From Hermeneutics to Exegesis: The Trajectory of Biblical Interpretation

From Hermeneutics to Exegesis: The Trajectory of Biblical Interpretation

by Matthew Malcolm

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781462743780
Publisher: B&H Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/01/2018
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 192
Sales rank: 1,046,405
File size: 3 MB
Age Range: 3 Months to 18 Years

About the Author

Matthew R. Malcolm is Dean of the Faculty of Liberal Arts at Universitas Pelita Harapan, Indonesia.

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In this chapter, we will ponder the meaning and significance of hermeneutics and exegesis. This will introduce concepts and raise questions that we will consider throughout the rest of the book.

The Relevance of Hermeneutics

The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem has a stone doorway that is about waist height. This entry is intentionally too low for people to be able to walk straight in. I have sometimes shown a photo of this doorway to my students and asked them, "Is this doorway designed to let people in or to keep people out?" The answer, quite brilliantly, is that it is designed to let in those who are willing to bow down, but obstruct those who refuse. It is intended to welcome those who are willing to stoop to the stature of a child, while infuriating those with heads held high (to use a biblical phrase; see: Isa 3:16).

The question I ask my students about the doorway could also be asked of Jesus's parables: Are they designed to let people in or to keep people out? Jesus seemed to suggest the latter when he directly addressed this issue in Mark 4:11–12: "Everything comes in parables so that they may indeed look, and yet not perceive; they may indeed listen, and yet not understand; otherwise, they might turn back and be forgiven."

But notice that Jesus only expected this reaction from those with heads held high — the self-positioned "outsiders." Verse 11 begins, "He answered them [his disciples], 'The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to those outside, everything comes in parables so that ...'"

Jesus went on to show that he expected his disciples, unlike these outsiders, to understand the parables — because they were following the One the parables reveal. Mark 4:13 reads, "Then he said to them: 'Don't you understand this parable? How then will you understand all of the parables?'"

This parable — like the church doorway — appears the same to everyone. But it is designed to have a very different impact on those who approach it as "insiders" versus those who read it as "outsiders." The insiders are expected to be able to interpret and understand it, resulting in new riches of appreciation for their Lord. But for the "stiff-necked" outsiders, the parable will confuse and confound the knowledge of Jesus they appear to possess. Mark 4:24–25 says, "Pay attention to what you hear. By the measure you use, it will be measured to you — and more will be added to you. For whoever has, more will be given to him, and whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him."

It would seem that according to Jesus, reaching understanding — arriving at a right interpretation — is not simply a matter of decoding grammar and syntax. Some of those who did this right and were personally familiar with Jesus's first-century cultural context still found themselves hopelessly lost.

Let us move on a little further in Mark's Gospel to see another story where Jesus explicitly dealt with issues of interpretation. In Mark 8, shortly after the disciples witnessed the miraculous feeding of the four thousand, we read:

The disciples had forgotten to take bread and had only one loaf with them in the boat. Then he gave them strict orders: "Watch out! Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod." They were discussing among themselves that they did not have any bread. Aware of this, he said to them, "Why are you discussing the fact you have no bread? Don't you understand or comprehend? Do you have hardened hearts? Do you have eyes and not see; do you have ears and not hear?" (vv. 14–18)

The disciples had failed to interpret Jesus's words effectively. And he saw their lack of understanding as arising from who they were: they were people in danger of having hardened hearts. So how might their hearts be softened? Jesus went on to show them that certain past events should have positioned them to interpret his words effectively:

"Do you not remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of leftovers did you collect?"

"Twelve," they told him.

"When I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand, how many baskets full of pieces did you collect?"

"Seven," they said.

