The Scholarly and Fundamentalist Approaches to the Bible, Part 3: Principles of Scholarly Exegesis

I introduced this series with a look at how Al Mohler became a complementarian, and then in the second part I looked at “the husband of one wife” in Titus 1:6 (RSV) from the fundamentalist approach. I will now continue by looking at how to take a more scholarly approach to this phrase.

At this point I will remind you all that in the 1980s I studied theology to MA level at a school, London Bible College (now London School of Theology), which is committed to an evangelical position but also to a scholarly approach to the Bible. As such it is similar to Al Mohler’s Southern Baptist Theological Seminary referred to in Part 1 of this series – or at least to how that seminary was in the 1980s (Mohler also quotes a report that now “Baptist schools increasingly are being ‘forced to sacrifice their intellectual integrity to ensure the flow of funds,'” and I might wonder whether under Mohler’s presidency SBTS has been forced to abandon its former scholarly approach to gender issues and instead teach the intellectually flawed works of Grudem et al about this). Later I taught biblical exegesis at the European Training Programme of Wycliffe Bible Translators and SIL International. What I write here is based on what I learned at LBC and taught at ETP, as expanded by myself.

A proper scholarly approach to a Bible passage requires two distinct stages. The first, known as exegesis, is to understand what the original author was trying to say to his or her original audience. Only when this has been clearly established should the interpreter move on the next stage, application to a present day situation. In this part of the series I will look only at exegesis, and will move on to application in a future part.

Gordon Fee has defined exegesis as follows:

Exegesis… answers the question, What did the Biblical author mean? It has to do both with what he said (the content itself), and why he said it at any given point (the literary context). Furthermore, exegesis is primarily concerned with intentionality: What did the author intend his original readers to understand? (New Testament Exegesis, p.21)

The essential steps in doing exegesis are first to identify the problems, then to find out the facts about these problems, then to make the right choices. The following step by step procedure for exegesis is adapted from Fee’s New Testament Exegesis:

1. Get an overview of the whole document: survey the literary setting of the passage.

2. Examine the communication situation: survey the historical setting of the whole document:

  • Who is the author?
  • Who are the recipients?
  • What is the relationship between them?
  • Where did the recipients live?
  • What historical situation occasioned this writing?

3. Examine the validity of treating the passage as a unit: try to be sure that the passage you have chosen for exegesis is a genuine, self-contained unit.

4. Study and compare different translations of the passage; in particular compare a fairly literal translation (or the original text itself), with a meaning-based modern translation. Look at other translations to see if there are any major differences of interpretation. Comparing translations in this way will alert you to places in the text where it is possible to interpret the meaning in more than one way, or to further implications or nuances of meaning, which might otherwise be overlooked. Try to re-express the meaning of the passage in your own words.

5. Formulate questions listing the points that need to be investigated. This should include a listing of points where the meaning is unclear to you and of any alternative interpretations.

6. Establish the text: are there any alternative textual readings in the passage which affect the meaning of the text? If so, examine the evidence in support of each alternative reading.

7. Identify words for which word studies need to be made and make these word studies, using help from lexicon, concordance and commentaries.

8. Use the bible itself and commentaries and other reference books to look for help in answering the questions you have listed. Through studying commentaries you may also be alerted to further questions that need to be considered.

9. Analyse relationships between words and between larger units, such as clauses, sentences, paragraphs.

10. Study other passages of scripture which may be relevant because

  • they give teaching on the same topic, or
  • (for the Gospels, Kings/Chronicles etc.) they are parallel passages, or
  • they use similar words or expressions and may throw light on the meaning of that expression.

11. Make a decision on those points where alternative interpretations are possible.

12. Make a new version of the passage in your own language expressing the meaning clearly and explicitly.

As this part is already getting rather long, I will leave it here, and in part 4: Exegesis of Titus 1:6 apply these principles to that verse.

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