Biblical Exegesis

in a Postmodern Culture

Pastor Christian Adjemian, Ph.D., Dipl. Div.

First Reformed Presbyterian Church, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Prepared for the New England Reformed Fellowship

October 10, 2000 Anno Domini

A previous version of this paper was presented as a Commencement address for

The Ottawa Theological Hall, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, on September 2, 1997.

Exegesis and interpretation for Reformed pastors.

My purpose today is to reflect both on the nature and on the purpose of the work of exegesis. I begin with the question: What is the place of the exegete in the Christian church? What is the nature of the work that he accomplishes?

When we think about exegesis we typically think about the technical discipline that the exegete must exercise. We think of doing detailed, even tedious, study of the Greek or Hebrew (or Aramaic) original text, doing word studies, structural studies, and looking at historical context, theological context, etc. Douglas Stuart defines exegesis as, "a thorough, analytical study of a biblical passage done so as to arrive at a useful interpretation of the passage".1 Gordon Fee writes that exegesis is "the historical investigation into the meaning of the Biblical text." It answers the question "what did the Biblical author mean." It gets at the what, the why and the intent of the author upon his original hearers.2

But there is a second question that urges itself on us: what is the purpose of this detailed exegetical work? This is a question we must keep before us in all our work as pastors. We ask ourselves, why are we doing this? Why are we making this effort, engaging in this labor, to study the Biblical text so carefully? Why do we work at difficulty disciplines and study to know the text? Is it for our own edification, our erudition? Or is there something more that we aim for?

Walter Kaiser Jr. in 1981 wrote about a "crisis in exegetical theology."3 He explained that a gap exists between exegetical method as it is taught in seminaries and the reality of sermon preparation. A gap exists between understanding the content of the Scriptures which were written down in the past -- the work of exegesis -- and proclaiming that content "with such relevance in the present as to produce faith, life, and bona fide works," -- which is the task of preaching. Kaiser proposes in his book the discipline of exegetical theology to map the route from the text of the Scripture to the proclamation of the text. Exegetical theology serves to bridge the gap between the technical analysis of a biblical passage and the pastoral and devotional application of the passage to the hearts of people in worship. This is a persistent problem, this gap between the exegetical study and the proclamation of the word.

Douglas Stuart, in his book on OT exegesis, written at the same period, writes (p. 71) " Most pastors who are theologically trained have been required to write at least one exegesis paper during their seminary days. … But few have been shown how to make the transition from the exegetical labor and skills required for a full term paper to those required for a sermon." This is why so many pastors abandon exegetical and language skills achieved in seminary training and rely instead on commentaries, on published sermons, and on inspirational storytelling in the pulpit. In the companion volume on NT exegesis, Gordon Fee also echoes this concern: " The immediate end of the Biblical student is to understand the Biblical text. However, exegesis should not be an end in itself. Exegetical sermons are usually dry as dust, informative perhaps, but seldom prophetic or inspirational. Therefore the ultimate aim of the Biblical student is to apply one's exegetical understanding of the text to the contemporary church and world."

Jay Adams, in his typical pass-me-the-hammer-and-let's-nail-this-one-down approach, states that preaching is truth applied. Adams argues that "…the truth of God revealed in Scripture came in an applied form and should be reapplied to the same sort of people for the same purposes for which it was originally given. That is to say, truth should be applied today just as God originally applied it." What he is pleading for is that the intention of the biblical author needs to be the focus, the telos of the work of exegesis.4

Definition of exegesis.

Being a linguist by training, it will not surprise you to know that my preferred definition of exegesis is the one furnished by two linguists. Cotterel and Turner define exegesis this way: "Exegesis is the bringing to expression of an interpreter's understanding of an author's intended meaning of the discourse meaning of the text."5

"Exegesis is the bringing to expression…"

The work of exegesis is not finished until the results are themselves communicated, or brought to expression, either in writing or in speech. (Or perhaps in some other medium, music or art, if you are gifted like Bach or Rembrandt.)

"of an interpreter's understanding …"

The interpreter is the immediate agent through whom the expression will come to life. When you think about that statement you are probably concerned about the danger of subjectivity. If the understanding is through the interpreter, then isn't the interpreter's subjectivity going to color the intention of the biblical text. Further on I will come back to the matter of safeguards needed to prevent subjectivity.

