For the average Christian in the 21st century, the importance of sound exegesis may seem far removed from the serving of worship, tradition and sermon one might find in a typical church today, however large or small. Perhaps this should not be surprising. Thousands of years of misinterpreting the Bible has led to confusion, discord, polarisation and in some cases, downright heresy. When even the ‘experts’ cannot agree on the meaning of a particular sentence, word or scripture in the Bible, what is the lay member meant to do?
Often, the comfort blanket of an ‘accepted’ teaching, no matter how inaccurate, is to be preferred to the insecurity (and perhaps guilt) of not knowing exactly what God expects or requires in a given situation. But is disagreement amongst Biblical scholars over certain aspects of interpretation the main reason for today’s inaccurate and misleading approaches to scripture? It has to be accepted that there will always be divergent views as to the proper exegesis of certain aspects of scripture, because of our presuppositions and ‘baggage’ that we bring to the Biblical texts.
But acknowledging it and then failing to address it is, the writer contends, the cause of much of the sad state of affairs in today’s churches regarding inaccurate interpretation. Subjective views and opinions, bias, anachronism and ethnocentricism – eisegesis, if you will, rather than sound exegesis – cannot simply be dismissed as inevitable, if the church is to carry out Christ’s commission of the church to preach the gospel of the kingdom ‘in the whole world as a testimony to all nations’ (Matthew 24:14).
As Barr (1980) notes, properly conducted exegesis to discover the intended meaning of the original Bible texts is a crucial factor in a church community. He states: ‘It is of vital importance that the primary place in the preaching and therefore in the thinking and meditation of the community should be taken by careful and detailed interpretation of scripture, in which a genuine attempt is made to discover and interpret what it really means, as against our antecedent expectation of what it ought to mean… first place should be given to the search for the meaning of scripture itself; this is what the community needs, and wants, to hear. ‘ (p. 123) The key phrases here are ‘genuine attempt’ and ‘what it really means. ‘ This requires a mindset where the conveying of Biblical truth is the ultimate goal, regardless of whether, in the process, sacred cows are slaughtered and former beliefs challenged. As Stein (1997) notes: ‘The meaning of a text depends on the specific conscious will of the author. ‘ (p. 38).
Should not, then, the interpretation of that text demand an exegete who is open to an unbiased study of all the critical factors of sound exegesis? This essay will posit that interpreting the original meaning of Biblical texts accurately is crucial to a healthy, vibrant church, especially in this postmodern era. It will examine some of the main methods of exegesis throughout the ages and discuss the relative merits and demerits of their approach, seeking to establish whether such methods were subjective or objective, and conclude by considering how the intended meaning could be derived.
The necessity for objectivity in exegesis Avoiding presuppositions in exegesis is impossible, given the fact that as human beings, we already have ‘baggage’ that we bring to the exegetical process. As Dunn (1987) writes: ‘Apart from anything else, the understanding we bring to the task of exegesis has been shaped by our upbringing and education, by our inherited culture and tradition – including our own theological tradition in its particular distinctiveness. ‘ (p. 4)
But given this inevitability, does this mean a universal acceptance of inaccurate exegesis, as though we are powerless to do anything about it? If the Christian life is to be one which is led by the authority of – and obedience to – Scripture, it seems obvious that good exegesis is a prerequisite to help us understand our lives as Christians more clearly. It is also plain, conversely, that false interpretations can do much harm. A glance at the history books will show where incorrect interpretations of certain Biblical texts has resulted in imprisonment, torture and death.
As Peterson (1996) points out: ‘Few things are more important in the Christian community than reading the scriptures rightly. The holy Scriptures carry immense authority. Read wrongly, they can ignite war, legitimise abuse, sanction hate, cultivate arrogance. Not only can, but have… do. This is present danger. ‘ (p. 8) Sadly, rather than redress the issue and make a fervent attempt to refine the exegetical process in order to prevent such errors occurring, the church today appears to have abandoned the role of exegesis altogether.
