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Christian Preaching on the Old Testament #6

[This is the sixth in a serialisation and slight revision of an old essay of mine, in the hope of getting some interaction from others and also making it more accessible. (Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5]

The issue of exegesis

Beale and Carson write that the NT authors make use of the OT in an ‘astonishing variety of ways.’[1]  They also suggest a key difference between 1st century Jewish and 1st century Christian exegesis is the use of a ‘salvation-historical grid’ which gives interpretive significance to chronology.[2]   From all four authors under consideration in this series there is a fierce desire to root interpretation in exegesis that is historical and grammatical, true to the original linguistic sense in the relevant historical context.  But mirroring the 1st C. situation one group see Jesus Christ clearly portrayed in the OT scripture and the other do not. 

Common sense dictates that neither perfect objectivity nor presupposition-less exegesis is possible.[3] Knowing this I would suggest that the homiletician’s role is not to attempt an objective OT reading but a Christian one.  Greidanus argues that the early Christians ‘read [the OT] from the perspective of their risen Lord and found it filled with promises of Christ, types of Christ, references and allusions to Jesus Christ.’[4]  However, this is not to advocate a descent into subjectivism.  The science of exegesis, using historical grammatical tools can never be wholly objective because the significance and meaning of each historical context and each grammatical, semantic or syntactical feature must be interpreted by the exegete.  Given the same historical and grammatical information two different exegetes can still arrive at different interpretations of the same passage.[5]  Value judgements must be made time and again, each one is a risk which could take the exegete closer to or farther from the author’s intention.  However, as Bright argues, ‘one can very well see retrospectively in past events a deeper significance than was apparent at the time, and that without in the least attributing to the actors in those events insights that they did not have.’[6]  But are we moving here beyond exegesis into interpretation?  Fitzmyer provides a clue, ‘A Christian interpreter of the Old Testament should be able to agree with a Jewish interpreter of the Hebrew Scripture on the literal meaning of a given passage, even one mentioning [messiah], or one related to such a concept, before the Christian invokes his or her canonical meaning.’[7]  The key question here is what exactly are we exegeting?  Are we exegeting a discrete text authored by a discreet individual, or the Old Testament – a collection of scriptures gathered by the post-exile Jewish community, or the Christian Bible – a canon of scripture including both the Old and New Testaments?   This also impacts upon a desire to respect authorial intent as we may have to take into account not only the intent of the actual writer but also of those who compiled the canon.

Exegesis depends on the question you ask the text.  Arguably the most important question is that of context.  For Kasier and Mathewson the context of any OT scripture is the OT, for Goldsworthy and Greidanus it is the whole Canon, OT and NT.  Ideas of Canon are inextricably bound up with concepts of authority, for Canon simply means ‘rule.’[8]  The way in which we understand a text to be authoritative determines what we expect to find in it, and therefore the sort of questions we will ask the text in our exegesis.  Mathewson explains, ‘preachers need to begin with the end in mind when they set out to study an Old Testament narrative text… the basic goal of studying the text is to determine the author’s intent and to describe this intent in a single sentence.’[9]  Mathewson expects to find some principle that can then be applied to the modern world.  Goldsworthy sets a different goal, ‘whether the sermon was a faithful exposition of the way the text testifies to Christ.’[10]  He expects to find that the text is about Jesus Christ.

[1] Beale and Carson, Commentary on the New Testament use of the Old testament, xxvi
[2] Beale and Carson, Commentary on the New Testament use of the Old testament, xxvi (They give examples of Galatians 3, Romans 4 and Hebrews 4:1-13 and 7.)
[3] Bright, The Authority of the Old Testament,  45-6
[4] Greidanus, Preaching Christ from the Old Testament 184-185
[5] Thiselton, Thiselton on hermeneutics, 379
[6] Bright, The Authority of the Old Testament,  203
[7] Fitzmyer, The One Who is to Come, ix
[8] Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, 17-18
[9] Mathewson, The art of Preaching Old Testament Narrative,  34
[10] Goldsworthy, Preaching The Whole Bible as Christian Scripture,  21


  1. "But are we moving here beyond exegesis into interpretation?" Can one do either alone?


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