The crisis of exegesis

Six exegetical principles that help our understanding of Scripture

Lee Gugliotto is senior pastor of the College Heights Seventh-day Adventist Church at Canadian Union College in Alberta, Canada. He recently authored the book Handbook for Bible Study (Review and Herald Publishing Association, Hagerstown, MD).





In 1675 Sir Christopher Wren laid the foundation stone for St. Paul's Cathedral in London. Thirty-five years later Queen Anne toured the magnificent structure and made her royal pronouncement: "It is awful. It is amusing. It is artificial."

Today some might consider these words humiliating, but not so Sir Christopher. In his day these words meant awesome, pleasing, and masterful. Without an understanding of what the words meant at the time they were used, we run a risk of misinterpreting and misunderstanding their original intent. That just about sums up the reason for responsible biblical hermeneutics.

Meaning of hermeneutics

Hermeneutics is the science of interpreting "literary productions of the past." Its special task is "to point out the way in which the differences or the distance between an author and his readers may be removed." And "this is properly accomplished only by the readers' transposing themselves into the time and spirit of the author."1

Biblical hermeneutics is the science of biblical interpretation. A study of Scripture should "follow a hermeneutic, a sound system of principles that allows the text to speak for itself through exegesis, a procedure that consistently leads the truth out of Bible texts."2

Despite centuries of interpreting Scripture, the Christian community is currently experiencing an exegetical crisis. A shift in presuppositions has generated dissatisfaction with time honored principles of biblical interpretation. "At the heart of much of the debate ... is the problem of how the interpreter can relate 'what the text meant in its original historical context' to 'what the same text means to me.'"3

Some have advanced the idea that texts should be understood in the context of what it means to me the reader rather than what it meant to the author. Hans Georg Gadamer, the father of this "new hermeneutic," noted that only a merger of two hermeneutical horizons that of the text and that of the reader can produce true interpretation.4 To do this, however, one has either to modify or to do away with conventional exegetical strategies and use methods that generally limit the Bible in authority and scope.5

Principles of sound exegesis

But what is sound exegesis? Exegesis is a process rather than a list of techniques. It consists of a series of analyses that are both cumulative and progressive, with each step building on the preceding one and leading to the next. This tried and proven procedure, if implemented in its entirety, will effectively get to the truth. Any attempt to circumvent the process will likely produce inaccurate results.

Exegesis is also "a process in which God speaks and man listens."6 Whether God supplied or supervised its writing, the Holy Spirit is ultimately responsible for all of Holy Scripture (2 Peter 1:21). So any biblical interpretation must take into account both the human and the divine dimension of the Scriptures. Berkhof says it well: "In the study of the Bible, it is not sufficient that we understand the meaning of the secondary authors (Moses, Isaiah, Paul, John, etc.); we must learn to know the mind of the Spirit."7

How can we be certain that we are doing correct exegesis? Here are six principles to bear in mind.

1. Begin with the context. Context is that body of material that surrounds the text. The general context includes the author, the time, the place, and his or her reason(s) for writing, audience, theme, and key statements. It then traces the author's flow of thought, focusing on natural breaks in the text that divide the book into sections, and isolating related blocks of thought. The immediate context defines the neighborhood of a text, fixes its place in the author's scheme, and uncovers its connection with the rest of the book.

Some consider this to be all the context they need. Such a limitation forces them to adopt historical-critical or historical-grammatical methodologies that cannot put a text's sociohistorical-cultural factors in proper perspective as only a complete contextual analysis can.

Contextual analysis is incomplete until it relates the text to the rest of the Bible. Beyond the local is a canonical context, a single, overarching biblical theme, "that unifies every moment of history into one divine working plan, uniting every biblical verse into a single, powerful message. This all-inclusive motif would thus be the main setting for every Bible study---the ultimate context even for individual verses."8

God's self-disclosure "did not complete itself in one exhaustive act, but unfolded itself in a long series of successive acts."9 Because this divine self-disclosure is attached to the divine activity of redemption, revelation doesn't just occur in history; history is revelation. And since "revelation is the interpretation of redemption, it must therefore unfold itself in installments as redemption does"10 ---historically and progressively.