As Smith (2002) notes: ‘Unfortunately in recent years Bible study has often been replaced with an emphasis on cross-cultural mission, Christian counselling, emotionalism, and church growth. Thus, many Christians today lack not only a knowledge of the Bible, but more alarmingly, even the basic skills to study it independently. ‘ (p. 2) Kaiser (1981) also draws attention to the demise of Biblical knowledge, lamenting the absence of exegesis from today’s preaching: ‘Where has the prophetic note in preaching gone?
Where is that sense of authority and mission previously associated with the Biblical Word? No one element has been so responsible for the whole process of deterioration in Biblical preaching as has been the discipline of Biblical exegesis. ‘ (p. 20) The absence of sound exegesis also creates polarisation and factions. Fundamentalism, for example, is borne out of the idea that the Biblical text is divinely dictated, to the degree that the authors were mere puppets in the hands of God, having no human input whatsoever.
Is this stance the result of a sound exegetical method which takes into account aspects such as culture, background, language, etc? It seems unlikely. Rather, this position holds another agenda – to counter the ‘influences’ of liberalism following the period of the Enlightenment. I would contend that the intention here is not to ensure sound exegesis, but to protect one’s ‘theological corner. ‘ Consider, too, what happens when an objective approach to exegesis is abandoned in favour of ‘discovered truth’ as in the case of cults such as the Mormons or Jehovah Witnesses.
Or when undue emphasis is placed upon misinterpreted scriptures about the work of the Holy Spirit that results in people believing that scripture teaches it is perfectly acceptable to roll around on the floor, barking like a dog, being ‘drunk in the spirit,’ or even handling poisonous snakes on purpose, with the belief that immunity to snake bites is a promise from God. Objectivity in exegesis is therefore not only necessary, it is vital if the truth of the Biblical texts is to mean anything at all. Only by the careful use of proper exegetical methods can the Church have the guidance and direction it needs.
This has never before been needed as much as now, when the postmodern idea of ‘no absolutes’ has created a social and moral decline – and where scriptural guidance can be of significant help to the community as a whole. Exegesis throughout history: sound or unsound? Given that the Biblical texts were written by human authors over the course of time, it would seem a rational and logical approach to exegesis to seek to discover the author’s intended meaning rather than superimposing a meaning on the text.
Is it a foregone conclusion that this method cannot under any circumstances be carried out because of presuppositions held by the exegete? That would surely make the whole interpretive process completely unworkable. But how well did the exegetes throughout history follow a sound process of exegesis, aware of their own biases and attempting at every stage to ensure the minimum interference from their presuppositionary ‘baggage’? Space in this essay does not permit a full description of every course change in exegesis, but some of the main approaches to poor methods of interpretation will be covered in summary.
During the time of Christ’s earthly ministry, the Pharisees reinterpreted the sacred writings of the Torah through their method of exegesis known as Midrash. This, however, did not appear to obey rules of ‘safe’ exegesis. Plaskow’s (1990) comments suggest that the author’s intended meaning was overshadowed by a desire to extend the meaning beyond its original boundaries: ‘Midrash uses allegory and additional narrative to fill in the gaps left by an often terse Biblical text.
Midrash is creative and imaginative… Jews have traditionally used Midrash to broaden or alter the meaning of texts. ‘ (p. 80) Silva (1987) concurs with this view, stating that: ‘… among the rabbis, whose approach developed into mainstream Judaism, exegesis consisted of mechanical and artificial rules that paid virtually no attention to the Biblical passages. In the more extreme cases, such as the methods of Akiba, an irrational literalism and obsession with trivial details led to wholesale distortions of the Scriptures. ‘ (p. 28)
Even Prasch (2000), who is a promoter of midrashic interpretation, describes it thus: ‘Midrash makes heavy use of allegory and typology to illustrate and illuminate doctrine… it sees multiple meanings in Bible texts found in strata… ‘ (Internet) Thus, eisegesis rather than exegesis seemed to be the order of the day, and rather than conclude that such an approach was merely due to supposition, it does not seem likely that any attempt was made to rectify the obvious distortions in the interpretive process.
