writing things down…

Lecture #1 – Initial Draft

I apologize. This is a long post. It is the initial draft of the lecture I will give on the first day of class for Exegetical Methods and Practice. If you are a future student, reading this does not give you permission to skip the first class day. We will do a lot more than listen to me. Plus, I am certain I will say more in some areas and less in others. Since I mean to use this blog as a place to work out some thoughts about my courses, I am going to post some prelimary thoughts from time to time. Again, what you find below is neither complete nor the full content of the first day of class. It would be a short class indeed. All I mean to do is set up the sort of mindset I think is helpful as one begins a life of exegesis. Also keep in mind that the course a part of the seminary curriculum, and it is an evangelical seminary. I do not then apologize for the God talk. If I were teaching the course in another setting I might consider a different approach. But for these seminary students the tension of God’s words written by humans in real historical situations is a real issue.

What is it we are doing when we read/interpret/exegete the NT texts? What are we after? Is there anything to be after in the first place? What is the best way to get after whatever it is we are after, if there is anything to be after?

These are important questions; they are hermeneutical questions, questions that reflect “upon processes of interpretation and understanding, especially the interpretation of biblical texts or texts that originate from within other cultures.” But hermeneutics is not something for texts alone. It can include all kinds of communication, “from signs and visual art to institutions and literary phenomena.”

The title of this course is “Exegetical Methods and Practice.” Yet, you may have also noticed that it fulfills a Hermeneutics requirement. That is because, I think, we believe as Joel Green puts it that “the act of reading…is always, at least potentially, an encounter with [the text’s author] in conversation.” Reading a text, any text really, is an act of communication. And as Green states, “as an act of communication our reading is not simply dispassionate, ‘for information only,’ but has the capacity to shape us in some way.” Isn’t this even more so for texts that we deem sacred, Scripture, God’s words? We expect these texts to shape us. We expect God to speak to us, shape us in our reading of the texts.

But we are still faced with the questions of what it is we are doing, what are we after, how best to get after it (whatever it is). Answering these questions is not easy. I’m not sure these questions can ever be adequately answered. Much depends on where the conversation with the text’s author is taking place.

I would like to introduce some images that I think will help us throughout the quarter: Circles and Lines. The most basic set of circles and lines is one that can represent the typical form of communication: (addresser)→(context/message/medium)→(addressee).

We can look at these circles as the places where conversations with a text’s author can take place. And once in those circles and in conversation we can have various lines of questioning.

  1. Is the conversation taking place BEHIND THE TEXT? Is the line of questioning trying to discern the intention of the original author? Is it more concerned with the character of the original community? What was the historical, social, and cultural situation in which the text was written and first read?
  2. Is the conversation taking place WITHIN THE TEXT itself? What are the structure, form, and genre of the text? What literary features does it have? How does it move, make an argument, or tell a story? What are key terms; what is the main point or thesis?
  3. Is the conversation in our own imagination and experience IN FRONT OF THE TEXT? What does the text have to do with me, my faith community, and the world we live in? What does the text have to do with readers other than the original ones?

For this course, and I think for most courses that wish to teach exegetical methods, most of the instruction will take place in the first two circles: Behind and In the text. There are things we can do and learn and practice that will help us explore those circles, ask the right questions and dig around to find the answers. I do not want to minimize the third circle and the questions there, but I am not confident I, or anyone, can address the complexity of that conversation. It is, for one, quite different for different communities, traditions, and cultures. However, we ought to be quite clear that the chatter from the conversations in that circle always, always, always, find their way into the conversations in the other circles. These are not and never have been soundproof cubicles. Who the interpreter is, where the interpreter comes from, what the interpreter has experienced and a whole lot more effect the sorts of questions the interpreter will ask and the ways in which the interpreter goes about answering those questions in the conversations behind and in the text. I will ask you to look at a few methods that take a stab at this third circle and the line of questions there. We will also remind ourselves from time to time how the chatter from that circle has and is influencing the explorations we are doing in the other two circles of conversations. But, most of our reading and instructional time will be in the circles behind and in the text.

So what is this class all about then? More circles and lines.

Why doesn’t God just shoot straight with us and speak directly to us as we read God’s word? Why this need for hermeneutics, exegesis and interpretation? Why the need for this class? What are we going to learn that is going to help us in the communication process that we couldn’t just acquire by reading the texts and nothing more? I mean, we learned a little Greek and we can now make our way through the text as it was likely written originally, right?

