Exegetical Minimalism

Exegetical Minimalism

by Bob Burridge ©2018

A careful study of what the Bible teaches should be governed by what I call “exegetical minimalism“. Exegesis is when we study to bring out the meaning of a biblical passage. The goal is to look at each passage of Scripture to determine what it says and what it does not say. There are times when we read a verse in the Bible that overlook something it’s telling us. It’s also easy to read things into biblical passages that are not actually there. We all have certain assumptions about what is true and what we assume the Bible teaches. We need to be cautious that we avoid confusing what the passage is actually telling us with what we might expect it to say. We must not expand upon what the Bible says to elevate our own ideas and theological models to make them become a standard of truth.

There is a three-level method
we should use as we read God’s word.

1. First we need to know the meaning of the words the author was led by the Holy Spirit to use. Most readers are not familiar with the original languages of the books of Scripture. The Old Testament was written in Hebrew with some extended portions in Aramaic. The New Testament was written in an ancient form of Greek called Koine. To overcome this language problem God in his providence has provided us with many translations in our modern languages.

One of the problems is that the words we use in our modern languages don’t always exactly reflect the meaning of the words they translate. There are many translations, dictionaries, lexicons, and commentaries which attempt to show the meaning of the original words. A simple comparison of these good tools shows that they don’t all agree. The translators and authors of the dictionaries, lexicons, and commentaries often have doctrinal assumptions which color their understanding of the original meanings of the words. Where they differ we need to study into why they are not in agreement. Good commentaries will often give an honest explanation about why these differences occur.

Another concern is the form of the words as they appear in the original text. Nouns, verbs, adverbs, and adjectives often appear in different forms which effect their meaning. The “tense” of a verb shows what kind of action is being described and when it takes place. Hebrew, Greek, and English have different kinds of tenses which makes some sentences hard to translate. Unlike English, the grammatical form of nouns in these ancient languages often show how they flow in the sentence, and how they fit with other words. Adjectives are written in a form that shows what word or words they are modifying. The whole syntax of the sentence needs to be considered in a way similar to the way we diagrammed sentences when we were taking grammar classes in school.

To deal with these issues, it’s helpful to compare several of the more “literal” translations of the Bible, and compare the meanings of the words as they are presented in several of the more scholarly dictionaries, lexicons, and commentaries.

2. Second we need to know the passage’s place in history. It’s important to know what had already been revealed by God to those reading the original text. Is it referring to things before God’s summary of his law through Moses? before the words of the Old Testament Prophets? after the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ? God’s truth was revealed progressively and each time the readers would only know what had been already revealed before their time. The issues being discussed in the text had to do with what the readers were dealing with and going through when it was written. For example, it would be wrong to read the commandment of God through Moses for the people to make animal sacrifices and apply that to the churches after the death and resurrection of Jesus. Knowing where the book fits into the history of God’s work of redemption is important in helping us apply it properly.

It’s also important to know how words and expressions were being used commonly at the time the passage was written. Expressions change as culture and customs change. Their meaning is often colored by current or past historical events and the politics of the time. Knowing how the original readers would have understood the idioms and expressions in their time and place is very important.

3. Third we need to know the context of the passage we are studying. We need to know what the author was dealing with at the moment, and what he says before and after the verses we are trying to understand. We also need to consider what God revealed concerning the same topic in other books of the Bible. Care must be taken to avoid putting verses together which when taken out of context seem to be addressing the same issue, but their context shows they are dealing with different things.

Our conclusions about each text
must be limited to what it actually says.

This is where the “minimalism” comes in. We should be careful not to introduce ideas that come from our expectations of a text. There is always the danger of bringing in our theological assumptions rather than building our theology from what is directly stated.

Some of the things people have been taught as “biblical” are not directly stated in the Bible. We should be careful not to bring such things into the verses we read in God’s word. What we personally observe in the world around us is effected by our own opinions and feelings, so they are not factors that should be used in interpreting the Bible. Our own experiences and attempts to reason things out should be examined in light of what the Bible states directly or by what is necessarily derived from what the Scriptures say. The process must not be reversed to color the passages we read by what we assume or have been told.

The Bible sets truth boundaries when we carefully interpret each passage by what it directly states. Somethings are not explained directly in the Bible so there is room within those boundaries for sound believers to hold different views. But those views should never defy the direct boundaries of truth set by God’s word. We also need to avoid raising our theories which lie within those boundaries to let them become credal statements that bind our conscience and define what true Christianity is. What we can’t demonstrate from the text of Scripture alone must not be made into new boundaries of truth.

This is the “Reformed Approach” to understanding the Bible. The goal is to re-form what we believe so that it fits with the form given to us in the Bible when carefully interpreted.

(Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.)

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