Exegesis and Hermeneutics: The Bible Interpreter’s Two Most Important Tasks
“The test of good interpretations is that it makes good sense of what is written.” (22)
For 33 years that guiding principle has sat at the heart of How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, an evangelical standard-bearer for biblical interpretation. Since 1981 Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart have helped interested Christians do what St. Augustine said he heard: “Take up and read!” This new fourth edition seeks the same goal of helping us read God’s Word better with worship and obedience.
And yet, Fee and Stuart encourage not just any reading.
They encourage good reading through good interpretation, the aim of which is not uniqueness but plainness—a so-called “plain reading of Scripture.”
“[U]niqueness is not the aim of our task,” they write. “The aim of good interpretation is simple: to get at the ‘plain meaning of the text,’ the author’s intended meaning.” (22)
Easier said than done!
Fee and Stuart say such an endeavor is possible, but requires much from the reader at two separate levels: We must first understand what was said to original audience back then and there; we must learn to hear the same word in the hear and now.
In other words, the two most important tasks for biblical interpreters is exegesis and hermeneutics. Without them the reader is lost.
And so is the interpretation.
TASK 1: Exegesis
Discovering the original, intended meaning of a given text through careful, systematic study is our primary task, one Fee and Stuart describe as “primarily a historical task.” (27) Exegesis is an effort at reaching back into history to the original author and audience.
While exegesis is thought of as a task left to the “experts,” the authors insist there are ways for interested Christians to execute this task, too. The trick is learning what you can do with your own skills and how to use the work of others.
Even if you don’t know Greek or Hebrew, you can still do two crucial things even the experts sometimes neglect:
- “read the text carefully;”
- “ask the right questions of the text.” (30)
Fee and Stuart confess that in their experience “many people simply do not know how to read well.” (30) Interestingly, they recommend reading Mortimer Adler’s popular book How to Read a Book in order to read the text well.
When you carefully read Scripture you will inevitable ask the right questions of the text, too. The two basic questions you should ask of every biblical hit on context and content.
Context questions mine the layers of history, literature, occasion, and purpose. But the most important context question is this: what is the point? “We must try to trace the author’s train of thought,” Fee and Stuart insist, because the goal of exegesis “is to find out what the original author intended.” (32)
Content questions deal with the meaning of words, their grammatical relationships in sentences, and issues of textual analysis. Here is where it’s important to work with other scholars and their tools.
Remember: “the quality of one’s answers to such questions will usually depend on the quality of the sources being used.” Therefore make sure you have a good translation, a good Bible dictionary, and good commentaries.
TASK 2: Hermeneutics
Used in its narrow sense, this task seeks to find the contemporary relevance of ancient texts. It’s about asking questions about the Bible’s meaning in the “here and now.”
But watch out, because our interpretive task doesn’t begin here: “the only proper control for hermeneutics is to be found in the original intent of the biblical text.” (34)
Fee and Stuart list several groups who err on this crucial point. Because their hermeneutics is not controlled by good exegesis:
- Mormons baptize the dead;
- Jehovah’s Witnesses reject the deity of Jesus;
- snake handlers misapply Mark 16:18, and with disastrous consequences;
- prosperity preachers advocate the American dream as a Christian right.
While we certainly want to know what the Bible means for us today, we cannot make it mean whatever we want it to mean, and then claim the Holy Spirit’s imprimatur.
So what are we to do? Fee and Stuart force us back to their core message:
A text cannot mean what it could never have meant for its original readers/hearers…the true meaning of the biblical text for us is what God originally intended it to mean when it was first spoken or written. (emph. original, 34-35)
Remember: start with exegesis and follow up with hermeneutics. Reverse the order and you risk not reading the Bible for all its worth.
What makes Fee and Stuart's resource unique and useful is that it is a manual of the major genres of Scripture and their respective interpretive schemes. Next week we will continue exploring this standard-bearer of biblical interpretation by engaging one of these genre-specific chapters.
Jeremy Bouma (Th.M.) is a pastor with the Evangelical Covenant Church in West Michigan. He is the founder of THEOKLESIA, a content curator dedicated to helping the 21st century church rediscover the historic Christian faith; holds a Master of Theology in historical theology; and makes the vintage faith relevant at www.jeremybouma.com.