I recently re-read an old text I read years ago entitled, Explorations In Exegetical Method: Galatians As A Test Case by Moisés Silva – Grand Rapids, Baker, 1996. It is now available as Interpreting Galatians: Explorations In Exegetical Method. (As best I can tell, the pages I am about to work from are still in the current edition.)
The one thing I really admire and enjoy about Silva’s work is his candid approach and his ability to mellow out the rough edges often produced in academia, in this case, specifically regarding exegesis. He has an intriguing ability to “pull back the curtain and reveal the Wizard” while still valuing the process of academic study of the Bible.
However, one set of comments struck me as particularly unsatisfactory.
In the Epilogue: Reader and Relevance, Silva is outlining the relationship of exegesis and systematic theology and makes the following claim:
…my systematic theology should actually inform my exegesis…my theological system should tell me how to exegete..[this is] indeed the only real option. (207)
Here I think he has gotten the cart before the horse. In fact, compare what he wrote to the definition of the word eisegesis:
- an interpretation, especially of Scripture, that expresses the interpreter’s own ideas, bias, or the like, rather than the meaning of the text.
One’s theology is based upon interpretation (good or bad) of the necessary events, communication and texts. As such, a theologian (and that covers anyone from novice to professional who intends to utilize or put into practice what they read in the scriptures) formulates and systematizes his or her ideas based upon their understanding of what they have seen, what they have been told and what they have read. Additionally, one’s culture, experiences and proclivities further dictate the conclusions made. All of this allows them to form their belief system, their theology, for better or for worse.
Silva gives three reasons in defense of his statement above (pgs. 208-210):
1. Systematic theology is the attempt to reformulate the teaching of Scripture in ways that are meaningful and understandable to us in our present context…the very process of organizing the biblical data – to say nothing of the use of a different language in a different cultural setting – brings to bear the theologian’s own context.
2. Our evangelical view of the unity of Scripture demands that we see the whole Bible as the context of any one part…the whole of Scripture as having come from one Author, therefore, to that extent a systematic understanding of the Bible contributes to the exegesis of individual passages.
3. Everyone does it anyway. Whether we mean to or not, and whether we like it or not, all of us read the text as interpreted by our own theological presuppositions.
As I have already stated, my biggest problem with Silva’s first statement is that he has placed the cart before the horse. If we consciously bring our theological grid to the table, we will force what we read through that grid. A classic example of this is the debate around Romans 1:16-17:
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “BUT THE RIGHTEOUS man SHALL LIVE BY FAITH.” (NASB)
The typical historic protestant interpretation of this takes faith as that of the individual, and consequently, the rest of the letter is interpreted with a view to “the human predicament” as Stendahl rightly observes in Paul Among Jews and Gentiles. So, just as Silva describes it, everyone keeps following that same trail of viewing Romans as dealing with the grand theological and protestant scheme of the fall of man and God’s answer to that theological problem. Have you heard of The Romans Road? This is a classic example, but I digress.
In comparison, here is my translation of Romans 1:16-17:
For I am not ashamed of the good news, for it is the power of God, saving everyone who believes – “both the Jew first and the Greek.” For in it the righteousness of God is revealed though faithfulness to the faithful, as it has been written, “The righteous One by faith will live.”
I offer this simply as an example of a different view, and there are many others. Here, I am considering that Paul did not intend to write “The Romans Road” but instead, to quote Stendahl, “Paul is seeking clarification, understanding and support.” (Final Account, pg. 13)
All this to say that I believe that while it is true that we all “bring our theological baggage to the table” to paraphrase Silva, it is important to not simply accept this and run with it, but to expand our horizons by asking quite simply what this meant to the original audience. In doing so, we set aside our predisposed theology as much as possible in order to gain insight and understanding that we have not previously or already taken hold of or appropriated.
Silva’s second statement is a perfect illustration of his first. He brings his “evangelical view of the unity of Scripture” to the table quite forcefully , as he states that this theological grid “demands” the unity of Scripture, that it came from “one Author” – God.
While I understand that God inspired scripture, I don’t know that this demands that we force all of the authors experiences written over hundreds and hundreds of years and all of the different literary genres into one pre-determined mold. Doing so simply makes more of a statement about our enlightenment heritage than it gives credence to the original setting and storyline of the texts in the Bible. In short, Silva, and many evangelicals, have swung too far to the right on this interpretive pendulum and are seeking to grasp a comfort that is literarily and historically unattainable.
We can hold lightly to the fact that all of scripture reveals God’s desire to relate to us without having to use this theme as a rigid guide to interpreting scripture. In doing so, we are able to see more objectively what these texts say and how they relate o us today.
Silva’s third point is classic! The first thing I thought was that old saying we probably all heard as kids,
If Jimmy jumped off of a cliff would you?
Simply stating that everyone does it is lame – pure and simple. So, just because everyone does it we can too? I don’t see how this lemming mentality makes for a strong case. In fact, it basically allows for a status quo interpretation. Well, what if the popular interpretation is lacking? What if it is completely wrong?
Yes, we all bring our “theologies” to the table. So what! Learn to set them aside and think more objectively. See what others have to say, yes, even those who you disagree with. Then return to the table, compare it to your own system and make good adjustments based on good interpretive principles.
In short, don’t be afraid to think outside the box because that is exactly what most of the writers of scripture were in fact doing – challenging their current beliefs and ideologies.