Exegesis and biblical theology
Biblical Studies papers at Westminster are of several types. At one end of the spectrum is the exegetical paper, which simply requires an understanding and unpacking of the meaning of a particular passage of Scripture. At the other end of the spectrum is the biblical-theological paper, which starts from the foundation of exegesis but devotes itself to the exploration of certain themes as they develop throughout the entire Bible. While there is a certain amount of overlap between the exegetical and biblical-theological paper, there are also significant differences.
In between the exegetical paper and the biblical theological paper are others that are largely devoted to exegesis but also involve significant exploration of how a particular passage is fulfilled in Christ. Your professor will make clear what exactly he expects.
Exegesis is the close, careful reading of a text that attempts to uncover its meaning. While there are various tools for exegesis, all of them are intended to aid in understanding what the text is saying. Central to exegesis is the exercise of asking probing questions of your text. In an exegetical paper, the student argues that the text means what he has found it to mean through his own careful study.
Westminster understands biblical theology in the tradition pioneered by Geerhardus Vos, that is, as the study of the historical unfolding of God’s self-revelation. God has chosen throughout history to speak to different individuals at various times and places and in diverse ways (Heb 1:1). This speech has been accompanied by and coordinated with God’s action to redeem fallen humanity from sin.
This redemptive activity of God and the self-revelation of God that attends it have a historical dimension that is everywhere present and inescapable. This means that any particular section of Scripture should be understood against the background of the progressive outworking of the plan of God in history. The major concern of biblical theology, therefore, is to understand how a particular text is related to the historical unfolding of God’s redemptive purposes.
Accordingly, Westminster emphasizes the centrality of Christ in God’s self-revelation throughout history. Because all of Scripture is centered on and culminates in the person and work of Jesus Christ (Luke 24:44), biblical theology seeks to understand how the various epochs of God’s speech both anticipate and announce Christ and his Kingdom.
A biblical-theological paper explores the thematic connections between one biblical passage and the entire canon of which it is a part.
Particularly important is the progressive nature of that development. By locating the passage within the development of biblical revelation, the biblical-theological paper highlights the contributions made by that particular passage to the entire story of God’s redemption in Christ Jesus.
An exegetical paper differs from a biblical-theological paper in scope. An exegetical paper limits its focus to a particular passage, probing deeply and carefully into the details of grammatical-historical analysis.
By contrast, a biblical-theological paper explores the connections between a passage and the rest of Scripture, specifically highlighting how the elements found in that passage develop as God’s redemptive plan progresses. Because a biblical-theological paper is broader, there is less space available for discussing exegetical minutiae – an abbreviated exegetical overview is usually sufficient. Most of the paper will be devoted to tracing thematic connections between your passage and the rest of Scripture.
Note, however, that both papers usually require a thesis statement. This provides unity and focus for the paper.
Research in biblical studies at Westminster is focused upon understanding what the Bible says and means. Because students often come to seminary with a prior familiarity with the Bible, careful attention to what a text says and means can sometimes seem too elementary or simple.
To read well is a difficult and delicate art, and to read the Bible is to read a unique book—a divinely inspired book telling a unified story with many different parts, genres, and authors, spanning centuries of oral and written transmission, and compiled in due time according to the providence of God.
To study a biblical text well requires paying attention to its specific details and subtleties in an effort to listen carefully to everything that a particular passage has to teach. The detailed study of a text most easily proceeds by means of the focused exercise of asking questions of your text. Ideally, you will translate the passage from its original language and use the tool of discourse analysis to generate deep, grammatically-focused questions of your text.
As you seek to answer these questions, you will inevitably find yourself using secondary sources to fill in gaps in your knowledge and to familiarize yourself with ongoing scholarly discussions.
These are the first steps toward responsible and careful exegesis. But, these alone will not help you to understand the fullness of what your passage means in God’s larger redemptive plan. For help connecting your passage to the larger narrative of the whole Bible, see tips for biblical-theological papers.
These questions will stimulate the exercise of listening carefully to the text. Not all questions will be pertinent to your text, and some will remain unanswerable.
Another tool used in exegesis at Westminster is discourse analysis, a method which studies the logical relationships between the various propositions in a passage. Since exegesis seeks to understand what the text actually says, rather than what the reader assumes it says, it is crucial that you understand the logical development of the original author’s thought (ideally in the original languages). By breaking down a text into individual propositions and asking, “What grammatical and syntactical cues indicate how these ideas relate?” the careful exegete can begin to understand the emphases of the original author. In the process, this deep grammatical study of the text often generates various questions for the exegete to investigate.
Secondary sources (what scholars have said about your text) are necessary for responsible exegetical study. By reviewing secondary source material you will benefit from the insights of many different exegetes.
Because the exegetical paper is primarily an exposition of the biblical text, your consideration of secondary research material should not overwhelm your own analysis and discussion of the text. Your paper must not merely recount what different scholars have said about your passage. Rather, your paper should be a sustained engagement with your passage that clearly communicates your own conclusions about it and only references secondary material in a way that supplements your own study. In this way the exegetical paper will be your own explanation of your text in dialogue with secondary material. A good rule of thumb is to consult commentaries only after you have completed your exegesis of the passage.
It is difficult to discern the relationship between your passage and the rest of Scripture until you have spent ample time studying the passage on its own. While a detailed discussion of exegesis will probably not find its way into the final draft of your paper, you should nevertheless devote yourself to careful exegesis and, if possible, translation from the original languages. Do not rush this step.
Meditate on the passage and pray for insight. This step often provides a fresh understanding of familiar texts, opening new avenues for exploration.
No passage says everything, so pay attention to the particular emphases of your passage. What imagery is used? How does your passage present God? What is the relationship of God to His people, and to those who are not His people? What theological points does the author emphasize? These and other questions will help you to identify particular themes, motifs, images, or concepts for further exploration.
Being as specific as possible in identifying these elements will provide a clear direction for your investigation of how these elements function within the rest of the canon. (For example, identifying “the church” as a major theme of Eph 2:11-22 would be less helpful than “the church as God’s building” or “the community of peace.”)
As you consider how the themes and concepts of your particular passage are developed progressively in Scripture, remember that all of the promises of God, in both Old and New Testaments, find their “yes” of fulfillment in Christ (2 Cor 1:20). The central subject matter of all Scripture is Christ and the redemption he brings (Luke 24:44). Therefore, your paper should indicate how your passage points to Christ – how the themes of your passage find their climactic fulfillment in Him. This does not mean that every passage of Scripture is a direct “messianic prophecy” but that every part of Scripture is centered on Christ and contributes to the story of which Christ’s coming is the grand fulfillment.
Because of the marvelous complexity and interconnectedness of biblical truth, there is virtually no end to the exploration of any particular theme. Exploration of one theme will lead to insights on other themes. The unity of truth means that biblical themes are organically related to each other and to the whole scope of revealed truth. Therefore study of any individual theme can provide a view of Scripture as a whole.
While it is necessary to consider each theme carefully and thoroughly, you should not give so much attention to the depth of a single theme that you fail to identify and explore the breadth of other themes involved in your passage. Because you have limited space, be succinct and direct in your writing, so that you can cover as much of the biblical landscape as possible without sacrificing depth of analysis.
As you familiarize yourself with scholarly discussions of your text, you will be surprised to discover ideas, interpretations, and questions that you had not previously considered. You will want to become conversant with the major interpretations of your passage, allowing the questions generated by your research to focus your ongoing study.
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