Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Possibility of Faithful Exegesis without Historical/ Linguistic Knowledge?

I have been struggling with this issue at hand for a couple of years now. I think I started thinking of this when I was in the middle of my studies in bible school.

Is there a possibility/ any possibility that one can do proper exegesis/ interpretation of the biblical text if one does not have any or has limited knowledge of the historical background and the original language of the biblical text?


Kurt said...

I have often thought about this as well. I have on one end, seen how a lack of historical context etc can lead to bad interpretation. I grew up with people who would say things like "this passage means...to me" or " i feel like this means." I think that this can lead to more bad interpretations. On the other hand, i think that the scriptures should not be limited to the so called religious 'elite.' The bible is for 'everyone' to borrow my favorite discipleship tool's title. So, what i think is that we need more tools that the average person can use to keep a biblical framework. We also need to leave room for the spirit of God to speak to people in a personal way through the scriptures, which is why i think many have been blessed though readings such as: Lectio Divina.

Scott said...

I'm with Kurt on this one. I have too often experienced the tragic results of poor interpretation based on a lack of proper exegesis/hermeneutics. However, I am currently leading a small group through Fee & Stuarts, "How to Read the Bible for All It's Worth" and I was confronted with a dilemma from one participant. He told me that he was feeling like he should just give up on reading the Bible altogether because he didn't feel that he knew enough to interpret it properly. It is paramount that leaders in the church develop ways to teach others to both read the Bible for study as well as devotion. We must learn to help people accomplish both of these tasks. Sadly, many evangelicals today have been taught that devotion IS study and have in turn created destructive theologies. Lectio Divina is my personal tool for devotion but I do not use it to develop core theology. In the same manner, I utilize a large number of exegetical/hermeneutical tools in my study that I do not use for my intimate devotions.

Mason said...

Great question,
I’m torn in answering it, because I think if you say either yes or no unequivocally there are things one misses.

On the one hand I think that there is an incredible amount of horrible subjective interpretation in the church, a lot of which goes back to people reading the Bible for what they ‘feel like this passage means’ or ‘how it’s speaking to them’. Interpretations like this tend to be meaningless fluff, or downright unbiblical.

If you combine the Protestant obsession with the need for individual interpretation with a limited or nonexistent understanding of the historical background/language of the text, I think you will inevitably get a plethora of bad readings covered up as what it ‘means to me’ at a given moment.

On the other hand, I definitely think there are ways to avoid such a situation without requiring everyone gets a PhD or making the Bible inaccessible to your everyday believer.
First, there are some great, inexpensive, and very accessible tools that one can use to make up for many of these problems. Using more than one translation and a quality one volume commentary can make you aware of the linguistic difficulties without years of Greek and Hebrew, and something as basic as OT and NT introductions can give you enough of the historical context to get started. Not everyone needs to have a massive library, but a few good resources can make a major difference.

Also, and this might feel a little uncomfortable for most Protestants, I think we need to have more connection with the Christian Tradition. Not just our denomination, but the deeper core of historic Orthodox Christianity. The creeds and those sorts of things give us a great summary of the faith and a grid to understand the Bible through, which doesn’t fall prey to whatever whim one might have about a text or what the latest “Purpose Driven Shack of Jabez” type of book said.
This does not eliminate the need for responsible personal interpretation, but I think there is a balance there which our individualistic culture needs to reclaim.

Sorry for the length, just really got me thinking.

Tremonti said...

Judging from the comments, I think we all resonate with how we understand stuff on this issue.

I can neither answer this question with a straight yes or no (take Mason's explanation for that matter).

I am someone who is weary of people doing bad exegesis or interpretation of the biblical text namely because some have no knowledge of background of the text.

But with that in mind I do believe that the church can help their congregation in doing this by providing tools for them to use or equip them in this manner. Mason pointed out that there are enough material out there to help the beginner/average/informed reader on aiding 'proper' interpretation to understand the bible.

Now for interaction...

It is good that you mention the Holy Spirit aiding us in understanding the text. I guess we forget that the task of interpreting the text is purely a human endeavor (actually I really like when Scot McKnight wrote about this in "Blue Parakeet". Not many authors find this important but I do). But surprisingly many also abuse this by saying that every interpretation is explained by 'God told me this is what it really means'. To me this is simply unhealthy! Lectio Divina is not a common 'practice' in my denomination, although I think it is the term that people here are unfamiliar with not it's actual practice.

You made an observation that I too resonated with by saying this "Sadly, many evangelicals today have been taught that devotion IS study and have in turn created destructive theologies". Too many times doing devotions are stressed as one of the most crucial element of a Christian's life. This is simply cheating growth because the diet of daily devotions are simply readings of small chunks of scripture or mostly a small verse that states 'promise of the day'! This is a sad commentary of what is termed as a proper christian study.

I actually like the idea that we use the ancient creeds as "a great summary of the faith and a grid to understand the Bible through". This will be good to keep in mind of! I actually have benefited much with studying systematic theology (although there are some limitations if we are too dependent on it!) as a way of navigating me above wild interpretations.

And might I add another dimension in aiding us in interpreting the bible- the church/the community. I think we have a responsibility together to help each other understand the text. We become our own testers of what is good and not.

The interaction has been fun! and Sorry for the mega long comment! It too got me thinking!

Hopeful Theo

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I'm a student of Theology (currently and will always be one). I'm a student of culture and a student of music as well. I guess you could say life is a never ending journey of learning. Because of that we never stop being students. Just a little something about this blog: Deconstructing The Monkey is all about being a safe space for emerging conversations