EXEGESIS AND HERMENEUTICS

Aren’t you glad the Bible is not just a book of rules, not just a series of propositions and imperatives? Well, it’s good to know that the Bible has huge sections of poems, huge sections of letters or what you call epistles that various Apostles wrote to different churches. While it is practically nice to have a rule book that tells you what to do in certain kinds of situations, but that’s not what God has chosen to do in putting the Bible together. He’s chosen to give us the truth in story form, sometimes is symbolic poetry form, sometimes in letter form, sometimes in the form of musical prayers like the Psalms, sometimes in the form of parables that Jesus teaches so many in the Gospels, sometimes in the form of special apocalyptic stories as we have in the book of the Revelation, and several other books of the Bible of similar genre. So what we get in the Bible are different categories, not just propositions. But why not have just a list of truths and of requirements? Wouldn’t it have been more efficient, would it? I guess God’s purpose for the Bible is to put an emphasis on relationships, and seeing those relationships played out in stories, or seeing them in letters; that would appeal to people to change their behavior. Seeing them in poems that for many people speak in a way that prose never would, these have power. So just lists may not in fact do the job for most of us. Why? What’s wrong with a list of all the possible things you might do wrong? Just as in modern laws, when you have an attempt in society to do that, people still get off on technicalities. You cannot come up with every description of everything, because human life is so enourmously complex. And therefore, if people think that way, they aren’t going to benefit. Whereas, other kinds of ways of getting across the truth can give us more guidance, even if they give us less in terms of rules. We may not have that particular rule for everything, but if we have a broad general sense, by relationship we’re at an advantage in that manner.

The first task of the good interpreter is something we call exegesis. This might seem to be a big term, but really it simply means a close and careful analytical study of a passage of Scripture. It is necessary to study something that is of such high quality; carefully, patiently, and responsibly. A lot of parts of the Bible are pretty clear the first time through, but it makes sense that God should have also constituted a lot of the Bible not as obscure, but something that requires careful attention. And so exegesis is the process of studying thoroughly, patiently, carefully, and it’s the first step. It is such a responsible process, something that we just can’t toss off. You also have to be careful to investigate what you might from anybody. Ever heard of the story about the ‘Eye of the needle as a gate in Jerusalem’ when you’ve been told that when Jesus said it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than it is for a rich man to enter Kingdom of Heaven, that He was referring to a gate where camels had to duck down to get through that gate in Jerusalem? Well it is actually a false story invented by a Greek scholar named Theophylact during the Middle Ages. There never was such a gate; there’s no evidence for it. he cooked it up in the 11th century AD because it just sounded to him like that must be something Jesus would have meant, and there must have been such a gate. It’s convenient because it sounds like you just have to duck down a little bit; just humble yourself a bit and you can get into the Kingdom of Heaven if you’re rich. Jesus is saying “watch out, it’s really hard!” and people committed to being rich are usually committed in a direction other than that which God wants them to go. That’s the kind of thing that exegesis would tell you, becasue the components of exegesis include looking at the historical context, the literary context, and the actual content. There are tools we need to use, right tools like Bible lexicons, Bible dictionaries, Bible encyclopedias written by people who’ve studied gates, and gates in Jerusalem. They’ve looked at them, and they’ve studied the history of interpretation, and they’ve gone back and read and found out that this guy Theophylact invented it. Those are the advantages that are available, and they don’t require special training and special knowledge. It’s possible to do it. What i’m saying is that if a person can have the opportunity to study historical context and literary context, and how it all fits together as part of the unit of what the Scripture is, he can analyze carefully and patiently the actual content. And sometimes this can involve benefitting from people who do know the original languages, so that mistakes aren’t foolishly made and can use all the tools available for interpretation. The interpreter is actually a tremendous craftsman trying to work with the Bible, and benefits from using the right tools.

As a final comment, there is something that is called ‘hermeneutics’. Hermeneutics sounds to be a very fancy word, but hermeneutics is actually the process of interpretation; the rules for interpretation. Hermeneutics can be called the science of interpretation. It’s the whole orb of the tools that one employs to interpret – the principles for understanding. Now, what’s the the reason why we need to know the original authorial intent?Well, the reason is, a text cannot mean what it never meant. The meaning of a text is found in what the inspired original author intended to say in his day, and how his hearers or readers would have understood it. In hermeneutics, we want to take the minds that God has given us and use them together to come back to what the original intention was of that human author inspired by God. Because we believe that God intended that original intention to be something everybody thereafter could recognize. Exegesis is a close analytical study of a passage designed to to figure out its meaning. Hermeneutics are the principles by which exegesis works to give us that meaning. So we say, exegesis is the process; hermeneutics are principles, and that is a simple way of defining the difference between the two. Those are fancy words, but they’re just referring to getting it right. All we want is that everybody should get it right, and thus benefit from the richness of what the Scriptures contain.

(External source – How To Read The Bible For All Its Worth by Gordon Fee & Douglas Stuart)