Chapter One Exegetical Tools:
Grammatical-Historical Method

I began this book by promising a "how-to" guide for ministry, one that would result in really useful theology. But so far, what I've mainly given you is definition and foundation. We've said that biblical theology is not merely theology that finds its source in the Bible, but a theology that attempts to make sense of the Bible as a whole. We've also said that the Bible is not just a collection of inspired religious books written by various prophets and apostles, but that it's a single story, a coherent narrative of the redemptive acts of God. This single story has God as its author, its primary actor, and its center, and the climax of this story is the glory of God in salvation through judgment. And yet, it is an emphatically practical story, since it encompasses the humble realities that define each of our lives.

But with this chapter, I mean to begin to make good on my promise of practical help. After all, as soon as we define the Bible as we have, we are confronted with a problem. How can we be sure that we're reading and understanding the story correctly? For that matter, how can we be sure that we're reading and understanding the various parts of the story correctly? Let's set aside for a moment the incredible idea that we could understand the mind and purposes and, therefore, the Word of God. How can we be confident that we can accurately understand the words of a Hebrew prophet living and writing three thousand years ago? Aren't words, human words, much less divine words, incredibly slippery and malleable? Isn't the meaning of a text an incredibly subjective idea? I mean, unless an author is present to tell us what he meant, who's to say that one interpretation of a text is better or more accurate or more faithful or more meaningful than another?

I'm going to consider below some of the technical aspects of this problem, but let me start by illustrating this in a context where many of us operate every week: youth ministry. Every Wednesday morning, I lead the sixth grade boys' devotions at my children's school. We're slowly working our way through the Gospel of Mark. To keep them engaged, as well as to teach them how to study the Bible on their own, I don't teach a lesson. Instead I ask them to read the passage out loud, and then I ask them questions about the text they just read. Almost all of my questions can be answered from the text itself, or the immediate context. They are not always easy questions, but they are always questions that arise from the passage we read.

The boys are bright, motivated, talkative, and happy to be there. They go through similar exercises in their literature class, so they're familiar with the process. But every Wednesday morning, several boys will quickly blurt out answers without even really looking at the text. These quick answers invariably fall into one of several categories. There's the Sunday school answer—whatever the question, the answer must be Jesus, the cross, sin, or some combination of them all. There's the "I heard my pastor/parent/Sunday school teacher say ..." answer. This really isn't an answer at all, but an appeal to authority so they don't have to personally think about it. But the most common answer by far always begins, "I think it means ..." When I respond to this answer by asking them to show where their idea came from in the text, as often as not I get a blank stare or a confused mumble, as if I've just asked them something crazy, like which sixth grade girl they like best! By sixth grade, many of them have decidedly, if unconsciously, adopted the attitude that the meaning of religious texts is a profoundly private affair that needs no further justification than their own sincerely held belief. If this is the case in sixth grade morning devotions, it is even more the case in the small group Bible studies populated by the adults of your church and mine.

The Problem of Meaning

If you're at all familiar with current discussions of theories of interpretation, what scholars call "hermeneutics," you'll know that, these days, many are quite skeptical about our ability to know with any precision what an author meant when he wrote something, unless we have direct access to that author. Distance and discontinuity between author and reader in language and culture, historical context and even personal experiences, it is said, effectively cut the reader off from knowing objectively and certainly what the author meant. For some, that's caused a real crisis. For others, it's been cause for celebration. For them, the loss of what we call the "author's original intent" means that finally we can be honest in our reading and acknowledge that we use texts for our own purposes, to mean what we want them to mean.

Meaning now no longer needs to be cleverly and dishonestly attached to the author's mind, but can simply be the meaning that the reading community finds there. What meaning do they find? They find the meaning that they need, the meaning that they want, the meaning that seems reasonable in light of their own context. In effect, this modern approach to interpretation, based on the supposed inaccessibility of the author's intent, means that there is no such thing as an authoritative text or interpretation, only an authoritative community. For thousands of years, societies have served texts, both sacred and political, usually to the benefit of those in power and to the detriment of minorities and the oppressed. Now, with what is known as the hermeneutical turn, there has been a great liberation. We don't serve texts anymore. The text serves us.

Now, of course, there are some areas where this idea has not caught on. Most parties to written contracts want to insist that the contract has a stable and accessible meaning. But in other areas of law, especially constitutional law, as well as politics more generally, ethics and religion, and especially modern pop culture, this way of thinking, known as postmodernism, has taken hold with a vengeance and breathed a new and dangerous life into old fashioned relativism.

All of this brings me back to the question I posed earlier. If the Bible is a story with God as its author, but a story whose component parts are texts written by people in different languages, cultures, and historical periods, how can we be sure that we're reading the story correctly? Is there even such a thing as a correct reading?

In fact, there is such a thing as a correct meaning of a text, precisely because God, who created this world, our brains, and thus our ability to use language, is himself a speaking God. It was God who created rationality and language so that language could accurately convey meaning from one mind to another mind. And he himself proved this not only by acting in history, but also by condescending to use human language to authoritatively explain and interpret his own actions. We see this again and again on the pages of Scripture—God not only sends the ten plagues against Egypt, he speaks to Moses and Aaron explaining what he is doing. God not only parts the Red Sea, he speaks and explains what he's about to do and why. God not only makes Israel into a nation, he speaks audibly to the whole nation from Mount Sinai, telling them so.