Thus while the historical context is important, it is equally critical that we take into account God's unfolding plan as it appears throughout the Scriptures. Every word of God is for all God's people regardless of their nationality or era.

2. Understand each book's unique style. Each writer has a system and style of his own. Identify the author's special characteristics, the literary-grammatical trail, as he or she organizes views and arguments.

Analysis of the structure of the text helps to focus on the author's ideas from start to finish as they affect the central theme. Take, for example, Jude 3, 4. The two verses are actually a single complex sentence, with three subordinate clauses connected to a main clause. Jude's concerns fall into three areas: (1) occasion (verse 3a); (2) effect (verse 3b); and (3) cause (verse 4). But all these concerns are really building blocks of a single thought.

3. Focus on particular words and details. After identifying the author's overall theme and context, we are ready to focus on particular details. Although certain words play a key role in the passage, exegesis requires a careful look at every word, beginning with its root meanings and proceeding to its relationship to the passage, the book's theme, and its relationship to the rest of the Bible picture. For example, compare the uses of the root aei ("always," "uninterrrupted") in Jude 7 and 2 Peter 1:11. Jude uses the word to describe the fire that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah as eternal. Since the fire is no longer active, it is eternal in the sense that its results are irreversible, not that the fire itself is unquenchable. On the other hand, Peter applies the word to the everlasting "kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ," because the kingdom is indestructible and will never end.

Of course, the language of the Bible "should be explained according to its obvious meaning, unless a symbol or figure [of speech] is employed." 11 As signs, pledges, or tokens that suggest rather than state meaning, symbols often require clarification even to the writers themselves. For instance, God used food in Acts 10:11-13, not to recommend a change in diet, but to show Peter that he "should not call any man impure or unclean" (verse 28, NTV). The vision simply opened Peter's eyes to the fuller significance of what Jesus had accomplished on the cross and made him aware of the mission to the Gentiles.

4. Reconstruct the background to the passage. Authentic exegesis involves an honest reconstruction of the background to the passage from information within the passage and from reliable outside sources like extrabiblical literature and archaeological findings.

The Bible is God's self-disclosure, but "communication apart from cultural influence is impossible. When God spoke to men, He used their cultural situation to help convey to them what He wanted them to know."12 But in studying biblical customs and their relevance to a Scripture passage, we need to be aware of two extremes: "One tends to level out all features in the Bible, including its cultural institutions and terms, and to make them into normative teaching on par with any other injunction of Scripture. The other extreme tends to jump at any suspected culturally conditioned description in the Bible as an excuse for reducing the teaching connected with that text to a mere report of a now defunct situation."13

When handling sociocultural-historical factors, we need to remember: (1) God is the ultimate source of the message (2 Tim. 3:16a); (2) God authorized the entire Bible (2 Tim. 3:16b); and (3) the context is the final arbiter.

Consider 1 Corinthians 14:34. Does Paul say here that women should not speak in the church? The answer seems to be yes, but on closer inspection of the context, we discover a theme. Paul has already advised speakers in tongues (verses 27,28) and long-winded prophets (verses 30-32) to keep silent too. And verse 35 specifies that it is loud conversation with their husbands, not public speaking, that women should refrain from during services. So what is Paul really saying here?

First, he had a higher purpose in mind than merely singling out these three groups: the end of confusion at public meetings (verse 33). Second, he makes an inspired application of a divine norm to the Corinthian situation, namely, "Let all things be done decently and in order" (verse 40).

