Toward an Exegetical Theology

            The full name of this work, written by Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. and published by Baker House Books in 1981, is Toward an Exegetical Theology: Biblical Exegesis for Preaching and Teaching. The work is designed to examine what the author sees as the inadequate academic preparation of preachers to draw significant meaning from the text and, just as importantly, convey that information to others. The work in general could easily fall under several categorical headings: theology, exegesis, hermeneutics, homiletics, history, and religious philosophy; but, the primary thrust is to provide a framework upon which the orator may develop Scripturally sound and relevant homilies from a careful and theological approach to exegesis.

The first (Part I Introduction) section seeks to examine what is seen as a crisis in the current state of exegesis. Since exegesis is a foundational discipline in scriptural interpretation, its erosion can be traced as the cause of other crises; theology, praxis, and homiletics. Kaiser gives a brief overview of exegetes and their methods and finally comes to one Hans Georg Gadamer (1900-2002). Gadamer is noted to have “extended and codified” what is “generally referred to in theological circles as ‘The New Hermeneutic” (29), although as seen from other readings the idea of “The New Hermeneutic” is very malleable. As described by Kaiser, the exegesis/hermeneutic purposed by Gadamer is based on what some today might identify as a post-modern school of thought – the individual’s perception of truth not being grounded on an external absolute authority. Accordingly, recognizing the original author’s intended meaning is impossible (and therefore of little consequence), and true meaning is only found beyond the written word with an appeal to tradition (or in extreme cases to the individual alone). Kaiser makes note that the method used by Gadamer does prove useful to point out the preunderstandings and cultural prejudges we bring to the text, but also notes that “the necessary grounding of application in understanding what the author meant by his use of his words is now swallowed up” (31). As can be seen throughout the work, Kaiser places a premium on understanding the original intent of the author.

The heart of Kaiser’s work (Part II The Syntactical-Theological Method) is an examination of the discrete parts of the method purposed: contextual analysis, syntactical analysis, verbal analysis, theological analysis, and homiletical analysis. Contextual analysis is a familiar call to all exegetes and Kaiser raises the same call to all that would fully understand the Scriptures. When the syntactical analysis is discussed Kaiser begins by harkening back to the original understanding of “grammatico-“ from the “grammatico-historical” method of exegesis. We tend to understand “grammatical” as the arrangement of words and the construction of sentences, but when the method was first described by Keil the intent was more in line with the Greek word gramma which approximates what we would “understand by the term literal” (87). It is in this consideration – the use a grammatico-historical method of exegesis as opposed to the use of a syntactical-theological method – that Kaiser finds the fundamental problem. The grammatico-historical method is sound in that it forces the exegete to find the literal meaning and historical context, but it fails to determine actual meaning that can be translated into a normative application or significance for the modern individual.

Regarding the verbal analysis section, the application is again typical for a student of hermeneutics and exegesis. Kaiser reminds us that words can have a very literal and particular meaning when considered by themselves, but words also combine in such a way as to develop thoughts and meanings greater than themselves – this occurs as individual words interact with larger constructs (sentences, paragraphs, letters, genres). This is the difference that is noted between the syntactic sign of meaning and the semotactic sign of meaning of a word (105). As may be surmised, the theological analysis is an integral part of the exegetical process that Kaiser feels is missing from the sermon preparation for too many. “The Achilles’ heel for many among the trained clergy is the failure to bring the Biblical text from its B.C. or first-century A.D. context and to relate it directly and legitimately to the present day” (131). Current exegetes are trained to find the text in the cultural milieu of the Biblical writer, and identification of the literary form and grammatical structures, but without the theological application to the present day the results are purely analytical. Since Kaiser feels that the “most frequently misplaced tool” for the exegete is theological exegesis, he discusses how the “center or core message” of a passage many be examined (133).

The primary method by which Kaiser purposes the core message be ascertained is termed the “analogy of [antecedent] Scripture,” a view that is built off the Reformation’s call of sola Scriptura. The point is that the theology expressed in virtually every verse of Scripture often has roots that were laid down “antecedent to that text.” Kaiser opines that …

The only correction that we know for past and present abuses that have taken place in the name of doing theological exegesis is to carefully restrict the process to (1) examination of explicit affirmations found in the text being exegeted and (2) comparisons with similar (sometimes rudimentary) affirmations found in passages that have preceded in time the passage under study (136).

Antecedent theology is essentially the consideration that all theology is a compilation of or referenced back to previous theological thought. Clues to finding the antecedent theology in the text are the use of certain terms that have already acquired certain meanings, the appeal to certain events in the process of revelation, the use of direct or indirect quotations that are appropriate to the new situation, and a recognition of the covenants and the accumulated promises or formulas.

