A note about exegesis & hermenuetics

I have not attended seminary (which is probably obvious to some of you). I have not taken any class on either exegesis or hermeneutics. I don’t read Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic or Latin; at times I barely speak English. However, I do try to read the Bible as objectively and honestly as I can, and according to generally accepted principles of exegesis and hermeneutics. So, I thought this would be a good time to explain how I try to read and understand the Bible.

Exegesis is, for those who don’t know, is a Greek word meaning “to draw the meaning out of.” Strictly speaking, it refers to drawing the meaning out of a text, based solely on the text itself. However, often the word more broadly to mean the use of all available information to draw the meaning out of a text. It sometimes is used interchangeably with hermeneutics, which refers to the philosophy of methods of interpretation and exegesis.

On the flip side we have eisegesis, which means to put meaning into the text. This is not necessarily invalid; however honest scholarship would demand the identification of “hunches” about meaning, apart from exegetical opinions. (Unfortunately, eisegesis seems to have become the preferred study method for some preachers, often to the exclusion of exegesis.)

Gordon Fee says that exegesis “… answers the question, ‘What did the biblical author mean?’ It has to do both with what he said (the content itself) and why he said it at any given point (the literary context). Furthermore, exegesis is primarily concerned with intentionality: What did the author intend his original readers to understand?” (New Testament Exegesis, p 27.)

Now, of course, to go any further, you have to agree that it’s important to determine what the author intend his original readers to understand. Some, relying, for example, totally on the Holy Spirit’s revelation, may not care, believing that God will simply reveal to us what He wants us to get out of the passage. I am by no means discounting the importance of the Holy Spirit’s revelation, which I also hope for; however, I also believe that we have been given “all things pertaining to life and Godliness,” which includes the ability to think and reason. Some Eastern religions would tell you to turn off your mind and simply feel; Christianity involves the mind whille constantly reminding us that there is something beyond our intellect.

It seems fairly obvious to me that a 1st Century Jew would have a completely different grid than a 21st Century American of European descent, and that even should we come up with a perfect Greek to English translation, we’d walk away with different understandings of the same passage. Therefore, taking some effort to look beyond a simple rendering of an English translation makes sense if we are really wanting to understand what is being said. (I do not assume that the Holy Spirit will do all of that for us; if it were so, I doubt there would be so many different denominations.)

Now, adding to the problem, we all have our own internal “noise” which clouds our picture of what is being said. This noise is not necessarily a bad thing; it consists of our worldview, our presuppositions, our understanding of the way things are. This forms from what we are taught, and changes as we learn. As we read the Bible, we understand it based upon what we already believe. We can’t even read John 3:16 without understanding it based on what we already understand.

So, as much as possible, I try to recognize my own “noise” and filter that out; it’s not always easy, or even possible, to do. But, I try to the best of my abilities to read and to understand (with the Holy Spirit’s help) with someone else’s eyes. In doing so, I am finding that my grid has and is changing.

And, I always consider the remote possibility that I still could be wrong …

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5 Responses to A note about exegesis & hermenuetics

  1. john says:

    I wrote an article on theooze.com about this called “Who are you?” Basically, who you are is a cause and the effect is what you do. What you do is a cause and the effect is what you have.

    The world believes in “have, do, are”. If I have this, then it will be able to do this, so I can be (are) happy/someone special”.

    Belief/understanding is who we are and it leads to what we do and what we have.

  2. me says:

    Aye, there’s the rub. (I missed “talk like a pirate day.) That, of course, is the implication of our interpretation; Everybody thinks that their understanding is correct (unless they are just deceitful). Sometimes the problem is in those who do live out what they believe, based on incorrect interpretations – such as the prosperity bunch, or the “I’ll be blessed if I’m poor” folks, or the “I’ll work my way into Heaven” crowd.

    Our understanding does impact how we live, even if we’re not aware of it. I think that’s essentially what James was talking about when he said, “faith without works is dead.” (eisegesis). Not that we can prove our faith by doing works (Jesus blew that one out of the water) but it is our “works” – how we conduct ourselves daily – that reveals the nature of our faith.

  3. Ken Perkins says:

    All this deep stuff makes my brain hurt. ;>)

    I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed but it seems to me that beyond all the understanding, I still find the bottom line of concern is the lack of “acting” on what has been rightly understood. I see and hear a lot of “how it should be understood” on both sides, and very little “how then ought I to live” from either.
    But then again, I could be wrong.
    (I’m still trying to figure out how to pronounce all that “eg” and ‘eig” stuff)

  4. john says:

    ALL of the interpretation techniques are based on three principles: non-contradiction, causality, and contrastive thinking.

    EVERYONE uses these principles rigidly on OTHERS when they argue. Very few people use these principles rigidly on themselves.

    If they did, they would instantly find the flaws in their own beliefs and be able to make intentional growth…

    …and the reason most people don’t is this process is uncomfortable.

    You don’t need to go to seminary. Learn to use these most fundamental principles and you will be FAR AHEAD of the pack.

  5. Quixote says:

    I’ve noted elsewhere (probably on the wall of the bus station rest room) that one of Modernity’s mistakes with regard to Christian revelation is to separate “word” from “spirit” as though they are two different things. Jesus said, “The words I have spoken to you are spirit,” thus classifying his word and spirit as a single essense.

    It is we fallen humans who are fragmented, who must read the divine unity through fractured lenses. Our joy is greatest when we discover what T.S. Eliot described:

    “At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless; / Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is.”

    There we glimpse the promise of Christ’s priestly prayer: That all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.”

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