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The point of this little exhortation is that, in handling the Scriptures, sanctification and speculation rise and fall in inverse proportion. As speculation increases, sanctification decreases. The more guessing, the less blessing.

Few people would give their life for a speculation. Few will gouge out an eye or cut off a hand because of a guess. Suppositions make weak expositions.

Here’s the sort of thing I have in mind.

Preachers, teachers and Bible study leaders are sometimes tempted to speculate because the “possibilities” are so interesting.

1. For example, what about possible appearances of Christ in the Old Testament? When it says God was walking in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:8) could that have been Christ? Was Melchizedek really Christ himself in Genesis 14? When “the Lord” appeared to Abraham in Genesis 18 was that a pre-incarnate appearance of Christ? When Jacob wrestled all night with “a man” (Genesis 32:24) was it Christ? Was the fourth person in the fiery furnace (Daniel 3:25) Christ?

2. Could the splitting of the waters of the Red Sea be explainable by God’s using some cosmic catastrophe to create atmospheric conditions that caused the waters to divide?

3. Was there a written document containing all the material common to Matthew and Luke but missing from Mark, which we might call Q for German Quelle, meaning source?

4. Was the later poverty of the church in Jerusalem (Romans 15:26) owing to the misapplication of the early policy of having “all things in common” (Acts 2:44, 4:32)?

5. Was Paul a widower? Or did his wife leave him when he became a Christian? Did he have children?

6. Did Mary Magdalene have a crush on Jesus? Did Jesus have to deal with more temptations than we usually think?

7. When Paul prohibited women from teaching and having authority over men in 1 Timothy 2:12 was there a problem in that church such as women taking authority and teaching, who were unprepared to do so? Was that the only reason Paul prohibited them—they weren’t ready?

See What’s There

My point is that people need solid food, not possible food. They need a sure word from God, not a guess from man. They need a biblical “Thus says the Lord,” not a “Maybe God said.”

A fascinating five-minute homiletic detour into what might have been going on in Corinth behind this or that text is a waste of precious time. And I think it trains our people to expect interludes of historical entertainment and to mistake it for deep insight and spiritual food.

What is really there in the text of Scripture is bottomless, staggeringly interesting and provocative. Speculation is not necessary to hold people’s attention. If a pastor finds what might have been more interesting than what is really there in the text, he needs better powers of observation, not better powers of speculation. He needs a better feel for the wonder of what is, rather than a greater fancy for what might have been.

What About Poetry?

Two qualifications:

1. Poetry and preaching are not the same. Illuminating fiction and authoritative exposition are not the same. I love poetry and fiction. These are by nature inventive. They too have their place and their power. But the sanctifying power they have is owing decisively to the deeper truths they convey, not the imaginative structures that convey them.

2. When a text of Scripture is apparently contradictory, and there is little agreement on what the solution is, it is helpful for people to see one or two possible and plausible solutions. These will be more or less speculative. We tell our people we are not sure of the answer. We don’t want them to take our guesses as God’s word. But we offer our guesses so that they can see at least the possibility that there is a solution here rather than a contradiction.

Dive Deeper

So I say again, the crying need in the pulpit and the classroom is not to spend time speculating about what might have been the case, but to dig deeper into what is really there in the text. Most of us are still scratching the surface.

If we know for sure something that’s not in the Bible, and we see that it sheds true light on the Bible, that’s another matter. Let it be so. But my sense is that the secondary literature is no easier to interpret than the Bible. Which means that the secondary texts are no more clear than the biblical texts they supposedly illumine. It is a harmful thing to teach seminarians to see the Bible as needing help from outside, while failing to see that the outside documents also need help from the outside.

Pastors and teachers have very limited time for study. The ocean of contextually understandable Scripture is bottomless. My plea is simple: dive deeper into what’s there.

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Deborah Girdner

commented on May 15, 2014

Thank you, John Piper! I e-mailed some of your statements to myself. I love, "If a pastor finds what might have been more interesting than what is... he needs better powers of observation, not better powers of speculation. He needs a better feel for the wonder of what is, rather than a greater fancy for what might have been." It's a good reminder for me. I'm not a scholar, preacher or a teacher, but I'm starting to learn a bit about Hebrew and Aramaic. so I couldn't resist using Blue Letter Bible to check the references given with regards to Old Testament pictures of Christ. A cursory glance at the Hebrew and Aramaic behind some of the references would elicit less speculation: Ge 3:8 Yahweh Elohiym, 18:1 Yahweh, 32:28 Elohiym; Dan 3:25 Elahh. Shalom!

Bill Williams

commented on May 16, 2014

I agree and disagree. I agree that our focus in preaching should be on the text and what is actually there in the text, not on speculating about what isn't there. On the other hand, Christianity appeals to history, and a good deal of history involves a legitimate use of "reading in between the lines." If we are going to make the claims that events recorded in Scripture--most notably the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth--are historical events, we therefore must learn to read the Scriptures historically, not just theologically. Which means that, while some of the speculative possibilities that the author mentioned are in fact pointless, such as Paul's marriage situation or whether or not Mara Magdelene had a crush on Jesus, other examples he gave are actually important for a historical reading of the Scriptures, and thus important ultimately for a proper interpretation of the Scriptures. Using clues from Scripture to gain an idea of the situation in the church in Corinth or the church in Ephesus when Paul wrote the epistles to the Corinthians or to Timothy is important. Paul did not write these letters in a vacuum, and we should not interpret these letters as if he did. Doing so, we risk the possibility of unconsciously interpreting these letters as if he wrote them to 21st century churches in the West. Now, how much historical context we should go into while preaching can be debated. But I hardly think that five minutes of talking about what might have been going on in the Corinthian church when Paul wrote to them could be considered a waste of time. Especially considering the length of his typical sermons.

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