Version 1.0, 3-20-05
My senior year of college I started an accelerated masters program at Wheaton in New Testament, which I exchanged for their new Biblical Exegesis program a couple of years later because that program also covered the Old Testament. I thought I wanted to end up working in some branch of practical theology, but that’s not where I wanted to start. Being a thorough sort of person, I believed that the large-scale ideas of theology have to be built on the tiny details of the biblical text. This called for interpretation, or the more technical term, exegesis. Hermeneutics, as I use the word, is a more general term for the theory of interpretation, while exegesis is the process of interpretation itself or the end result of that process.
I had already been thinking about interpretative methods for a few years. I didn’t do much Bible study growing up, but when I got to college and became interested in theology, I thought Bible study would be a good thing to get into. My wandering attempts to do this received a boost when I planted myself at Trinity Baptist Church. Our pastor was really into expositional preaching, and Bible study was the major activity of the church as a whole, so I was exposed to a lot of it. Gradually I got an idea of how it worked. And as with everything, it got me asking questions. Why did we ask this question of the text and not this other one? Why did we zero in on these particular features? Why do we assume the writer laid out the book this way? And so on.
While my graduate program did teach me the tools of exegesis, there’s only so much you can learn in a class. In these courses we were hard at work learning the exegetical techniques of our professors. These techniques belonged to an interpretative approach called the historical-grammatical method. Historical-grammatical interpretation analyzes the language of the text and tries to understand the text based on its historical context. This method seemed like a perfectly natural way to interpret things, but I wanted to know more about … the others.
In our biblical criticism classes, we learned about other methods of biblical interpretation, both current and past. As it was explained to us, critical interpretation of the Scripture began around the Enlightenment (“critical” in the sense of “involving careful judgment,” usually judgment about things like the historical circumstances of the work and how it was composed). Thinkers of the time were throwing off the shackles of human institutions, all institutions, including the church. Their goal was to submit only to the authority of reason. Thus, they decided that the Bible was just another human book, not a divinely inspired one. Instead of simply believing it, therefore, they began evaluating it to sort out the true from the false. The idea was that once they knew how the Bible had come to be written and which parts were true, they would know how to interpret it and make it useful for modern society. In the process they came up with a succession of critical approaches to biblical interpretation, each one gaining acceptance and then giving way to a new approach as the old one’s flaws became evident. These critical approaches were obviously unacceptable to many conservative Christians, who attacked them vigorously, especially in the early twentieth century. Evangelicals today do use these critical methods but typically in modified forms that are more friendly toward inerrancy.
These days the big deal is reader-response criticism, which is actually an outgrowth of postmodernism rather than modernism. While the earlier methods were a problem, at least as they were originally conceived, reader-response seemed to be public enemy number one for my evangelical professors. The main question in this debate is whether we can know what the “authorial intent” of the text was–what the author meant by what he wrote–and whether it’s important in the first place. The historical-grammatical critics say we can know it and it’s very important, and the postmodern critics say we can’t and it isn’t.
Well, I’m all for the historical-grammatical method, but it seems strange to me that when it came to interpreting any particular passage, not only was there no consensus in my classes, but there was no agreement among the professional commentators either. Don’t take that too far, by the way. I don’t mean each commentator had a totally different opinion on every little point, only that I was surprised at the number of places they disagreed and how widely their interpretations could differ. It made the text seem very unclear.
So I’m curious about these “heretical” interpretative methods, both modern and postmodern. What can be said for and against them? Our discussions in the exegesis program were good, but the theoretical courses covered too much ground to deal with everything to my satisfaction, and the practical courses were less concerned with these questions. So I am left to my own devices, which is what I prefer anyway.