What is exegesis?

As D.A. Carson has said, “exegesis” is simply “reading the text to find out what’s there” or finding out “what the text is saying.” It is as simple as that. It is something all Christians do and must do. Here are two examples of bad exegesis I have come across recently, that are both a result of honest people not doing the hard discipline of exegesis (correctly), which is really a practice of putting yourself under the text, rather than over it:

1. Acts 4.12- “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which men must be saved.” Some Christians take that to mean God includes some among His elect, even if they do not put conscious faith in Christ. They say it is still Jesus’ blood that saves them, but they are simply included by God’s grace and in response to their genuine desire to worship the true God. They would not deny the sinfulness of man, nor the exclusivity of Jesus, nor the necessity of the atonement, nor the need for missions. It is not as bad as pluralism or any type of liberalism. But it is bad exegesis. What is there in the text? Peter is answering the question: by what power did you [heal]? His answer: by Jesus’ name, the one name you must claim to be saved. Inclusivists are thinking Peter is addressing a question that is not even an afterthought of the text (i.e., does God include some who do not put their faith in Jesus?).

2. Ephesians- this one is not as bad, but an example of what seems harmless, and even insightful, yet is bad exegesis. In thinking through this book, one brother asks “Why did Paul choose to reveal so much about God’s vision for the church to Ephesus, and not Jerusalem or Antioch?” That is also not a question the text is asking. Plus, do we know for sure that Paul did not write similar things to other churches? We do not know for sure, and do not need to know for sure. God reveals in the texts exactly what God wants to reveal in the text for our life and godliness.

These are just two recent examples. But the point is, when doing biblical exegesis– which is the only way to know God fully– figure out what questions the text is actually addressing. Look at what is there in the text to figure out the meaning of texts. Do not rely on outside sources before you dig into the text. If you do not get this step right, forget trying to apply the Bible to your life. And do not forget God has given teachers to the church to teach. God never promises that all Christians will be able to figure out the meaning of all passages without the help of teachers.


One response to “What is exegesis?

  1. Steven Warden

    I know that understanding this takes a lot of burden off my shoulders. Too much does tradition begin to stack on top of the text. I thought of Josiah when in 2 Kings 22:3-11 he orders the renovation of the Temple and they find the Scriptures. I imagine it was on a shelf, in a corner, down a hallway, behind some ornately decorated alters, icons, and draperies. Men began to pile the objects used in their ceremonies close at hand and would mindlessly recite their “Our Father” prayers and Scripture began to be moved further and further back. When Hilkiah the high priest brings the dusty and neglected book to King Josiah his response is recorded in verse 11: When the king heard the words of the Book of the Law, he tore his clothes.

    What recitation in Man’s traditions causes someone to tear their clothes? After yeas of adding to their ceremonies the Scripture resurfaced again and was immediately recognized as more powerful than anything they have been trying!

    Well, what I’m trying to say with all this is that it was a real life changer to me when I went to the 9Marks conference and heard them speak what you are explaining here. Instead of saying “Oh, so-and-so once said this passage applies to our lives in this way” and forever only letting that passage mean that (when quite possibly it doesn’t at all in the first place) it’s a much freer and enriching thing to come at the passage as if you are reading it for the first time. And not being self centered as in “What is this saying to me”.

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