Towards A New (Old) Exegesis: Duane W.H Arnold, PhD
At its heart, biblical exegesis is concerned with a codified system of interpretation which attempts to discover or “lead out” (the literal meaning of exegesis in Greek) the thoughts of the writer as they penned any particular passage which might be under consideration. Hermeneutics, as a general category, consists of the overarching theory and method of interpretation and may include both verbal and non-verbal forms of communication.
In the area of the interpretation of biblical texts, however, they are used almost interchangeably. The process of biblical exegesis, however, should not be thought of as the mere work of interpretive imagination, although a certain degree of imagination may assist the exegete. Rather, the process of exegesis is usually thought of in terms of possessing certain interpretive skills that may be brought to bear on the biblical passage under examination.
As a general rule, one may put forward certain governing principles of biblical exegesis:
To interpret lexically, one is looking at the language in which the text was written. A consideration is made of the etymology of the words, their historical development in meaning and their particular usage in the text under consideration.
To interpret syntactically, one is considering the grammatical principles of the language in which the text was first written. Are we looking at a command, a question, a noun or a verb? These grammatical constructions will inform our understanding of the text.
To interpret contextually, the interpreter of a biblical text must keep in mind the trend of thought of the whole document, such as the servant character of Christ as presented in the Gospel of Mark, or the unique sonship of Christ as logos in the Gospel of John. One must also consider the “color of thought” immediately surrounding the passage, as this often shades the meaning of the words or passage being interpreted.
To interpret historically, is to discover the particular circumstance which gave rise to the text under study. This includes having some idea of the manners, customs and psychology of the people and society among whom a given document is produced. Questions have to be asked – What was their understanding of chronology? How did they record their own history? What were their figures of speech? What sort of literature or literary styles did they use to express their thoughts? This process can, indeed, be taken further to incorporate how the passage has been interpreted through the ages, as we are not the first ones to have looked at the text in question.
To interpret analogically, in regard to the Bible, is to use Scripture to understand Scripture. A bizarre interpretation of a passage that clashes with the whole trend of Scripture as historically understood is practically sure to be wrong.
Now, these are the basic tools of exegesis. Most of us, however, are not biblical scholars. Many of us do not know the original languages of the Bible, or, if we do, we often, like myself, know them imperfectly. Moreover, most of us simply read Scripture as part of our devotions, for guidance and/or for comfort. Yet, even in our reading, or more precisely, in the way in which we read, we are far removed from the early Christian era. Augustine marveled that his mentor, Ambrose, could read silently! Augustine could only read if he read aloud. This was common among those who were literate through to the early middle ages. Even then, most people, not being literate, knew the Bible from it being being read to them. The sermon was then the interpretive tool. Even after the invention of printing, the common man had little access to the Bible itself for some time. The sonorous language of the King James Version, therefore, was intentional – for it could be read in short, understandable phrases and, most importantly, the phrases were easy to memorize.
As the Bible became more and more the province of of the people in the pew, more exegetical/hermeneutical tools were provided to help people interpret what they heard and, increasingly, what they read. Overarching theological frameworks were constructed to aid in interpretation. Lutherans and, in time, the Reformed, provided a system emphasizing Law and Gospel –
“All Scripture ought to be distributed into these two principal topics, the Law and the promises. For in some places it presents the Law, and in others the promise concerning Christ, namely, either when [in the Old Testament] it promises that Christ will come, and offers, for His sake, the remission of sins justification, and life eternal, or when, in the Gospel [in the New Testament], Christ Himself, since He has appeared, promises the remission of sins, justification, and life eternal.”
The Reformed also provided an additional interpretive framework with Covenant Theology, in which salvation history may be divided into three overarching covenants – a Covenant of Works, a Covenant of Grace and a Covenant of Redemption, with scripture being interpreted accordingly. In the 19th and 20th century, yet another interpretive framework, that of Dispensationalism, was adopted, mainly by fundamentalist Christians in the United States, in which God’s progressive revelation to humankind, is marked by cycles or dispensations (ranging from three to eight). In each dispensation, God provides requirements and promises, and this understanding was then to be reflected in the interpretation of Scripture.
For myself (and I speak only for myself), while I find each of these interpretive systems of interest and occasionally helpful, they fail to provide adequate interpretive models when I approach Scripture. After I have done the basics of exegesis, I am still enough of a pietist that I want to know, “how does this apply to me, today, in my life?”
So, I turned to the fourth century for guidance… to Augustine of Hippo. In his remarkable work on exegesis, De Doctrina Christiana, Augustine provided me with a workable exegetical scheme that I could not only understand, but apply, although not quite in the self-centered approach of my question.
“Whoever, therefore, thinks that he understands the divine Scriptures or any part of them so that it does not build the double love of God and of our neighbor does not understand it at all.”
This I can understand. For Augustine, proper exegesis is to see the Scripture through this filter of “double love” – love for God and love of our neighbor. It’s not all about me… it’s about God and it’s about others. To engage in biblical exegesis apart from this theme, even with all the governing principals outlined above, would not be, for Augustine, true biblical exegesis. Moreover, this love of our neighbor is to extend even to those we might consider as enemies for, as he says, “We should understand that he is our neighbor to whom the office of mercy should be shown if he needs it…” Real biblical exegesis is about God and all of us. You see, Augustine understood that “the goal of the command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (I Tim. 5). Law and Gospel together point to the love of God and our neighbor. Every covenant is made to promote and instill the love of God and our neighbor. Every dispensation, even for the most ardent dispensationalist, points to the goal, the end point, of the love of God and our neighbor. For Augustine, in his exegetical scheme, all knowledge, all prophecy, all study looks for the building up and perfection of three things, and three things alone – faith, hope and love.
So, when I look at a text now, I have a question to ask myself. I will not be asking, “How does this apply to me?” I will not be asking, “How does this apply to that person, or that group of people?” I will not even be asking, “How does this help me prove that I’m right and the others are wrong?” Instead, after I’ve looked at the text, done my homework, thought of the context, history and all the rest, I’ll only have one question left… “How does this help me love God and my neighbor?”
Maybe that’s the only question I needed to ask in the first place.