And he said to them, "Don't you understand yet?" (vv. 18–21)

But notice that Jesus was withholding crucial information from them. Notice that he didn't say, "Remember how, in Jewish territory, I created twelve basketfuls of leftover bread — and that twelve is symbolic of Israel? And remember when I met that Gentile woman who asked for leftover crumbs of bread, and I subsequently went to Gentile territory and created seven basketfuls of leftover bread? And remember how seven is symbolic of wholeness or universality? Did you notice that, whereas Moses fed exactly the right amount of manna to the people of Israel, I provided abundant leftovers, even for those outside Israel? And don't you remember that after I did these miraculous signs, the Pharisees immediately asked for a sign regarding my identity, and I refused them? And then I warned you to watch out for the leaven of the Pharisees! You should have realized that the 'leaven of the Pharisees' represents stubbornly refusing to acknowledge the signs that bear witness to me as the promised provider who is greater than Moses!"

Jesus did not say any of this. He clearly wanted his disciples to read between the lines of his words and actions, if they were to be effective interpreters. They needed to be people with soft hearts, rightly attentive to the symbolic significance of certain things he said and did. It would seem that according to Jesus, interpretation is more than the objective analysis of words and sentences.

Let us consider one more passage. In Mark 9 we read, "He was teaching his disciples and telling them, 'The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after he is killed, he will rise three days later.' But they did not understand this statement, and they were afraid to ask him" (vv. 31–32).

Given that Jesus seemed to be speaking plainly here, it is worth asking why the disciples did not understand him. Is it because their hearts hadn't sufficiently softened? Is it because they had only begun to see who Jesus was, but were still at the stage of semi-sight, in which things resembled "trees walking" (8:24)? Even so, why did this impact their ability to interpret a straightforward, nonpoetic statement? It seems that once again, where people are — their "locatedness," to use a term that will become important — impacts the nature of their interpretation and understanding, whether they are facing parables, ambiguous sayings, or even apparently straightforward statements.

These moments in the Gospel of Mark illustrate the importance of considering what is involved when people seek to understand and effectively interpret the Bible. This, precisely, is the interest of this book.

Definitions of Hermeneutics and Exegesis

What Is Hermeneutics?

The twentieth century German scholar who is regarded as the father of philosophical hermeneutics, Hans-Georg Gadamer, wrote, "Hermeneutics is above all a practice, the art of understanding." I think this is an excellent general encapsulation. But can we be more precise? There are problems in defining hermeneutics — especially in the context of biblical studies — because it is used in at least five different ways.

There is the popular Christian usage, in which hermeneutics is said to refer to the application of exegesis. Theologians Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, in their book How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, remark, "Proper 'hermeneutics' begins with solid exegesis." According to this conception, one begins by exegeting or interpreting the text, and then moves to the hermeneutical stage of considering how one's exegesis ought to be applied in today's world. An endorsement for Fee and Stuart's book on the publisher's blog states, "Remember: start with exegesis and follow up with hermeneutics. Reverse the order and you risk not reading the Bible for all its worth."

There is also the exegetical handbook usage, in which hermeneutics is seen as being similar to interpretation, but perhaps broader in scope. Authors Andreas Köstenberger and Richard Patterson seem to equate interpretation with hermeneutics, as they have commented on their "quest of sound biblical interpretation or as it is also called, 'hermeneutics.'" In this view, then, hermeneutics means the interpretation of texts in accordance with proper principles or rules.

Then there is the popular theological usage, in which "a hermeneutic" (singular) is regarded as a particular interpretive approach that is used in a certain instance or by a certain interpreter. So, someone might be said to utilize a "liberation hermeneutic" or a "hermeneutic of suspicion."

In the academic/philosophical usage, "hermeneutics" refers to abstract reflection on universal conditions for interpretation or understanding. This use of the term does not generally involve a context in which particular principles or rules for interpretation are being sought or advocated. Rather, it involves a consideration of the factors that are inevitably at play when interpretation occurs.

Finally, there is the broader cultural analytical usage, in which hermeneutic(s) refers to a mode of being that prioritizes listening, interpretation, and understanding. For example, in the field of international education, you might hear something like this: "During [the hermeneutic stage of comparative education studies] comparative educationists attempted to understand (i.e. interpret) national education systems from within the national context in which they functioned."

