Exegesis is the illumination / interpretation of the full and precise meaning of any passage in the Bible in its historical and literary context. Exegesis comes from the (very picturesque) Greek word meaning to draw out. Therefore, with exegesis you dig out the full meaning of the passage; you unpack and illumine what Scripture means. For instance, what do the gospels say within their literary, historical context? Exegesis helps us read the text in it proper context in order to really understand what the author intended to say. Exegesis is a scholarly and historical discipline which seeks to properly interpret the meaning within the gospel’s historical and literary context.
We do exegesis by looking at the text’s literary context. How does the text fit into that book of which it is a part?
We do exegesis by looking at the text’s historical context. What did author mean to convey in the original, historical context?
Exegesis has two great enemies: 1. eisegesis and 2. superficial reading of the Bible. When you rightly study the Bible, you use exegesis. Our Bible comes to us in the Greek and I’d be a rather poor tour guide for the Bible if I were not able to read it in the Greek. Still, we have some very good English translations of the Bible so it’s accessible to all. Thus, anyone can become a wonderful student of the Bible even without a knowledge of the ancient Greek.
Therefore, we exegete the Bible; we draw out of the Bible what it has to say to us rather than reading into the Bible what you expect it to say. We draw out in order to get the full meaning of the author. The Bible has some incredible things to say that are different from the way we sometimes think. Thus, exegesis draws out that meaning.
1. Eisegesis is enemy “Number One” of exegesis. Eisegesis comes from the Greek word meaning to lead in, to take passages out-of-context, to purposely read an unintended meaning into the text. We are to avoid eisegesis which is reading into the text what we want the text to mean. We are not to read our own thoughts into scripture. Leading in presupposes bringing in our own ideas of what we think the Bible is going to be saying instead of drawing out what it is actually saying.
2. The other great enemy of exegesis is superficial reading of the Bible in which circumstance by not reading the Bible carefully enough, we come away with a bare bones, superficial reading that will ultimately lead us astray from the full meaning of the text. Superficial readings fail to approach scripture in a scholarly and academic manner. An example of a superficial reading would be to read Mk 1 1 and not understand the depth of the meaning of the various words there such as Christ.
How then should one approach the Bible? The question of hermeneutics
All exegesis, all interpretation takes place within a proper theological context. “What, then, is the proper context for interpretation?” Before even beginning exegesis, in what context should I approach it? What is the authority of scripture for me or the church and how does that authority function? With what attitude of heart and mind should I approach the Bible? This is the question of exegesis – what the scripture means within the proper context. The authority of scripture is expressed by the theological term hermeneutics – the science of interpretation and how one does exegesis.
Hermeneutics asks the questions:
How should one approach the Bible? How should I read the Bible?
In what context should we approach and interpret scripture? What is the proper context for exegesis?
What is the theological authority of the Bible in one’s life and why?
With what attitude of heart and mind should I approach the reading of scripture?
What does it mean for me?
This whole question of how one approaches the Bible is the big question of hermeneutics. For example, the use of the word Scripture says hermeneutically that these writings are inspired by God. And as another example, the use of the word canon says the Bible is this authoritative guide for Christian teaching, faith and life. Hermeneutics is sort of catch-all term term saying everything we’ve just said in this paragraph.
Hermeneutics is crucial as we see in the following two examples.
All the fun is in actually interacting with the Bible and doing this exegesis of scripture. So also in marriage. All the joy and pleasure of marriage is actually living marriage each day, not contemplating the context in which you took your marriage vows. It’s living the marriage. But, the context in which you took and understood your marriage vows, that is the hermeneutical context for your marriage, is going to absolutely determine how you live your marriage every single day. On a sit-com of a few years ago when you got married the vows they exchanged were as long as we both shall love which is different from the traditional vows of as long as we both shall live. Depending on which of these two vows you took will determine how you live with your spouse. That’s the hermeneutics of marriage.
As another example you’ve been sleeping and you hear a voice that says, “Follow me, now!!!”
Exegesis tells you what that command means. Exegesis, proper interpretation, your knowledge of the English language and the idioms of the English language tell you three things. First, that’s a command. Two, you are supposed to follow that person. Three, it’s very imperative. You have to make a decision. It’s now or never. That’s the exegesis portion of the equation.
On the other hand, the hermeneutics involves the context of that utterance. Have you just awaken after being hit on the head by a fallen beam in a fire, and those words are being said by a rescuing fireman? Or, have you just awaken from a nap in a park and the words are being said by a rather seedy looking guy opening the door of a van? Or, have you just awakened from a nap in a park from a megaphone announcement calling everyone in the park interested to a certain event in the park?
Notice, that you cannot opt out of hermeneutics. Well, in the third example you can opt out because it really doesn’t crucially matter in your life whether or not you go to the event. That won’t be a life or death matter. However, in the first two cases it may well be life or death. In each case it depends on whether or not you follow the command.
So, hermeneutics is important. It’s important in everyday life to know the context of the utterance and how we are to approach what is being said to us and, on the basis of who is saying it, how much more important it is for something as crucial as scripture. The context is very important for interpretation. Hence, before even discussing exegesis, we have to discuss the question of hermeneutics.
There are three major hermeneutical approaches that we have for the proper context for interpretation of scripture.
Christian (Catholic / Orthodox) theological paradigm;
Christian (Protestant / Reformation) theological paradigm; and the
post-Enlightenment (Liberal) paradigm.
Paradigm means the overall world view, the overall approach / context with which you come to things, your circle of reference with which you come to the Bible, how everything fits together. For example, we have social paradigms, scientific paradigms, and we have these theological paradigms. All people operate out of one of these paradigms listed above – whether or not they even know they do.
How one approaches scripture is distinct between these three paradigms. The first two paradigms operate out of the Christian theological paradigm which has been used throughout the history of the church in Christian theology.
Note that the designation “Christian” has been left off the third listed paradigm (the post-Enlightenment paradigm) even though most proponents within the post-Enlightenment paradigm consider themselves Christian in some way. That, however, is a controversial matter. Most proponents of the first two paradigms above would say that the those of the third paradigm, the post-Enlightenment paradigm, have gone beyond the bounds of Christianity. That is, those of the first two paradigms would say that the proponents of the post-Enlightenment paradigm are not authentically Christian.
All would agree that the historic Christian theological paradigm is found in the first two paradigms above. Also, and again, proponents of the post-Enlightenment paradigm would say theirs is a Christian paradigm. It’s just not the historical one. Instead, it’s a different one that has arisen since the Enlightenment.
The designation of liberal with respect to the post-Enlightenment paradigm has nothing to do with politics. Many of those within the Christian and Protestant paradigms would be liberal politically. On the other hand, a liberal in theology are those who adopt things like the post-Enlightenment paradigm. Those of the Christian and Protestant theological paradigms are conservative when it comes to their core Christian teachings regarding the Creeds, the Incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, and so on. Those of the liberal variety don’t hold to such conservative understandings of Scripture. Those operating out of a liberal theology would say, “You don’t really need to believe in this or that.” They usually have a different core of which they are adamant.