Five Practices for Actually Doing Theological Exegesis

bibleA couple of weeks ago I wrote a brief introduction to the idea of Theological Interpretation of Scripture. For class I was recently assigned an excellent little article on the subject by Hank Voss, “From ‘Grammatical-Historical Exegesis’ to ‘Theological Exegesis’: Five Essential Practices” Evangelical Review of Theology (213) 37:2, 140-152, which I figured would be worth examining as a follow-up to it.

In the article, Voss points out that while there’s been a good amount of theological argument for the necessity of what he calls “theological exegesis” (TE), there has been less practical elucidation as to how it’s actually supposed to work. People agree that theological interpretation is important, that simple grammatical-historical exegesis (GHE) is not enough, but there’s less direction and clarity as to how we’re supposed to go about moving from GHE to TE.

Voss wonders,

“How do global theological educators equip leaders in the church to practice theological exegesis? More specifically, how do we balance an emphasis on the human and divine authorship—which has tended to an evangelical strength—while paying greater attention to traditional Evangelical weaknesses: readers, their contexts, and their interpretive communities?” (141)

In order to address the gap, Voss proposes five practices that together constitute a framework and practical pattern for teaching pastors, preachers, and future theologians the exercise of theological exegesis (142).

So what are these practices?

1) Faith Seeking Understanding – First, theological exegesis recognizes that our reading of Scripture flows from faith. Theological exegesis assumes you already believe in Christ and want to know him in Scripture. For that reason, you treat the Bible as a different sort of text than Shakespeare or the New York Times. You read this text already believing in order that you might understand, not reading to understand and then maybe believe. Voss sees two implications of this principle.

  • First, sin is an epistemological category. We must reckon with the fallenness of our interpretive efforts and come to the text dependent on the Lord.
  • Second, dependency on the Lord implies “common hermeneutics” will be turned on its head (143). Reading with faith seeking understanding is prayerful reading, singing even, of the text, that acknowledges the spiritual dimension as prior.

2) Faithful to the Original Contexts —  Second, none of this rules out grammatical-historical exegesis. Voss suggests we must listen to original authors as we would want to be listened to; the golden rule applies here as well. Paying attention to the Divine Author doesn’t mean ignoring the human authors when reading the text. In fact, listening for the former happens as we pay attention to the latter. This means we will avail ourselves of all possible literary, historical, and contextual tools and helps as possible in our exegesis (144).

3) Analogy of Faith – Third, theological exegesis will operate in line with the Reformation emphasis on analogy of faith as a correlate of Sola Scriptura. (145) By the analogy of faith, Voss here is referring to the analogia totus Scripturae. In other words, comparing all the relevant biblical material in order that Scripture might interpret Scripture. This practice relies on the assumption of whole-canon discourse by God through human discourse in the various texts comprising the canon. For this practice, Voss appeals to Jesus’ own reading of Scripture in conversation with the Pharisees as an example (Matthew 22:29-32; 145-146). Jesus’ own practice shakes up some of the “rigidity” of modern reading practices. Voss sees hopeful developments in this area with the proposal of canonical-linguistic readings such as those of Kevin Vanhoozer as well as the renewed interest in the New Testament use of Old Testament in Biblical studies.

4) Rule of Faith – Fourth, Voss suggests that theological exegesis will adopt reading along with the Rule of faith (ROF). This principle is a necessary “Christian” and “catholic” way of reading. In some sense, it is best of thought of as a further subset of Analogy of faith in that the Rule of Faith is an “authoritative summary of Scripture’s message” and so entirely consistent with Evangelical convictions (147), Voss further specifies that the ROF reading implies at least three things:

  1. First, the ROF reads Scripture as the single story of creation, fall, incarnation, redemption, and consummation. All Scripture is read in that frame. (147-148)
  2. Second, the ROF finds Christ at the center of Scripture’s story. Christ is the point of the whole of Scripture, though the details here aren’t always quite spelled out in each text. (148)
  3. Third, the ROF reads Scripture trinitarianly (149). This is not a ham-fisted sighting of the Trinity under every bush, but recognizing the Trinitarian shape of the narrative of the whole and reading in light of it.

5) Community of Faith – Finally, Voss suggests we adopt a rule of reading with the “whole” church (catholica regula) . Exegetes ought to read in light of the “Pentecostal plurality” of the history of interpretation in the Church catholic. If we truly have a Pauline and New Testament understanding of the Church (1 Cor. 12), we’ll set ourselves to listen the Spirit’s voice speaking in illumined readings of Scripture throughout the whole body (150). This involves at least two dimensions. First, the church is a historic, present, and eschatological reality, and so we must listen to the voice of historic church as well, paying attention to readings of Scripture that come from patristic, medieval, Reformation, and modern eras. Second, we must attempt to take a step outside the West to hear the global church–the bulk of it, currently–reading Scripture.

With these five practices, Voss invites the church to begin practicing a theological reading of Scripture that acknowledges we are not simply reviewing a dead letter, or an important cultural artifact, but are reading to discern–to be discerned by–the Voice of the Lord.

Soli Deo Gloria

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