Let the Text Question You: Exegesis is Application
- How do I do good exegesis if I don’t know Hebrew or Greek? (Part 1)
- The Best Translation to use for (Public) Exegesis
- Exegetical Inquiry: The Question is more important than the Answer
- Seeing New Things in Old Texts: More Tips for Exegetical Inquiry
- Let the Text Question You: Exegesis is Application
I must confess that I don’t want to write this post. I sat down this morning to see what was next in the queue for the old blog, saw that it was “use the text to probe your own heart and mind,” and then immediately thought “yeah, I don’t want to do that.” I don’t want to write the post, to be sure, but the real issue is I don’t want to read the Bible in a probative, corrective, meditative, introspective, and convicting way.
The Heart of the Matter
The trouble is, if I have not used God’s word to probe my own heart–if I haven’t allowed the text to do its proper work of “teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness”–then I have not truly exegeted the text.
That’s actually a somewhat controversial way of putting the matter. Exegesis is supposed to be about “what the text says.” Exegesis is objective, and the truths encountered in that process are, in principle, true regardless of my personal engagement with them. Personal application, by contrast, is a second and subsequent step, connected to exegesis, but independent of it.
There’s some truth in this way of parsing the process, but consider Paul’s attitude toward the OT: it “was written for our instruction, that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Rom. 15:4). This is particularly striking. The meaning of the text for Paul is not subsumed by the past, nor is it reducible to “what it meant;” rather, it’s true purpose is fulfilled in so far as it impacts the reader. It is for us “upon whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Cor. 10:11). The text has purpose, and the purpose of the text is encouragement, hope, reproof, training, and until it accomplishes those things, it hasn’t yet been truly understood.
In addition to investigating the text, then, we must also use the text to investigate our own heart, mind, and soul. The last several entries in this series have been concerned with asking better questions, and here a new set of questions arises. We need to be questioning ourselves. “Why are you cast down, O my soul” (Ps. 43:5)? “Who do you say that I am” (Mark 8:29)?
This is hard work. It is hard work because it requires us to be perpetually engaged in two types of activities. First, we have to understand the text, but second, we need to use the text to understand ourselves. This second step requires meditation, introspection, and prayer. It requires spiritual discipline and, in fact, the revelation of the Spirit (1 Cor. 1). These skills do not come naturally to us, but they are necessary for biblical understanding.
What should I ask?
What kinds of questions should I be asking? Remember that the text is addressing us as whole persons. God is conforming us to the image of his Son, and he does that by addressing our mind, our heart, and our wills. God wants us to think differently, to “feel” differently, and to act differently. These are helpful categories for self-examination.
- Ask questions about what you believe and think. Are there beliefs that you hold that are contrary to the text? Are there things that the Bible asserts that offend you? Explore that a bit. What is generating the offense? Is it simply that the Bible asserts that proposition A is true, but you believe not-A? Maybe it goes deeper than that. Maybe there’s a whole network of beliefs that you hold that mutually reinforce one another. We Western Evangelical readers tend, for example, to be pretty radically individualistic. We determine our own identity, carve our own path, and naturally resist the intrusion of others when it comes to who we are and what we do. You are who you are in private. The Bible has a very different approach–you are your social relationships. When we read “submit yourself to every human institution” we take offense. We take offense because it is a real challenge to give up my sense of freedom and autonomy. But as we explore the issue more deeply we realize that it also calls into question a whole set of values and beliefs that I’ve never actually questioned. Maybe I’m not my own? Maybe I belong, body and soul, to my Lord Jesus Christ, who is in turn head of the Church, which means that other people get to define who I am and what I do? The text requires me to question what I know, what I believe, and what I value.
- Ask questions about your feelings. Now the word “feelings” is a pretty loose word. A better word might be “affections,” but “feelings” works too, and I like it because it’s so very ordinary. Let’s not over-spiritualize or over-complicate this. How does the text make you feel? Question the disposition of your heart and the delights of your soul. The Psalms are an amazing resource here. I’ll quote Psalm 43:5 again: “why are you cast down O my soul?” I love this verse. The Psalmist is talking to himself, questioning their own emotional state and, in the end, calling the soul to “feel” differently. “Put your hope in God.” That’s not, by the way, the only proper response to feeling “cast down;” Psalm 88 ends with much less hope. The point, though, is that our emotions are important, and that as we consider them through the lens of Scripture we are able to understand, validate, and even change them.
- Ask questions about your motives and actions. The final component of self-analysis is our will. Why do we do what we do? And of course it’s complicated! Take a look at Romans 7. “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not, but what I hate I do not do” (Rom. 7:15). There’s of course a big debate about the precise meaning of Romans 7, but that really doesn’t matter here, for all of the views share this in common: our wills and desires are very mixed up. That doesn’t mean, however, that we can’t make progress. Why did you respond the way you did? Investigate the matter. Your actions are a great way of uncovering our secret idols.
Let the Text Speak
“He who has ears, let him hear” (Rev. 2-3). The text has a purpose. When God speaks, he is accomplishing something in our minds, our hearts, and our wills. On the one hand, that requires us to be willing to question ourselves, to actively engage in that kind of self-analysis that is time-consuming, challenging, and often troubling.
But this process is not endlessly introspective. We are not naval gazing. Our introspection is guided by Scripture. As we question our souls we are really just turning Scripture inward. In the end, it’s God that asks the questions. We are involved in the process, investigation ourselves on his behalf, as it were, but in the end we can only know ourselves in so far as God begins the inquiry. Look at God’s first question to Adam in the garden: “where are you” (Gen. 3:9)? How does Adam respond? He does not say “behind the mulberry bush.” No, he confesses his sin. When God questions Adam, Adam is able to understand himself in a new way. We do not understand ourselves, but God does, so let God’s word question your soul.