Conflicting Exegetical Criteria and Authorities

[Part Six of a series on “what makes exegesis difficult?” that otherwise includes parts one, two, three, four, and five.]

Although one could go on indefinitely citing the sources of frustration and confusion for students who are beginning the study of exegesis, I’ll conclude my survey here by describing a structural problem with the exercise: that is, that beginning students face an incoherent diversity of claims about proper critical interpretation. The incoherence doesn’t derive from the scholarly sources themselves (usually), but from the absence of any overarching explanation of whence the teeming variety of interpretive possibilities arises, and what relation each alternative bears to others. Since a beginning interpreter doesn’t have the benefit of extensive experience dealing with the players and their positions, the hyperabundance of interpretive options challenges students to make interpretive decisions without the rich understanding of the discourse that they might gain after years of attentive study. As a result, many students hew to a safer, or more comfortable standard. They either adopt and defend a consistent factional position (upholding a doctrinal, or ideological, or local, or conspiratorial, or whatever sort of standard), or latch onto interpretations because they “like” them.
In defense of teaching scholars, I will affirm that we do talk about criteria and authorities, and we typically assign exercises aimed at cultivating a student’s fluency in deploying criteria and weighing various authorities. Such exercises frequently work out fine for people who will eventually become scholars themselves, so it’s more difficult for us to recognize how baffling they seem to many students. If a reader approaches the field of biblical criticism without being attuned to the intricacies of judgment in the discipline, though, they’re likely to make initial assessments that depart seriously from the normative target zone of academic criticism; and, having made a divergent initial assessment, the reader is likely to draw questionable conclusions, and frame arguments that wobble unsteadily away from the goal for which the instructor is aiming. If a popular author claims that Jesus spoke classical Hebrew in his daily comings and goings, and a student reader accepts this claim, the student will embark on a series of inferences and evaluations that take an exegetical essay onto precarious ground — but a beginning exegete doesn’t necessarily have the standing to evaluate an assertion made by a prominent interpreter, especially when the claim in question tends to confirm the student’s initial inclinations. When an instructor hands back a paper with comments that suggest the trajectory and scale of the beginning exegete’s error, the student-writer has reason to feel discouraged, perplexed, and somewhat resentful of the teacher (“Who is Prof. Vexillus to question Popular Author?” “Prof. Vexillus is grading me unfairly just because he doesn’t agree with so-and-so” or “because she’s a heretic” or “because he’s a fundamentalist.” ). {To an extent, I think this repeats claims I’ve advanced earlier, but it’s been a while since I read the previous entries in the series.}
The confusing conflict of criteria arises in part from genuine, unresolved conflicts within the interpretive fields. Archaeologists who concentrate on material culture have been known to derogate their colleagues who endeavor to reconcile textual material with material evidence, and vice versa. Interpreters who invoke social-scientific approaches have been known to belittle interpreters who operate primarily with grammatical and comparative-literary criteria. Literary-critical interpreters scorn scholars who (allegedly) neglect matters of plot, character, and narrative technique. Interpreters who bring to the foreground the interests of non-dominant groups question the integrity of “mainstream” dominant-group interpreters. And, of course, critical academic interpreters deride readers who take less erudite, more populist approaches. The list could go on indefinitely, and it matters not because someone is right and someone else is wrong, nor even because people ought to be more charitable about their colleagues, but because beginning interpreters don’t have a sufficient acquaintance with these disciplinary streams to assess the weight of one over against another; they have to just take sides, perhaps with the first rhetorical powerhouse they encounter, perhaps with the interpreter who most forcefully confirms the student’s pre-existing biases, perhaps with the scholar who seems to debunk the follies of the student’s home community, frequently with interpreters who resonate with the sermons or Bible studies that drew the student toward formal study of the Bible in the first place. Students have a built-in incentive to conform to their teachers’ apparent predisposition, and teachers have a tremendous advantage in presenting a persuasive case for their perspective (and a flimsy case for “the other side”), though sometimes a contrarian student adopts an opposing position in the hope of confuting a professor. All of these exemplify very common classroom phenomena, and none of them involve making a well-informed, balanced discernment. If students don’t mind a false start or two, or if they’re exceptionally quick at picking up the rhetorical dynamics of a discourse, they’ll manage fine. Many students, however, assimilate the rhetoric and etiquette of a discourse relatively slowly, and many lose interest quickly if they are not evaluated favorably from the outset. If we want to teach exegesis to a whole class, we have to keep in view the interests not just of the apt learners (the ones like us), but of the less rapid learners who are apt to lose heart when their efforts garner lukewarm (or negative) feedback.
The same sorts of conflicts among criteria arise from divisions among disciplinary currents arise also among the various authoritative sources to which an exegete might appeal. Very obviously, different schools and teachers rely on different textbooks, different reference texts, and so on. Further, though, the range (and credibility) of sources that a student might find in the library will vary by institution and teacher. And although online databases lead to staggeringly vast repositories of interpretive judgments, these sources do not come with obvious identifying markers that guide the interpreter toward (or away from) arguments discordant from their interpretive academic habitat. Again, some students will pick up very quickly that certain journals are welcome reference sources here, unwelcome there — and the quicker students will notice patterns of bibliographic citation and commendation (or omission and deprecation) — but more nearly average students won’t notice these patterns as quickly, if at all. Students who struggle with the whole enterprise may not recognize institutional/professorial approbation at all, and some students will operate on the premise that anything that appears in the library’s collection (and increasingly, anything that they find online) bears an imprimatur of sound authority.
Students who face this welter of conflicting criteria and authorities confront a two-fold assignment. Not only do they have to compose a well-reasoned, adequately-written exegetical exercise, but they also have to assess, interrogate, affirm, dispute, and arrange the criteria and authorities on which they draw. This is as it must be: even if we try to direct students’ attention to the text itself, apart from secondary interpretive guidance, we ourselves are functioning as an interpretive filter for their deliberation. We permit them to use certain translations and discourage others, we assign certain textbooks and ignore others, we present certain information in lectures and disregard other information. All of this doesn’t mean that there’s no point in concentrating on the text — it just means that even this emphasis doesn’t equal “unmediated” or “the plain sense of the text.” (If it were so very unmediated or plain, students wouldn’t need our guidance in the exercise.)
It won’t do to try to suppress the social, political, theological, and institutional aspects of exegesis — unless, of course, one honestly believes that one has escaped the influence of social, political, theological, and institutional effects on one’s interpretive practice (and one expects that one’s students can likewise hope to attain such interpretive purity). I have no word from the Lord on this, but I suggest making explicit some of these factors, and explaining that they are not simply whimsical, but are integrally related to the sound practice of exegesis as “we” (Methodists, secular critics, liberals, orthodox, Chicago grads, white males, Karen Christians, whatever) have critically received and perpetuated those practices. If one grants that “we” are who we are for good reasons, those same reasons ground our affirmation of the social, political, theological, and institutional flavors of our exegetical practice.
Some of our students (and colleagues) may well want to query these premises. That’s OK, too, so long as they have sound reasons for their criticism. There’s no magic wand that’ll compel our interlocutors to accept our premises. The best we can do is to practice our exegesis with integrity and consistency, and to make explicit as many of the good reasons for our premises and our interpretations as time permits.
We ought also point to the reasons that our interpretive heroes should be respected, and the reasons our misguided interlocutors have gone astray. Moreover, we should acknowledge the weaker parts of our heroes’ positions, and the strongest case for our adversaries’ positions. Otherwise, we’re inculcating a catalog of correct answers — not teaching exegetical reasoning.  
This will frustrate students who hanker after right answers for confuting the heretic, thwarting the fundy, putting ideological interpreters in their place, unveiling the plain, objective truth that only people like you recognize. It may cause a degree of stress if your colleague(s) adhere to one of the various partis pris that deem themselves the beleaguered bastions of untrammeled good sense. Still, I can’t think of a way to draw students into exercising the kind of resourceful, self-reliant, prudent, long-run exegetical judgment that enhances essays, sermons, and instruction.
[Next — when I get to it — I’ll begin describing the practice of exegesis as scholars practice it among themselves, in terms that open up to the very different situation of a beginning student venturing to compose an interpretive argument under the evaluative judgment of a pedagogical authority figure. This portion will try to articulate the characteristics that distinguish critical exegetical deliberation and persuasion (on one hand) from cheerleading, brainwashing, partisanship, incorrigible idiosyncrasy, and blind guessing (on the other). After that, I anticipate sketching the specific qualities that belong to the diverse interpretive “methods.”]

