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The Role of an Exegete

The following except is taken from Interpreting the New Testament Text (Darrel Bock and Buist Fanning eds. (Crossway, 2006), p. 156). David Lowery, New Testament professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, writes about the importance of validating our studies. I don’t think I have ever read a finer exhortation concerning the integrity we must possess when pursuing truth. While this is written specifically to exegetes (those who interpret Scripture), it applies to those who seek truth in any area of study. Please read it carefully.

“This process may be better understood by clarifying what it is not. It is not a matter of coming to a conclusion about the interpretation in question at the beginning of the process and arguing the case for that point of view by citing the data that seems supportive of it. In other words, an exegete is not an advocate, like a lawyer representing a client. A good lawyer will try to put his client and his case in the best possible light. He knows what conclusion he wants to reach before the trial begins and will seek to discount (or exclude) the relevance of any data that may prove problematic for winning agreement on the point of view he is putting forward.

Most of us would welcome a lawyer like this arguing our case in a trial. However, many biblical interpreters are confused about their proper role, and function for all practical purposes like lawyers arguing a point of view. They decide at the beginning of the process what view they regard as most compatible with their theological or ecclesiastical or personal conviction and then work to demonstrate the reasonableness of this interpretation against all competing interpretations. If certain data are problematic for their interpretation, they are ignored or discounted. It is a regrettable fact that many sincere (though misguided) people carry out research and writing as theological lawyers rather than biblical interpreters. Please do not be one of them

I hesitate to belabor this point but want to say as clearly as possible that manipulating the data of the text to support a particular point of view is not authentic exegesis or interpretation, and it is not validation that has any integrity of method associated with it. When you as a researcher detect this bogus approach to exegesis in the writing you are reading (or the lecture you are hearing), regard it as the wishful thinking of its author that it is. If you own writing of this sort, the only reason to read it is as an example of what not to do (libraries, by virtue of their role, routinely find shelf space for work of this sort and must be excused). Let no one say of you that you made up your mind about your conclusion before you started the process of validation. Instead, aim to follow the data to the most probable conclusion. Practice integrity of method. Your conclusion may be unsettling to you and may create more than a little personal tension (a circumstance that may never be resolved for some issues: welcome to life in an imperfect world). But you (and those you minister to) will be better for it if you treat the data with integrity (and you will not be a phony exegete).”

11 Responses to “The Role of an Exegete”

  1. Isn’t this some of the tension between biblical scholarship and systematic theology?

    Also, how does this work in cross-disciplines, such as theology and science?

    I am hearing some church leaders accept evolution, but stop at denying a historic Adam. However, their reasoning seems suspect.

  2. So – to sum it up – don’t come to a conclusion that the evidence doesn’t warrant? That’s nice and all – but there is worth that comes from the strivings of passionate advocates – because they have believed first, either due to insight or delusion – they can dig deeper spurred on by their enthusiasm / quest for supporting evidence – that they might actually uncover something of value that contributes back to the argument (either evidence or lack there of ;) ). Advocates are just as valuable to truth as heretics are to orthodoxy. ;)

  3. Michael good stuff! As I was reading the article two things came to mind: 1 We must be honest and, 2 We must be informed at how to properly exegete. We as the Church should love truth enough to be open and honest in our exegesis of the Scripture—and have the attitude of ” who cares” if I was wrong; as long as I found the truth that God has spoken, oh, the wiley serpent’s posion of pride, how it gets in the way.

  4. The Biblical Text itself, calls for the biblical exegete, “in spirit and truth”!

  5. This is all fine and good, but we must be careful to not overstate the case. If I’m a Christian in Thessalonica in the first century and receive a copy of 2 Thessalonians from Paul, should it be part of my method to set aside the theology Paul had taught me in order to objectively understand the text? Or am I actually expected by the author of the text itself to bring my theology to the text to understand it rightly? (“Do you not remember that while I was still with you, I was telling you these things?” [2 Thes. 2:5]). My point: Part of the author’s intent (how the text was meant to be read) was that readers would bring to the text the basic Christian confession as the starting point. I don’t think that’s a disputable assertion. So within the theological orientation of the apostolic kerygma, the exegetical method described above makes perfect sense. Without that theological context, the method itself would deviate from the authorial intent.

  6. @Michael J. Svigel, I agree. Perpetual agnostic exegesis is just as if not more dangerous. “For among them are those who creep into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions,” 2 Timothy 3:6, 1 Corinthians 2:14

  7. Sorry NOT Tim 3:6. I meant 2 Tim 3:7
    “always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth.”

  8. Thanks. There is a true, necessary, healthy, and fruitful theological matrix within which to practice an honest exegesis.

  9. @CMP, I would buy this book through “Reclaiming the Mind Ministries Bookstore” if you have the option for the Kindle format.

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