There are some purists who hold to a form of textual autonomy according to which only the text is relevant for interpretation and the use of background information is anathematized. Most, however, find the use of background information helpful, and at times even vital, in making sense of a particular biblical passage or entire book.
The case for a judicious use of background information has not been helped by the excesses of those who overplay background, at times to the extent that the explicit message of a given text is set aside in keeping with a supposed piece of relevant background information.
But just because background information is abused or misapplied does not mean that it cannot, and should not, be used and applied responsibly and appropriately. To the contrary, this, too, would seem to be part of what Paul calls “accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15).
In my classes on biblical interpretation I talk about the hermeneutical triad—history, literature, and theology—which provides a proper framework for understanding a given book or text of Scripture, each in its place, and in proper balance and proportion, lest distortion occurs.
A case in point is 1 Corinthians 1–4, where Paul addresses divisions in the Corinthian church that apparently center on the Corinthians’ worldly view of leadership, and even more specifically their approach to rhetoric. The prevalent (Sophist) style of rhetoric involved impressing one’s audience with one’s credentials at the very outset; flattering one’s hearers with polite remarks about their city; and even letting the audience choose the speaker’s topic.
By contrast, Paul asserts that he came with neither eloquence (seeking to impress his audience; 1 Cor. 1:17) nor with man-made wisdom (1 Cor. 1:18–31) in order not to detract from the cross of Christ as the demonstration of the power and wisdom of God. This is why Paul determined to know nothing except Jesus Christ, and him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2).
I submit that it is only if we understand the prevailing rhetorical mood in first-century Corinth that we are able to appreciate fully Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 1–4. In fact, the interpretation of this unit of Scripture is a prime example where background transcends mere “background”—in 1 Corinthians 1–4, “background” (contrasting approaches to rhetoric) is the actual issue dividing Paul and the Corinthians.
As an aside, reading this passage makes one wonder just how appropriate it is for some in our day to postulate eloquence and wisdom as the cornerstones of “classical” Christian education. How can this be so when Paul in 1 Corinthians 1–4 explicitly states the exact opposite, that is, that he did not come in wisdom and eloquence (1 Cor. 2:1, 4)? And did Moses come to the ancient Israelites with wisdom and eloquence?
Other examples besides 1 Corinthians (including chapters 7–16) where the knowledge of background information is critical in interpretation include the books of Colossians (a syncretistic heresy); Hebrews (an attempt by some to retreat from Christianity back into Judaism); and 1 John (an early form of gnosis that later developed into full-orbed Gnosticism).
Typically, the type of background information distilled in so-called “introductory matters” (i.e. data such as authorship, date, purpose, etc.) is treated at the beginning of commentaries, sermons, or Bible studies. I submit that this is inadequate. Rather, we need to integrate relevant matters of background and historical-cultural context into a thoroughgoing reading and interpretation of Scripture.
To be sure, as mentioned, the use of background information has been given a bad name by some who have applied it fallaciously or excessively, but this does not make matters of historical background dispensable.
The biblical texts did not originate in a vacuum; they were part of a real-life context. This context, in turn, is often not intuitively familiar to today’s readers but needs to be carefully reconstructed and recreated by responsible background work.
It is my firm belief that a balanced application of all three elements of the “hermeneutical triad”—history, literature, and theology—will produce interpretations that are superior to surface readings of Scripture (or even mere “textual” readings) apart from the historical-cultural context in which Scripture came to be written.
For a good resource on Bible backgrounds, try the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary; see also my book (co-authored with Richard D. Patterson) Invitation to Biblical Interpretation: Exploring the Hermeneutical Triad of History, Literature, and Theology (Kregel, 2011).