This article is the tenth in the series called “The Theology of the Text,” designed to cover the topic of the text in short, accessible articles.
The Theology of the Text: What is Biblical Exegesis?
Exegesis is the task of drawing meaning out of the text. It assumes that the text of Holy Scripture has a meaning, and that the meaning can be ascertained. The chief principle of exegesis is to let Scripture be its own infallible rule of interpretation (2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Peter 1:20,21). In the case where a passage is more difficult to understand (2 Peter 3:16), Biblical exegesis demands that the rest of the Scriptures be searched to draw out the true and full sense of the passage. Under no circumstance should historical criticism, lower criticism, or any other higher critical methodology be employed to exegete the Scriptures. If such methods are employed, that practice of interpreting the Scriptures is no longer 1) treating the Scriptures as self-authoritative and 2) exegesis.
In today’s church, many modern “exegetical” methods are exalted that include critical methodologies. Higher criticism has infiltrated modern commentaries and especially the seminaries and is labeled “Biblical Criticism.” Craig A. Carter in his work, Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition, sets forth the difference between “faith seeking understanding” and “methodological naturalism” (15).
“It is necessary to stress the contrast between [the] classical interpretation of Scripture [-] theology that begins from revelation and that is done in and for the church, and Epicurean metaphysics, historical criticism, [which is] theology that takes reason rather than revelation as its highest authority”(Ibid., 15, brackets added).
What Christians need to realize, is that the theology of hermeneutics and exegesis directs modern theology more than anything else. If Calvinists truly desire to “reform” the church, they must reform their hermeneutics. Focusing on symptoms of modernity such as critical theory and social justice and trying to combat them with Calvinism, theonomy, and eschatology is simply putting a band aid on a wound that needs stitches. Exegesis must begin by believers who affirm that the text of the Holy Scriptures were immediately inspired, and that inspired text has been “kept pure in all ages,” even today. Christians must believe that when they open the pages of their Bible, God is speaking. The task of Bible reading and study is not the time to talk over the voice of God, it is the time to be silent and listen.
If modern exegesis could be summarized in one phrase, it would be “men talking over the voice of God.” The Scriptures teach that the Word of God would not fall away, yet modern scholars say otherwise. The Bible teaches that the the Jews were “committed the oracles of God” (Rom. 3:2) and yet modern historical critical studies have determined that the Hebrew Scriptures were corrupted based on several Greek translations of the Hebrew and scraps of the Old Testament found in the Qumran community, which was made up of heterodox Jews . This has resulted in critical approaches to the text holy Scripture being intermingled with hermeneutics.
Modern exegesis, rather than simply pulling meaning out of the text, first sets out to discover what the text “originally” said using critical methodologies and evidence, and then interprets the text based on that critical approach. A perfect example is Deuteronomy 32:8, which is changed in modern versions based on Dead Sea Scroll witness and interpreted by way of Ugaritic (Baal worshippers) literature. The goal of exegesis is ascertaining the meaning of what God has said in His delivered Word, not “yea hath God said.” Biblical exegesis does not need to consider historical faith communities to interpret the text. While modern text criticism is a major downgrade in the modern church, modern critical exegesis is even more of a downgrade due to its actual impact at the pulpit.
On top of critical exegesis, an additional failure of modern exegesis is the way Greek and Hebrew are taught. The original Biblical languages are taught in seminary for the purpose of exegesis. This would make sense, if the seminaries were actually teaching the languages. Unfortunately, the seminaries have decided that in order to do exegesis, students only need to learn around 1,000 words and the tedious, sometimes made up, grammar rules of the languages. In other words, they aren’t actually teaching the languages to proficiency. This results in seminary graduates being bound to a lexicon without any actual understanding of the Biblical languages, thinking that they are equipped for exegesis in these languages. It would be like hiring a spanish speaker who can barely understand a children’s movie being hired to make translations of Shakespeare into Spanish on the basis that they know English grammar and 1,000 words. If you don’t believe me, watch “Boss Baby ” in Greek on Netflix with one of your friends who just graduated seminary and tell me if they can translate it for you.
The actual impact of this is word studies and new “translations” of words which actually change the meaning and theology of Scripture. It should concern everybody that modern Christian scholars are inventing new grammatical definitions like the “Eucharistic genitive” for the Greek language that isn’t recognized by the Greek speaking people or Greek classical scholars. Koine Greek is not a mystical, ethereal language that can mean anything people want it to mean – it is a language, like any other language, and it can be easily translated by anybody who actually knows Greek.
Modern critical approaches to exegesis and the lack of proficiency in the Biblical languages has resulted in a drastic shift in the theology of the modern church. The liberalism plaguing conservative Christian circles should be no surprise to anybody, because theological liberalism has overwhelmingly had its day in the conservative seminaries as it pertains to hermeneutics. Look at how many Old Testament professors are interpreting Song of Solomon today in contrast to how it has been historically interpreted and the shift becomes apparent. It is important, now more than ever, for the church to return to the old paths of exegesis. The solution is not new perspectives on the Bible, eschatology, or Calvinism. It is taking a stand on faithful hermeneutics. An immediate red flag for all of the Christians out there, is that modern scholars are pulling out new interpretations from a text that is thousands of years old. Resist the downgrade, dear church, and pick up a Bible that is translated by men who knew the languages, and read it faithfully. You do not need to consider the religious practices of historical faith communities to understand the Scriptures. You do not need to know Greek and Hebrew grammar or have access to a lexicon if you have an accurate translation. God has delivered His Word, and has given the church methods to interpret it.