I suppose we could just look at this course as an advanced Greek course. And, to be sure, we will immerse ourselves in the Greek language. We will, I hope, become better readers of the Greek New Testament–straightforward reading, nothing more. The language is a circle where we will converse with the author. At first glance it is seems simple–we need to understand the language in which the author is speaking to us. The line of questioning can often be as straightforward as “Huh?” But that “Huh?” quickly opens up a several other lines of questioning. “How are you using that word?” “What point are you making with that phrase?” “Why did you use a perfect when you had been going along quite well with the aorist?” “When you use the genitive here, do you mean to denote that the genitive is the object of faith or do you mean to say that the genitive is the subject that has faith?” “Why have you placed this portion of your letter directly after the preceding part?”

As you will quickly see, straightforward reading is not always that easy. There are questions that inevitably arise. Plus, just reading words on the page is not a conversation. If you are not allowed to ask questions, make comments, raise objections and the like, it is one-sided and less fruitful. The word (God!) is more likely to shape you when you struggle with it. So, a good portion of the class will be concerned with asking and seeking answers to questions about the words, grammar, structure, etc. of the text itself. These questions will lead us into another circle of conversations.

Koine Greek is not our native language. It is not the native language of anyone in the world today. It is the language of people long since gone. It is a language of history, and so historical questions will need to be asked to understand it fully. How was that word, term, phrase used in the first century? How was this style of literature used in the first century? Not only is it a language of a different time, it is a language of a different culture. To carry on a conversation with the author we will need to better understand his (almost always males, sorry ladies. Now that times have changed, I expect you to make up for lost time with excellent writing!) era and location. How would Paul have understood this word and why would he be using it here? Is Luke addressing a well-known event of his time?

And once we start that line of questioning we don’t have far to go to questions about the specific circumstances behind the writing of a book. When we ask Paul or Luke or John why they say what they say in the way that they say it answers of grammar, word definitions, and general cultural references will only take us so far. We will have a deeper conversation with these authors if we can discern the circumstances that gave rise to the writing of the letter or gospel or other book. Was there something going on in the church in Corinth that precipitated the letters written to them? What was Corinth even like during this time?

So reading, really reading in a way that is conversational, in a way that embodies the full process of communication, is a lot more than knowing the language of your conversation partner. It is knowing your conversation partner, the world from which your conversation partner comes, the style of literature your conversation partner uses, the use of the grammar and vocabulary your partner makes, the original audience your partner was speaking to, and a whole lot more.

This class is about all of those circles of conversations that can be had. It is about the circles of influence that go into the text. It is about asking the best questions for communicating with these conversation partners that have departed but leave us their side of the conversation in a book or letter. It is about the best methods for answering those questions for ourselves since the authors are not around to answer them for us.

We will take a circle at a time, throw a line of questions at it, and do our best to find the answers. These circles are usually smaller parts of the bigger circles of Behind the text and In the text conversations. But, they are not always limited to one of these big circles alone. We will see that although we may be primarily interested in something that fits mostly in the conversation In the text that we will often ask questions from the Behind the text area or we will be influenced by the questions In Front of the text. Imagine that we are at a cocktail party, we’ll call the cocktail party—James 5:1-6. We are standing around sipping martinis or Shirley Temples (if you don’t consume alcohol). We happen to be in a small circle talking about the use of the term “poor” in James 5:1-6. Someone brings up the use of the term at another party they went to, James 2. Someone else brings up the juxtaposition of the term with other terms in James 5:1-6. Someone else, who is standing close to another circle overhears them talking about the social setting of first-century Palestine and wonders how the term “poor” was used in that place at that time. Someone else, having been poor by modern standards most of their life, wonders how her experience might shed light on the conversation. There is a constant buzz at this party, with many conversations, many overlapping conversations, conversations involving many people with many different experiences and conversational skills. But the party is all about James 5:1-6. It is our job to be a social butterfly and move about these conversations. Tomorrow, someone will ask, “How was the party?” What will you say? Hopefully, by the end of this course, you will at least be able to say, “It was fun!”

There are may things that can keep us from having fun.

  1. We don’t know the language in which the conversation is being held. This could mean that our Greek is too rusty. For that, see the syllabus. It could mean that we get overwhelmed with the specialized vocabulary that expert conversationalists have constructed. We will cover that vocabulary in due time. What you should remember is that most of the heady language is nothing more than a way to talk about circles and lines. Don’t leave the party without giving yourself some time to get acculturated to the language.
  2. There is too much noise at the party. This problem is true quite often. When we enter the party room for James 5:1-6 for example, we might feel overwhelmed by all the different conversations going on. Take it in pieces. Start where it seems logical for you to begin. If the noise gets too loud, pull your conversation into a quiet corner and finish it before going back out into the fray.
  3. We understand the language well enough, we’ve filtered out some noise, but still we seem to be from different worlds with our conversation partner. You are! Unless you grew up in the first century Roman Empire, specifically in the Palestinian areas, you are from a different world than Paul, and Luke, and John, and Peter and all of the other NT authors. Take this as an opportunity to get to know a new world. Listen to what your partners have to say. Ask questions about their world, and seek out answers from people who know more than you do. There is bound to be someone at the party who can help you understand the modes of worship in first century churches or the ways meals were shared (Da Vinci’s Last Supper is not the answer!).

