Monday, June 13, 2005

Exegetical Foundations

One of the preliminary activities we must perform before we engage the meaning of the text of Scripure is to determine how the text reads. I'm not here referring to text-critical issues, according to which we determine whether to adopt variant reading A or variant reading B (or, in some cases, C, D, E, F, and G) out of a list of options. What I'm referring to here is learning to read the undisputed text in the way the author wrote it. The original NT writings contained no chapter division, no verse divisions, no punctuation; indeed, no spaces between words. Now, the task of reading it without spaces or punctuation is not quite as daunting as it might at first appear. Take for example the following English statement:


In spite of the fact that there are no spaces between words, it's relatively easy to mark off where those spaces should go. This is, by and large, just what we find in the NT text. But in some instances, it's not quite so easy. Take the following statement:


Does this statement say "There, vision is blurred"? Or does it say "The revision is blurred"? What you finally choose may very well end up influencing how you interpret the larger text, or the theological position it presumes to support. Now imagine this problem is magnified by the presence of these kinds of decisions in a paragraph rather than a short sentence. Look at the following English example and see if you can determine where to put spaces and punctuation before continuing this article:


Now let me reproduce that paragraph and mark off (in red) those places that require special exegetical attention:


Some exegetical questions we might ask about the text include: (1) Is the student doing the "looking," or is it the horse doing the looking? How exactly should we punctuate this part of the paragraph? As "horse. Looking," "horse looking," or "horse, looking"? Do we read "looking up to the heavens, he" or rather "looking up to the heaven, she"? Do we read "having read the books, he proclaimed," or do we read "having read the book, she proclaimed"? And finally, does the text say "God is nowhere to be found," or does it say "God is now here to be found"?

We encounter this kind of thing when we do exegesis. Sometimes it's a matter of whether a Greek phrase is one word or two, while other times it's a matter of where one thought ends and the next thought begins. As an example of the latter, take 2 Peter 1:19-20:

"So we have the prophetic word made more sure, to which you do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place until the day dawns and the morning star arises in your hearts knowing this first of all that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation"

I've removed the punctuation so you can see how this reads without it. Now, as you read this passage don't go through undue trouble looking for an example of ambiguity of words (such as we saw in the example above; "books he" or "book she"?). The ambiguity here is just where one paragraph ends and the next one begins, and to which paragraph the phrase "in your hearts" goes. Does the text read this way:

Paragraph 1: "until the day dawns and the morning star arises in your hearts"
Paragraph 2: "knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation"?

Or should it read this way:
Paragraph 1: "until the day dawns and the morning star arises"
Paragraph 2: "in your hearts knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation"?

There is nothing in the text itself that would favor one option over the other. In this case it comes down to what makes the best sense contextually and theologically. The passage is a poetic reference to the parousia (the "coming" of Christ). That much is clear from Peter's exhortation to pay attention to the Scriptures "until" that time. If this is not a reference to Christ's coming then Peter is telling us to pay attention to Scripture only until some other event has occured. What that would be apart from Christ's coming is difficult to imagine.

Christ is the "morning star" and his coming is cast in terms of his "arising." But does Christ at his coming "arise" ("appear") merely "in our hearts," or does he physically appear? It's difficult to know just what it would mean that he "arises in our hearts" at his parousia--not to mention the potential fodder this interpretation has for those who prefer not to believe in a literal coming of Christ. The second option has the advantage of leaving the literal nature of the coming of Christ intact, while fitting nicely with Peter's exhortation to "know this first."

An example of a word ambiguity may be found in 2 Thess 2:13. Does the text read this way:

"But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers loved by the Lord, because God chose you from the beginning to be saved"

. . . Or this way:

"But we must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the first fruits for salvation"?

The italicized phrase in each option above represents the options for the Greek word aparchen. Since there are no spaces between words in the original text the question becomes, Did the NT writer pen one word (aparchen = "first fruits") or two words (ap' archen = "from the beginning")? I favor the latter, and so does the NIV, NASB, RSV and KJV. However the former option has been adopted by the NRSV, NLT, TEV, and of course all living Arminians!

The point is, sometimes the Greek is ambiguous. But ignoring the ambiguities does not get rid of them. We must give due exegetical diligence to the preliminary questions regarding the text before preceeding to the meaning of the text. All this is part of the exegetical process.