"of an author's intended meaning…"

The existence of the author is important: Who was he? When did he live? Where was he? What was his intention when he spoke, what was his purpose?

"of the discourse meaning of the text."

This is a phrase that is a linguistic term, and a very important one for our purposes. The intention of the author is communicated to the original hearers within the context of a discourse, and that discourse and its structure contribute to the meaning of the text..

The Biblical texts are very often discourses. The Biblical text is not a series of sound bites, or their baptized cousins, proof texts. The Biblical text is a message containing parts that are linked and bound together to advance a purpose that has sub purposes within it, all of which refer to the larger purpose. That's why it is tragic when the Bible is taught as "stories" rather than as "the story." Or to pun on a favorite feminist phrase, it is HIStory. The Bible is not sound bites or proof texts, but it is a discourse.

Safeguards for Reformed exegesis

There are some safeguards for Reformed exegesis, particularly to protect us against subjectivity. I'll give just one example of a coherent, sound and thorough summary of these safeguards. This comes from the 17th Century, and is grounded in scholastic and humanist scholarship. Francis Turretin (1623-87) who taught for some thirty years at the Academy of Geneva. His writings have recently been translated form Latin and published as The Institutes of Elenctic Theology.6 In his first volume, in the section on "The Holy Scriptures," his Question XIX "The sense of the Scriptures," para.18. p. 153, he writes this:

To ascertain the true sense of the Scriptures, interpretation is needed. This is true not only of the words which are contained in the versions, but also of the things (called "prophecy" by Paul [Rom 12:6] and " interpretation" evpi,lusij by Peter [2 Pet 1:20]). It is not to be sought by each man's private judgment (which is the ivdi,aj evpilu,sij condemned by Peter), but is to be gathered from the Scriptures themselves as their own best and surest interpreter (Neh 8:8; Acts 17:11). But for this, after fervent prayer to God, there is need of an inspection of the sources, the knowledge of the languages, the distinction between proper and figurative words, attention to the scope and circumstances, collation of passages, connection of what precedes and follows, removal of prejudices and conformity of the interpretation to the analogy of faith. All of this can be referred to these three means: analysis, comparison, and analogy. Analysis is threefold: grammatical, which inquires into proper expressions; rhetorical, which inquires into the figurative; and logical, which observes the scope and circumstances and attends to the connection of words. Comparison compares passages of Scripture with each other (Acts 9:22) -- the more obscure with the plainer, similar and parallel with similar, dissimilar with dissimilar. The analogy of faith (Rom 12:6) signifies not only the measure of faith granted to each believer, but also the constant harmony and agreement of all heads of faith exhibited in the clearer expressions of Scripture (to which all expositions ought to be conformed) that nothing may be determined at variance with the articles of faith or the precepts of the Decalogue."

Notice that Turretin describes a methodology that allows for much work on the part of the exegete, but at the end of which there is a filter through which his interpretation must be examined. This is the quality control on the final product. It is constituted by the principle of Scripture interprets Scripture, together with the understanding of the Christian church since the apostle by the analogy of faith. The interpreter is not a loose agent, able to produce creative theologies and readings of the text. He is bound by the voice of the Holy Spirit and the common testimony of the church since the apostles.

What do we exegete?

The Westminster Confession of Faith, in the first chapter "Of the Holy Scriptures," deals with this matter. I encourage you to review that chapter again soon. Now, the WCF is written with the context of the Protestant Reformation. Within that context there were challenges for the Christian exegete.

Problems for the Christian exegete at time of the Reformation of the Western Church:

  1. The Text. Which text do we exegete, do we hold to? WCF I.2,3 deals with this question. It defines the canonical books and excludes all other, including the Apocrypha.
  2. The Version. Which version should we use when we exegete the Scriptures. The WCF I.8 answers this question. The OT in Hebrew and the NT in Greek "being immediately inspired by God, and by his singular care and providence kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentical; so as in all controversies of religion, the Church is finally to appeal unto them."
  3. Authority. The Confession goes on to discuss the basis of authority of what we exegete (WCF I.4,9). It does not depend on the testimony of man or of any church, "but wholly upon God, (who is truth itself,) the author thereof; and therefore it is to be received because it is the word of God." "The infallible rule of interpretation of scripture is the scripture itself…"
  4. The extent of authority of the scriptures (WCF I.6,10). "The whole counsel of God...."
These were core issues facing Christian exegetes at the time of the Protestant Reformation, and it is interesting to see that the Confession of Faith begins with these issues. If we are to going to build a theology and to teach and build up the Christian church, we have to know what our teaching is going to be based on, and what our authority is going to be based on and from where that authority is to be derived. And so the Confession begins with these issues.