There are also many things that can cause problems when we report how the party went.

  1. There are many other people who are at the party with the intent to report on its activity. You will not all agree about everything. There have been disagreements among partygoers for centuries: women, tongues, prophecy, baptism, eternal security, etc. And, there have been people who attend the party and completely misunderstand what the party is all about or try to create a new party altogether: health and wealth prosperity gospel, cults, etc. The thing is they are all appealing to the same text. Again, straightforward reading is not as easy or as peaceful as it looks.
  2. Part of the reason for all of this friction is that it is the nature of readers to also be interpreters. We cannot escape this. There is no neutral reader. We bring all sorts of baggage to the party. We also make all sorts of assumptions about the party: a) We assume that we understand what we read; b) we assume that how we understand the text is how the author and/or God wanted the text to be understood; and therefore c) we assume everybody ought to read the text and understand the text in the same way we do. Like all good parties there are some guidelines. There is often a dress code or a theme or implicit social rules to follow. A good party does not have everybody rush into the ballroom and do whatever they see fit. But, a good party also has a good mix of people, refreshments, music, etc. If everyone drank the same thing, ate the same thing, danced the same way to the same music playing over and over, it would be a boring party indeed. We should expect some diversity. We should expect different points of view, because we have different things we bring and we experience the party in different ways. We ought to recognize not only the diversity among the partiers, but also we ought to recognize the embedded theology with which we arrive at the party. (There’s that third circle, In Front of the text again!).
  3. Another factor we have to contend with is the belief we have as Christians that the party is God’s party, it just happens to have been organized by some first century men. In fact all of these parties, these texts, are part of a much larger celebration, a much larger story, a much larger message. It is one that God initiated at creation. Each of these texts/parties is God’s word, it is eternally relevant to all people everywhere. All are invited to the big celebration! But, each of the individual parties is also the product of a human who was a part of human history. This idea of human and divine is much like the orthodox views of Jesus Christ. It is mysterious that Jesus was both God and human. It is equally mysterious that the Bible is God’s word and the letters, poems, stories, songs, prophecies of humans. God saves us by becoming human; God speaks to us through human’s words. We can ask why all day long. The fact of the matter is that is the way it is. I could go on about how it shows God’s care and mercy for creation that humans and their words are God’s vessels. Or I could go on about how inefficient and complicated it is that humans are God’s vessels. But the fact still remains, what we believe to be God’s word, what IS God’s word is gritty and dirty and confusing and oh so human. When we report on the party of James 5:1-6 or whatever party we attend, it simply will not do to say this is James’ party alone, God had nothing to do with it. Such a party, for we Christians, might be a fun historical, linguistic, grammatical time, but we will leave the party with an empty feeling. It will have been sterile. But if we go to the party and forget that a person is in fact throwing it for other people and assume that it is divine only, eternally relevant with no historical or literary context, the party will become pandemonium. We cannot just lift out the pure essence of the text and apply it today. What criteria are used to pick and choose what are the relevant parts?

Exegesis is the process of “bringing out”—not so much bringing out “kernels of truth” or “relevant parts” but bringing out the description and tenor and feel of the party so that we can more fully or more properly participate in the grand celebration of life in Christ and so we can invite others to this celebration. To bring this out we have to get into the circles of conversation and ask lines of questions. We will want to report on some of the details of the party. Ultimately we will want to have participated in the festivities. Good exegesis requires one be a social butterfly and not a fly on the wall. It’s a party. Have fun!

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  James Van Slyke wrote @

Hey Chris,

The intro lecture looks great! Making me want to retake the class and try to remember my Greek (ok maybe I’m going to far!) You really hit on the important parts of hermenutics. If your interested in the ways in which the third circle (i.e. present context and concerns) efffects the interpretation of scripture, check out Mark Noll’s book – The Civil War as Theological Crisis. It is really interesting to think about the ways in which implicit or background assumptions effects the ways in which different scriptures are read and interpreted. Hope your preparations continue to go well.


  Chris wrote @

Thanks James. Glad to see you on my blog. When’s our next lunch?

  James Van Slyke wrote @


It will have to be sometime next week, I am heading to my high school reunion on Thursday and I have a crazy week with my first full week of lectures at Azusa. I’ll get in touch next week and we’ll set something up.


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