Four Key Principles of Exegesis
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The first goal of hermeneutics is to determine the meaning of the text that the author intended. The interpretation process must take into account the genre of the literature and the historical and literary context. The meaning of the text controls our application.
Introduction and Review
A. Determine the Author's Intended Meaning
B. The Meaning of a Text is Genre Dependent
C. Context is the Key to Interpretation
1. Historical Context
2. Literary Context
D. The Text Itself Must be Given Priority
1. A spiral from inductive to deductive reasoning
2. A spiral from text to context
E. Clarification of the meaning of the phrase, "interpreting the Bible literally."
Course: Bible Study Methods
Lecture: Four Key Principles of Exegesis
We are continuing our study of biblical interpretation or hermeneutics and much of what we have done has been introductory. In fact, this is a course that is essentially an introduction to biblical interpretation and so almost the whole course is introductory in that sense, but what we have done is we have looked at all the issues surrounding biblical interpretation and let me review those once again.
We started off by looking at some of our presuppositions that we approach the Bible with such as the presupposition that the Bible is God’s word. Then we moved on to talk about the nature of the Bible, the unity and diversity of the Bible. Diversity meaning it is written by human beings in a variety of contexts, unity meaning it is God’s word. And so has a single unity of theme from beginning to end.
Then we introduced the topic of hermeneutics in general. What is hermeneutics? Hermeneutics is the science and art of biblical interpretation and it has two goals and those two goals we identified with reference to a bridge illustration; one side of the bridge is us, the other side of the bridge is them, "us" as in the contemporary reader, "them" as in the author and readers of the original documents. So the goal is to cross the bridge back to the first century context of meaning. We call that exegesis. Exegesis means drawing out the author’s intended meaning, then we take that message or meaning and bring it back across the bridge and we call that process contextualization; bringing the sense or meaning or intention of the author into our contemporary context.
I. Summary Overview of the Hermeneutical Process
Now we are actually getting into the process of interpretation. Let us go back to our bridge illustration. Our bridge illustration once again is moving from us, our contemporary culture, first of all, back to the world of the text and we call that exegesis. So in this session I would like to look at four basic principles of exegesis. This will be review in one sense of our session of introduction to hermeneutics, but then we will go much deeper on some of these particular principles.
A. Determine the Author’s Intended Meaning
Here are four principles of exegesis. If we keep these four principles in mind then we are likely to accurately determine the author’s intended meaning and that in fact is our first principle. Our first principle of exegesis is that, in general, a biblical text has one meaning and that meaning is the author’s intended meaning. We are looking to determine what the author intended.
Our goal is not to bring our meaning and impose it upon the text, our goal is to hear the original author in the original author’s original context and determine the meaning of the text from there.
Now, when we start talking about one meaning, the author’s meaning, we do raise the question of whether there can be more than one meaning in a biblical text and are there exceptions to the one-meaning rule. One exception to the one-meaning rule would be what we could call word plays or puns where there is an intentional double meaning introduced into the text.
Take for example the beginning of the Book of Revelation. The first line of the Book of Revelation says, “The revelation of Jesus Christ.” Sort of introduces the title of the book as the revelation of Jesus Christ. Well, that phrase, the revelation of Jesus Christ, could mean the revelation from Jesus Christ, that Jesus Christ is revealing the message of this book. But it also could mean the revelation about Jesus Christ, that Jesus Christ himself is revealed in the book and in fact both are true. It is Jesus Christ who gives the revelation to John. He is the one who presents it, gives the message to the seven churches and then the rest of the revelation, but the book is also very much a revelation of who Jesus Christ is and we get the picture of the glorified Son of Man, we get Christ returning in glory at the end of the book and so both meanings are possible. Could the author have intended both, in fact, is there a double meaning to that phrase? Many scholars think that that is likely.
In that case it was the author’s intent to present a double meaning not just a single. So still we are talking about the author’s one intent and that intent just entails a double meaning.
Let me give you another example of a possible double meaning or word play. It is in Mark’s Gospel chapter 2 in the context of what we call the Sabbath controversies. Jesus and his disciples are walking through a grain field on the Sabbath. His disciples begin to pick heads of grain and eat them and Pharisees who are present say, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?” The disciples are taking grain and eating it, or breaking off the heads and eating it, and the Pharisees view that as work and work is forbidden on the Sabbath.
Jesus responds by pointing to an example from David’s life. He says, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need, how he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread which is lawful only for priests to eat.” So Jesus points to an example where David the anointed king actually did something that was, at least on the surface, contrary to the command of God. Then Jesus concludes with this statement, “The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath.” The Sabbath was made to be a blessing for people, people were not created by God in order to keep the Sabbath is what Jesus’ first response is and his second response then is, “So, the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”
Now, in context that word Son of Man could mean two different things. Son of Man is a Hebrew way of referring to a human being. Ben'adam in Hebrew means a human being, a person. So, if you read it in that sense it would say the Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath, so people have lordship over the Sabbath. In other words they are more important; therefore, they have dominion over the Sabbath. If there is a physical need that needs to be met, it should be met. That is one way to read it.
