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Teaching Exegesis

Next school year I will be teaching a class entitled ‘Exegetical Methods and Practice’. As I begin to think about my syllabus, I am struck by the various ways one could teach such a course. I think the variety stems from the diverse nature of exegesis itself. How does one teach the methods and practics of exegesis when it has become increasingly difficult to say what exegesis is or should be? This question is related to my lingering questions about biblical interpretation.

My dilemma is selecting the right combination of introduction to traditional critical methods, introduction to more recent critical methods, and the theoretical foundation for all of these methods. And, how do I cover these things in only ten weeks? Furthermore, what is it that students should leave the class knowing or knowing how to do? What exactly is the point of this class? What exactly is the point of exegesis of Christian scripture?

Ultimately, in the seminary setting, exegesis means to serve the church somehow. So, the questions of How? and What? must be asked with the church in the foreground.

Still, I am wondering what it is I should say and do from week to week. What should the students be saying, hearing and doing from week to week that will prepare them to listen, say and do from week to week in their churches, parishes, ministries, lives? I cannot answer these questions without acknowledging some of my own presuppositions and convictions about interpretation in general.

I am convinced that most of the “traditional” critical methods–and by that I mean those methods connected to the larger historical-grammatical-critical method–are necessary and helpful for what it is my students will be doing in their respective ministries. So, I will certainly introduce and try to teach these methods. I have in mind things like grammatical analysis and historical-cultural analysis. Certainly since the middle of the twentieth century exegesis cannot be done without also giving proper attention to the surface of the texts themselves. So, literary tools will need to be employed–redaction criticism, textual criticism, discourse analysis, narrative criticism, rhetorical criticism. The historical and literary tools will take up most of the class. The need for these critical tools has to do with a recognition of 1) the historical setting of the text’s production; 2) the dynamics of the language of the texts; 3) the genre and form of the various books that make up the NT; and 4) the ways in which and the reasons for which first-century authors wrote, compiled, and edited texts.

The historical and literary methods of biblical criticism are teachable methods. They represent approaches to the text that can be demonstrated and practiced. The question we must ask though is what they do for us. How do their results serve the church?

We cannot answer that question without also having an eye on the church itself. And, having an eye on the church requires a panoramic perspective, because the church is not a synchronic community. We cannot view the church through a keyhole. In fact, I contend, that we cannot view the whole of the church even if we open the door and move around the house. I am convinced that the church–a community I and my students (most at least) are a part of–must be understood as a living body whose life precedes me and whose life will continue after me. It is from the early church that the NT texts were written. It is within the church that the texts are read and revered as scripture. In other words we are not reading strictly ancient texts produced by ancient authors who come from unknown communities that worship an unknown god. We are a part of their community, we worship their god, we live empowered by the same spirit, we have faith in the same savior. But, and I must be clear about this, the texts of the NT are products of a culture and time unfamiliar to us. How do we reconcile these two things–historically embedded texts and transhistorical scripture?

I am not sure that there are practices I can teach or exercises the students can practice that will help relay this conviction. But, there are critical methods that begin on the frontside of the texts in the community of today’s readers and ask questions that stem from these settings rather than the cultural settings of the first century. I think it is imperative for students to be aware of these sets of questions. In addition, I think it is important to retrace the interpretations of our community and ask the frontside questions for our forebearers. This practice will help remind us that reading the scriptures is not something new to us. Our community has been doing it for centuries. And as any good and healthy body should do, we have the responsibility to learn from, question, and even refute the readings of the past, just as the church will do to our readings. So, some discussion of reader-response criticism and history of interpretation ought to be a part of our exegetical practice.

After all is said and done, however, the day-to-day content of the course will center around reading the text, reading them carefully and fully, and reading them in community. I am going to try to teach the students to be good readers. And, good readers strive for a clear picture of what went into the production of the texts. Good readers have a sensitivity to the use and effects of the texts in the present community. Good readers are sensitive to the contours, rhythms, seams, tones and complexion of the texts. They recognize the type of texts they are reading (scripture on the whole, various genres in specific). But, most importantly they recognize that a full understanding of God’s word can come only by a reading of the body of Christ, the church. And so, good readers of scripture learn from, question and converse with their fellow community members, those who have gone before, those who sojourn with them now, and even those who will follow.

I have only 10 weeks. The best I can do is help put some reading tools in their toolkits and encourage them to develop healthy habits of reading.

Future posts: a review of the following possible textbooks.
1) New Testament Exegesis and Research by Donald A. Hagner
2) New Testament Exegesis by Gordon D. Fee
3) Elements of Biblical Exegesis by Michael J. Gorman
4) A Beginner’s Guide to New Testament Exegesis by Richard J. Erickson

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