I know an Old Testament professorÂ who is an exegete, but not a theologian. Let me put this better. I know an Old Testament professor who is so good at exegesis, he does not bother with theology.
Being a HebrewÂ exegete, this professor deals only with the Old Testament. When talking about particular issues in the Old Testament, he will almost never speak about the broader theological implications of the particular passage. He is so concerned with what the author was saying then, to his audience, that the now seems to have alluded his concern. Unfortunately, exegesis without theology is like a computer without an operating system. It cannot be used.
Exegesis is a term used to describe the process of taking meaning â€œout ofâ€ the text. When we exegete Scripture, the implication is that we are using a method of hermeneutic that values understanding the authorial intent of the passage in order to derive its true meaning (often called “authorial intent hermeneutic” or “historical-grammatical interpretation”). In other words, exegesis attempts to understand the meaning of the text on its own terms. To properly exegete Scripture we must understand many things about the individual book. Among other things, we must seek to understand the purpose for the writing (the occasion), the audience, the cultural and historic backgrounds, linguistic issues such as syntax, word usage, and contextual boundaries, type of literature (genre), and attitude and personality of the author. All of these factors come into play with a good exegete. There is nothing more important, as we will see, than having good exegesis. God does not speak to man outside of the vital role represented by the human author. As Kevin Vanhoozer states in The Dictionary of the Theological Interpretation of the Bible, â€œWe may legitimately presume that the divine intention corresponds to the human intention unless there is good reasonâ€”given the nature of God or the broader canonical contextâ€”to think otherwiseâ€ (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2005, 329).
Having said that, it is important to realize that good exegesis does not automatically produce good theology. Exegesis deals primarily with temporal meaning; theology, on the other hand, deals with eternal implications. Exegesis provides what it meant then; theology provides what it means for all time. Exegesis shows what an individual author had to say in the context in which he was writing; theology synthesizes this with the rest of Scripture attempting to understand what God was saying in relation to the completed revelation. In other words, exegesis looks at the trees, theology looks at the forest.
Evangelicals believe in what is called the dual authorship of Scripture, believing that the Bible is the product of God (being theopneustos â€œGod-breathedâ€ 2 Tim. 3:16) who fully utilized man in all ways to produce an inspired text. While this utilization of man makes solid exegesis indispensable for theology, we cannot get so caught up in temporal exegesis that we do not see this in relation to the coherent whole. If God is the ultimate author of Scripture, there must be an underlying coherent purpose in which the text lies. This assumption of coherence leads one to the next steps in interpretation.
The first is the discovery of the broader theological teaching in which the present passage fits in the progress of revelation. This is often described as the â€œcanonical context.â€ It asks the question â€œHow much did the individual author know at the time of his writing and how does this help to understand the teaching at hand?â€ This assumes that not all authors have complete revelation. In other words, some authors knew more about Godâ€™s ultimate purpose than others. God progressively revealedÂ His plan through the ages. Â
No one would disagree that Paul had a greater understanding of, for example, the Gospel, the grace of God, nature of the Trinity, and the universal sinfulness of man than did Moses who wrote 2500 years earlier or Abraham who lived 4500 years earlier. This does no injustice to the teachings of Moses or Abraham, it simply recognizes that prophets, while inspired, were not omniscient. They simply had the information that was necessary for their part in the revelatory whole. As the Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy states: â€œWe affirm that inspiration, though not conferring omniscience, guaranteed true and trustworthy utterance on all matters of which the Biblical authors were moved to speak and write.â€ The Bible is true without conveying â€œomniscienceâ€ upon the individual authors. Therefore, when we exegete a particular author, we must understand that he can provide us with a teaching that is true and limited at the same time. Its truth adds to the fuller truth of that which is revealed elsewhere in the canon. This canonical approach to interpretation can be neglected by well intentioned exegetes who may have the tendency to focus only on the value of the immediate argument or teaching at hand, and thereby commit the coherence fallacy.
Another important hermeneutical concept that can be neglected by exegetes is called the analogy of Scripture. Simply put the analogy of Scripture means â€œthe Scripture interprets Scripture.â€ It is often used synonymously with the canonical approach concept, but is distinct in that it is a way in which the canonical approach is accomplished. The canonical approach deals with a hermeneutical philosophy that the different books of Scripture fall somewhere within a coherent whole that creates a theological system, while the analogy of Scripture seeks to interpret the part based upon the whole. For example, we read of the curse upon the snake in Eden:
â€œAnd I will put hostility between you and the woman and between your offspring and her offspring; her offspring will attack your head, and you will attack her offspring’s heel.â€ (Gen 3:15)
Concerning this passage a good exegete would tell you that the text does not tell us, based upon authorial intent hermeneutics, who the snake was or what the full extent of the curse truly meant. Moses himself probably had no idea of the full implications of this passage. To the Israelites residing in the land of Canaan who initially received this account, having no other revelation to compare this event to, it probably amounted to an obscure hope – albeit a true hope. This understanding would be necessary for our understanding of the situation of the time and is vital to proper exegesis of the passage. But we cannot stop there. With the assumption that this passage is a part of a canonical whole superintended by God, we would take the next step in our interpretive process and seek to find if there is further revelation about this curse throughout the rest of Scripture that helps clarify and advance what, if left alone, is obscurity. Later in Scripture we are told that the snake was Satan (Rev. 12:7-9 and the overriding theme of the consistent enmity that Satan enacts with humanity) and his defeat, being â€œattacked on the head,â€ was enacted at the cross and will be fully realized in the eschaton (Lk. 10:18; Rom. 16:20; Heb. 2:14; 1 Jn. 3:8).
It is an unfortunate thing when we get so bogged down in the meaning of the text, trying to understand what the text meant, and lose sight of the big picture question â€œWhat does it mean?â€ Often, we can become such good exegetes that we forget to put the pieces of the puzzle together to form a coherent whole. Vanhoozer continues concerning this, â€œRecognizing Scriptureâ€™s divine authorship ultimately requires us to the read the biblical text as one book. As with any action, we can adequately identify what has been done in Scripture only by considering its action as a whole. The divine intention must come to light when Godâ€™s communicative acts are described in canonical contextâ€ (ibid.).
Tomorrow I will illustrate this failure further with a more significant problem concerning James’ “justification by works” and Paul’s justification “apart from the works of the law.”