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It is the very nature of language to form rather than inform. When language is personal, which it is at its best, it reveals; and revelation is always formative—we don’t know more, we become more. Our best users of language, poets and lovers and children and saints, use words to make: make intimacies, make character, make beauty, make truth.
So we begin by attending to this text, attending to both the language and the spirit infusing the language. Words are never mere words—they convey spirit, meaning, energy, and truth. Exegesis is the discipline of attending to the text and listening to it rightly and well.
But exegesis is rigorous, disciplined, intellectual work. It rarely feels “spiritual.” Men and women who are “into” spirituality, frequently give exegesis short shrift, preferring to rely on inspiration and intuition. But the long and broad consensus in the community of God’s people has always insisted on a vigorous and meticulous exegesis: Give long and close and learned attention to this text! All our masters in spirituality were and are master exegetes.
A word, or sentence of words, is a marvelous thing. Words reveal. We are presented with reality, with truth that makes our world larger, our relations richer. Words get us out of ourselves and into a responsive relation with a large world of time and space, things and people.
A word, or sentence of words, is also a most mysterious thing. Words conceal. Words can be used to falsify and mislead. All of our experience with language is “after Babel.” Much of our experience with language is with its misuse. We cannot assume that any word that we assume we know is identical with that same word when it occurs in the text. And it is disconcerting to find that a word that is used one way on page 26 is used in quite a different way on page 72.
Language is also constantly changing, in constant flux. If a word was used one way last week, it cannot be depended upon to be used the same way next week. And we have two and three thousand years of “weeks” separating us from the biblical text.
Because of all this, exegesis must not be slighted. The scriptural text is complex and demanding. The primary witnesses to God’s revelation are the Old and New Testaments: Torah and Prophets and Writings from the Old Testament; Gospels, Letters, and Apocalypse in the New. Written in Hebrew and Aramaic and Greek, languages that have, as all languages do, their own peculiar way of inflecting nouns, conjugating verbs, inserting prepositions in odd places, and arranging words in a sentence. Written on parchment and papyri. Written with pen and ink. Written in Palestine and Egypt and Syria and Greece and Italy.
Not all of us have to know all of this in order to read Holy Scripture formationally. Exegesis is not in the first place a specialist activity of scholars, although we very much need these scholars working on our behalf. We are not, after all, deciphering hieroglyphics as some would have it. Exegesis is simply responding adequately (which is not simple!) to the demand that words make on us, that language makes on us. The Reformers insisted on what they called the “perspicacity” of Scripture, that the Bible is substantially intelligible. It is essentially open to our understanding without recourse to academic specialists or a privileged priesthood:
…those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due course of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them (The Westminster Confession I. vii).
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