But, of course, it must mean something else. It must mean, for Mark’s reader, that Jesus who is the ultimate Son of Man, who is the Messiah and Son of Man is a messianic title taken from Daniel 7, the Son of Man Jesus is Lord even of the Sabbath. Now the first statement, the Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath, would suggest that Son of Man means people, so people are lord of the Sabbath, but the context of Mark’s Gospel where Jesus is the Son of Man makes it clear that the other meaning is there as well and maybe even is the dominant meaning.
So here we have got one author who is making a play on words and means more than one thing. But here we are still dealing with an author’s intention, an author intentionally introduces a pun or introduces a play on words and so there are not two different meanings, there is the author’s one meaning which happens to be twofold.
Dual Fulfillment of Prophecies
Another example or question about whether there are double meanings are what we call dual fulfillment of prophecies – when the author had one meaning in mind it would seem from the context, but the text is applied differently in a later context.
One of the most interesting of these is the Immanuel prophecy in Isaiah 7. Isaiah gives a sign to King Ahaz, in Isaiah 7 he says, “The Lord himself will give you a sign, the virgin will conceive and give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel.” Well, of course we know from Matthew’s Gospel that this prophecy is fulfilled in Jesus and in his virgin birth to Mary.
Yet if we look at the context of Isaiah we see that this prophecy looks as though it is going to be fulfilled in the very near future. The next verse says, “He will be eating curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right. For before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste. The Lord will bring on you and on your people and on the house of your father a time unlike any since Ephraim broke away from Judah, he will bring the king of Assyria.”
Isaiah predicts that before this child is old enough to choose wrong from right and before he is old enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the northern kingdom of Israel and the kingdom of Syria will be demolished by the king of Assyria, but we know that this happened in the eighth century B.C. So this prophecy seems to have some kind of a near fulfillment in the birth of a son to a young woman, the Hebrew word that we translate virgin there could mean a young woman.
But it is certainly clear that Matthew understands this verse to apply to Jesus, that he is Immanuel, he is ultimately God with us. Now how do we explain this if we are talking about one meaning and one intention by a human author? Well, my response to this and we could get into a complicated discussion and there are other views as well, but my response would be that Isaiah was looking towards the near fulfillment, but ultimately God had in mind the ultimate fulfillment. We could even distinguish between meaning and significance in this case, whereas Isaiah’s meaning was in relation to the fact that God would be with his people and would deliver them in the context of the invasion from the northern kingdom and from Syria.
There is significance for this verse as well because ultimately God is going to be truly with his people or finally with his people through Immanuel, through the true Son of God in Jesus, the ultimate virgin. Sometimes we might refer to this as typology where an Old Testament situation, person, or event foreshadows and points forward to its ultimate or final fulfillment in Jesus. So we can either distinguish between meaning and significance, meaning for Isaiah, significance for future generations, or we can talk about typology where that type is the child in Isaiah’s day, whereas the antitype, the fulfillment, the ultimate example of this is Jesus Christ.
So our principle is in general, every text has one meaning. We need to seek to enter the world of the text. We need to seek to determine the author’s intended meaning in that author’s context. First and foremost we need to look to Isaiah. That is our first principle of exegesis.
B. The Meaning of a Text is Genre Dependent
Here is out second principle of exegesis and that is that the meaning of a text is genre dependent. The meaning of a text depends to a great extent upon its literary form. We talked a little bit about this at the very beginning of our course when we were talking about the diversity of the Scripture, the different literary genres, and I just want to unpack this idea a little bit right now.
There are many different literary forms, different genres in the Bible. We have psalms, we have proverbs, we have parables, we have letters, we have legal material or laws, we have prophecy, we have history or historical narrative. Each of these literary forms has certain rules, certain principles of interpretation and in order to comprehend God’s message to us through that particular literary form we have to understand how that form works.
For example, Luke 10 Jesus says, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away leaving him half dead.” Now, what is Jesus describing here? Well, this is a parable. And so if we recognize it as a parable we are going to be looking for certain things. We do not have to ask what was this man’s name. We don’t have to ask what was his family background, because in this context what is important is that the parable Jesus is teaching a spiritual truth. So what is important, as we would see in this parable if we were studying it, is that this man is Jewish and the man that is going to come along and help him is a Samaritan. Jesus is driving home a point through the use of a parable.
