Scripture and Theology pt.1: The Myth of Pure Exegesis

So, if you ask anyone why they go to the church they go to, somewhere in the first few phrases they say something like, "they preach the Word". Evangelicals love churches that "preach the word!" and we are quick to forget how vehemently the Pharisees did, too. Well, loving the scriptures is a beautiful value, the Bereans are "...more noble," but we mean something a bit different by churches that "preach the word." We often believe that a Sunday sermon should go line by line, exegeting (drawing out) the scripture, so that a purer form of truth is arrived at, the original real stuff. Think John Piper, John McArthur, etc. The exegetical sermon is the sign of those churches who are really serious about the word. (Except seeker services. We kind of give those a pass because they are reaching out to the unwashed, after all.)

David E. Fitch, in The Great Giveaway, which I highly recommend, writes
"Somehow the myth surrounds expository preaching that if we follow the text more closely we shall stay closer to the already existing, stable, perspicuous meaning inhernet in the text. By following the text closely, the expository method supposedly prevents preachers from allowing external agendas and meaning driving their interpretation of the the text. The Scripture, by implication, remains in control."
The irony is that we believe this yields "pure" interpretation, as if it insulates us from "worldly interpretation", while it betrays a profound confidence in scientific, historical-critical methods of examining the text. (Which is not neutral). And as Fitch points out, all this scientific study has not yielded any unified, one, uber interpretation that we all recognize as the truest explanation of the text and bow down to. Instead, the scientific analysis has yielded more interpretations than one library can hold and a bajillion independent churches and denominations. Now, when you ask, "What does the text say?" we must consider which text? Which scroll? Which version? There are linguistic specialists, ancient grammar and word nuances. And the truth is that even in the original language, there are ambiguities and grammatical problems that there are not definitive answers to! There is a part of the text that is undecidable. In the end, "instead of producing a consensus interpretation for the Bible, exegesis and historical-critical studies have disseminated multiple interpretations of each biblical text," and we must admit that while the core of the Gospel is painfully clear, in scripture, there is no one "pure" interpretation we all agree on. (fwiw, there is one pure interpretation of the Word: Jesus the man...)

So where does that leave us? How can we have any confidence in the text? Let me be completely clear: I think we can be supremely confident in the Bible, but we must always confess our interpretation is not the interpretation. This relativizes the exegetical sermon: the "pure truth" is not being uncovered for people, just your interpretation of it. And again, that is fine -it's all we can do. But my interpretation of what God is doing can be more precise and speak the word of God to my context better than the "right" interpretation by someone in the bowels of a library 100's of miles away sometimes. Assuming, of course I have done justice to the text and listened to what God is saying, always open to correction. The problem is when we cannot differentiate between our interpretation and the interpretation. We become unaware of our biases and histories that profoundly shape our interpretations, yet we assume we clearly apprehend the right message of scripture.
...Its all those other people who don't get it.

So how can we interpret scripture at all? The short answer is that it takes a community to interpret the word.
It takes the historical community: we are credal Christians, affirming the apostle's creed and the Nicene creed because we recognize those are our spiritual roots, those were the people who knew the people who knew Jesus first hand, and the creeds express what they believe to be true, what scripture itself affirms.

It takes a multicultural community: the interpretive community must always listen to dissident and diverse voices because it is so easy to only ever hear what you want to hear. Why is it that the protestant middle class church in the US does not care so much about the liberating Jesus? Besides, I couldn't bring myself to list a "global" community.

It takes a local community: the Word of God comes to us in human form, and we must always look to see Jesus in our midst. And practically, there is nothing more valuable than someone nearby who loves you and will tell you you are crazy.
This is a pretty catholic understanding of scripture, but I think that it is consonant with our historical faith. Sometimes protestants make a Pope out of the interpreter, never allowing for the human situation. In all of these things, we recognize the Holy Spirit at work to guide us along with our material examinations to help us interpret rightly the scriptures. Theology always guides interpretation, whether or we recognize it or not.

what d'you think?


  1. so i've had a very similar conversation with people at work before: about the difficulty, if not impossibility, to determine absolute or "pure" truth. Our interpretations will always be relative to our context. even the original texts are unclear, imprecise, ambiguous and undecidable.

    this is a HUGE stumbling block for people. "intellectual" non-believers ("thinkers" as opposed to feeler personality types, such as are likely to be found in the nerd/geek/techy industry) seem to want the absolute truth that explains everything, or they won't accept it at all. "recognize the holy spirit at work to guide us" and the fact that "theology always guides interpretation" - that's way to relative for them.

    discussions with these people are impossible to win, and at this point i retreat to my comfort zone:

    "jesus loves me this i know,
    for the bible tells me so,
    little ones to him belong,
    they are weak but he is strong.
    yes, jesus loves me..."


Post a Comment

I cherish your comments, but not vileness or wickedness. By vileness I mean Spam, and wickedness I mean hateful speech. Unless it's about spam.

Popular Posts