A second set of problems for the Christian exegete at the time of Reformation.

A second set of problems concerned how God reveals himself in the Scriptures. The Confession addresses that head on, in the first chapter, WCF I.1,5,7. In the first paragraph we find stated the doctrine of natural revelation and its necessary twin, the written revelation of God. "…it pleased the Lord , at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal himself and to declare that his will unto his Church; and afterwards, for the better preserving and propagating of the truth … to commit the same whole unto writing…" In the fifth paragraph the Confession states that "our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth, and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit, bearing witness by and with the word in our heart." And in the seventh paragraph, we are taught that the Scripture is perspicuous: it can be clearly understood, even by the unlearned. In sum, God does indeed reveal himself through the Scriptures, deliberately, Spiritually, and clearly.

These two main issues from the first chapter of the WCF are fundamental enough to be summarized in Shorter Catechism Questions 2 and 3.

Challenges for the Christian exegete today:

Challenges from the Reformation period.

The challenges of the period of the Reformation remain with us and cause much confusion and dissension in the churches. These are the questions of canon, of text, of God's authority, and of authority in the church.

Challenges from the Modern period.

But in addition, the Reformed exegete today faces a set of problems that were not contemporary to the time of the Reformation. These are formulated as questions such as: Does the Divine intercede into human life? Does God speak? The are Modern questions, which have been around since the Enlightenment. These have led some to Deism and rationalism. . Either God communicates to us or he doesn't. If he communicates, either he does it only through the things created (the Book of Nature) or he does it through both the things created and the written book of Scripture (natural and special revelation). Or, is there no God, and he therefore cannot speak at all. Man is alone in the universe, and we exit this discussion through the door of atheism Let me label these "old" new questions, they've been around since the enlightenment. They haven't gone away, but they have now spawned a new generation of questions which may make them obsolete.

Challenges from the Postmodern period

Today we also face some "new" new questions. Today's questions are phrased like this: If there were a God, could he actually communicate with us using language? This question raises a problem beyond merely doubting of the existence of God. It is a problem about the very foundation of any human culture or belief or of knowledge. Does language mean anything outside itself? Can man actually communicate anything outside his own personal language experience? Or, to put is somewhat differently, if there truly is a reality outside of language, can language actually refer to it?

Do you remember how you learned mathematics? Picture problems taught you that mathematical language is referential. It points to meanings outside of itself. It communicates. "Two apples each sold for 23 cents gives you 46 cents, made up of one quarter, two dimes and one penny." Even mathematical language can be referential; it can point outside itself. The number problems help us understand this, and lead us to discover other properties of mathematics that are not so obviously externally referential. The "new" new questions about language suggest that language cannot do what arithmetic was used for in school picture problems.

Francis Schaeffer addressed some of these "new" new questions in his book He is There and He is Not Silent 7(p. 313) As he points out, modern epistemology, which developed out of Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, and Kierkegaard, has brought modern man to utter despair through rationality. Consequently, modern man has adopted mysticism in order to take hold of some form of optimism. We cannot know about ultimates, we can't know about spiritual things, so we just have to make a leap of faith. We have to be "mystical" so we can have some optimism. There is meaning in life. There truly is a purpose. We truly are going somewhere. Our rationality cannot lead us there; it shows us that it doesn't actually make sense. But we will mystically "jump up" to believe something that will give us optimism. Schaeffer comments:

"This is a mysticism like no previous mysticism. Previous mysticisms always assumed something was there. But modern man's mysticisms are semantic mysticisms that deal only with words; they have nothing to do with anything being there, but are simply concerned with something in one's own head, or in language in one form or another. The idealistic taking of drugs in the 1960s began as one way to try to find meaning within one's head."

Wittgenstein developed a form of philosophy called "linguistic analysis," which has nothing to do with linguistics. Wittgenstein's linguistic analysis is a form of philosophy that tries to salvage something after rationalism showed that logical positivism failed. Schaeffer comments:

Although [linguistic analysis] divines words using reason, finally language leads to neither values nor facts. Language leads to language, and that is all. It is not only the certainty of values that is gone, but the certainty of knowing. ." p. 317

When language can only point to language, we can't express anything beyond a closed system. These concepts and questions may seem to be difficult or too esoteric to worry about. But this is very much a part of our everyday culture. The people in our churches are affected by this intellectual context whether consciously or not. We are now in the Postmodern period. The old questions are gone, left behind. We have new questions that are so fundamental that we can't even know whether we can communicate with one another anymore.