The fact that the term hermeneutics can mean so many things in different contexts can result (perhaps ironically) in major miscommunication and misunderstanding. If someone is advocating the importance of hermeneutics in the field of biblical studies, is he suggesting that it is important to apply the Bible sensitively in today's world or that people should make use of proper interpretive methods? If someone vigorously denies that "general hermeneutics" should feature in biblical interpretation, is she denying that a general set of rules should be used for interpreting all Bible passages or saying that biblical scholars should examine the factors that inevitably impact all interpretation?

I use the differentiation in terms provided by Thiselton, which fits with the academic/philosophical usage I just described: "Whereas exegesis and interpretation denote the actual processes of interpreting texts, hermeneutics also includes the second-order discipline of asking critically what exactly we are doing when we read, understand, or apply texts. Hermeneutics explores the conditions and criteria that operate to try to ensure responsible, valid, fruitful, or appropriate interpretation."

It is crucial to see, according to this definition, that the aim of hermeneutics is not to apply rules of interpretation, but to explore what is happening when fruitful understanding takes place. This is different from some "hermeneutics" handbooks, such as Köstenberger and Patterson's volume, titled Invitation to Biblical Interpretation, which is explicitly about recognizing proper "rules": "It is this authorial intention the interpreter must aim to recover. ... When my wife talks to me, I dare not give her words my own preferred meaning. The rules of proper communication demand that I seek to understand the meaning she intended to convey."

Similarly, see New Testament scholar Grant R. Osborne's discussion of "laws" of interpretation: "Hermeneutics is a science, since it provides a logical, orderly classification of the laws of interpretation."

Again, the place of hermeneutics as defined by Thiselton is not to spell out rules or laws such as these, but to explore the various factors at work when fruitful communication and understanding take place — particularly with regard to texts.

What Is Exegesis?

I regard exegesis as intentional, attentive, respectful interpretation of a particular written text. This does not mean that an exegete has to be sympathetic to the content of the text being interpreted; it simply means that the exegete will seek to fairly hear, analyze, and flesh out the content of a passage of text. It is a labored formalization of that which ideally takes place automatically for an attuned hearer. While exegesis can be conducted on any text, the word itself is usually used to refer to analysis of biblical texts.

Given that this book seeks to move "from hermeneutics to exegesis," we will come to further define exegesis later on, in chapter 8.

Images of Hermeneutics and Exegesis

You may have come across different images of "hermeneutics" or "exegesis."

A Circle?

One very common image is the "hermeneutical circle." This image came to the fore with German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher in the early nineteenth century. Schleiermacher commented, "Complete knowledge is always in this apparent circle, that each particular can only be understood via the general, of which it is a part, and vice versa. And every piece of knowledge is only scientific if it is formed in this way."

The circle represents the conviction that it is inevitable that any process of understanding or interpretation will move from a general sense of the whole to a particular analysis of a part, which in turn will refine one's general sense of the whole — which will further influence one's particular analysis of an individual part. This circle continues around as the interpreter progresses in understanding.

A Spiral?

But some find that the image of a circle sounds too ... circular. It may give the impression of being endlessly unproductive. So some prefer the image of a spiral. But note that this image is not always used in the same way as the circle. Grant Osborne has proposed that

biblical interpretation entails a "spiral" from text to context, from its original meaning to its contextualization or significance for the church today. ... I am not going round and round a closed circle that can never detect the true meaning but am spiraling nearer and nearer to the text's intended meaning as I refine my hypotheses and allow the text to continue to challenge and correct those alternative interpretations, then to guide my delineation of its significance for my situation today.

Notice that for Osborne, the spiral is not between "whole" and "part" (as in the hermeneutical circle), but between "original meaning" and "contextualization" today.

A Triad?

Köstenberger and Patterson propose the image of a triad: "Those who want to succeed in the task of biblical interpretation need to proceed within a proper interpretive framework, that is, the hermeneutical triad, which consists of the three elements interpreters must address in studying any given biblical passage regardless of its genre: a book's historical setting ..., its literary dimension ..., and its theological message."

