Exegesis: The Importance of Doing it Well

          Just before the election on California’s Proposition 8, a man’s use of Scripture in an emotionally charged conversation caught my attention.  Biblical passages were memorized and cited, lending believability and authority to the man’s argument.  Yet, while others were awestruck, I found myself questioning his exegesis, that is, his process of interpreting a passage of Scripture.  Although this man also argued for the inerrancy of God’s Word that day, he has became, in my opinion, an example of the “ignorant and unstable” person twisting scripture (2 Peter 3:16) as he failed to overcome the subjective factors influencing his thinking.  Even worse is the likely damage he did to the biblical understanding of the unbelievers he was arguing with.

            The acquaintance, let’s call him Bill, was using passages from 2 Samuel chapters 18 and 20, as well as 1 Samuel to suggest that God takes no issue whatsoever with homosexuality because God approved of David, who Bill argued, “was clearly a homosexual.”  Bill zeroed in on Jonathan’s “love” for David and David’s “love” for Jonathan.  Ratcheting up his argument, he quoted the last half of 2 Samuel 1:26, “your love to me was extraordinary, surpassing the love of women” [ESV]. Despite how one might feel about homosexuality, gay marriage, or California’s Proposition 8, we should not allow these feelings to mask the poor exegesis of the Second Samuel passages he used.  We should also realize that his interpretation was relying strictly on the English word that represented the original Hebrew word.  And he read modern concepts and meaning (loaded with ideas from present culture) into a text that was speaking to an audience with a different understanding of these concepts and word meanings.

            Bill is an openly gay man who attends a church body that holds to a confession similar to Bill’s argument.  Bill’s pastor is also openly gay, as are most of the men and women of Bill’s local church congregation.  While it is not my point to identify the specific incorrectness of Bill’s exegesis of these passages (or his confession), it is easy to see that Bill’s statements rest comfortably in the subjective factors of his own background, political ideology, and congregational culture.

            After Bill finished and the non-believers moved on, I asked Bill how he reconciled this belief with other scriptures found throughout the Bible.  His response—focusing mainly around an argument that the Old Testament was written before Pentecost, without the Holy Spirit’s assistance, and that Paul’s statements were simply Paul’s own opinions—left me thoroughly confused about how Bill could still argue for the inerrancy of Scripture.  Clearly, Bill’s exegetical methodology was not good and probably detrimental to his own faith.  Even more troubling was how damaging his interpretation of specific scripture might have been to the non-believer’s understanding of the books of Samuel, the Gospel of Christ, or how Christians approach the Bible.          

It is easy to use Bill’s methods as an example of poor exegesis given how far outside of generally accepted orthodoxy his arguments are; however, I have a log in my own eye.  In the same manor as Bill, quoting scripture and trying to sound smart, I have argued for or against doctrines or interpretations with other well-intentioned, knowledgeable Christians.  Even within the Church, many interpretations come to different conclusions, often from the same scripture.  Whether the issue is election, essentials of salvation, Spiritual gifts, end-times, or any of the other various debatable doctrines, it is the difference in how we do exegesis that brings about so many opposing positions.   

            Despite how much thoughtful effort is put into the various opposing interpretations, to the new believer, someone who has been walking with Christ for 30 years, and especially the non-believer, just the fact that our exegesis leads to different ideas can be troubling.  At times, an individual’s exegesis concludes with misguided or incorrect beliefs that often have a tendency to distract the believer from the more important issues of the biblical message.  Failing to overcome subjective factors, that is, doing exegesis through our own lenses rather than a Spirit-led illumination of God’s Word is often the cause that leads to many conversations like Bill’s.  It is important we take our exegetical methodology (or hermeneutics) seriously.  This is something that takes practice, a dedication to the study of the Word of God, and a community that will help shepherd us as go.  

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