How to Understand and Apply the New Testament
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How to Understand and Apply the New Testament

Twelve Steps from Exegesis to Theology

Andrew David Naselli

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eBook - ePub

How to Understand and Apply the New Testament

Twelve Steps from Exegesis to Theology

Andrew David Naselli

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Anyone can learn how to study and teach the Greek New Testament faithfully by following this logical twelve-step interpretive process that moves from text to observation, context, meaning, and application.

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Why Start with Genre instead of Textual Criticism?

As I explain in the introduction, I’ve broken down the exegetical and theological process into twelve steps. Step 1 is Genre: Establish guidelines for interpreting a passage’s style of literature. (Genre refers to a style of literature.)
I’m starting with genre rather than textual criticism. Many exegetes begin their steps of exegesis with textual criticism, that is, establishing the original wording of the text. Many, perhaps most, handbooks on Old and New Testament exegesis make textual criticism step 1.
Textual criticism is a logical starting point. You need to make sure that you’re working with the right text before you can analyze it. But I think it makes more sense to start with genre because this is the first step we intuitively take when we read something.
For example, when you get the (physical) mail from your mailbox, you intuitively sort it according to genre before you read it: advertisements (which you’ll likely trash immediately), bills, personal letters, and so forth. Or when you read an e-mail or text from a close friend or family member, you know before you even start reading the message that it differs from a Supreme Court opinion or a newspaper’s editorial or a Shakespeare play or a romantic poem or a Harry Potter novel or an academic journal article.
And the same is true with parts of the New Testament. Before you even begin the process of textual criticism (which we address in step 2), you already have a sense for the sort of genre you’re in, whether it’s Gospel or narrative or letter or apocalyptic.1

What Are Some General Principles for Interpreting the Bible?

Before we establish specific guidelines for interpreting various styles of literature in the New Testament, we should establish some general principles for interpreting any of the styles of literature. The technical terms for these general principles and specific principles are general hermeneutics and special hermeneutics. Special hermeneutics concerns various genres, while general hermeneutics concerns all genres.
Rob Plummer suggests ten general principles:2
1. Approach the Bible in prayer. You are not all-knowing; only God is. And sin permeates your whole being, including your mind, will, and emotions. So you need God’s help to remove the blinders related to your finite abilities and related to your sin. You should make it your habit to directly ask God to illumine your mind through the Holy Spirit and then to maintain a prayerful posture that depends on God’s Spirit as you read.
This does not mean that you check your brain at the door when you enter the world of Bible study. Far from it. Consider what Paul writes to Timothy: “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything” (2 Tim. 2:7). That is stunning logic: What is the reason that Timothy should carefully think over what Paul writes? The reason is that the Lord will enable Timothy to understand. That’s how Bible study works. You give it everything you’ve got. You work hard to understand. You use the tools of exegesis that we are learning to use in this book. And as you do that, you depend on the Lord to give you understanding.
In this book’s introduction, I ask, “Which Is More Valuable: Ten Minutes of Prayer or Ten Hours of Study?” That’s not the best question. Why not study for ten hours on your knees? It’s so important not to separate doctrine from devotion. They go together.
2. Read the Bible as a book that points to Jesus. The chapter on biblical theology unpacks this (chap. 9).
3. Let Scripture interpret Scripture. Follow this syllogism:
  • Major premise: God is entirely truthful—without error and incapable of error.
  • Minor premise: The Bible is God-breathed.
  • Conclusion: Therefore, the Bible is entirely truthful—without error and incapable of error.3
This means that the Bible doesn’t contradict itself. So a sound principle is that we should interpret less clear passages in light of more clear passages. We shouldn’t zoom in on just one text and interpret it without reference to the rest of the Bible. That’s what heretics do.
For example, I’m not 100 percent sure what “being baptized on behalf of the dead” refers to in 1 Corinthians 15:29, but based on other Scripture I can rule out what it certainly does not mean. We must interpret the unclear in light of what is more clear.
4. Meditate on the Bible. Think deeply for an undistracted period of time about what you read, whether that’s a word, a phrase, a sentence, a paragraph, a psalm, a story, a whole book, or how a theme in one passage connects to other passages. Make your mind a Crock-Pot, and let the Bible sit in it. Give it time. One of the best ways to do this is to memorize the Bible, whether small portions or large ones.4
5. Approach the Bible in faith and obedience. The Bible is a book like no other. It’s not a philosophy book for you to critique. God wrote it. It’s God-breathed, so it carries the authority of God himself. It’s the final, ultimate, supreme authority. So you should approach the Bible accordingly: believe it, and obey it—by God’s grace. “Be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (James 1:22).
6. Take note of the biblical genre you are reading. The rest of this chapter studies genre.
7. Be aware of historical or cultural background issues. The chapter on historical-cultural context works through this (chap. 6).
8. Pay attention to context. The chapter on literary context addresses this (chap. 7).
9. Read the Bible in community. Don’t be a lone ranger. If you are a Christian, then you are part of the body of Christ. Other members in the body have gifts that you don’t. God designed the body to function together. So study the Bible together. This is one reason that preaching is so special: the church gathers together to hear the Word of the Lord together.
One other thing: you’re not the first person to try to understand the Bible. Thousands of Christians a lot smarter than you have been doing this for about two thousand years. And the Holy Spirit was helping them, too. So do you think it’d be wise to consider what some of the most significant exegetes and theologians wrote? We’ll talk more about that in the chapter on historical theology (chap. 10).
10. Begin [and faithfully continue on] the journey of becoming a more faithful interpreter. Don’t be discouraged that you don’t understand everything in the Bible. You never will. But although you will never understand the Bible exhaustively, you can understand it truly. And you can grow in your knowledge. You can understand it better and better. And like learning a trade or excelling in a sport or hobby, reading the Bible well is a skill that takes time. Start small, and set manageable goals. Keep at it every day, and see what God will do.
One challenging aspect of general hermeneutics (i.e., for all genres) is interpreting figures of speech. So the next section addresses that issue directly, and then what follows addresses special hermeneutics (i.e., for specific genres).

How Should We Interpret Figures of Speech?

Short answer: not literally but according to what the author or speaker intended to communicate. In other words, if I walk into the room with a little backpack on and say, “My bag weighs a ton,” you shouldn’t interpret that literally. The bag obviously doesn’t weigh two thousand pounds. You should interpret my words according to what I intended to communicate: my bag is really heavy. I used a figure of speech called hyperbole.
Here are eight types of figures of speech:
1. Hendiadys (hen-
) is substituting two coordinate terms for a single idea with one term modifying the other. Example: “the sacrifice and service coming from your faith” (Phil. 2:17 NIV) = “the sacrificial offering of your faith” (ESV).
2. Hyperbole is exaggerating for emphasis (not intended literally or to deceive). Example: “straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!” (Matt. 23:24).
3. Merism is substituting two contrasting parts for the whole. Examples: “Heaven and earth will pass away” (Matt. 24:35). “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end” (Rev. 21:6).
4. Metonymy is substituting one word or thing for another (usually because of a close mental association). Examples: “[God] will justify the circumcised [i.e., Jews] by faith and the uncircumcised [i.e., Gentiles] through faith” (Rom. 3:30). “You eat this bread and drink the cup” (1 Cor. 11:26): “the cup” = the liquid in the cup.
5. Personification is representing a thing, quality, or idea as a person. Example: “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1 Cor. 15:55).
6. Synecdoche
is substituting a part for the whole or the whole for a part. Examples: “all the world should be registered” (Luke 2:1) = “a census should be taken of the entire Roman world” (NIV). “To the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Rom. 1:16) = “first to the Jew, then to the Gentile”...