I once saw a long-time preaching professor sitting alone in the cafeteria. I struck up a conversation with him: “What did you preach last Sunday?” He shared he had preached from the prophet, Haggai. I asked him the subject of the sermon. I don’t remember what he told me, but I remember being stunned. It had nothing to do with Haggai’s message. I couldn’t help but ask him a simple question, “When you get to heaven and see Haggai, what if he asks, ‘Why didn’t you preach what I wrote?’” The kind-hearted professor honestly replied, “I’ve never considered that question.”
Expository preaching contemplates that question. It is designed to convey the meaning the biblical author intended. I promised in an earlier article (Correcting a Crisis) to offer a simple step-by-step method for expository preaching. It begins with proper definitions of two terms: hermeneutics and exegesis.
Definition of Hermeneutics
Walt Kaiser defines hermeneutics as the discipline that deals with the principles of interpretation. I described it in Correcting a Crisis as a “science” because it is governed by interpretive rules within a system.
The foundation of biblical hermeneutics is grounded upon several pillars of truth:
- Scripture is breathed-out by God and, therefore, inerrant (2 Tim. 3:16).
- Scripture is capable of being understood. Modern theologians call this the clarity of Scripture (the reformers called it the perspicuity of Scripture). Peter mentions that Scripture, at times, can be hard to understand: There are some things that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures (2 Pet. 3:16). Yet, when we don’t understand a Scripture passage, the problem is not with Scripture. The problem is with us.
- God chose to reveal Himself to us through His biblical authors’ original intent (2 Pet. 2:21). Therefore, to find the human author’s original intent is to find God’s intent.
- God’s consequences are severe for those who add to or take away from the original meaning (Rev. 22:18-19).
- God has not revealed everything to us (Deut. 29:29). Some things are not for us to know. Our task is to proclaim what God has revealed, not what He hasn’t. Indeed, Paul warns us “not to go beyond what is written” (1 Cor. 4:6).
With these foundational principles set, Kaiser drills down a little deeper: “[W]hile hermeneutics will seek to describe the general and special principles and rules which are useful in approaching the Biblical text, exegesis will seek to identify the single truth-intention” of the biblical author. This brings us to the second term we must define, “exegesis.”
Definition of Exegesis
Kaiser describes exegesis as the practice of identifying the single truth-intention of the biblical authors in the individual phrases, clauses, and sentences as they make up the thought paragraphs, sections, and ultimately, entire books. If hermeneutics is the general discipline that deals with interpretation, then “exegesis” is the specific set of procedures by which we come to the correct interpretation. Exegesis means “to lead out of.” It seeks to draw-out the author’s single meaning from a biblical text. It is the opposite of “eisegesis.” Eisegesis imposes onto a text a different meaning. Typically, this occurs by infusing our pre-understandings, life experiences, or unconscious prejudices into a Scripture text. We always should guard against that.
Perhaps a contemporary illustration of “eisegesis” will cast light on the crisis in “exegesis.” In a recent article in The Christian Post (also, The New York Daily), theologian Keri Day (professor, Princeton Theological Seminary) argued white Christians should pay reparations to African-Americans. She appealed to Zacchaeus’ conversion experience in Luke 19:8: And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfould. Day asserts, “Jesus is clear that reparations or restitution to those who have been exploited and rendered vulnerable is not optional but required.”
That statement alone is problematic, but Day goes further, “In his encounter with Zacchaeus, I want to suggest that Jesus sets forth a reparations ethic . . . Zacchaeus is expected to give back that which he has stolen so that he can be reconciled with others and God. Reconciliation cannot occur until he has given back what he has stolen.”
We appreciate Day for making an honest attempt to interpret the text on its own terms, but she infuses her own situation-in-life into that text. In doing so, she makes two unorthodox claims: (1) that, from Luke’s text, Jesus mandated a theology of reparations on all believers and (2) that reparations are necessary to attain salvation (i.e., “so that he can be reconciled with . . . God”).
Was Luke’s intent in Luke 19:8 to mandate a theology of reparations and a merit-based salvation plan? No.
I’m certain Day is a capable theologian. She simply comes to the Scripture from a different framework. Part of the problem is she incorrectly interpreted Jesus’ intent (else-wise she, herself, would be required to make reparations and restitution to every person she has ever offended). However, the deeper problem is she never attempted to convey Luke’s intent for including this episode. That point is critical since God chose to communicate this text through Luke.
This a vivid illustration of eisegesis—infusing a personal experience, passion, or agenda into a Scripture text. This particular example not only changed Luke’s intent, it changed the essence of the gospel. I wish I could say this brand of exegesis is an outlier, but it’s not. It is the norm.
A Question To Ask
One day we will see the biblical authors in heaven. There will be no condemnation there, of course, but suppose they did ask, “Why didn’t you preach what I wrote?” It might do well for each of us to ask ourselves that question each time we mount the pulpit. That simple question will drive us to proper hermeneutics and proper exegesis. Perhaps it just might keep us from blushing when we meet Scripture writers–like Haggai or Luke–in heaven.
Walter C. Kaiser and Moises Silva, An Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics (Zondervan, 1994), 15.
Walter C. Kaiser, Toward An Exegetical Theology (Baker Book House, 1981), 47.
Dr. Day’s official title is Associate Professor of Constructive Theology and African-American Religion.