Wednesday, 4 December 2019

Biblical Exegesis (Part 1 of 3)

The Challenge Before Us

If we accept the Bible as the inspired word of God, we are compelled to approach its message with utmost respect and care. D. A. Carson reminds us: “We are dealing with God’s thoughts: we are obligated to take the greatest pains to understand them truly and to explain them clearly” (Exegetical Fallacies [2nd ed.] 15). Bible study is rewarding only when it is done right, requiring a serious mind and a strong commitment. 

In 2 Timothy 2:15 we read in English translation:
·      “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (NKJV).
·      Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth” (NASB).
·      Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (ESV).
·      Make every effort to present yourself before God as a proven worker who does not need to be ashamed, teaching the message of truth accurately” (NET).1

What is this passage saying, and how does it apply to us today? Among other things, biblical exegesis involves establishing the literary context, considering the broader context, translation, comparative analysis, identifying key concepts, and word study. By engaging in biblical exegesis, we learn something here about biblical exegesis. Contextually this is Paul’s final apostolic manuscript, and leading up to the above admonition he has been urging Timothy to be brave, faithful, and strong, to endure and work hard. And Paul’s instructions have much broader applicability (cf. 2:2; 3:16-17; 4:2).2

What do we learn from this text about how the word of truth is to be interpreted and applied? What would be the opposite of this that ought to be avoided? What is required, according to this passage, to receive God’s approval and avoid shame? 

I. Howard Marshall observes: “The problem of interpreting a passage from the Bible is one to which we would all like to find the key, some simple and easy formula that will enable us to approach any text of Scripture and quickly establish its meaning. Alas, there is no such simple answer …” (“Introduction,” in NT Interpretation 11). Without the investment of considerable time, devotion, mental exertion, and prayer, we run the risk of missing and/or misunderstanding God’s revealed will.

Defining Terms 

While “interpretation” is seeking to understand and explain the meaning of something, “hermeneutics” is the artful science and methodology of interpretation.3 Biblical hermeneutics is a broad umbrella term that encompasses both what the biblical text meant to the original audience and what it means to current readers.4 More specifically, “exegesis” is the process of drawing out of the text its original meaning (what it meant),5 whereas “exposition” is the explanation and practical application of the fruits of exegesis (what it means),6 although some would use these terms interchangeably. The primary aim of the conscientious Bible student is to apply exegetical understanding of biblical texts to the contemporary church and world (G. D. Fee, NT Exegesis [3rd ed.]: 2).

Acknowledging Our Presuppositions 

Integrity demands that as exegetes we must be aware of our own presuppositions stemming from personal experiences, influences, preferences, and ideologies. Even among highly intelligent and well-educated scholars, no human exegete is exempt from this reality. 

Presuppositions are involved in every aspect of the relationship of the interpreter to his text…. An examination of presuppositions must be the first step taken in scientific interpretation. This is no easy task; for it is so hard to see the spectacles through which one looks and without which one cannot see anything clearly at all…. An interpreter’s work will always be affected by human foibles and fallibility. Prejudice arises in all scholarly disciplines. The individual’s personality will play a part in his work, even though this will usually be an unconscious influence; an optimist and a pessimist may well assess a literary or a historical document differently…. the interpreter may be so conditioned by his environment that he is almost automatically biased in one direction or else he is quite unable to consider all the alternative approaches…. The interpreter must be aware of and attempt to allow for the prejudice which may influence his judgment… a completely detached and unbiased stance is impossible” (Graham N. Stanton, “Presuppositions in NT Criticism,” in I. Howard Marshall, ed. NT Interpretation 61-62).

Before we place too much weight on information offered in any extrabiblical sources (scholarly or otherwise), we need to consider and determine (if possible) what presuppositions undergird a particular interpreter’s conclusions.7 Thorough and honest investigation does not begin with having one’s mind already made up, then searching for scholarly works that support the pre-drawn conclusion and ignoring all others.

