Part One begins by discussing The Basis for Evaluating Commentaries.
Part Two discusses The Characteristics of Good Commentaries.
Part Three follows:
Answering Our Questions
Literal Exegesis. Literal exegesis takes the “meaning of language in its plainest, most obvious, and often most concrete sense.” It is generally contrasted with figurative interpretation, which hunts for hidden messages beneath the surface of the text’s literal language. I hesitate to go much further than this definitionally, since to do so with some brethren is to step into a quagmire. For this reason, even some texts on homiletics skirt the subject. Thankfully, literalness or lack thereof is readily recognizable in a commentator’s treatment of the other three areas of exegesis. He views the grammar, history, and context as literal. Or he does not do so.
My hermeneutics calls for a literal treatment of these issues. William Cowper (composer of “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood”) argued for it in a rhyme we might do well to paste on the title page of our favorite copy of the Scripture, right under its words, “The Holy Bible.”
A critic on the sacred text should be
Candid and learn’d, dispassionate and free;
Free from the wayward bias bigots feel,
From fancy’s influence and intemperate zeal;
For of all arts sagacious dupes invent,
To cheat themselves and gain the world’s assent,
The worst is—Scripture warped from its intent.
One of the most sobering summons to literal exegesis I’ve come across is found in John Calvin’s commentary on Galatians 4:22ff. Please don’t skip lightly over it. It says what most of us believe but with broader historical perspective. You may even find yourself deciding to include it in the introduction to your next sermon.
As the apostle declares that these things are “allegorized,” Origen, and many others along with him, have seized the occasion of torturing Scripture, in every possible manner, away from the true sense. They concluded that the literal sense is too mean and poor, and that, under the outer bark of the letter, there lurk deeper mysteries, which cannot be extracted but by beating out allegories. And this they had no difficulty in accomplishing; for speculations which appear to be ingenious have always been preferred, and always will be preferred, by the world to solid doctrine. . . .
For many centuries no man was considered to be ingenious, who had not the skill and daring necessary for changing into a variety of curious shapes the sacred word of God. This was undoubtedly a contrivance of Satan to undermine the authority of Scripture, and to take away from the reading of it the true advantage. God visited this profanation by a just judgment, when he suffered the pure meaning of the Scripture to be buried under false interpretations. Scripture, they say, is fertile, and thus produces a variety of meanings.
I acknowledge that Scripture is a most rich and inexhaustible fountain of all wisdom; but I deny that its fertility consists in the various meanings which any man, at his pleasure, may assign. Let us know, then, that the true meaning of Scripture is the natural and obvious meaning; and let us embrace and abide by it resolutely. Let us not only neglect as doubtful, but boldly set aside as deadly corruptions, those pretended expositions, which lead us away from the natural meaning.
Having quoted Calvin, let me recommend his commentaries through someone else’s words:
Next to the perusal of the Scriptures, which I earnestly inculcate, I exhort my pupils to peruse Calvin’s Commentaries, which I extol in loftier terms than Helmich [a 16th-century Dutch Protestant theologian] himself; for I affirm that he excels beyond comparison in the interpretation of Scripture, and that his commentaries ought to be more highly valued than all that is handed down to us by the Library of the Fathers; so that I acknowledge him to have been possessed above most others, or rather above all other men, with what may be called an eminent gift of prophecy.
This estimation of Calvin as a commentator was held by none other than the Dutch theologian Jacob Arminius. It illustrates convincingly that integrity of exposition commends itself to everyone, even those opposed to us theologically.
That raises the subject of the influence of our theology upon our ability to interpret literally. Literal exegesis is not only the contrast to figurative interpretation but also to that which is theologically biased. I stated earlier that both theology and application (or creed and conduct) are to be conclusions about meaning reached only after determining what the text actually says. Figurative interpretation makes the mistake of beginning with imagined applications. Theological bias makes the identical mistake of beginning with cherished positions. In both cases the text’s literal meaning is overridden.
What explanations, for instance, does a Pentecostal commentator offer about the nature of the tongues at Pentecost? What does a pedo-baptist say about Lydia’s being baptized with “her household” (Acts 16:15)? How does an Arminian define foreknowledge (1 Pet. 1:2) or explain Romans 9? In each case the options are two: commenting literally, according to what the passages are actually saying, or on the other hand, doing so with theological bias. Perhaps no preacher has ever set the standard for an unbiased literal exegesis any higher than Charles Simeon, whose sermons I recommended earlier. Here is, in my estimation, a classic statement of the right approach.
The author feels it impossible to avow too distinctly that it is an invariable rule with him to endeavour to give to every portion of the Word of God its full and proper force, without considering what scheme it favours, or whose system it is likely to advance. Of this he is sure, that there is not a decided Calvinist or Arminian in the world who equally approves of the whole of Scripture . . . who, if he had been in the company of Paul whilst he was writing his Epistles, would not have recommended him to alter one or other of his expressions. But the author would not wish one of them altered; he finds as much satisfaction in one class of passages as in another; and employs the one, he believes, as freely as the other. Where the inspired Writers speak in unqualified terms, he thinks himself at liberty to do the same; judging that they needed no instruction from him how to propagate the truth. He is content to sit as a learner at the feet of the holy Apostles, and has no ambition to teach them how they ought to have spoken. I love the simplicity of the Scriptures; and I wish to receive and inculcate every truth precisely in the way, and to the extent, that it is set forth in the inspired Volume. Were this the habit of all divines, there would soon be an end of most of the controversies that have agitated and divided the Church of Christ. My endeavour is to bring out of Scripture what is there, and not to thrust in what I think might be there. I have a great jealousy on this head; never to speak more or less than I believe to be the mind of the Spirit in the passage I am expounding.
That’s Biblicism—unvarnished literalism, free from theological bias, in handling the sacred text of Scripture. It’s what we must have in a commentator’s handling of grammar, history, and context. Lord willing, these are the issues that will be discussed in next issue’s column.
Dr. Mark Minnick is the pastor of Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Greenville, South Carolina, and serves as adjunct professor of preaching and exposition at Bob Jones Seminary.
(Originally published in FrontLine • September/October 2001. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)