Here is another literary genre, “And the dragon stood on the shore of the sea and I saw a beast coming out of the sea, he had ten horns and seven heads with ten crowns on his horns and on his head and on each head a blasphemous name.” This is from Revelation 13. Well, what is being described? If we identify this as history or historical narrative we would be very confused. We have to recognize that this is an apocalyptic narrative. This is a picture, an image, a story using symbols that represent different things. Understanding the way apocalyptic literature works will enable us to understand more clearly what the message of Revelation is.
Ecclesiastes 1:1, we mentioned this verse before, “Meaningless, meaningless says the preacher, utterly meaningless, everything is meaningless.” Determining the literary form of Ecclesiastes is essential if we are going to understand whether this book represents in fact God’s ultimately wisdom or whether, in fact, human wisdom apart from God’s, separate from God.
Philippians 1:1, “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi together with the overseers and deacons.” Identifying Philippians as a letter is critically important for understanding its message. We have to recognize that this letter is written to a church in the first century, that it is written to address their issues and concerns. We have to recognize that this letter is written by the Apostle Paul, the first-century Christian missionary and church planter. If we recognize the genre as a letter then we are going to be looking for certain clues as to its meaning.
So identifying the genre is critically important in terms of interpreting the text. So our first principle, in general, a text has only one meaning and that meaning is the author’s intended meaning. A second fundamental principle is that a text’s meaning is dependent on its literary form, on its particular genre.
C. Context is the Key to Interpretation
Here is a third fundamental principle of exegesis and it is one that we have mentioned in passing many times and that is that context is the key to interpretation. The context of a passage determines its meaning. And here we have to distinguish between two different kinds of context. What we call historical context, the first part, and what we call literary context. Literary context is sometimes referred to as co-text. So we would have historical context sometimes called simply context and literary context sometimes called co-text. That is the text around and beside the text. So our point is context is the key to interpretation.
1. Historical Context
a. General Historical Context
i. Geographical Context
First of all historical context – historical context refers to the total life situation in which the book arose. Aspects of that, the general historical context would include the geographical context. John 4:3-4 says, “He left Judea and went back once more to Galilee, now he had to go through Samaria.” Now understanding that Judea was in the south of Israel and was populated mostly by Jews, Galilee was in the north also populated by Jews, between the two was Samaria populated by Samaritans who were enemies of the Jews. And so understanding that geographical context is critical to recognizing what Jesus is doing and the significance of his encounter with the woman at the well, a Samaritan woman in that particular context and understanding who the Samaritans were.
Geographical context – beginning of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, it says, “Paul to the church of God in Corinth.” Understanding where Corinth is in southern Greece or Achaia. Understanding who these people were and the context of Paul’s missionary journey is critically important for understanding this letter.
ii. Historical and Political Context
Not only the geographical context, but historical context includes the historical and political context. Luke 3:1-2 Luke says, “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar — when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, … during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John, son of Zechariah in the desert.”
Now here is a verse that establishes the broad historical and political context of John the Baptist’s ministry and of Jesus’ ministry. The fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar – Tiberius was the emperor of the whole Roman Empire. When Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea – Pilate was the Roman prefect or governor over Judea. Herod tetrarch of Galilee – this is Herod Antipas the son of Herod the Great who was ruling in the north over Galilee as a essentially a vassal king for the Romans. So we get the establishment of the broad historical context of the gospel.
Then we get a broad overview of the religious context – during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas. Now that is an interesting statement, because Luke seems to get it wrong. Judaism had only one high priest and we know historically Caiaphas was the high priest, but Luke, in fact, gets it right because he recognizes that Annas who was the father-in-law of Caiaphas was really the power behind the high priesthood and so he, even though he might seem to get it wrong, strictly speaking, from a strict historical perspective, he gets it right in terms of the true historical situation. We get independent attestation of that in John’s Gospel where at Jesus’ trial he is first taken before Annas, tried before Annas before being taken before Caiaphas and the whole Sanhedrin, because it was with Annas’ approval only that Jesus would be convicted and then executed by the Romans. So Luke gets it right when he introduces this religious background.
The next phrase says the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert. That phrase “word of God” reminds us of the call of the prophets in the Old Testament and of course John is the last and greatest of the Old Testament prophets. So we have set the stage historically and politically for the ministry of Jesus and the proclamation of the Gospel.
The last sentence in verse 15 says, “The people were waiting expectantly and were wondering in their hearts if John might be the Christ.” Once again, part of the historical situation, the expectations of the coming of the Messiah, could John be this Messiah. So Luke who has such a strong sense of the historical background and context of the Gospel sets the stage for us in terms of our reading of the Gospel. Historical and political context – critical for understanding Jesus’ life and ministry.
iii. Religious Situation
That is the geographical context, the historical and political context; another part of this broad historical context is the religious situation. Matthew 23:5-7, “The Scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat,” says Jesus. “Everything they do is done for people to see, they make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long.” Jesus accuses the Scribes and the Pharisees of hypocrisy here, but everything he says has a religious context.
