There are a number of different ways to comment on any book or passage of the bible. The history of biblical interpretation bears witness to the variety of attempts aimed at explaining the sacred text. From the competing hermeneutical approaches found among early Christians at Alexandria and Antioch, to the hermeneutic of suspicion that came to define the school at Tubingen in the 19th century, it seems almost anyone using any method has taken their exegetical scalpel to the text. To be sure, many have treated the text carefully, though obviously not perfectly. The theological fruit borne by their interpretive labor has been quite nurturing to the church. For centuries people have devoted great time and thought to the contents of scripture. Countless people have preached it, taught it, wrote about it, sung about it, loved it, or even hated it. One wonders what more could be said about any book or any passage it contains. Yet, despite all the attention it has received, people continue to devote time and energy to the interpretation of the bible.
The question that arises at this point is “why?” Given all the interpretive effort put forth by so many different people spread across various continents for the last 2,000 years, why continue? After all, what could possibly be said that has not already been said by someone else? Let us simply retreat to the experts, read their summaries, and parrot their conclusions. That is indeed the approach of many today. It is quicker, easier, and some would say much more reliable than carrying out the arduous task of exegesis afresh. The dustiest tools on a pastor’s or student’s shelf (or ipad) are probably the lexicon, exegetical handbooks, concordances, and the like (if they even have these tools at all). It is why so many sermons sound like summaries of a commentator sandwiched between the proverbial touching/funny story and touching/funny conclusion.
These efforts, or lack thereof, betray the fact that there has been no real attempt to understand the text for one’s self. Paul’s admonition to “rightly divide the truth” or to “remain” in the Holy Scriptures be damned. It’s time to do “real” ministry—right? Part of what drives such an attitude towards biblical interpretation is a lack of motivation (the other part is an unhealthy and unbiblical bifurcation of theology and practical ministry). Here are a few things aimed at motivating a person to engage wholeheartedly in the task of biblical interpretation:
- The interpreter cannot master the sacred text. The sacred text masters the interpreter. Of course, we will rarely sense the text’s diagnosis of us if it is entirely filtered through the summaries of others.
- The sacred text is inexhaustible in its wisdom. The bible resists “summary” but welcomes “introduction.”
- The sacred text lives while its interpreters die. The findings of those long gone will have to be rediscovered afresh in every generation. This cannot happen by simply reading what they wrote (although that is helpful), because that is not how they discovered truth in the first place.
- God has spoken but God speaks. The bible is at the same time historical and contemporary, because its author has spoken and still speaks. Therefore, we must come again and again to hear what He said and hear what He says.
- Perhaps most important of all, we do indeed stand on the shoulders of interpreters who came before us. But that doesn’t mean we should be sitting in their laps like children waiting to be exegetically burped.