How My Mind Has Changed

Thursday, June 7th 2007
Jan/Feb 2002

In the past ten years, I have become a husband and a father and that has changed my thinking in many ways, but perhaps even more pertinent for theology is the recent opportunity I had to write a commentary on the book of Obadiah for the Anchor Bible series. Obadiah is the Rodney Dangerfield of the Bible. With only 21 verses it is easily overlooked. But the small size gave me the opportunity to interpret a book of the Bible with detailed thoroughness, looking at the material with both a wide-angle lens and a magnifying glass as it were. The experience of writing a technical commentary taught me some things about what is entailed in serious study of the Scriptures.

Churches need serious exegesis, certainly churches that claim to let the Scriptures dictate what they believe, teach, and confess. The term exegesis designates the discipline and art of expositing the Scriptures in a careful way. It is not the only discipline involved in theology, but it is an essential part. Everyone serious about theology should be able to think and operate as a competent exegete. To exegete a biblical text is a difficult task that demands certain skills and habits of mind. It requires reader competence. It is not enough to read the Bible. Do we read it competently? What do we look for in the text; what kinds of questions do we ask the text; and are they legitimate questions?

The competent reader focuses on the phrases, sentences, and paragraphs that actually appear in the text. Ideally one should know Hebrew and Greek (and Aramaic), but even readers of a good English translation can notice the basic grammar of the sentences and paragraphs. What constitutes the subject, verb, and direct object of the sentence? How does this prepositional phrase fit in? Why is that verb in the past tense? We should study the meaning of the phrases and clauses. How does a given author use his terminology?

We should also read the text holistically and contextually. Carefully follow the flow and argument of each chapter. How does the chapter move from verse 1 to verse 2 to verse 3? Where does a given passage fit into the whole book's structure or argument or narrative? Competent reading entails historical reading, attending to the then-ness and there-ness of these ancient texts. Observe the text's impact. What was the author trying to do through this text and how was he trying to move his original readers? Read the text theologically by examining the theological accents of a given text and how the different accents relate to each other.

In short, every Christian should strive to become a competent reader of the Scriptures by carefully attending to a given text's phraseology, grammar, literary style, historical setting, and theological message.

It is easy to theologize on the level of broad generalities when it comes to the Bible, to paint with broad strokes. One is easily tempted to over-read, to interpret a text by free association of ideas in a stream of consciousness. Such undisciplined over-reading reminds me of my first sermon, in which I tried to pack the entire body of doctrine and the entire church year into one passage. But an exegete must not import into a given text all sorts of things, even things that may be true. Rather, one has to concentrate on the particularities of a given text. What does this specific text say and how does it say it? Let each text say its piece and meditate on that particular topic.

Exegesis deals with what my colleague James Voelz calls the "messiness" of the text. This "messiness" forces the reader to investigate matters that may not be of great interest, such as grammar or ancient geography. The exegetical task at times can be tedious and boring. But God is in the details, and the Spirit of Christ works mightily through the text in all of its specificity and particularity.

To think like an exegete is to recognize the strangeness of the text. These texts were not written yesterday, and they were not written in post-Enlightenment North America. They were written 2,000 plus years ago, in a different place and a different culture. Very often a biblical writer was addressing concerns and questions quite unlike the concerns and questions the modern reader may have. Exegetes must not try to coerce or co-opt the text to address our American pragmatic concerns. I doubt that Jethro in Exodus 18 was giving Moses principles for leading a large suburban congregation. Not every passage teaches how to become a better parent or how to establish social and economic justice in society. We must put our own questions on the shelf and let the biblical writer speak to his concerns and interests. As we discover the strangeness of the biblical text, we will soon find ourselves demoting the importance of our own pragmatic concerns and instead wrestling with the weighty questions and concerns of the biblical author.

Furthermore, to think like an exegete is to take seriously all the voices of the scriptural choir. "All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable" (2 Tim. 3:15-17). Reductionism remains an ever-present temptation. It is the temptation to take one particular text and then run to town with it, ignoring all the other texts relevant to the discussion. Or one may simply trivialize the first three-fourths of the Bible by treating them as just so much background material. But an exegetical mindset notices the various themes and texts in the biblical material, refusing to discount text that will not fit the reader's preferences.

An exegetical mindset seeks to extol all the voices of the scriptural choir. It eschews the notion of a canon within the canon that sets aside the stuff that one may not like or that contradicts the current Zeitgeist. Rather, it desires to incorporate into our theology all sixty-six books of both Testaments with their many different accents and emphases, even a small, unknown book such as Obadiah. A Christian who hears the many voices of the scriptural choir becomes interested in a wide variety of theological topics, including topics that one may not be familiar with, such as: creation theology; the theology of Old Testament wisdom literature; the theology of holiness and all the materials about priests and tabernacle and cultic rituals; the lament psalms; the history of Israel; the exorcisms and healing ministry of Jesus; all the texts that deal with prayer in both Testaments; all the texts that address the Christian life of good works; and the apocalyptic literature of Revelation.

We should recognize the profound unity in the Scriptures, that with their rich diversity and variety all the voices of the Scriptural choir are singing one song. That song testifies to the one Gospel of Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God. Both Testaments belong together as parts of one Bible with its center in Christ. Especially today in our fragmented and balkanized postmodern context we need to concentrate on the overall theological coherence and unity of the Scriptures.

As exacting as the work of exegesis is, the exegete does not come to Scripture simply as an objective scholar. Rather, the best exegesis approaches the text with humility and faith. Because the Scriptures are so important for the health of the Christian and the Church, they deserve our most serious efforts at studying them. And because the Scriptures belong to the whole Church, past and present, we should read them not in individualistic isolation but in conversation with other competent readers and with the theologians of the Church's past. As my little toddler says for just about every activity, "Let's do it together."

Thursday, June 7th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
Magazine Covers; Embodiment & Technology