Sunday, 17 May 2015

Key notions defined series: 4. Exegesis & Eisegesis

Having completed my main review of the New Testament (and some Old Testament) texts, cataloguing almost 500 passages, I am "celebrating" that milestone by publishing a part of the paper that helps me in the processing and weighing of these texts, which is currently entitled Chapter 2: Key Notions Defined. It also is an opportunity for me to tidy up these definitions.

Here is the next one, minus some footnotes:

4. Exegesis & Eisegesis

Exegesis is the work of drawing out the original meaning intended by the author. It is commonly and correctly understood as a necessary practice for preachers and teachers of the Bible in order to remain as faithful as possible to its message. Nowhere have I seen it better summarised than by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart’s classic introductory work, How to Read the Bible For All It’s Worth. On p. 26 of my 2nd Ed., it reads with a beautiful simplicity:

A text cannot mean what it never meant   

I take this as fundamental and universal. Exegesis is a safeguard against too quickly applying meaning of our own to these texts that were not there in the original author’s mind and introducing extra-biblical foundations into the church, because as Stephen Holmes states this with his usual eloquence: “No reader approaches any text in a neutral and uncommitted manner” .

A lesser-known term for adding extra meaning to the text is eisegesis. While exegesis is careful to take into account contextual factors like time, place, writer, recipients, occasion, literary factors such as genre (is the text a story? A parable? A poem? Wisdom literature? An epistle?) and textual issues (are there any significant manuscript variants in this passage?), eisegesis is often “in a hurry” to get on to what the individual or group in question are wanting to teach and hear, infusing their own message with borrowed authority from the Bible.

Exegesis is absolutely central to the question this paper is asking about the status of the creeds. Some can tolerate some eisegesis on grounds roughly along the lines of: although the author may not have fully known what he was saying, the God who was inspiring and orchestrating the whole thing did know. While this might conceivably exonerate writers such as the composer of Matthew’s gospel, from proper exegetical practice, later authors should not have any more legitimate, spiritual or prophetic authority than you or I. Relaxing exegetical rigour, or trying to sidestep it as I feel Stephen Holmes attempts via his appeal to some kind of “deeper exegesis” , cannot and will not do for the true Protestant.

We must exegete, we must provide hermeneutics, we must not eisegete.

Presented here is my plumb line, which is a widely accepted principle today. Stephen Roy, himself on a theological quest, puts us on a good, common-sense track. When he acknowledges the authority of Scripture like this it makes you really want to listen to what he has to say:

…I propose that a valid theological model must be consonant with Scripture both quantitatively and qualitatively. In other words, we must first ask, does this model deal with all relevant biblical data? And second, does it do so fairly, without misreading texts so they serve a prior theological agenda?
However, it is also a rather modern understanding of exegesis. Early church authorities, such as John Chrysostom, were still pioneering the fundamentals of today’s good interpretative practices. Stephen Holmes outlines the tension well:
[It is understood by Chrysostom that] a text cannot be understood unless we know its author, the context of composition, and so on… But all patristic interpreters are united in seeing the primary meaning of the biblical text as Christological...”

To paraphrase this you could say that the new church approached (Old Testament) Scriptures:

  • Desiring and expectant to find Christological references throughout, especially when there is dialogue and the speaker of the text is not identified
  • Let us be careful how we go 

The victorious theology of the church in the fourth century was shaped by a prototype exegetical method roughly along these lines, sometimes referred to as prosopological exegesis. The Councils were then the outworking of an early systematic theology, that is an attempt at a more collective or canonical exegesis.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thanks very much for your feedback, really appreciate the interaction.