Berkhoff (1987) states that the greatest weakness of the Pharisees and Scribes was that they exalted the oral law and used it to ultimately set aside the written law, giving rise to all manner of interpretations. Christ condemned them for doing this, as can be seen in Mark 7:13. As time progressed, the Jews became increasingly influenced by the Greek methods of argument, which caused even further mistranslation and unsound exegesis.
Liberman (1950) makes us aware of just how ‘off-track’ the exegetical process had strayed: The Greek Law colleges taught their students the art of twisting the law according to the required aim and purpose. During the religious anarchy, many Jews attended these schools. The Greeks took great pride in being able to make a law teach what in reality it did not teach. The Pharisees used the same method! ‘ (p. 63) A good example of this was the first century Jewish writer Philo of Alexandria, who rejected wholesale any form of literal interpretation, claiming that it led to blasphemous and potentially immoral interpretations.
Thus, meaning derived from the actual text was discarded in favour of giving the ‘underlying meaning’ which usually related more to Greek philosophy. A century later, the work of Clement of Alexandria and Origen put the allegorical method of exegesis in the spotlight. Clement believed and taught a two-fold meaning of scripture: the literal and the ‘hidden’ spiritual, and regarded the hidden meaning as the critical one. Thus, we see a further extension of allegorical interpretation which rarely, if ever, had anything to do with the authorial intent.
Clement’s successor, Origen, further expanded the ideas of Clement, creating a three-fold gospel interpretation consisting of a moral, or ethical meaning in addition to the literal and spiritual intent, yet again the ‘deeper spiritual truth’ being the dominant explanation of scripture. It seems ludicrous that no-one attempted to challenge such blatant displays of self-styled approaches to exegesis at that time, other than the Antiochenes, who partially rejected the allegorical approach in favour of a more typological stance.
Blomberg (1993) writes how Origen maintained that God had inspired the original Bible writers to incorporate the allegorical meanings into their writings, thus Origen concluded he had not invented the approach but was merely exegeting what was already there. Augustine, another leading scholar, continued this method of allegorical interpretation, which by this time had a four-fold meaning (anagogical being the additional meaning). This totally unsound method was to continue for almost a thousand years, until the emergence of Martin Luther.
Luther affirmed that only a single meaning of the text – the literal meaning – was correct in order to undertake proper exegesis and rejected any form of allegory being applied to Biblical texts. Luther considered allegories as ‘monkey tricks’ to highlight the genius of the exegete and called them empty speculations. Calvin followed in Luther’s footsteps, also condemning allegorical forms of exegesis as a ‘contrivance from Satan,’ and forming what is known as the grammatical-historical method of exegesis, whereby the grammar of the scripture along with its historical setting is considered the key process for getting to the authorial intent.
Luther and Calvin could therefore be commended for applying a much better exegetical method to interpreting scripture. However, Luther asserted that everything in the Bible was about Christ, and so promoted a somewhat rigid typological approach. Also, did Calvin and Luther go too far in rejecting allegory in total? Clearly the Bible contains allegory, and Jesus himself uses it in places such as the Parable of the Sower and the Seed (Matthew 13:3-23). There followed the period known as The Enlightenment (circa 1720) when Christian beliefs were challenged by philosophers such as Kant.
The Bible was considered as a book like any other, and underwent severe criticism for its dogma. Liberal approaches to the study of scripture were taking root and exegesis took several different pathways. Schleiremacher’s author-oriented approach, known today as the historical-critical method, emphasised the need to understand not just the words of the author’s text, but have a psychological understanding of the author himself. As Dockery (1999) explains: ‘The interpreter’s goal focused on sharing a life relationship with the author.
Understanding, then, involved more than rethinking what an author thought. It included reliving what was in the life of the author who generated the thought. Schleiermacher contended that if this reliving could take place, then the interpreter could understand the author’s work as well as, or even better than, the author. ‘ (p45) Since that time, further approaches have been created and utilised by many Biblical scholars. Source criticism concerned itself with establishing the original sources that the authors (primarily the gospel writers) used.
