By: Seth Bartley
At this time site administrator, Minister Raymond Harris, is conducting a study of the major theological perspectives and how they affect the understanding of those who study the Scriptures. It occurred to me that this may be a fine opportunity for a, much abbreviated, study on the different exegetical methodologies developed and used by those same students of the Scriptures.
I will not be investigating the exegetical method used by the first century believers at this time. That is a subject extensive enough to warrant an article all its own. Furthermore, it exposes certain… theological sensitivities which would require a more deft hand than I am capable of offering in this setting. For now, I wish to remain confined to Modern/Post-modern Exegetical methods.
What exactly does ‘exegetical methodology’ mean?
Exegesis translated literally from the Greek means ‘to lead out’. It is the technical term meaning the careful investigation of a text in order to discern it meaning. The text, in this case, is the Scriptures.
How many exegetical methods are there and what are they?
Please recognize that my intent is not to present any of the following as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. I simply wish to objectively distinguish and identify them to the best of my ability. Each method can be beneficial if used properly and, of course, detrimental if abused.
Also, this is by no means an exhaustive list. As with every scholarly discipline there are numerous schools of thought and tools which divide into endless sub-groupings for each methodology.
Analytical Approach refers simply to reaching an understanding of Scripture though systematic examination of the text.
Contextual Method—Study method by which students attempt to analyze the meaning of a specific text depending upon the context surrounding it. This context can include literary context (setting topic, audience, ect.) or theological context (Dispensationalism, Cessationism, Covenant Theology).
Historical-Grammatical Method—Approach through which students try to grasp the meanings of the text by attempting to glean precisely what each specific author was intending to communicate to their specific audiences. (This is the most common scholarly process within Christendom today.)
Thematic Method—This method approaches the Scriptures as a single story centered around a single character or theme (e.g. YHWH, the Messiah, Man, the relationship between YHWH and Israel). Interpretations relate the events of the text either directly or indirectly to that primary theme.
Traditional Approach refers to interpreting Scripture either in accordance with traditional investigative methods and/or by intentionally reaching traditionally held conclusions.
Canonical Approach—This approach interprets each biblical text in the light of the Church’s stated theology. Scholars using this method begin with the conclusion (church doctrine) and seek to examine the facets of the Scriptural text from which this conclusion was or is to be supported. This method may more easily be described as the glasses through which readers engage the text. (While Catholics might seek to understand the duties of the Church, those who ascribe to Liberation Theology might look for the victims/oppressors in any given text, Muslims may expect to find references to Muhammad.)
Reliance on Traditions of Interpretation—Many scholars rely on understanding biblical text according to the consistent belief which believers have held over time. It is through this method that inter-denominational groups usually attempt to find common ground.
Historical Reception of the Text—Similar to the approach above, scholars using this method collect a series of interpretations from multiple sources and try to 1) build a consensus, or 2) find a commonality among them in order to reach the greatest insight. The most distinct illustration of this approach is a reader’s heavy use of Scripture commentaries.
Interpretive Approach refers to studying Scripture with a specific goal or topic in mind.
Investigative (Statistical) Approach—This discipline is solely a data gathering mission. (e.g. ‘How many times is the term Law used? How is it used?’)
Interrogative Approach—This method of study focuses on the answer to a specific question or concern. This form is found in most typically bible studies or topical sermons. We begin with a question ‘how is the term Law used in Scripture?’ Beyond the raw data of the investigative method, this approach seeks to find deeper meaning. (e.g. ‘what does it mean that Law is used that way? How does that impact my understandings of Scriptural use of Law?’)
Applicative Approach—The sole concern of this approach is ‘what does it mean to me, today?’ What is Jesus/Peter/Paul trying to communicate to me? What lesson being taught which applies to today? In using our previous example involving a study of the term Law, our concern becomes our personal reaction to our understanding of this new data. (e.g. ‘Does this change my theology? Should I change the way I teach this verse?’)
Why are there so many different methodologies in the first place? Isn’t there just one Bible?
As a general rule, yes.
There is some argument among the major segments of Christianity regarding which books should be considered part of the Bible, but yes one basic Bible.
In regard to the lack of uniformity among methodologies I can only cite an obscure proverb that if there are three people in a room there will be six opinions. It’s human nature for us to branch off and follow every possible road. To our credit it gives us an adventurous spirit to climb a mountain, ‘because it’s there’ and as even some of our own poets have said ‘take the road less traveled.’ (Robert Frost)
Each of us is uniquely woven in own mothers womb and will have a distinct perspective of the Scriptures. This is related to my view regarding Objectivism (see previous article: Introductions). If a scholar uses a Traditional Approach why would we be surprised that he does not obey the rules for an Analytical Approach, or vice-versa? Even with the myriad of styles we do have a stable standard by which to assess any researcher’s conclusions. In short, this means that any scholar using a Traditional Approach must adhere to the rules of that approach if he expects to reach a valid conclusion; we may disagree with him, his conclusion may be wrong, but it would be valid.
Lastly, as touched on earlier, each of these approaches contains specific skills and meets the needs of specific situations. As a small example: It would be inappropriate to use the Applicative Approach in a research paper, there we would wish to see unbiased data. However, it would be equally inappropriate to use the Investigative (Statistical) Approach in a sermon, here we would complete presentations and a call to action for the audience.
Are biblical exegetical methods different than non-biblical study?
Not at all.
The same methods described here apply to all subjects and disciplines. Every area of study uses virtually identical methodologies. For example: the Scientific Method is a type of Traditional Approach in research, as it holds to a traditionally held investigative method. Any conclusion which is reached not using this method is considered invalid.
Furthermore, this article itself displays another form of the Interrogative Approach. I began by seeking the answer to specific questions and concerns and sought to offer deeper reflection on these findings. Specifically the method being utilized here is the Socratic Method which I will be covering in more depth in future articles.
My hope is that this article will provide the reader with a beneficial compliment to the articles concerning theologies currently being studied by site administrator, Minister Raymond Harris.
May the LORD bless you and have a good day.
“The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church,” by the Pontifical Biblical Commission (1993). http://catholic-resources.org/ChurchDocs/PBC_Interp-FullText.htm Accessed: 2011-Jan-28.