What does it mean that the Scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat? Well, that is a way of referring to them as interpreters of the law. Moses, of course, wrote the first five books of the Old Testament. He recorded the law. We refer to the old covenant as the Mosaic Law. Well, the Scribes and the Pharisees are the guardians of that.
They make their phylacteries wide – we mentioned in our last session what a phylactery was, a prayer box with a verse inside and literal fulfillment of Old Testament commands to keep God’s word always in front of our eyes, always in front of us. Their tassels on their garments long – once again Leviticus tells Jewish males to have tassels or fringes on their garments. So understanding this religious background is essential to understanding Jesus’ statement about the hypocrisy that the religious leaders are demonstrating.
Another example of the importance of understanding the religious background, from the book of Hebrews, Hebrews 9:13 says, “The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean.” Chapter 10:3-4 says, “But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins, because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” In many modern contexts, in many modern cultures, this idea of blood of goats and bulls being sprinkled, sanctifying, making clean, it is completely foreign, it is completely alien. We do not think of blood as making anything clean, we would think of it as certainly staining. Well, this passage, of course, comes from the sacrificial system of the Old Testament where an animal would be sacrificed as a payment for sins. The author of Hebrews draws on that imagery to identify Jesus as the great final sacrifice for our sins. Understanding the religious context of Judaism is essential to understanding this passage and understanding that Jesus Christ is the great and final sacrifice for sins.
iv. Mark 12
Let me give you one example, a kind of broad example that hits various points of religious, social, cultural and historical context just to illustrate what we are talking about the need to understand the historical context. This is the parable of the tenant farmers in Mark 12. Jesus has just entered Jerusalem. He has entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey in literal fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9. He then enters the temple and clears the temple courts and a series of controversies with the religious leaders begin.
In the midst of those controversies Jesus tells a parable, we call it the Parable of the Tenants or the Parable of the Tenant Farmers. Mark 12:1, “He then began to speak to them in parables. A man planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a pit for the winepress and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and went away on a journey.”
Now, as Jesus often does he begins to tell a parable from everyday life and there were vineyards all over Galilee so anyone listening to this message would understand this. A vineyard would have a wall around it for protection, would have a watchtower where a night watchman could keep guard to keep robbers and bandits away. Also, it was very common to have a wealthy land owner who would rent such vineyards out to tenant farmers who would plant the vineyard, would keep the crops, and then would give a share of those crops to the owner of the vineyard. So understanding the region of Galilee and this kind of tenant farmer situation where there was often abuse where an owner would be viewed as taking advantage of the poor tenant farmers and there would be animosity and anger between the two. This whole scene would have been understandable within the context of the first-century Galilee, the region in which Jesus is telling this parable.
But there is even more going on than that general historical context, because any Jew of Jesus’ day would immediately recognize in this parable an echo of an earlier passage. Isaiah 5, what is called the Song of the Vineyard, and let me just read for you a portion of Isaiah 5:1-2. Isaiah says, “I will sing for the one I love a song about his vineyard. My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside. He dug it up and cleared it of stones and planted it with the choicest vines. He built a watchtower in it and cut out a winepress as well. Then he looked for a crop of good grapes, but it yielded only bad fruit.”
So as soon as Jesus began to tell this parable his Jewish hearers would immediately recognize this Song of the Vineyard, this description as soon as he began to speak of a wall around the vineyard, a pit for the winepress, the planting of vines. And they would also recognize what happens in this Song of the Vineyard in the Old Testament context. This vineyard produces only bad fruit.
Then suddenly this Song of the Vineyard, this beautiful love song, turns into a judgment oracle in Isaiah 5:3, “Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. What more could have been done for my vineyard than I have done for it. When I look for good grapes why did it yield only bad? Now I will tell you what I am going to do to my vineyard, I will take away its hedge and it will be destroyed. I will break down its wall and it will be trampled. I will make it a wasteland, neither pruned nor cultivated and briers and thorns will grow there. I will command the clouds not to rain on it.”
So he pronounces a judgment against this vineyard, because it does not produce fruit and then we see the interpretation of Isaiah’s Song of the Vineyard. “The vineyard of the Lord Almighty is the house of Israel and the people of Judah are the vines he delighted in and he looked for justice but saw bloodshed, for righteousness but heard cries of distress.”
So Isaiah interprets this Song of the Vineyard as a judgment against Israel, how God is going to take down Israel’s protection and allow the Assyrian empire to come in and judge Israel for their sins and that is exactly what we see in history. As Jesus begins to tell this parable any Jewish person in the first century would immediately recognize that behind this parable is this judgment oracle against Israel for her sin.
