Thursday, May 03, 2012

Just read the Text

There is a great post here from John Piper from 1974 with which I really resonate. Much as a I hate the rhetoric of "we don't interpret the Bible, we're just reading it", it's precisely because I am such a reader that I value 'reading'. And by 'reading' I mean close, diligent, attentive reading of the text that is in front of you. Partly, no doubt, this is a product of my ecclesial background, and partly it's a product of a long and focused academic training program in humanities and literature: classical languages, philosophy, and an evangelical seminary all reinforced the simple but profound skill of reading the text in front of me.

It's also shaped how I preach, very text-focused, very verse by verse. And so it shapes what I so dislike in preaching. I don't like sermons that disconnect theology from text. I think this is a fundamental methodological error that cannot sustain generationally faithful ministry. Sure, I love to hear good theology, but if your good theology isn't connected to the text, then it has no anchor. Show people how a good, reformed theology arises from normal readings of the plain text, and you've anchored theology in God's revelatory word.

So it irks me when preaching is disconnected from the text. So does poor exegesis of the text. This evening I listened to a fine sermon that had many true points, from a luminary of conservative American evangelicalism, and yet as he treated Exodus 3:11, I felt like he missed what was plainly in front of him. The question "Who am I..." is not an existential reflection of Moses about his identity (which is how this preacher took it), but a figure of speech connected with the rest of Moses' words, "...that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?" Moses' question is about his aptness for the task, it's a question about his status, not his identity. I wouldn't say there's anything overly difficult about recognising figures of speech and tropes and the like. And the preacher went on to make excellent, theologically sound points about knowing God for who he is, personally, as revealed in the scriptures. But at this very point he didn't read the text in front of him.

This is why patristic exegesis interests me: it's not enough to have the right doctrines, we need the right doctrines from the right texts, and I'm convinced that if we want to hold on to a credal legacy (Nicaea, Constantinople, Chalcedon), we must wrestle with not just the theological, but the exegetical, underpinnings of that period. I suspect, that for the most part, patristic exegesis will come up rosy, with a few thorns (Proverbs 8:22 is the biggest thorn in the garden. Yet even there I have to grant the pro-Nicenes this, that they had a consistent exegetical approach that (a) dealt with the text in front of them (the LXX for the most part), and (b) defeated not merely non-Nicene exegesis of the verse but non-Nicene exegetical strategy). In fact, I'm confident that understanding how the fathers got exegesis right will actually illumine our own reading strategies and enrich our ability to read scripture, perhaps correcting some of our near-sightedness.

This, hopefully, is what I teach, whether informally to brothers and sisters, or formally in the future. Just read the text. Don't make "just reading the text" a rhetorical trick of its own, but to pay careful diligent attention to the words, phrases, figures, tropes, of the Word of God, and while staring at the veins on the leaves, don't forget that it's part of the forest too!

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