Köstenberger and Patterson's triad of history, literature, and theology seems close to the common concern of interpreters to look behind the text (at its background and contexts), in the text (at its literary features), and in front of the text (at its impacts).


A well-known image that comes from the field of philosophical hermeneutics is that of "horizons," in which text and reader (or two other subjects) are seen as inhabiting separate locations, which are able to be enlarged and engaged. "Understanding takes place when the interpreter's horizons engage with those of the text. ... Gadamer's image of a fusion of horizons provides one possible way of describing the main problem and task of hermeneutics."

Each of these images has something to offer. In this book, we will be working with a model of hermeneutics that features the separate horizons of text and interpreter, and the productive circle of refining interpretation.

Outcomes of a Hermeneutical Encounter

What do we hope will come out of a "hermeneutical encounter"? Are we hoping to develop an encapsulated account from a textual portion's content? Do we hope for understanding? Or, are we aiming for transformation of ourselves or our culture? Are our aims fair? Are they appropriate? Are they sufficient? We will come to consider a goal for hermeneutics in chapter 6, but it is worth pondering this point at the outset.


Excerpted from "From Hermeneutics to Exegisis"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Matthew Malcolm.
Excerpted by permission of B&H Academic.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1: Understanding Hermeneutics and Exegesis,
The Relevance of Hermeneutics,
Definitions of Hermeneutics and Exegesis,
Images of Hermeneutics and Exegesis,
Outcomes of a Hermeneutical Encounter,
Questions for Discussion,
Big Idea,
For Further Reading,
2: The History of Hermeneutics, Part 1: Socrates to Angela of Foligno,
Socrates and Plato,
Augustine and Chrysostom,
Beatrice of Nazareth and Angela of Foligno,
Big Idea,
Questions for Discussion,
For Further Reading,
3: History of Hermeneutics, Part 2: Luther to Present Day,
Luther and Calvin,
Schleiermacher and Dilthey,
New Criticism and New Hermeneutic,
Heidegger, Gadamer, Ricoeur, and Thiselton,
Jauss, Reading Contexts, and Smith,
Big Idea,
Questions for Discussion,
For Further Reading,
4: General and Special Hermeneutics,
Hesitations about General Hermeneutics,
Theological Hermeneutics?,
Theological Interpretation?,
A Way Forward,
Big Idea,
Questions for Discussion,
For Further Reading,
5: Responsible Biblical Hermeneutics: General and Theological Foundations,
The God Who Is True,
The God Who Accommodates,
The Humans to Whom God Accommodates,
Big Idea,
Questions for Discussion,
For Further Reading,
6: A Hermeneutical Goal and Model,
The Goal of a Hermeneutical Encounter,
A Model of Hermeneutics,
Application of the Model,
Questions for Discussion,
Big Idea,
For Further Reading,
7: Fruitful Instincts for the Interpreter of Christian Literature,
Big Idea,
Questions for Discussion,
For Further Reading,
8: From Hermeneutics to Exegesis: Priming and Refining,
Interviewing the Bible,
Linguistic Issues in Exegesis,
Big Idea,
Writing an Exegesis Paper,
Questions for Discussion,
For Further Reading,
9: Exegetical Methods,
Rationales for Methods,
Resources with Which to Question the Text,
Developing an Orientation of Expectant Curiosity,
Big Idea,
Questions for Discussion,
For Further Reading,
10: Interpreting the Old Testament,
Priming for the Old Testament,
The Old Testament as Christian Scripture,
An Exegetical Case Study: 1 Samuel 17,
Big Idea,
Questions for Discussion,
For Further Reading,
11: Interpreting the New Testament,
Priming for the New Testament,
The New Testament as Christian Scripture,
An Exegetical Case Study: 1 Corinthians 13:1-3,
Interacting with the Text,
Big Idea,
Questions for Discussion,
For Further Reading,
Name Index,
Subject Index,
Scripture Index,



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