Challenges from the Postmodern period: where we are today.

Returning to the matter of biblical exegesis, we can generalize this way: the Enlightenment gave us Modernism and the historical criticism of the Bible, Postmodernism gives us the deconstruction of the Bible. Enlightenment and Modernist criticism led to a rejection of the divine authority of the Scriptures; Postmodern criticism considers the Bible to be a set of texts that are ultimately meaningless beyond individual subjective interpretation.

Jon Levenson, a professor of Judaism at Harvard, writes in a 1993 article:

"Historical criticism is the form of biblical studies that corresponds to the classical liberal political ideal. It is the realization of the Enlightenment project in the realm of biblical scholarship. […] The regnant presupposition is that religion is an exception to human rationality and thus tolerable only to the extent that it is privatized and thus denied a voice in the public conversation. […But] the secularity of historical criticism represents not the suppression of commitment, but its relocation." [pp. 30,31,33] 8

The historical critics are so sure of their secularity that it is at the center of their particular commitment. If you don't share their commitment, you have no dialogue with them. If you approach the biblical text as a believer, as a Christian, you have no dialogue with these scholars. Historical criticism allows that only knowledge of the historical setting of a particular biblical text permits an understanding of that text. Thus, only well trained academics can truly understand the Bible. Only specialized academics with a well ingrained secular commitment, that is. But at least the assumption of historical critics is that the Biblical text has meaning.

A year later, Paul M. Blowers writes:

On the other side of the spectrum are literary critics who aspire instead to liberate human subjectivity in reading scriptural texts. Scripture still has a story to tell, but it comes to life, they say, only as individual readers or communities put their own questions to the Bible and, spurning the superficialities of "authorial" or "original" meaning as well as "traditional" interpretations, construct ever new semantic possibilities out of the linguistic stuff of the texts. A good novelist may then be a better judge of biblical truth than a philologist, a historian, or a theologian."9

This is where we are today. The community of experts is now democratized, and many different assumptions can be brought to bear on the task of interpreting the biblical text. Naturally, the set of assumptions may include historic apostolic Christian presuppositions, but that is merely one preference, yielding a reading which is only one of many readings. Each of the possible readings is entirely acceptable, since any number of interpretations is possible because each is constructed by the reader. The language has no meaning outside its own system. You approach the language as a reader and whatever meaning you wish to read into the text, that's its meaning. This is where we are today in the culture of interpretation.

The first step:

The first step in the Enlightenment was an attempt to do away with the possibility of Natural Revelation. The Enlightenment began with the assumption that nature can be accounted for by rationality given enough time. There is no need for appeal to the supernatural to account for the natural world. The Bible itself is simply a set of religious texts which have been given a high mythological value by misguided and naive religious people. There is no supernatural intrusion even in the Bible. It's all natural revelation, a cultural artifact, and it can all be explained rationally, given enough time. This attempt failed when positivism was overthrown. The secular biblical critics themselves recognized that this attempt failed.

The second step:

The second step is the post-Enlightenment development to do away with even the possibility of special revelation in the form of texts that can communicate anything from one generation to another, or from one individual to another. If they cannot even accomplish that much, how can they possibly communicate anything from a transcendent God. If texts only exist as the reader interprets them, then there can be no special revelation. God would have to be the reader of the text for the text to be His. It is impossible to hand down specific revelation. If God exists he must be a mute idol. Anything else cannot be known.

Is there anything to exegete?

The question confronting the exegete today is this: is there anything to exegete? Is the Biblical text actually a text that means something? Or is the biblical text a text that means whatever the reader understands it to mean? Notice that this is a very serious question. If Postmodernism is right, the only meaning the biblical text can have is the meaning the reader (hearer) gives to it. Each reader becomes his own exegete, or rather, his own author.