2 thoughts on “Conflicting Exegetical Criteria and Authorities

  1. It sounds like you are saying (among other things) that grading (other other evaluative exercises) is harmful to the development of exegetical skill. Sounds about right to me.

    I think I can boil down the important steps in my own exegetical development to two: 1) growing up in and spending lots of time in churches that studied and discussed the scriptures (and participating in those discussions as age appropriate), and 2) discovering, via the recommendation of my friends who went to seminary, the work of Tom Wright and having Wright serve as an entrance point to academic biblical studies. I suppose I should add the motivational factor of volunteering to teach a class on “New Testament background” at my church. I did about 4000 pages of reading specifically for that which brought me into contact with much of the Context Group work.

    I had studied Greek in college, and later worked through about three chapters worth of Cranfield on Romans, but I really didn’t have much interest in academic biblical studies until I read Wright.

  2. (Seems like an OK place to leave this) Recently I began work on my MA thesis at Mcmaster Divinity in Hamilton Ontario, Canada. My work is in the area of Missional Hermeneutics, primarily a critical review of the work submitted by Chris Wright. In preparation for writing the section on biblical theology I’ve read through a few histories chronicling ebb and flow of the discipline.(Yawn) Most of them conclude with the supremacy of one system over another much in the way you describe scholarship as being ‘bound in captivity’. (Poaching on Zion). I found the article of particular interest. That point of interest is related to my work on missional hermeneutics. I have been arguing for some time that the intent of study is transformation, otherwise I’d rather watch Cosby, or possibly R. Atkinson (he’s much funnier silent). The point of missional hermeneutics, which from my perspective lands soundly in the world of biblical theology, is the signifying practise which if I understand is the telic of biblical theology that you have in mind. The refocusing of the question you asked, whether hypothetical or not, regarding our processionals is very profound. It’s not about how we make it better, it’s how do we do it in such a way that they will see our good works and glorify God. Before I ramble to far, allow me to say that I appreciated the article and found its content thoroughly ….. I’m not sure what word to use here but it would be highly complementary.

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