One feels pressed to present a two part caveat regarding antecedent theology apart from Kaiser’s considerations. Frist, the canon of Scripture as typically used by the Protestant community, or even that canon used by the Catholic, is not altogether presented in a chronological order. For example, the books of 1 & 2 Kings precede 1 & 2 Chronicles in the canon of the OT, but, both cover a period of time that overlaps. The epistles of 1 & 2 Thessalonians abut 1 & 2 Timothy in the NT canon, but in real time Thessalonians is one of the first epistles written and Timothy one of the last – with those epistles preceding Thessalonians in the canon likely falling between the two. Second, although antecedent theology forces one to rely upon previous Scriptures to help shed light on subsequent Scriptures, this type of exegetical theology should not override those times when OT Scriptures are reapplied or reworded by the NT authors. One example of this may appear in the prophecy of Jeremiah 31:31-34 which in the original context applies to the Jewish nation, but is taken by the writer of Hebrews in 8:7-13 and reapplied in the context of the New Covenant between God and all people. There is also the single word difference between Psalm 68:18 – “… You have received gifts among men …” and Ephesians 4:8 – “… And gave gifts to men.” Both passages have in view a victory won. In Psalm 68 the victory is accounted to God and therefore gifts are given to him, yet the victory of Christ over sin and death means the gifts later mentioned by Paul flow from Christ and the Spirit. When the NT writers specifically reapply, or reword a passage from the OT then the theology that follows must be formed in the shadow of the NT passage if the inspiration of the entire Scripture is to be maintained.

The consideration of the syntactical-theological method ends with a discussion of the homiletical analysis step. This step follows naturally from the previous step and once the theological analysis is completed it should follow with the application to the listener; in fact, the entire process has been aiming at this section. There are times when the Biblical content is expounded in a clear teaching method and little demand is placed on the exegete to relate the teaching of doctrine, yet there are times when those truths are not internalized by the hears. To avoid this Kaiser describes the final task in the exegetical process as “principlization.” In Kaiser’s own words,

To “principlize” is to state the author’s propositions, arguments, narrations, and illustrations in timeless abiding truths with special focus on the application of those truths to the current needs of the Church. Contemporary applications will often be suggested by analogous applications made by the original writer of the Biblical text (152).

It is from this starting point that Kaiser goes on to discuss the subject of the text, the emphasis of the text, the main point of the message, the subpoints of the message, and the conclusion of the message. All parts well considered and concisely presented by the author. Kaiser concludes Part II of the work with a section providing illustrations of the method proposed.

Part III Special Issues presents Kaiser’s thoughts to help the exegete incorporate the use of prophecy, narrative, and poetry in expository preaching. To start, there is an examination of four methods of preaching from the prophetic texts and the exegetical traps that accompany each. Kaiser notes that preaching from the prophets can have a great contemporary appeal if we emphasize, as those prophets did, “repentance as the condition for experiencing the favor of God” (195). Preaching that focuses on a simple retelling of a Scriptural narrative can be unfulfilling to the contemporary listener when application is not also presented. Not only must the author’s arrangement and selection of material be considered, but also the theology presented in the passage, and only by examining both can the exegete make adequate application to a group of people. Poetry, and specifically Hebrew poetry, can produce its own problems for the exegete, and Kaiser does fine work explaining and showing the forms of OT poetry so an adequate understanding may ensue. The final thought of this section is that the basic procedure for exegeting poetry is the same as prose: identify the full scope of the poem, identify the stanzas or strophes, locate the theme line or basic affirmation in the parallel structure, show the development of that theme, and then restate this theme in a principle appropriate for all persons, cultures, and times (230-31).

In Part IV Conclusion, Kaiser brings out a few thoughts on the role of the Holy Spirit. It should always be remembered that even though one, as a preacher, may feel inadequate for the monumental task set before him, the true source of the confidence we have in the message presented lies first and foremost in the Holy Spirit. If the problem today is congregations lacking spiritual power, Kaiser notes that the first place to look is an impotent pulpit – an impotence that will remain undealt with until the exegete is “armed with an authoritative message based on the single meaning of the text” (236). If there is any difficult aspect of exegetical theology today, it is the same difficulty as every other century after the first; how can the ancient Scriptures continue to be the living voice of the Almighty One in the present? The answer is that to “stop short of doing theological exegesis” when one is preparing for homiletic analysis is “to fail to complete the task which the Church has a right to expect of us” (245).

What has been noted in this review is but a brief sampling of Kaiser’s insights, and to be perfectly honest this reviewer found himself at times fiercely treading waters thru which Kaiser so effortlessly strode. It was wonderful! There is nothing so invigorating than to find a teacher that forces one to stretch beyond comfortable limits.

Some quotes from the text:

“The Scripture cannot be understood theologically, until it is understood grammatically. Luther also avers, that a certain knowledge of the sense of Scripture, depends solely on the knowledge of the words” (27).

“The best argument for a single-meaning hermeneutic is to be found in observing what happens when it is removed from current conversation or writing” (47).

“If the term were not so awkward and clumsy, the truth of the matter is that the method should be called grammatical-contextual-historical-syntactical-theological-cultural exegesis, for each of these concerns, and more, must participate in the exegetical venture” (90).

“It is plain to see that words, like people, are known by the company they keep” (106).

“Many have forgotten that analogia fidei as used by the Reformers was a relative expression especially aimed at the tyrannical demands of tradition. ‘It was intended solely to deny that tradition was the interpreter of the Bible’” (135).

“When truth is not internalized within the hearers, but is left as just so many notions floating around outside their experience, the exegete is in effect a mere dilettante – a trifler in the art of interpretation” (151).

“As the paragraph stated one central idea and then developed or organized itself around that one theme proposition, so we would contend that the strophe exhibits a central rallying point around which it organizes its content” (217).

“Therefore, mixing the Word with such foreign elements as civil religion, current philosophies, schools of psychology, political affiliations, and personal predilections is to take the powerful Word of God and to make it ineffective, weak, and despised in the eyes of our contemporaries” (243).


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