The first step, Modernism, argued that given rationality and time, all appeals to transcendent realities to explain natural phenomena will prove to be unnecessary. That led to Materialism. The second step, which leads to Postmodernism, is the claim that given the limitations of language itself, all attempts to appeal to external reality to explain social, ethical, moral phenomena will prove to be self-deceptive and ultimately fruitless. There is no external reality to talk about. There are no universals, no absolutes, and certainly no God. Wittgenstein said there was only "silence." Today, the cultural thinkers are saying there are only realities, in the plural; as many as there are individual interpreters or communities of interpreters of language. No absolutes, no certainties, no necessities. Only interpretations. Under these circumstances there can be no revelation. There can only be revelations in the plural, which change with the moment, the interpreter, and the context. The book, together with the author, is a construct that must be rejected. We must deconstruct books, showing their contradictions and their manipulative ends. Histories, threads, thoughts, experiences all add dimension to the process of understanding, but truth can never be grasped, only embraced.

The French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard (died 1998), whose work is central to the development of Postmodernism, stated with humor: "It is not necessary to enter a church to be conscious that something unknown is calling."10 This is as close as a Postmodernist thinker will come to religious faith.

Cultural reflections of Postmodernism

Postmodernism is deliberately difficult to define. It rejects authoritative descriptions, including its own. People who teach and write on the subject mostly list characteristics of Postmodernism and contrast it with the dominant Modernist paradigm in which most of us were trained. In his review of Gene Edward Veith's book on Postmodernism, Wilfred M. McClay provides this handy summary:

Where modernists believed in determinacy, postmodernists embrace indeterminacy. Where modernists value synthesis and comprehensiveness, postmodernists value deconstruction and fragmentation. Where modernists value the type, postmodernists emphasize the deviant. Where modernists esteem a personal ideal of responsible agency and integrity, postmodernists reject "the authentic self" as an illusion, an attempt to reify a mere collocation and ensemble of social roles. Where modernists esteem the work of art as a serious, self-contained, absolute, and finished work, produced by an autonomous creative artist, postmodernists emphasize art as an arena of playfulness, irony, referentiality, process, performance, and incompleteness, in which the audience participates in the creation of meaning. Where modernists think foundationally, and believe objective truths can be discovered, postmodernists think anti-foundationally. They believe that truths are constructed by social groups and their languages; they dismiss science and philosophy as totalizing "meta narratives"; and view history as nothing more than "a network of agonistic language games." Indeed, at the very core of postmodernist ideology is the assertion that language is a self-referential "prison house" which cannot take in truths about the world outside, but can only construct meanings out of itself. There can be no transcendent Logos; the only reality is virtual reality.11

We live in postmodern times, and whether we agree with Postmodernism or reject it, we cannot escape its effects in the culture around us. Postmodernism stresses multi-perspectivity, fragmentation, play rather than purpose. In the arts it encourages exploration and mixing of different styles; it likes complexity, images changing images; in film and TV it prefers spectacle over narrative, visual over content, putting the viewer in a perpetual present, and it challenges the public/private life distinction, often dealing with "taboo realism." The pattern in the arts is away from universals, away from distinctions. This new paradigm has been actively shaping popular culture. Sound bites, kaleidoscope images, web surfing, role playing, decision making via opinion surveys, all these are features of Postmodern thinking reflected in the culture.

Postmodernism is said to describe the emergence of a social order in which the importance and power of the mass media and popular culture means that they govern and shape all other forms of social relationships. Popular culture signs and media images increasingly dominate our sense of reality and the way we define ourselves and the world around us. This implies that there is no distinction between reality and simulation. The autonomous individual is rejected in favor of the merging of subject and object, with emphasis upon the anarchic collective

"All preferences are principled," writes Stanley Fish, a central figure in literary and legal postmodernism, and "all principles are preferences. . . . In short, one person's principles are another person's illegitimate ('mere') preferences." Jacques Derrida, a French philosopher who is at the center of Postmodern thinking, writes about The End of the Book coming soon; the end of what he calls the Logocentric culture -- the culture that you and I associate with historic Christianity. This, like the Death of the Author, is the conceptual analogue of the End of the Printed Book. One proponent puts it this way:

These are historical shifts which have been concomitant with, and indeed have paved the way for, the advent of electronic hypertext. They signal not simply the demise of the book industry, but a way of thinking about the way we organize, conceive and imagine the world in which we live. To think of the world not as a Book but as a hypertext is to conceive of it as a heterogeneous, mutable, interactive and open-ended space where meaning is inscribed between signs, between nodes, and between readers, not enclosed between the limits of a front and back cover, or anchored to some conceptual spine called the author." 12

Solutions for the Christian exegete in the Postmodern period.