So Paul's counsel for women to keep silent is not a timeless standard, but an inspired example of how to apply a divinely ordained norm to real-life situations. To distinguish timeless truth from what is temporary or contingent, Kaiser suggests the following tests:

  • Is the author describing something, setting a background for an abiding principle, or prescribing something for his or her time and afterward?
  • Is the author using an illustration from the culture of the time to impart a theological principle?
  • Is there a cultural equivalent today for the same theological principle?
  •  Does Scripture apply a different form in a later historical situation to the same content?
  •  Is the ground for the injunction or practice rooted in God's unchanging nature?
  • Is this an instance in which circumstances may alter the application of an unchanging law?14

5. Apply the broader context of the redemptive plan. To develop the whole story, an exegete theologically analyzes the passage to take advantage of the local as well as the canonical context. By placing the passage in the broader context of the plan of salvation, the interpreter may trace it along the path from promise to fulfillment to see where it is coming from and going to. By considering the text's Old Testament roots and/or New Testament developments, he or she finds it possible to use earlier passages to understand later ones and later texts to capture the fuller sense of earlier ones.

6. Bring out the author's meaning. Homiletical analysis searches for ways to present what exegesis has learned so that present listeners are able to make sense of the text and reach a decision concerning its message.

Interpretation must aim to understand the text from the situation in the Bible writer's day to what is happening where we are. To accomplish this, we have to strip away differences so that our listeners can identify with the people in the text. For example, the first chapter of Daniel reports the difficult circumstances of four young Jewish exiles, isolated from their Temple and homes, and subjected to the whims of King Nebuchadnezzar. In modern terms, however, it is the story of teenagers who have been cut off from family, friends, and church and placed at Babylon High, a boarding school with a Babylonian curriculum designed to crank out Babylonian graduates.

By contemporary application like this, you can make your points as "here and now" as possible. The audience must see each point as fresh counsel and not as something over and done with or out-of-date. We must do everything we can to draw the attention away from then so that the audience will not miss anything that is happening now!

Hermeneutical principles

Finally we arrive at where we began. Exegesis and hermeneutics are intertwined. Good hermeneutical principles are essential for sound exegesis. The late Gerhard Hasel, professor of Old Testament at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, proposed some general hermeneutical principles that we would do well to bear in mind in order to understand the true meaning of the Bible. 15

1. The Bible is its own best expositor.

2. The Bible must not be interpreted on the basis of a principle derived from a selected part of Scripture at the expense of the entire message of the Bible.

3. Each passage must be studied within its immediate and larger contexts.

4. Texts (scriptures) must be com pared with other texts (scriptures) by the same author.

5. Difficult texts on a given subject must be explained on the basis of those that are plain or clear on the same subject and not vice versa.

6. The unity of the Bible must be maintained.

7. Exegetical possibilities should not be used to establish biblical teaching, church doctrine, and practice.

8. Scriptures that are circumstantial or culturally conditioned and tied to a command or injunction are not necessarily of limited or temporal application.

9. Some New Testament texts are both contextual commands (injunctions) and normative principles, expressed by appeal to (a) creation, (b) the law, and (c) the argument from the Fall.

The crisis of exegesis can be solved by adopting a sound hermeneutic.

1. L. Berkhof, Principles of Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House), p. 11.

2. Lee Gugliotto, Handbook for Bible Study (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1995), p. 20.

3. Walter C. Kaiser, Toward an Exegetical Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1981), p. 23.

4. Hans-Georg Gadamer, in David M. Scholer, "1 Timothy 2:9-15 and the Place of Women in the Church's Ministry," in A. Berkley Mickelsen, ed., Women, Authority, and the Bible (Downers Grove, 111.: InterVarsity Press, 1986), p. 202.

5. Gerhard Hasel, "Biblical Authority, Hermeneutics, and the Role of Women" (unpublished paper prepared for the Commission on the Role of Women, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Md., March 1988), p. 47.

6. Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans), p. 4.

7. Berkhof, pp. 11, 12.

8. Gugliotto, p. 26.

9. Vos, p. 5.

10. lbid.

11. Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1911), p. 599.

12. A. Berkeley Mickelsen, Interpreting the Bible (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1963), p. 170.

13. Kaiser, p. 114.

14. Ibid., pp. 116-118.

15. Hasel, pp. 51-54.




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Lee Gugliotto is senior pastor of the College Heights Seventh-day Adventist Church at Canadian Union College in Alberta, Canada. He recently authored the book Handbook for Bible Study (Review and Herald Publishing Association, Hagerstown, MD).




March 1996

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