But then Jesus’ parable is different than Isaiah’s Song of the Vineyard. It is the same story, but with a twist. Instead of referring to the vineyard in judging the vineyard, Jesus refers to the tenant farmers who are overseeing the vineyard and they, it quickly becomes clear, represent the Jewish religious leaders.
Let me pick up the story of the parable there, “At harvest time he,” that is the owner of the vineyard, “sent a servant to the tenants to collect from them some of the fruit of the vineyard but they seized him, beat him and sent him away empty-handed. Then he sent another servant to them, they struck this man on the head and treated him shamefully. He sent still another and that one they killed. He sent many others, some of them they beat, others they killed. He had one left to send, a son whom he loved.
“He sent him last of all saying, ‘they will respect my son,’ but the tenants said to one another, ‘this is at the heir, come let’s kill him and the inheritance will be ours.’ So they took him and killed him and threw him out of the vineyard. What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and kill those tenants and given the vineyard to others. Haven’t you heard this passage of scripture, ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. The Lord has done this and it is marvelous in our eyes.’”
So Jesus takes this Song of the Vineyard from Isaiah and gives a reinterpretation to it, where now it is not just about Israel as the vineyard, it is about Israel’s leaders, the religious leaders, who are overseeing the vineyard and God the owner of the vineyard sends his servants who represent the prophets again and again, but Israel rejects them and the religious leaders reject them.
Finally, he sends his dear son, a reference to Jesus, of course, and they kill the son. And so Jesus tells this parable and alludes back to Isaiah’s Song of the Vineyard and relates it to his soon death. Verse 12 then says, “Then the chief priests, the teachers of the law, and the elders look for a way to arrest him because they knew he had spoken the parable against them, but they were afraid of the crowd so they left him and went away.” This parable is going to be one of the things that provokes Jesus’ death. So understanding the cultural context, the historical background, understanding Isaiah’s Song of the Vineyard is essential for understanding the nature of this parable.
b. Specific Historical Context
We have been discussing historical context and what we have been looking at are aspects of the general historical context of the biblical material: the history, the politics, the religion, the culture, but there is also something we could call specific historical context and that relates to the circumstances from which each of these books arose. Issues like the authorship, issues like the date, the provenance, which means where the document was written from, the recipients, to whom the document is written, and the purpose and occasion for which it is written.
Let me illustrate this from an American example. If I said, “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Most Americans would recognize that, they would recognize the author of that; the author of that piece is Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States.
They would also recognize the date or the approximate date, that this was an address given at Gettysburg on November 19, 1863 after one of the bloodiest battles of the American Civil War. The recipients are the American public devastated by that war. The life situation or occasion is of course this bloody battle that turned the tide of the Civil War. The purpose of this particular document was to unify and inspire the nation in the context of this war.
Now that is the specific historical context to that Gettysburg Address. Now you can see in that case how important understanding those issues of authorship, of recipients, of purpose, and occasion are for understanding that particular document.
It is the same with New Testament documents. Take an example like Paul’s letter to the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians. The author is Paul the apostle. The date is about A.D. 55, written from Ephesus on Paul’s third missionary journey. The recipients are this immature, struggling church at Corinth. The occasion – Paul has just received a delegation from Corinth with questions from the church and reports of problems in the church.
Paul’s purpose, then, is to call the church to unity, to call the church to maturity, and once again to submit to his authority. Understanding those specific questions of historical context, the why the book was written, the when the book was written, the purpose for which the book was written; these are critical questions for understanding the letter of 1 Corinthians.
So we have general historical context. What was the world in which these documents arose, these documents were written. And specific, what is the specific life situation in which they arose. So our first kind of context – historical context.
2. Literary Context
Our second kind of context is literary context. Literary context refers to the progress of thought in the book or the progress of the argument. The key question to ask with reference to literary context is what is the point. What is the point the author is making? When we say, as we often do, that was taken out of context, that verse is taken out of context, we are generally referring to literary context, the flow of thought, the progress of the argument.
Now how do we determine literary context? Well, we must think of concentric circles moving outward. The smallest basic unit of meaning is the word, followed by the sentence, followed by the paragraph, followed by the larger section, followed by the book or letter, the document itself. So we have to ask the question where does meaning reside?
Does meaning reside in words? Well, yes, but certainly not completely. Think of a word; let’s take an example like the word fresh. What does the word fresh mean? Well, we could speak about fresh air, we could speak about fresh fruit, we could speak about fresh bread and fresh water. Fresh air means brisk air or air that is not stale, stuffy. Fresh fruit might mean fresh fruit as opposed to canned fruit.
Fresh bread would mean just baked bread. Fresh water would mean water that is not salty; we have saltwater lakes and freshwater lakes. You could speak of a fresh slant on a story and that would be a creative or new way to tell a story. You can speak of fresh linen and by fresh linen we do not mean new linen we mean clean linen, something clean placed in a room. We can speak of fresh troops and fresh troops would be rested troops.