These are the cultural circumstances in which we are called to be biblical exegetes. These are some of the new challenges in the world for pastors at the beginning of the 21st Century. We are increasingly preaching in a Postmodern world. We have to first understand and then learn to teach others, that language is not only meaningful, it is powerful enough to move the reader/hearer outside himself. We have to understand and teach that communication between people is not only possible, it is necessary or people stop being people. We have to understand and then teach that understanding through linguistic communication is not only achievable, it is effective.

We must attempt to understand the world we live in, the cultural context in which God in his wisdom has placed us in our generation, and we must be very sure we understand the intent of the biblical author as he speaks into the world. The cultural context has changed since his days, but the world is still the world. As we come to an understanding of the intent of the biblical author, we can be sure that the Holy Spirit will then apply that communication of intent even in the Postmodern world. As He applies that intent, the Holy Spirit's own intent ultimately, Postmodern people, who are rootless and who have rejected "meta narratives," can by God's grace "come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will."

Gene Edward Veith, Jr. notes that because of the centrality Christians assign to the Word spoken, the Word written, the Incarnate Word the redemption of human language becomes a central Christian task.13 Christ is redeeming the world. Pentecost is the biblical pattern for the redemption of human language. The confusion of Babel is replaced by unity in Christ. The distinction between Greek and Barbarian (someone who did not speak Greek!) is done away with in the church of Christ. Human language is not a problem but a channel for bringing the means of grace to people, even in the Postmodern world.

Reflecting on the Eternal Word of God.

Herman Bavinck writes:

Moreover, whereas God's revelation in nature and Scripture is definitely directed to man, God uses human language to reveal himself and manifests himself in human forms. It follows that Scripture does not merely contain a few anthropomorphisms; on the contrary, all Scripture is anthropomorphic. From beginning to end Scripture testifies a condescending approach of God to man. The entire revelation of God becomes concentrated in the Logos, who became "flesh." It is as it were one humanization, one incarnation of God. If God were to speak to us in divine language, no one would be able to understand him; but ever since creation, he, in condescending grace, speaks to us and manifests himself to us in human fashion. Hence, all the names with which God names himself and by means of which he allows us to address him are derived from earthly and human relations. 14

If God were the reader of the text, no one would understand Him. But God knows that the readers of His text are sinful, fallen, mankind. He speaks to us in language that is part of our experience. He uses language that transcends the culture in which it was given, and reaches into the very heart of our human experience, individually as well as collectively. As we study the several qualities of the Word of God revealed in the Scripture, we find a pattern for the effects of the Word of God in our own lives. The Bible teaches us what the Word of God does. Our exegetical study leads us to pastoral teaching and prayer that brings the Word of God into the lives of Christ's people and accomplishes God's will in them.

Examples from the Psalms.

Consider some examples from a brief study of the Word taken from the Psalms. There are a number of Hebrew words for "word," but the one used most commonly is DaBaR, which is related to one of the verbs "to speak" in Hebrew. Reflect on the following texts as someone who lives in a Postmodern culture where language is seen as something like pure mathematics, it has meaning only within itself and to nothing else.

The Psalmist's word: was Jesus deluded and deceived?

Psalm 22:1 My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me? Why are You so far from helping Me, And from the words of My groaning?

Was Jesus deluded and deceived as he prayed that on the cross? The psalmist, and Jesus as he was dying on the cross, actually believed that the words of his groaning were heard and understood by God. That they had a reference. Even the words of his groaning had a reference outside of himself. He trusted God. His tormentors were sure that he was deluded and deceived. They say in v. 8 "He trusted in the Lord, let Him rescue Him; Let Him deliver Him, since He delights in Him!" His enemies are saying "His words go nowhere and have no power and no meaning apart from his own experience; they are meaningful to him, but ultimately, they have no reference point outside his own speech." They were wrong.

The words of the wicked in the Psalms.

The words of the wicked are weapons that do harm and evil and that precipitate God's anger and judgment. Can they be indeterminate? Can they mean whatever meaning you want to give to them? It is not true that sticks and stones will break your bones but words will never harm you.

Psalm 59:12 For the sin of their mouth and the words of their lips, Let them even be taken in their pride, And for the cursing and lying which they speak.

These are not indeterminate words!

