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Volume 14, Issue 1: Presbyterion

This is That

Douglas Wilson

When a minister enters into the pulpit, he does so to declare and proclaim the Word of God. In order to do this, he must first handle the Word of God. And how shall he handle it?

Of course we want to say that he should handle it wisely and well, but this is not helpful when it comes to the basics of exegesis. Wisely and well by what standard? Most modern pastors have been trained in what is called the historical/grammatical method of exegesis, but which might more accurately be called the tight historical/grammatical method. "Tight" means that the exegesis is limited to lexical, syntactical, historical, and contextual study, which is to say, Enlightenment exegesis.
But a problem for this approach is created by the New Testament. As conservative ministers of the Word, we are fond of affirming the sufficiency of the Word for all things, and in all things. We do not need supplementary help from secular psychiatry, secular astro-physics, or any other branch of secular whatever in order to supplement the Scriptures. The problem is we abandon this admirable stance when it comes to our method of getting at the Word of God.
Scripture is sufficient for all things, including the task of teaching us how to learn from Scripture. And does this not mean we should learn how to handle the Scriptures from the Lord Jesus and the Apostles? The New Testament is filled with citations from the Old Testament, and we have more than enough material to show us how they handle the text. This presents a problem of loyalties.
Moderns want to say that the "allegorical method" of interpretation arose because Greek philosophers were embarrassed by the shenanigans of their Homeric gods (whose authority could not be directly challenged), and so they devised allegorical interpretations to provide edifying meaning for all Zeus' bedhopping. And this is true—that is exactly what happened. And so they continue, the early church father Origen brought this fanciful exegesis into the Church because he was swayed by such pagan allegorists, and so the medieval church was brought under the pernicious influence of "edifying" allegorism.
Before replying to this historical reconstruction, let it first be said that allegoristic exegesis in the Church was frequently taken to excessive lengths, and amounted to little more than imbecilic trifling with the text. My personal favorite is the view that the Shulamite's belly, that lovely heap of wheat, actually represented the Great Sanhedrin. I picture a group of bearded rabbis sitting in a solemn assembly, and it just plain tickles me.
But such an historical sketch is too facile. If the appeal to a sensus plenior, the fuller sense, came from Origen, or from other Alexandrians before him, then what are we to make of the very common assumption throughout the New Testament that the Old Testament had a sensus plenior? Where did Jesus and Paul get this hermeneutical technique? Did they get it from embarrassed Greek philosophers too? I am afraid we have honestly trained ourselves to miss what the New Testament writers are doing with the text—and we act like the early fathers received no encouragement whatever from the New Testament.
But Christ was a Rock that followed the Jews in the wilderness. The flood in Noah's time was a typological representation of Christian baptism. The bronze serpent in the wilderness was a type of the crucifixion. Sarah and Hagar were representative types of two covenants. Melchizedek was a type of Christ, and the etymological history of his city—Salem, meaning "peace"—was also typologically significant. The writers of the New Testament saw Christ in the Old when He was expressly predicted ("A virgin will conceive"), but it has to be said that they also saw Him everywhere else. And Jesus was the one who taught them this hermeneutic.
So then the question becomes whether we the uninspired are to learn from their handling of the Scripture: How is it to be done? Is this a don't-try-this-at-home kind of thing? If the latter, then how and where does Scripture teach us our hermeneutic? If the former, then we have to learn how uninspired men can learn from inspired men how to handle the Scriptures. In his book on this subject, Richard Longenecker allows that various forms of typological exegesis are very common in the New Testament but wants to say that we should not attempt this apart from special revelation. For him, literal exegesis is safe—staying close to the shore.
The problem here is that when Jesus teaches His two disciples on the road to Emmaus about these things, He rebukes them for not having read the Old Testament in this way already—apart from special revelation. In other words, we do not abstain from this method of exegesis (rightly performed) because we are concerned for exegetical prudence, but rather because we are slow of heart to believe everything the prophets have spoken.
The question immediately arises—where are the brakes on this thing? Why is the erotic rabbis' interpretation wrong? A detailed answer will have to wait until another time, but a few comments can be made here in conclusion. First, the concern is in principle correct—given the sin and folly still resident in any interpreter, we do need to know where the brakes are. The full answer is that Christ is Lord. And, as an afterthought, we need to remember that every hermeneutic needs brakes, and not just the typological. And the Enlightenment hermeneutic is a 350-year-old runaway train.

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