture and world to another – from agrarian, domestic, communal societies to modern, hi-tech, capitalistic, democratic societies (assuming we are seeking application within the United States or the West). Wow! That’s not easy. It isn’t easy to traverse all this time and distance. There are huge differences between ancient societies and today. But there are also many similarities, especially when it comes to anthropological studies since human nature hasn’t changed. But here’s my point: at this point in your research, you are only halfway to proper application, and thus to effectively fulfilling the relational, missional, and redemptive purpose of studying Scripture and knowing God in the first place. If you stop now, you are setting yourself up for failure. If you just assume you know your own culture and society and can successfully apply anything from the Bible without carefully studying the world around you, you will make many mistakes.
This is the hidden assumption – and a false assumption – that I’m afraid too many people operate with. My contention is that many seminary students and many pastors don’t really know all that much about their community, city, country, or the history of the world. At Denver Seminary, M.Div. students are required to take classes in hermeneutics and exegesis as well as church history. But there are no classes in modern economics, American history, cultural studies, or political history and science. Now certainly a seminary (or any university) can’t offer every class on every subject. But I wonder if those developing seminary curriculum are also operating under the false assumption that students understand modern societies and will know how to properly apply the Bible to the world today once they’ve discovered original intent? Let’s take the time to briefly look at a couple case studies to illustrate my point.
First, let’s look at a case study involving the necessity of knowing ancient background issues. In Lev. 19:27-28 it says the following (ESV):
You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard. You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the Lord.
Now, this seems to be a pretty straight-forward command about not cutting your beard or tattooing the body, right? (This is also assuming you think the OT is still applicable today in some form or another and have not followed Marcion in throwing the whole thing out). Therefore, is God displease with beard trimming and tattoos? Is cutting your beard wrong? Is getting a tattoo “sinful”? Well, no, and here’s why. After studying the ancient cultural setting in which hair trimming and tattoos were commonly done, we find they were often associate with Canaanite religious celebrations and rituals. Therefore, the prohibitions in Leviticus were meant to help distinguish the Israelites from their neighbors and guard them against syncretic religious practices that would have caused Israel to commit idolatry and forsake God. Now that we understand the concept and rational behind this prohibition, we can accurately apply it today: in cases where hair styles and tattoos would be sought explicitly for participating in pagan and heretical religious and cultic practices, such would be wrong. However, beyond this, growing a beard and cutting it to the style you prefer, or getting a tattoo of a loved one’s name or a fallen hero would be entirely appropriate and morally permissible.  In this case there is not a one-for-one easy correspondence between the OT command and today’s society. Only by studying the original context and social setting in which the law was given could you ever understand why God prescribed (and cared) about such things and wanted the Israelites to obey – and why it is rarely applicable today.
Second, let’s consider an example of why you need to understand your own culture and economy to properly apply the Bible. There are many injunctions and teachings in Scripture about caring for the poor and needy: Ex. 23:2-3, 6; Lev. 19:10, 15; 23:22; Deut. 15:4, 7-8, 11; Mt. 5:3; 19:21; 26:11; Lk. 4:18; Acts 2:42-47; Gal. 2:10 among many others. Now when we read such verses what do we naturally think? Many of us think that the best way to care for the poor is either from our own pockets and resources or through government welfare and regulation of businesses which (we think) exploit the poor (or often both). Personally, we save and give, we tithe at our church, we serve at a food kitchen, we give to charities, and much more. Of course, none of this is wrong and is one way to follow through on God’s concern that we care for the destitute. But how many of us think of other solutions – or the causes of poverty to begin with? How many of us realize that the causes of poverty are twofold: ineffective and negative government intervention and the lack of wealth creation (often due to government intervention)? Here’s some examples: Why is it that some poor and homeless can’t find affordable housing? Because of rent controls. Why is it that some who are poor and uneducated can’t find employment? Because of the minimum wage. Why is it that many poor people can’t afford an education? Because of government education subsidies that drive up demand, thus astronomically driving up prices. We blindly think that building a government-run welfare system that provides “free” services such as food stamps and medicare/medicaid is a good thing, sanction by God. Yet we don’t realize that the United States spends almost $1 trillion a year on poverty relief using borrowed, printed, and taxed money that drives the government deeper in debt, devalues the currency, and puts the welfare of all at risk of economic and currency collapse. And in the end it has little impact on reducing poverty in this country.  Did you know that since 1970 the number of people around the world living on $1 a day has dropped 80% and that this wasn’t the work of charitable giving, the church, or government welfare?  Did you know that this poverty reduction and provision of material goods is the direct result of countries embracing free-market enterprise and capitalism? Yet many pastors and clergy in the church today think that Christianity and capitalism are incompatible, that business profit is the result of greed, and that government regulation, taxation, and welfare is a better solution. 
Here’s my point: for proper application of the Bible one must be able to move fluidly between the cultures of the Bible and the cultures of today. That means you must study two cultures: don’t assume you understand either because there is much about both you don’t know. We often emphasize studying ancient culture because it is so foreign to us, and rightly so. But I hold the conviction that most of us don’t understand modern societies all that well either – and worse, we’ve been subtly affected by the ideals and language of such historical movements like Marxism and Progressivism. Do we know it when we see these influences around us today? I doubt it.
So here is my charge to you, seminarian: study two cultures, ancient and modern. Learn the differences and similarities. Don’t just read about the ancient Near East or 1st century Judaism. Pick up a book on basic (or advanced) economics (Adam Smith, John Maynard Keynes, F.A. Hayek, Milton Friedman, Walter Williams, Thomas Sowell, Henry Hazlitt, Murray Rothbard), political philosophy (Frederic Bastiat, Federalist Papers, Thomas Paine, Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes) or American history. I think this is a part of being a good steward of the Scriptures you are handling on a daily basis. If you ignore either one of these you drop the ball and run the risk of severely misunderstanding the contexts in which the Bible was written and into which it must be applied. If this happens you will never achieve the purpose for which you set out: to teach and preach a gospel that is both relational and missional, and ultimately, redemptive.
 I owe this example to my hermeneutics textbook: William W, Klein, Craig L. Blomberg, and Robert L. Hubbard, Jr., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, rev. ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004), 492.
 For more information on current government welfare programs, their costs and impacts, see this policy analysis by Michael Tanner: “The American Welfare State: How We Spend Nearly $1 Trillion a Year Fighting Poverty – And Fail.” [http://www.cato.org/publications/policy-analysis/american-welfare-state-how-we-spend-nearly-%241-trillion-year-fighting-poverty-fail]; PDF: [http://www.cato.org/sites/cato.org/files/pubs/pdf/PA694.pdf}; Video: [http://www.cato.org/multimedia/events/american-welfare-state-how-we-spend-nearly-%241-trillion-year-fighting-poverty-fail]
 Working paper by Maxim Pinkovskiy and Xavier Sala-i-Martin, “Parametric Estimations of the World Distribution of Income,” 2009. [http://cid.bcrp.gob.pe/biblio/Papers/NBER/2009/Octubre/w15433.pdf]
 For more information on Christianity, morality, and capitalism, see: Schneider, John R. The Good of Affluence: Seeking God in a Culture of Wealth. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2002; and Sirico, Robert A. Defending the Free Market: The Moral Case for a Free Economy. Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing, 2012; and Gilder, George F. Wealth and Poverty. Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing, Inc, 2012.