Psalm 64:3 Who sharpen their tongue like a sword, And bend their bows to shoot their arrows -- bitter words,

They are weapons

Psalm 109:3 They have also surrounded me with words of hatred, And fought against me without a cause.

Psalm 56:5 All day they twist my words; All their thoughts are against me for evil. [turning true words into weapons of destruction]

The words of the wicked are not sealed within a system that has no meaning outside of itself. They bring God's judgment.

Psalm 35:20 For they do not speak peace, But they devise deceitful matters Against the quiet ones in the land.

Psalm 36:3 The words of his mouth are wickedness and deceit; He has ceased to be wise and to do good.

Psalm 41:8 "An evil disease," they say, "clings to him. And now that he lies down, he will rise up no more."

Psalm 52:4 You love all devouring words, You deceitful tongue.

Psalm 55:21 The words of his mouth were smoother than butter, But war was in his heart; His words were softer than oil, Yet they were drawn swords.

Psalm 64:5 They encourage themselves in an evil matter; They talk of laying snares secretly; They say, "Who will see them?"

Psalm 119:139 My zeal has consumed me, Because my enemies have forgotten Your words.

Psalm 137:3 For there those who carried us away captive asked of us a song, And those who plundered us requested mirth, Saying, "Sing us one of the songs of Zion!"

Creation and Providence Word: both a message and a means.


Psalm 33:6 By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, And all the host of them by the breath of His mouth.

The word is the agent of creation. The word is described as "the breath of his mouth." God has no mouth nor has he breath. This is language that describes the material effects of the immaterial. The tangible creation by the intangible God. This troubles Postmodernists: the word is not a physical entity; it is a cognitive entity and a referential entity, and it doesn't fit in their scheme.


There is a testimony about this fact, that God's word that is cognitive and referential.

Psalm 19:3 There is no speech nor language Where their voice is not heard.

This is the universal voice of the revelation of the creation. It permeates all the linguistic communities of humanity. It signifies a message that all can receive and that all can understand. They "suppress the truth in unrighteousness."

God's Government is through the word: eternal yet manifested in the world today

Psalm 119:89 Forever, O LORD, Your word is settled in heaven.

It is a reigning word. It's fulfillment is in Christ, who ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God. But it also denotes the will and the power of God in eternity. The Divine Logos who is eternal and who reigned from before the beginning of the world. He affirms this in Proverbs 8:22 ff.].

Psalm 147:15 He sends out His command to the earth; His word runs very swiftly.

This is God's word of activity, of action, to sustain the creation.

Psalm 147:18 He sends out His word and melts them; He causes His wind to blow, and the waters flow.

The ministers to this creation are both spiritual beings and phenomena.

Psalm 103:20 Bless the LORD, you His angels, Who excel in strength, who do His word, Heeding the voice of His word.

Psalm 148:8 Fire and hail, snow and clouds; Stormy wind, fulfilling His word;

A word of Covenant action: message and commitment

The promise is made to man:

Psalm 105:8 He remembers His covenant forever, The word which He commanded, for a thousand generations,

Psalm 105:42 For He remembered His holy promise, And Abraham His servant. [holy DaBaR in Heb]

Psalm 147:19 He declares His word to Jacob, His statutes and His judgments to Israel.

The promises are claimed by man:

Psalm 119:25 My soul clings to the dust; Revive me according to Your word.

Psalm 119:28 My soul melts from heaviness; Strengthen me according to Your word.

Psalm 119:65 You have dealt well with Your servant, O LORD, according to Your word.

Psalm 119:107 I am afflicted very much; Revive me, O LORD, according to Your word.

Psalm 119:169 Let my cry come before You, O LORD; Give me understanding according to Your word.

Man made in the image of God speaks, and makes promises and commitments to God.

Psalm 105:28 He sent darkness, and made it dark; And they did not rebel against His word. [Perowne: Moses and Aaron]

Psalm 119:57 You are my portion, O LORD; I have said that I would keep Your words.

Man made in the image of God speaks and makes promises to God who understands and in turn keeps his promise to man.

Language is necessary for covenantal relationships to exist.

A covenant cannot be defined without language. If language is ultimately self-referential there are no covenants. We can't make commitments and promises to each other in marriage or in any other covenant. God even uses language to make his covenant between Himself and "all flesh that is on the earth," in Genesis 9:9-17, which includes the dumb creatures that can't speak. God nevertheless uses language to make his covenant. Even the very beginning would not have occurred without language, for God "said" and "it was."