Theologian Karl Barth emphasised the need for a personal encounter with God through the scriptures. Scholars such as Gunkel and Bultmann introduced form criticism, classifying scriptures into different literary types such as a miracle story, or pronouncement story, etc, exegeting each one according to its form and emphasising the sitz im leben of the texts. Redaction criticism sought to find the emphasis within the text that the individual writers (or ‘editors’, hence the German word for editing, ‘redaktion’)gave their materials.
In addition to the many varied criticism-type approaches to exegesis, the last fifty years or so has seen further developments in areas such as liberation theology, feminist theology and other theological standpoints. The social-scientific approach has sought to refine authorial intent by examining more in-depth aspects of the social, cultural and political interplays of the Mediterranean area in the time of Christ and the early Church. Finding a way forward Clearly the above sketch of exegesis throughout the ages is an over-simplified one and somewhat selective.
The point, however, is to highlight the methodology and question the exegetical intent. Can we really excuse the manner in which exegesis has been conducted over the centuries, putting it down solely to ‘presuppositions’ and ‘subjective opinions’ and leave it at that? I would contend that an exegete should acknowledge the dangers of pre-understanding and then take responsibility for guarding against it as much as possible throughout the exegetical process. That is not what history appears to show.
Even when some scholars are clearly more rational and logical in their attempt to get to the meaning of the text, it appears they do it from a defence position. I do not see open debates between the various schools of thought, where exegetical methodology can be honed and sharpened. I do, however, see many theological axes being ground. Warner (2003) asks what we can do about presuppositions and subjectivity. I believe that the starting point is to acknowledge that we have them! But then we must ensure that they do not rule out a priori the various interpretive options.
Kulikovsky (2002) suggests that exegetes use what he calls the Interpretive Cycle. He contends that the exegetical process should be cyclic. His diagram appears below: Fig 1: The Interpretive cycle Essentially, the exegete will automatically approach a passage of scripture with presuppositions and belief systems. He/she may even have a preconceived idea of the meaning of the actual text. The exegete then applies sound exegetical techniques to determine the real meaning of the text.
These are thought through and compared to the original presuppositions, and judged for accuracy. This process is repeated and reassessed, whereby the correctness of the interpretation will be improved and the presuppositions altered to be more in line with the proper understanding. To conclude, the module question asked if it is really possible, given the presuppositions and subjectivity of the exegete, to establish the intended meaning of the original Bible authors. I contend that, at least for the most part, it is.
It is not, in my view, presuppositions that hold us back from establishing the intended meaning. Presuppositions, as I have shown above, can be recognised for what they are and amended as necessary. I believe the greater problem lies in having an open mind to search for the intended meaning, and to change when new understanding is received. All too often, the approach seems to be, ‘My mind is already made up, do not present me with the facts. ‘ Today, we have at our disposal a wealth of exegetical tools with which to perform the task, but we need an open mind to use them.
We can examine the genre of a text to consider whether or not it is poetry, a letter or a narrative, but we need an open mind to accept that a psalm is not the place from where we draw doctrine. We can study the language, the culture, the social and political settings, with archeological and historical facts and figures to support what is being said, but we need an open mind to be willing to put aside ethnocentric and anachronistic views that try to force 21st century Western democratic forms of society into Biblical texts.
Only by understanding accurately what the text meant then do we have a chance to express properly what it means to us in the context of our society and our lives today. Finally, we must not discount the work of the Holy Spirit in exegesis. I do not believe that the Holy Spirit merely enables us to understand everything written in the Bible without study or discipline. Instead, I contend that the Holy Spirit working in us can provide the correction needed to remove the blinkers of scriptural bias and distortion from our eyes, if we are willing to follow his lead and take personal responsibility.
With a determination to carry out sound exegesis and a positive approach to debate and discuss approaches to the text, rather than merely defend one’s corner, the work of the church in equipping the saints can advance in great strides. Left as it is, sadly, congregations will continue to be fed a concoction of anecdotes, misinterpretations and nonsense, dressed up as ‘truth. ‘ As Kopp (1978) states: ‘Being on our own, each of us must take personal responsibility of coming to know the wolf within, or we risk becoming the lamb that slaughters the rest of the flock. ‘ (p 2)