Despite the unavoidability of presuppositions, it is not a foregone conclusion that understanding the Bible is therefore impossible. The so-called “hermeneutical circle” is the idea that an interpreter’s mental baggage shapes the conclusions drawn from biblical texts, which in turn shape the interpreter’s mental baggage, and so on. But this is an unnecessary extreme. A more realistic concept is the “hermeneutical spiral,” i.e., as conscientious exegetes gather more and more information, potential meanings are eventually narrowed down until the inspired author’s original intent is grasped.8

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is, obtaining knowledge of the divine will as revealed in scripture is conditional and proactive. The state of one’s mind (spiritual heart) is paramount to understanding God’s word. When certain ones could not comprehend what Jesus was trying to teach (John 8:27), he said to them: “Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word” (v. 43, ESV).9 Their biased minds, preconceived misconceptions, and hardened hearts prevented them from understanding the truth (v. 47). No matter how much of God’s word a person is exposed to, if one’s heart is not prayerfully inclined to the truth he or she will never understand it (see Matt. 13:13-15; 2 Thess. 2:10-12).10

--Kevin L. Moore

     1 Other interpretive renderings include: “Study … a workman … rightly dividing the word of truth” (KJV); Be diligent … a worker … correctly teaching the word of truth” (CSB); Do your best … a worker … rightly explaining the word of truth” (NRSV).
     2 When Paul penned these directives, “the word of truth” was not limited to the OT and the spoken word. The NT Greek term graphē (“scripture”) applies to something written, and Paul goes on to say that all “scripture” is divinely inspired (3:16). At the time, the writings of Luke were already regarded as “scripture” (1 Tim. 5:18), and within a comparable timeframe so were Paul’s (2 Pet. 3:15-16).
     3 Derived from the Greek noun hermēneía (“interpretation”), via Hermēs (“Hermes”), the messenger of the gods. G. R. Obsborne describes hermeneutics as “a science, since it provides a logical, orderly classification of the laws of interpretation,” but also “an art, for it is an acquired skill demanding both imagination and an ability to apply the ‘laws’ to selected passages or books” (The Hermeneutical Spiral [Rev.] 21-22). Bernard Ramm says, “It is a science because it is guided by rules within a system; and it is an art because the application of the rules is by skill and not by mechanical imitation” (Protestant Biblical Interpretation [3rd ed.]: 1). Simply put, hermeneutics is “the attempt to understand anything that somebody else has said or written” (I. H. Marshall, “Introduction,” in NT Interpretation 11).
     4 G. R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral [Rev.]: 21. G. D. Fee acknowledges the traditional usage of the term but chooses to apply it more narrowly to “contemporary meaning” or “application” of biblical texts (NT Exegesis [3rd ed.]: 1; see also G. D. Fee and D. Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth 18), for which we are employing the word “exposition.”
     5 Derived from the Greek preposition ek (“from” or “out of”) and the verbal ágō (to “lead” or “bring”). There is considerable overlap between hermeneutics and exegesis, and the boundaries between them are not always clear. Generally hermeneutics (a subset of philosophy) is more theoretical, while exegesis is more practical. Exegesis applies the principles of hermeneutics. Exegesis is mainly focused on interpreting the text, while hermeneutics is concerned with the nature of the interpretive process (D. A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies (2nd ed.): 25).
     6 From the Latin expositus, meaning to “show forth.” Contextualization would be a practical extension of this methodology.
     7 Obviously we can’t read minds and assign motives, but if an author has made enough of his works available to the public, he often reveals, whether indirectly or explicitly, an underlying agenda.
     8 See G. R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral [Rev.] 22-23; D. A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies [2nd ed.] 126-27; J. S. Duvall and J. D. Hays, Grasping God’s Word [3rd ed.] 137-47.
     9 The Greek akouō (to “hear”) is not limited to the reception of audible sounds; its biblical usage includes listening, understanding, accepting, and heeding.
     10 This can be taken a step further. Jesus also said, “If anyone is willing to do His will, he will know of the teaching, whether it is of God or whether I speak from Myself” (John 7:17, NASB). In order to know the will of God there must first be a personal willingness or desire (cf. 1 Pet. 2:2; Rev. 22:17). But it is not simply a desire to “know” God’s will – one must also have the willingness to “do” God’s will. Bible study has to be more than a mere academic exercise (see Ezra 7:10; Matt. 7:13-14; 28:20).

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