Language ability is part of the image of God. This can be demonstrated in a number of ways.

No other creature on earth has the ability to use language; they are all made "after their kind." Man is alone among the creatures to be made in God's image, according to His likeness.

When covenant breaking man set himself to challenge God by building the Tower of Babel, God made it difficult for man to carry out his rebellion by confusing the languages. He did not make man dumb. To do so would have stopped the building project just as effectively. But it would have removed from man the ability to be a covenant creature and to reflect the glory of the God who is the Word.

When God brought an end to the enmity between himself and sinful man, he had the Good News of the New Covenant preached in the languages of man. (Pentecost) Redeemed men may now glorify God in their many languages.

Covenant life includes many commandments to govern the organs of speech: the heart, the tongue, the lips.

There are many other examples of the Word in the Psalms, but I'll stop with these.15

I will end by asking again:

"What is the place of the exegete in the Reformed church, especially today?

What is the nature of the work that he is to accomplish? His work is to bring forth the message of God which has been entrusted to the Church in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. It is to make sure he understands clearly the intent of the Divine author so that the Holy Spirit will be pleased to apply His own word to the hearts of people. And then he is to make that understanding available to others through his pastoral work. God moves the human soul by means of language applied by the Holy Spirit.

1Corinthians 1:19-21 For it is written: "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, And bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent." Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe.

The place of the Reformed Christian exegete today is to stand in the midst of the confusion and disintegration of the Postmodern world as a testimony to the existence of what Schaeffer called "true truth." True truth, not your truth, my truth, their truth. He stands as a testimony that true truth exists, and that it has been spoken by the One who is The Truth and The Way and The Life, and which has been passed on from generation to generation within the Church of Christ to reach this generation in its cultural rebellion. He stands as a testimony, just as the preacher in the Church stands as a testimony.

The preacher stands as a testimony that it is through the foolishness of the message preached that God saves Postmodern man out of his misery16 And so the exegete is a testimony in the midst of the confusion of Postmodernism that true truth exists, that it is accessible and that it is communicable. His calling is to speak the word of life afresh from the living Scriptures to people who have lost confidence in everything except personal sense impressions and pleasure. To show them that the testimony is true: " In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.... And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory as the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth."

1 Douglas Stuart (1980) Old Testament Exegesis. Philadelphia: Westminster Press.

2 Gordon D. Fee (1983) New Testament Exegesis. Philadelphia: Westminster Press.

3 Walter Kaiser, Jr. (1981) Toward an Exegetical Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker.

4 Jay E. Adams (1990) Truth Applied. Grand Rapids: Zondervan. p. 39

5 P. Cotterell and M. Turner (1989) Linguistics and Biblical Interpretation. Downer's Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

6 Francis Turretin (1696) The Institutes of Elenctic Theology. (Vols. 1-3 Ed. by James T. Dennison, Jr. 1992. Phillipsburgh, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company.

7 Francis Schaeffer (1972) He is There and He is Not Silent. Tyndale.

8 Jon Levenson "The Bible: Unexamined Commitments of Criticism". (First Things, February 1993)

9 Paul M. Blowers "Interpreting the Bible" (First Things, August 1994)

10 Quoted in an obituary in Libération, April 22, 1198. My translation.

11 Wilfred M. McClavey "Review of Postmodern Times: A Christian Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture. By Gene Edward Veith, Jr. Crossway." First Things. December 1994. See also the hyperlink references at and at Reference links at

12 See © 1995 Christopher Keep, Tim McLaughlin,

13 Postmodern Times: A Christian Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture. Crossway.

14 Herman Bavinck The Doctrine of God, Eerdmans. 1951 p. 86.

15 Consider the Action word of accomplishment, Psalms 105:19; 107:20; 119:130; the Direction word, Psalms 50:17; 10:24 (rejection of direction), Psalm 17:4 (protection), Psalms 119:9, 16, 101 (development of holiness and joy), Psalms 119:17, 43, 49, 105 (assurance and preservation); the Word of Faith: Psalms 106:12, 119:42, 119:147, 130:5, 119:74, 119:81, 119:114; the Nature of the word, Psalms 33:4; 119:160; Praise for the word, Psalm 56:4, 10; 119:161.

16 This is why it is such an abomination when churches shut the preachers off, and have little inspirational essays or turn worship into a Postmodern media experience.