Wednesday, 18 December 2019

Biblical Exegesis (Part 3 of 3)

A further extension of the Grammatical-Historical Approach to biblical exegesis and often assumed in the CENI schema (discussed in our previous post) is the application of general principles and prohibitive silence.1

Principles are general exhortations requiring basic common sense and mature reasoning to make specific, practical applications (cf. Heb. 5:14). Without general principles, imagine how enormous the Bible would have to be to specifically address all moral, relational, and religious life situations. Applying biblical principles in modern times should not be as daunting as some may surmise. William Larkin observes: “As human beings we have a commonality that enables us to interpret and apply ideas and patterns and forms from other cultures and time periods” (Culture and Biblical Hermeneutics 200).
·      When Jesus said, “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness” (Matt. 6:33), no specific details are given about how to actually do it, so it is up to the Lord’s disciples to carefully determine how this principle should be applied in every area of our lives. 
·      The same is true for principles such as abstaining from every form of evil (1 Thess. 5:22), not being conformed to the world (Rom. 12:2), modest dress (1 Tim. 2:9), etc.

Prohibitive silence, also known as the “rule of exclusion,” is based on the conviction that the entirety of what God wants us to know about his will has been fully disclosed in scripture (2 Tim. 3:16-17; 2 Pet. 1:3). Whatever is not communicated or authorized in scripture (explicitly or implicitly) is therefore excluded from God’s revealed will. In other words, divine silence = no divine sanction. 
·      In Acts 15 certain Jewish Christians were advocating mandatory circumcision (vv. 1, 5). How were they, and those they taught, supposed to know this wasn’t right, seeing that it was integral to the old covenant system? The Spirit-guided answer was simply, “we gave no such commandment” [prohibitive silence] (v. 24). 
·      Another example is found in Heb. 7:11-16. The Israelites knew the divine will concerning the appointment of priests because God explicitly revealed this information (Lev. 8:5 ff.), specifying the tribe of Levi as the priestly tribe (Num. 18:1-2; Deut. 33:8-11; Heb. 7:5). He did not (and did not need to) supply a list of other Israelite tribes in order to directly forbid the appointment of priests from any of them. By specifying Levi, all other tribes were implicitly excluded, as “Moses spoke nothing” [prohibitive silence] concerning them.

Is biblical silence always prohibitive, or is it sometimes permissive? It depends on whether the issue at hand is specifically or generically addressed in scripture.2
·      If the divine injunction had been, “Appoint priests from among the Israelites,” anyone from any of the tribes would be allowed; but the requirement was not this generic. The law directed the appointment of priests from among the Israelite tribe of Levi, which would permit anyone within the stated category, including tall Levites, short Levites, brown-haired Levites, black-haired Levites, etc., none of which deviates from the specified command. But the injunction would prohibit Egyptians, Assyrians, Reubenites, Simeonites, etc. (even serving alongside the Levites), because these options exceed the parameters of the specified command.
·      If the Bible had said, “Commemorate the Lord’s death with food and drink,” any type of food and drink (brownies, carrots, water, coffee) would be permissible; but the stipulated elements of the Lord’s Supper are not this generic. The directive to use unleavened bread and fruit of the vine (Matt. 26:17, 26-29) would permit plates or trays or baskets or containers for the specified elements, none of which adds to or deviates from the stated instructions. But the directive does prohibit brownies, carrots, water, coffee, etc. (even if consumed along with the specified elements), because they are unauthorized additions to what scripture teaches.
·      If the NT had said, “Offer music to God as Christian worship,” any type of music (singing, electric guitar, saxophone, etc.) would be permissible; but the musical praise specified in the NT is not this generic. The NT affirms, “… singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord” (Eph. 5:19 + nine other verses), which would permit song books or overheads (for words), a tuning fork (for pitch), a song leader (for tempo), none of which deviates from the specified instructions. But there is no NT authorization for playing and making melody on a piano in worship (even to accompany the singing), or beating drums, or juggling Bibles, or dancing with hula hoops, etc. All humanly-devised additions to the specified instructions are implicitly prohibited if the Lord has given no such directive.

A More Thorough Exegetical Approach

While maintaining the tried and tested methodologies that have served us well over the years, as our biblical knowledge increases there should always be room in our exegetical toolkit for additional information. Multiple in-depth academic approaches to biblical exegesis have been proposed over the years,3 but what I find most helpful when examining a passage of scripture is the following:

1. Establish the contextual setting: authorship, audience, date, provenance, destination, circumstances, including geographical, political, historical, sociocultural matters; i.e., who is speaking/writing and who is being addressed? 
2. Establish the literary context beyond a single verse: genre, paragraph or pericope, the entire document, collection of writings, theological linkage, relationship to the overall context of scripture.
3. Identify key words, phrases, and concepts.
4. Word analysis: textual criticism, translation, comparative study. 
5. Sentence structure, syntax, grammar.
6. Consult secondary literature if needed.
7. Contemporary application. 

Not all of these apply equally to every text. As John H. Hayes and Carl R. Holladay remind us, “no mechanical system of steps or stages in the exegetical process can be set up and rigidly followed…. An appropriate way of proceeding in doing an exegesis of a passage is to let the questions and issues arise from the text itself…. allow the text to speak for itself” (Biblical Exegesis [Rev.] 132-33). 

The primary aim of biblical exegesis is deeper understanding and continual growth in grace and knowledge through the living and abiding word of God (1 Pet. 1:23; 2 Pet. 3:18).

--Kevin L. Moore

     1 See K. L. Moore, Getting to Know the Bible (Winona, MS: Choate, 2002): 45-49.
     2 See K. L. Moore, “Musical Praise and Biblical Silence,” Moore Perspective (10 June 2015), <Link>.
     3 For example, the 10-step process of Craig L. Blomberg in A Handbook of NT Exegesis xiv-xv; or the 13-step process of Gordon D. Fee in NT Exegesis [3rd ed.] 6-7).

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