So, you can see the word fresh as we have said with reference to Bible translation, all words have a range of possible meanings, not generally one single meaning. So meaning does not reside in words, meanings resides in words in context. The meaning of words is determined by their context.
Let me just give you an example of this. Suppose I say where I am reading a headline of the newspaper and the headline of the newspaper says, “The President Prepares To Do Battle in the House over the Welfare Bill.” What do each of those words mean? Well, I can identify the meaning of those words – the President in this context is almost certainly the President of the United States. Prepares to do battle – What kind of battle is this? Well, this is a legislative battle, a battle between political parties perhaps.
This battle it says is in the House. What kind of a house is that? Well, that house is a word referring to the House of Representatives, a body of legislators or politicians who decide on legislative bills. Over the welfare bill – The President prepares to do battle in the house over the welfare bill. Well, what kind of a bill is that? I get an electric bill where I pay my electric bill and I pay my water bill, is that the kind of bill? No, this is a piece of legislation, a piece of law that is going to be voted on.
So each of those words – president, battle, house and bill – have a variety of possible meanings, but when I place them in that context, the broader context, both the historical context and the literary context that is the surrounding words, tells me what that means.
Suppose I said another sentence, “Meeting in the White House, the President instructed Eisenhower that victory in this battle was crucial for the welfare of the nation.” What I have done I have just created a sentence with many of the same words. “Meeting in the White House” – that is a different house, that is the house where the President lives not the legislative branch, the House of Representatives. The President in this case is the same office, but it is a different President, a President during World War II. We know that because of the reference to Eisenhower who was the general during World War II.
“Victory in this battle” – this is no longer a legislative battle, this is a military battle on a battlefield somewhere. “Was crucial for the welfare of the nation” – this is no longer a welfare bill, a bill related to helping the poor, this is the general welfare, sustainability, viability of the nation itself. So what have we done? We have created another sentence with many of the same words, but those words have different meanings. So meaning does not reside in words alone, it resides in words in context.
Alright, moving outward in our concentric circle, if the word is the smallest basic unit of meaning, the next unit of meaning is the sentence. What if I made this statement, this sentence, “The last eight years have been a disaster.”? Does that sentence have meaning? Well, yes, it has meaning but not entirely. What last eight years am I referring to? What is the disaster? Some people after a two-term president might use that sentence to describe the political situation – “The last eight years of this presidency have been a disaster.”
Someone else in a business, maybe their partner has just run away with all of the money from a business they have been building together for eight years and you might say the last eight years, meaning this business, have been a financial disaster. Perhaps a very difficult marriage, someone might say in anger the last eight years have been a disaster. You see the point is the sentence does not have meaning apart from it being an utterance, for one thing, within an historical context and part of a larger paragraph.
Moving outward in our concentric circles we have words, we have sentences, we have paragraphs. Paragraphs get their meaning from larger contexts, so ultimately literary context moving outward from words to sentences to paragraphs to sections and then to the larger entire document or book. Words only have meaning within these larger contexts and moving outward in the context is essential to comprehending the meaning of the text. That is what we mean by literary context.
Now we could actually move outward even further from the book, because the book itself has a larger context. For example, take Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Paul’s letter to the Philippians is part of a larger body of literature or what we could call a larger corpus, that body of literature are the Prison Epistles. Philippians was probably written from Rome, at the same time Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians. So that larger corpus, it is a part of that literary context.
We could then even go further out and say all of Paul’s letters are part of that larger corpus or context of that letter to the Philippians. Of course, then, we could move even further than that and say all of the New Testament epistles then are the next concentric circle beyond the Pauline letters because they are related in some sense that these are letters from Christians to churches or Christians to individuals. And then of course we can move outward from the New Testament epistles to all the New Testament documents, because they are related to each other as being part of the canon of scripture, as being part of the early Christian writings.
And then from the New Testament documents we can go even further out in our concentric circle to the larger world of the Bible, all the books of the Bible form part of this broader literary context. And then of course we could go even further to the world of ancient literature because the Bible itself was written within the context of ancient literature, in general. So, by literary context what do we mean? We mean moving outward from the smallest unit of meaning and recognizing that we can really truly only understand God’s word when we read it within its broader context.
Alright we have zeroed in a great deal on our third point, so let’s review our three points. Our first point, our first principle of exegesis is that, in general, a text has one meaning, the author’s intended meaning. Our second principle of exegesis is that the meaning of a text is genre dependent; the meaning of a text depends on its literary form. Our third key principle of interpretation is that context is the key to meaning and that context can be divided into two major kinds of context, historical context and literary context. Historical context refers to the whole life situation in which the letter or book arose. The literary context refers to the words and sentences and paragraphs and larger sections within which that text is found. Those two contexts give us the key to meaning.
