Monday, September 15, 2008

Apostolic exegesis redux

Did the Apostles interpret Scripture the way we do? The question is ambiguous.

If you read a standard, modern commentary on the Bible, it will contain an introduction. In that introduction, the commentator will try to answer a series of preliminary questions: Who wrote this book? When? Where? Why? To whom or for whom? What’s the literary genre? What’s the state of the text? What unstated influences are feeding into the narrative or the argument?

Now, let us suppose that after he wrote Romans, some Roman Christians wrote Paul, asking him to explain what he meant in Rom 9-11.

Would Paul go through the same preliminaries? Would he ask himself the same questions?

No, because he already knows the answers. So he can skip the preliminaries. Does this mean that Paul interprets Romans in a different way that we do?

Again, the question is ambiguous. Paul doesn’t have to run through the same process. But that’s because he can take the process for granted.

Likewise, Paul doesn’t have to investigate the meaning of the Greek words he uses since he already knows what he meant by them.

Likewise, if they quote from Romans, Paul doesn’t have to perform textual criticism on their quote. He knows whether the quote is authentic, or a scribal interpolation. He knows what he wrote—or dictated to a scribe.

But to interpret Romans correctly, what was a given for Paul must be (or become) a given for the commentator. In that fundamental respect, a modern commentary must interpret Romans the same way.

It would be equivalent to asking a modern commentator what he meant by something he wrote in his commentary on Romans. Since he wrote it, he knows what he meant without having to run through a series of preliminary questions on authorship, date, audience, and so on.

What is a given for the author is not necessarily a given for the reader. For a reader is not necessarily in the same position as the author.

If he’s part of the original audience, he can take more for granted. Otherwise, he needs to make some effort to recover what the author took for granted.

But the aim is the same: to interpret a passage according to the original intent of the author. What he meant to express.

Let’s take a different example. Suppose Paul is interpreting a passage from the Pentateuch.

Now, a modern scholar may know a few things about the Pentateuch that Paul didn’t know. He may know more about the geography of the ANE. He may know more about Egyptian mythology. He may know more about Sumerian or Egyptian loanwords.

But this doesn’t mean that Paul will build his interpretation on the basis of erroneous geography or erroneous philology. Paul, as a beneficiary of inspiration, will know whatever he needs to know to say whatever he needs to say. His interpretation of the Pentateuch will still be correct.

And for a modern scholar to correctly interpret the Pentateuch, he needs to avoid erecting his own interpretation on erroneous geography or erroneous philology. Even though a modern scholar may use some different techniques in approaching the text, both he and Paul are concerned with reading the text in context, according to the author’s intentions. What the author took for granted is still a given.

One of the ironies in this debate is that you have people who claim that apostolic exegesis is at odds with grammatico-historical exegesis. Ironic, I say, for when they try to demonstrate their point, they exegete apostolic exegesis using grammatico-historical exegesis.

Even when they claim a NT writer is construing the OT allegorically, they themselves don’t construe the NT writer allegorically. They don’t offer an allegorical interpretation of the NT writer to show that our NT writer is construing the OT allegorically.

Rather, they find it necessary to use grammatico-historical exegesis on the NT writer to show that a NT writer is (allegedly) allegorizing the OT. So they themselves rely on the grammatico-historical method as a necessary first step in trying to make their case against the necessity of the grammatico-historical method.

So the grammatico-historical method is unavoidable even when their objective is to undermine that method. They must use the method to disprove the method—in which case they end proving the method in the process of disproving it. It’s an odd dilemma.


  1. Steve Hays: "So the grammatico-historical method is unavoidable even when their objective is to undermine that method. They must use the method to disprove the method—in which case they end proving the method in the process of disproving it. It’s an odd dilemma."

    Indeed, indeed.

    So where's the ardent LibProt who will staunchly defend his beloved Historical-Critical method as being superior against Steve's Grammatical-Historical method?

  2. Excellent comment Steve,

    Care to comment on this comment by Frame?

    I commend Enns for writing a very stimulating book, packed with useful, digestible information about Scripture and the literature of the Ancient Near East. His motive is to help the church to move away from a sort of over-defensive treatment of Scripture rigidly defined by a grammatical-historical method that Scripture itself doesn’t endorse. I applaud that as well. I do nevertheless disagree with the book more than I agree with it.

    This can be found at

    Thanks Again,

  3. Vanberean,

    It would depend, in part, on how Frame defines the grammatico-historical method.

    Beyond that, this statement occurs in a review which is generally quite critical of Enns.

    In addition, Frame favorably cites the negative reviews by Beale and Carson, as well as the book which they edited. So he seems to agree with their own view of the grammatico-historical method. Perhaps I'll ask him for clarification.