I could continue to multiply examples, but perhaps most telling is the incarnation of Christ himself. When God decided to definitively reveal himself once and for all, he didn't send angels or miraculous signs and wonders in the sky. He became a man and spoke to us in a language that people could understand. As the author to the Hebrews put it, "In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son" (Heb. 1:1-2). And to make absolutely clear that we should listen to his Son, not once but twice God spoke from heaven, first at Jesus' baptism, and then again at his transfiguration. This is the conclusion Peter drew:

We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased." We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain. And we have the word of the prophets made more certain, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. (2 Peter 1:16-19)

What this means is that words, when placed in sentences and paragraphs, convey meaning. And not just any meaning. They convey the meaning of the author who constructed the sentence and the paragraph, as a reflection of his authorial intent. As readers of words, and particularly as readers of God's Word, our obligation—and privilege—is to read in such a way as to recover and understand the meaning the author wanted to communicate.

Now of course, you read this way all the time, every day of your life. When you pick up a newspaper or magazine article, your goal is not to read your own ideas into the story. You're trying to understand what the person is saying. You may go on to reject it or be inspired by it. You may think it was well-written or poorly written. You might think of all sorts of application for your newfound knowledge that the author hadn't considered at all. But regardless of what you do with what you've read, the first thing you do, quite naturally, is look for the author's original intent. And when you do that, you are engaged in the process of exegesis.

Exegesis is the disciplined attempt to lead out of a text the author's original intent, rather than my own preference or experience or opinion. Jerome, who knew Greek and Hebrew long after most people had forgotten both and could only read Latin, put it this way in the late fourth century: "The office of a commentator is to set forth not what he himself would prefer, but what his author says."

So all of you, every day, are exegetes of the texts you read, from recipes to instruction manuals, from Sports Illustrated to your favorite blog. You're also exegetes of Scripture. Yet while exegeting the newspaper is nearly automatic, since it's written in our own language and culture, exegeting Scripture requires a more conscious approach. It's written in other languages and at other times, and so we must take even greater care not to misread it. What we're going to do in the rest of this chapter, first, is to look at the method of exegesis known as the grammatical-historical method. Second, we'll provide a brief overview of the various literary forms or genres that make up the Bible. And third, we'll examine how we apply our method to those various genres.

Grammatical-Historical Method

The basic method of exegesis that we use to determine an author's original intent has come to be known as the grammatical-historical method. John Owen described it this way:

There is no other sense in it [Scripture] than what is contained in the words whereof materially it doth consist... In the interpretation of the mind of anyone, it is necessary that the words he speaks or writes be rightly understood; and this we cannot do immediately unless we understand the language wherein he speaks... the [idiom] of that language, with the common use of and intention of its... expressions.

Discerning the meaning of the text in this way immediately plunges us into an exploration and study of the grammar, syntax, and literary and historical context of the words we're reading—thus the phrase: grammatical-historical method.

Now in discovering the author's original intent, we need to avoid what is known as the "intentional fallacy." That's the idea that through the text, we can somehow get beyond the text into the thought world, feelings, and unexpressed intentions of the author. In fact, we don't have access to the author's psyche or motives, unless he explicitly expresses those things through his words. The mind, and therefore the meaning, that we have access to is the expressed mind, the mind that has revealed itself through the words on the page.

However, in focusing on words, we have to recognize that words, by themselves, don't mean anything in particular. We may know that the word "ball" has a range of possible meanings, but until I put the word "ball" into a sentence, and then that sentence into a paragraph, you can't be certain what I mean by the word. For example, think about at what point the meaning of the word "ball" becomes unambiguous in the following paragraph:

We had a ball. Everyone came in their fanciest clothes and danced the night away. But since Cinderella didn't attend, we were disappointed.

In fact, it's not until the final word of the last sentence that the precise meaning of "ball" becomes clear. Up until that point, it could have meant a "sphere you bounce" or "a really good time." But with the word "disappointed" you know for certain that ball meant "fancy party." So the basic unit of meaning is not the word, but the sentence. And the unit that determines what sentences mean, and therefore the words in them, is the paragraph.

This means that the primary question that the historical-grammatical method is seeking to answer is not, "What does that word mean?" but "What does that sentence mean?" In answering that question, we quickly realize that context is king. So the first step of exegesis is to read the text, the whole text, over and over again. Interpretation actually begins with the whole, not the part. Then, in the context of the whole, we work backwards through the parts, back to sentences, back all the way down to individual words. What we learn and discover there then takes us back to the whole with a more accurate and perhaps nuanced understanding of meaning.

Grammatical

All of this begins with a basic grammatical and structural analysis of the text.

Feeling overwhelmed? Be encouraged. For each of these steps, all that's really needed is patient reading and a basic understanding of grammar and logic. No commentaries are required at this point!

Historical

Next, how do the various larger contexts inform your understanding of the meaning of the text?

Now unless you're a full-time Bible scholar, most of these sorts of issues won't be in your category of general knowledge. Here's where commentaries, Bible dictionaries, encyclopedias, and atlases are extremely helpful.

Biblical

Finally, perhaps the most important contextual question is how this text relates to the rest of Scripture. I'm going to spend more time on this in a later chapter, but suffice it to say that if the text quotes, alludes to, or resembles another part of the Bible, that's significant for our understanding of what the author was intending to communicate.