Exegesis as Biography

In 1925 (Feb 1), Rudolf Bultmann gave a lecture to a crowd in Marburg on the topic, “The Problem of a Theological Interpretation of the New Testament.” In this lecture, he makes the point that the fingerprints of the exegete will always be found on the fruits of their labor:

There is no bare interpretation of ‘what is there,’ but in some way (a specific way, in fact, for each case) the interpretation of the text always goes hand in hand with the exegete’s interpretation of himself. We do not encounter history in the same way that we do nature; we can assume a distance from nature; but we stand in history and are a part of it. Therefore, every word we utter about history is necessarily a word about ourselves; that is, it discloses how we interpret our own existence; it shows what sort of openness we have to the possibilities of our existence as humans.

Apart from the distinct Heideggarian “odor” that permeates this lecture (Heidegger, in fact, was in the audience when Bultmann delivered it for a second time in Göttingen, five days after the original delivery in Marburg), I found it to be quite a provocative and interesting read.

One of the hallmarks of the discussion surrounding the issue of “theological exegesis” or “theological interpretation” seems to be a brazen rejection of the idea that exegesis without presuppositions as a fantasy, and that the New Testament demands to be read and interpreted in the same spirit in which it was written. That is, the texts of the New Testament were written in a spirit of faith, and to read them solely from the perspective of a cold, detached observer will ultimately lead to a skewed (or at least limited) perception of their meaning.

In a more recent work (“The Superiority of Pre-Critical Exegesis, sic et non,” Trinity Journal 24 (2003)), Daniel Treier draws what I find to be a helpful distinction between “meaning” and “significance” of a text. Treier claims (rightly, I think) that scholars operating outside the realm of faith, whether intentionally or by virtue of their lack of faith, may say much about the meaning of a given text. To speak to a text’s significance, however, belongs to the interpreter who is willing and able to read the text from the perspective of faith.

Treier’s distinction (which, notably, has been made by others), I think helps to maintain the importance of practicing historical-critical methodology alongside “theological exegesis.” To suggest doing away with the former (as more than a few are apt to do, both in proposition and practice) will almost certainly lead to a naïve reading of the Old and New Testaments in which our modern worldview and concerns are forced into a thought-world that is often foreign to our own.

Having surveyed much literature on theological exegesis, I have found that one of the most pressing issues for the discussion is how exactly to keep interpretations of the biblical text grounded. That is, how does one acknowledge and honor one’s own faith perspective while simultaneously maintaining that ancient texts have their own concerns that may be different from those that we bring to them? It is an open question, and I don’t pretend to have the answer, but I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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