D. The Text Itself Must Be Given Priority
Here is a fourth key principle of exegesis, a fourth and final principle of exegesis that I would like to give you and that is that the text itself must be given priority. It sets the agenda.
What do I mean by this? Well, one of the criticisms of biblical interpretation in recent years is the claim that exegesis is a circular process. The interpreter comes to the text with certain concerns and simply reads those texts within those concerns and so it is circular, it is not going anywhere, it is coming right back. The interpreter is simply speaking to himself or speaking to herself.
A better model introduced than a circle, however, and this model has been introduced by many practitioners, Grant Osborne has a book called The Hermeneutical Spiral. The better model is not a circle, but a spiral, because whereas a circle comes back on itself a spiral moves circularly but it moves in a particular direction.
Now what do I mean by all of this? I mean there is a circular process to interpretation. We as an interpreter approach the text from our own world, from our own perspective, from our worldview with our own biases, from our cultural context. And we cannot help but in one sense contribute to that spiral reading because we are actively and personally and subjectively engaging with the text.
But we are not simply reading our own ideas in the text, we are listening to the text, we are learning from the text, we are growing from the text. So, this circular motion is actually moving in a particular direction and like a spring, it is not simply a ring, a spring is circular, moving in a particular direction, heading from point A to point B and point B in the first case would be the meaning of the text. The interpreter comes to the text, certainly brings perspective, certainly brings biases, but then listens to the text and is transformed gradually from reading the text and bringing it back.
1. A spiral from inductive to deductive reasoning
There are two kinds of spirals I will just mention in this process of interpretation. The first we could describe as a spiral from inductive to deductive reason. Let me define a few terms. Inductive reasoning is reasoning from facts to propositions. Certain facts are in evidence and from those facts I draw certain conclusions. Deductive reasoning is sort of the reverse or inverse of that. It is starting with a proposition or a hypothesis and then proving or demonstrating that hypothesis.
So what are we doing when we are reading scripture? Are we doing inductive reasoning, that is, are we drawing out facts and coming to conclusions or are we doing deductive reasoning? Are we making hypotheses or propositions and then seeking to prove or demonstrate them? Well, the answer, of course, is that we are doing both. We are moving from inductive to deductive reasoning and back to inductive reasoning.
Let me explain how this works and what I am referring to with reference to the biblical text. We read God’s word, we read it and we read the words and we seek to interpret the words and understand and comprehend those words, but then we take our understanding of those words and we form certain hypotheses or conclusions and then we test those conclusions against the larger world in which the Bible arose. We propose hypotheses and then we confirm those hypotheses. We read certain words in sentences and then we confirm the meaning of those words by examining ancient literature and understanding the meaning. We draw certain conclusions based on peoples and groups in the Bible and then grow to understand better those peoples and groups by reading ancient literature, understanding who the Pharisees were and who the Sadducees were.
So our study of Scripture is a constant process moving from facts to propositions and then making proposals and confirming them. So it is a spiral from inductive to deductive reasoning.
2. A spiral from text to context
But exegesis is also a second kind of a spiral, a spiral from text to context, from the text of the Bible to our context. We come to the text with our concerns, with our issues, but then we allow the text to shape and mold us into the people of God. Ultimately then it is the text that sets the agenda. It is given the priority. We do not force our concerns, force our conclusions on the text, we instead draw from the text where we ought to go. We allow it to set our agenda.
Here is our point. The biblical text sets the agenda, the meaning of the text controls our contextualization, our application, rather than our context determining the meaning of the text. The meaning of the text controls our contextualization, our application, rather than our context determining the meaning of the text.
I have a cartoon in front of me where a pastor has got his Bible open in front of him and he is thinking to himself – “Oh great, now I have to rewrite my entire sermon” – the caption says, “Pastor Bergin checks his sources.” What is the point? The pastor has written his entire sermon already but he has not checked his source. He has not let the Bible set the agenda and control where that teaching, that preaching should go; instead he has brought his concerns alone to the text. When he checks his sources he realized he has to rewrite his entire sermon, his entire message. Obviously this pastor was not letting the text set the agenda; he was coming with his own agenda, with his own concerns. So our fourth principle of exegesis is that the text itself sets the agenda.
Let me give you a couple of examples of imposing a human agenda over the fundamental concerns of the text. Take for example the fundamental question of what is sin. What is sin? Well, if we read the Bible and let the Bible set the agenda we realize that the biblical definition of sin is rebellion against God. All sin is ultimately rejecting God’s purpose and plan and rebelling against him.
Some theological perspectives, however, identify something else as sin, for example liberation theology. There is many positives about liberation theology, I do not want to paint this in all negative terms, but fundamentally for liberation theology sin is economic or social oppression; economic, political, military, or social oppression. So salvation is overthrowing that oppression or defeating that oppression.
