Exegesis

A Greek word meaning "narration" or "explanation." The noun exegesis does not appear in NT, but the verb exegeomai, "to lead out of," is found once in John, once in Luke, and four times in Acts. John 1:18 tells us that "the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared [exegeted] him." The disciples who met the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus exegeted the events to the other disciples (Luke 24:35). Cornelius exegeted his vision to the servants whom he sent to Peter (Acts 10:8). Paul and Barnabas exegeted to the Jerusalem council the significance of the miracles and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles (Acts 15:12). Peter exegeted to the same gathering God's first outreach to the Gentiles through his ministry (Acts 15:14). Finally, Paul exegeted to James and the Jerusalem elders "particularly," that is, in detail, what God had done through him among the Gentiles (Acts 21:19).

From all this it is clear that exegesis is an explanation. It is closely related to hermeneutics,* the science of interpretation. In the NT hermeneuo and its cognates often mean "to translate" (see, e.g., Matt. 1:23). But diermeneuo means "to expound" (Luke 24:27). In the NT, therefore, exegesis is the explanation and hermeneutics is the exposition of a given text. Theologically, exegesis establishes the meaning of particular statements or passages; hermeneutics has to do with the principles and scheme of interpretation. "Hermeneutics may be regarded as the theory that guides exegesis; exegesis may be understood … to be the practice of and the set of procedures for discovering the author's intended meaning" (Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Toward an Exegetical Theology, p. 47). Thus, by yielding an understanding of the language, grammar, and syntax of a passage, exegesis provides a solid basis for exposition and application.

This means that exegesis must never deviate from confronting the text of Scripture to determine what it says and means. The historic Protestant principle of exegesis is that the text of Scripture has one sense, so that it is the job of the exegete to uncover what the writer meant when he wrote the passage under examination. Nowadays, it is popular to speak of meanings, plural. Some interpreters dismiss the traditional Protestant emphasis on understanding what the writer intended to convey as "the intentional fallacy." Some include audience reaction in the meaning of a passage. Others include a discourse meaning, which is the meaning that specialists in the fields of history and linguistics are able to discover. Having established various levels of meaning, these interpreters still have the job of discovering which is the authoritative meaning, if indeed it is possible to speak of such a meaning.

Those who contend for multi-layered meanings effectively abandon exegesis and descend to eisegesis, "a reading into" the text of what the reader wishes it to mean. "This new system would have us understand a text not in terms of its syntactical or semantic structures, but in the variety of ways in which that text is 'actualized' in our minds. To state it briefly, we are instructed that we should be reading ourselves as much as the text. Thus, all efforts to find the 'real or single meaning' are considered fruitless for most moderns, since in their view, texts generate a variety of meaning structures. Some of these meaning structures may be Jungian, Freudian, Structuralist, deep-structure, or what have you" (Kaiser, op. cit., p. 46).

To deal honestly and reverently with Scripture we must adopt the historic Protestant emphasis on the intention of the writer of a Scripture passage. "What saith the Scriptures?" must be our watchword as we prepare to expound God's word. We must maintain this not only against learned liberal interpreters but also against an apparently spiritual, but actually infidel, mindset that is alarmingly popular in some evangelical circles. Scholars speak of this mindset as an emphasis on the reader response over the author's intent. We may call it the "what-this-text-says-to-me" school of interpretation. It has little or no interest in the grammatical meaning or intended significance of a text, simply in what "it says to me," even if that is not even remotely connected with the writer's intention. Again, we must guard the role of exegesis against unwarranted spiritualizing of the text. Any application of Scripture that does not flow from what the inspired writer intended provides no Scriptural basis for belief or action. Our method must be explanation that leads to meditation that leads to application. Only in this way can we be sure that we are obedient to Scripture in belief and practice.

Cairns, A. (2002). In Dictionary of Theological Terms (pp. 171–172). Belfast; Greenville, SC: Ambassador Emerald International.

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