Biblical interpretation, or exegesis, empowers belief. But it can also destroy it.
The interpretation of biblical texts—determining their meaning according to linguistic content and cultural / historical context—is exegesis. Yet it allows us better to understand biblical truth claims and the Bible’s various stories (and overarching Story) by giving content to these truth claims and specifying the nature and character of their protagonist: God.
In other words, exegesis helps us know what the Bible is claiming and, literally, who God is. And this insight is crucial in deciding how we respond to the Bible and its God.
Before delving into the two passages from last post we must consider not only exegesis but what precedes it: our orientation towards texts in general.
At its core, biblical interpretation (or exegesis) is attuning ourselves to the unique nature of the text: letting the text “be itself”. It is neither seeking to impose our views and understandings on it nor abandoning all we know and understand, and accepting it unquestioningly. Yet neither is this an attempt to be ‘neutrally’ disposed towards the text, as if this were even possible.
Rather it is first “listening” to the text through a posture of respect, openness, consideration—the very stance that I hope others would take towards my writing or speech! Quite literally, I am advocating treating the text according the golden rule: loving it like another person, as I love myself.
So the co-centrality of love and truth resurfaces, for it is by putting love in conjunction with truth that we most genuinely offer the text ‘a hearing’.
In my last post, then, I referred to two biblical texts that are easily misinterpreted. This can be due to assumptions that a) culture in biblical times is similar enough to our own that no translation between them is needed, or b) the linguistic translation of the Bible (e.g., from Greek to English) yields unambiguous results, and so c) readers can understand a Bible verse by its own content alone, without overly considering the surrounding verses, or the chapter or book that contains it. These are false assumptions.
For example, the role of honor and shame in 1st century Palestine is key to reading Matthew 5:39 properly, “if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” (NRSV). In that culture honor was like good credit: it offered privileges and possibilities unavailable to those of lesser esteem. So a slap to the right cheek—a back-handed slap, designed to humiliate and reduce someone’s honour—was a big deal.
So rather than advocating pacifism in the face of abusive treatment, the verse contains the implicit cultural understanding that unwarranted incidents like this would prompt a community response. Thus it calls for the wronged individual to allow the community to intervene as the best way for right relationships to be restored between the two parties.1
Similarly, in Romans 8:28, “all things work together for good for those who love God” (NRSV), Paul’s tightly woven argument throughout Romans, the linguistic complexity of the verse, and the context of the surrounding chapter are key to proper exegesis.
In a recent paper on Romans 8:28 Mark Gignilliat notes four possible interpretations:
a) God works together with all things,
b) God works all things,
c) The Spirit works with all things for those who love God.
d) All things work together for good,
First he cites another Romans scholar who finds option d) to be “the least probable” option. Then he and argues for the one that he believes makes best sense, given the language use and context—option a) “And we know that in all things God is working together (with the Spirit) for good to those loving God.”
I am persuaded by the reasoning in Gignilliat’s paper that this is the best reading of the four. Further, this interpretation also defeats the objection that Romans 8:28 shows that God works with / uses evil (and so it has the additional benefit of harmonizing / making sense alongside of other biblical texts rather than contradicting or being at odds with passages that bear on issue of God and evil).2
In fact, the notion that God makes use of, or even needs, evil to bring good is called The Greater Good argument. Such a God has more in common with Buddhist or Hindu perspectives, and Christians who hold this view typically believe that everything is “God’s will.” But have they forgotten how Jesus taught us to pray: “…Your will be done, on earth, as it is in Heaven”?3
Clearly, things down here don’t always happen as God wills. But that’s for another post.
- Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social-Sciences Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, Fortress Press, 55-57. See also Charles H. Talbert, Reading the Sermon on the Mount: Character Formation and Decision Making in Matthew 5-7, Baker Academic, 88-93, who argues that “non-retaliation” is a key notion here. ↩
- “Working together with whom?” Biblica Sacra, 87 no. 4 2006, 511-515. Both James Dunn and N.T. Wright agree with this interpretation (see World Biblical Commentary and New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, both on Romans.) while F.F. Bruce advocates option c), seeing the Holy Spirit in the main role: “in everything, as we know, the Holy Spirit co-operates for good with those who love God.” In all cases the common translation, d), is rejected. ↩
- Mt 6:9-13. ↩