Well, we have to certainly acknowledge that economic and social oppression, political oppression, religious oppression, all of these are sin, but ultimately they are a result or a consequence of sin rather than the core essence of sin. Sin is rebellion against God. Rebellion against God produces oppression. So if liberation theology, if sin is oppression, then salvation comes from freedom from that oppression. On the other hand, if rebellion against God is the ultimate of sin then freedom comes through reconciliation with God and once we reconcile with God then we will be defeating economic, social, political oppression. So allowing a human agenda to define sin as opposed to allowing the Bible itself to define sin produces a misunderstanding of what sin is and, therefore, a misapplication of God’s word.
Here is another example of imposing a human agenda over the fundamental concerns of the text and that is end times speculation. In America, in particular, there tends to be an obsession with the events leading up to the end times, related to the rapture of the church, or the tribulation, or the millennium, endless debate over pre- mid- or post-tribulational raptures and obsession over the signs of the time and current events and how they relate to end times, often dividing fellowship over issues that are extremely peripheral to the central concerns of Scripture.
But we have to ask the question is Scripture more concerned with issues like the unity of the church, evangelistic outreach, or the minute details of the end times and the obvious conclusion is that it is the former that the overwhelming concern of Scripture is loving God and loving one another and making God known, proclaiming the gospel of salvation to the ends of the earth. Too often we let our agenda control the meaning of the text and that becomes our central point. Here is our point, the key point is that it is the biblical text itself that must control both our interpretation and our application.
Alright, four key principles of exegesis. In general a biblical text has one meaning is our first principle. Our second principle is that the meaning of a text is dependent on its genre. Our third principle is that context is the key to interpretation and our fourth principle is that the text is given priority. It sets the theological agenda.
Clarification: What about interpreting the Bible literally?
Now you might note that there is one principle that some would suggest is core that I have left out and that principle is that we interpret the Bible literally. As Evangelicals we interpret the Bible literally. I have intentionally left that out, because I do not really believe that principle is valid in the way it is generally spoken about.
When I was in seminary as I was being trained that was one of our fundamental principles of hermeneutics. One of the fundamentals principles of interpretation is that we take the Bible literally. The problem with that term is that we do not use the word literal in common everyday speech the way my hermeneutics professors, my biblical interpretation professors were using it. By literal they meant the natural or normal meaning of the text, but that is not the way most people understand literal.
If I say in the book of Isaiah, Isaiah says that one day the trees of the field will clap their hands. You might ask do I mean that literally? Well I do not mean that literally because that is figurative language, that is poetic language; I mean it poetically or symbolically or figuratively. So that is the way most people understand “literal” whereas the definition used with reference to hermeneutics is the natural or normal meaning of the text. So I do not use the term literal, because that term with reference to this topic, because that term is open to misunderstanding.
Instead when we speak about the authors intended meaning we are assuming what was traditionally referred to as a literal interpretation. If I am looking for Paul’s intended meaning, then if Paul is speaking figuratively, I am looking for figurative meaning. If Paul is speaking literally, I am looking for literal meaning. If Paul or Jesus were telling a parable; I am looking for a parable, I am looking for the significance of a parable. If Jesus is speaking in proverbs, I am understanding it as a proverb. If Jesus speaks allegorically, I understand it allegorically.
So I am looking for what Jesus intended, what Paul intended, what the original author or speaker intended. So our first principle of exegesis that a text has one meaning, the author’s intended meaning, subsumes under it all that was once described as a so-called literal meaning of interpretation. So that is just a clarification, I want to explain why I am not using that term literal, why I do not think it is very helpful for us, because as we might say it dies the death of a thousand clarifications. It is not a helpful principle of exegesis because it causes more confusion than clarity.
- Why is it important to determine the author’s intended meaning rather than bringing your own meaning to the text? How does this principle help us when we come to controversial passages or topics in Scripture, e.g. the role of women in church leadership or same-sex attraction?
- Why is determining the genre so important? Think of some modern-day examples of where the genre affects the meaning of something that is written or spoken. Are we more tuned in to the genre today than when we read Scripture?
- When someone says that what they said was taken out of context, what do they usually mean by that? Scripture was given to us in specific historical and social contexts, how does this affect how we interpret certain passages?
- Why must the text always be given priority? What are some safeguards you could put in place in the interpretive process to make sure the text determines the meaning of the passage?
- What do you think about using the word “literal” when discussing the process of interpretation? What are the various ways that you have seen it used? What would be a better term to use?
- Memorize the four key principles.
- Be able to explain them to a friend.
How to Read the Bible in Changing Times: Understanding and Applying God’s Word Today, by Mark L. Strauss, pp. 69-92.
How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, Fourth Edition, by Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, pp. 57-92.