One of the biggest problems in Christian practice is the lack of a proper understanding of Biblical exegesis. More theological mistakes occur due to a lack of proper exegesis than any other methodological errors. Why? Because a great number of believers treat the Bible as though it has no cultural bias and was written in its entirety last month. Neither of these assumptions are true. Just like any other document, the Bible comes to us set in a cultural context (in fact, in several cultural contexts) and it is the progressive revelation of God over the course of thousands of years. These facts must become part of any attempt to interpret the text.
Imagine trying to understand the meaning of The Iliad without any reference to Greek history, mythology or culture. Imagine using The Iliad as if it were written last week, applying its declarations to today’s issues without any attempt to understand what the original audience perceived. That would be equivalent to how most Christians treat the Bible. We have this tendency to pull a verse from some book, make a direct application to our lives and act as though God’s Word was written for us and no one else.
Since this is such a big problem, it might be helpful to outline the proper method of exegesis. Here are some of the steps that need to be taken.
1. Place the text in its historical context. Psalms wasn’t written for contemporary American society. It was written 3000 years ago in a very different world. Place the text in the historical events when the writing was produced. When Paul wrote to Timothy, certain events were happening in the Roman empire that contributed to the issues Paul addresses. Unless we know the historical context, we can’t understand what he has to say.
2. Recognize that revelation is progressive. Galatians was not written after John. Therefore, concepts found in John cannot be used to interpret Paul’s statements in Galatians. Paul wrote Romans after he wrote 1 Thessalonians (in spite of the incorrect chronological order of the books in the New Testament). Therefore, what Paul says in 1 Thessalonians cannot be interpreted as if he already said everything that is found in Romans. The same principle holds for the Old Testament (which is also not in chronological order). This is perhaps the biggest exegetical mistake we make. We treat the Bible as though it was all written at the same time. We forget that God revealed His plan over a long period and that what was happening in the historical sequence has a direct bearing on what the text says.
3. Understand the language of the people who first heard the message. Moses wrote the Pentateuch, even though the story reaches back to the beginning. That means that the language, and the meanings of the words Moses uses, are set in the culture of Israel after the exodus from Egypt. What the words mean to that audience is what the words mean. We are not allowed to redefine the words from another culture, time or place.
4. Relate the text to the culture of its origin. When Paul writes the letter to the believers in Corinth, there is a specific culture woven into the letter. Paul did not write for First Baptist of Middletown, New Jersey. He wrote to specific people in a specific place at a specific time about specific issues that they had. Unless we know the who, where, when and what of his audience, we will not understand his meaning.
5. Pay attention to the literary style and type. Poetry is not prose. Words have a lot more flexibility in poetry. Narrative is not the same as letter writing. Apocalyptic literature has a certain pattern and style all its own. Proper exegesis recognizes these differences and treats the subject accordingly. Not everything David says in the psalms has the same theological weight as Moses’ declarations in Deuteronomy.
6. Apply principles, not propositions. Since every statement in the Bible comes with a cultural bias, any contemporary application must first discover the principle involved, not necessarily the specific words written to the first audience. Head covering involves a particular cultural problem. The principle might be applicable today but it does not automatically follow that the same cultural issues are in play today.
7. Know the language of the text. No one can be a theologian unless he is first a grammarian. Exegesis starts with Hebrew and Greek, not English. There is no substitute for proper linguistic analysis. That means that if you want to know what’s happening in Matthew, you will have to find a way to get at the Hebrew expressions that have been translated into Greek. Of course, you will also have to know how to handle the Greek. This requires a lot of work. Exegesis is a translation process, moving from the original language to contemporary explanation. There is simply no way around this.
8. Listen to the Spirit. In the end, exegesis is not simply technical expertise with language, culture and history. It is about hearing what God is saying. Actually, I hate to even include this step, as important as it is, because some people jump right here and ignore all the rest. These are the ones who proclaim that they have “a word from the Lord” on such-and-such a verse. Avoid them like the plague. Exegesis does not arrive by direct messenger from God (unless you are Hosea or Isaiah). Exegesis takes long, hard work. You might have a flash of insight, but you can’t get the meaning of a text by simply “hearing” what the Lord told me about this.
Well, this will get us started. The reason understanding the Bible is so much fun is that it takes you into another world – AND you get to see what God has been doing all along. It is a goldmine. There are incredible treasures here. But you have to DIG!