Grammatical-Historical-Spiritual Exegesis”

In the October 1, 1994 issue of the <=”” i=””>, Prof. Engelsma called Mr. Harold Camping back to the grammatical-historical-spiritual method of Bible interpretation. Would you please explain more fully what this is, for those of us who would want to tread carefully on the “holy ground” of Jehovah’s Word? Is the grammatical-historical-covenantal (method) something different? Are there books or literature that you can recommend on this topic? I and others will be eagerly awaiting your response. 

D. Scott Connerley 

Bloomington, IN Thank you for your article, “Lessons from the Recent False Prophecy of the Date of the End of the World” (SB, Oct. 1, 1994), which- I read with great interest. You mentioned “Camping’s repudiation, or ignorance, of sober grammatical-historical-spiritual exegesis.” Thus far in my seminary training, I have only been taught grammatical-historical exegesis. I would like to find out and be enlightened on what you mean by grammatical-historical-spiritual exegesis. If the Protestant Reformed Seminary has any published materials or notes on hermeneutics and exegesis which follow the grammatical-historical-spiritual principle, I would appreciate your sending them to me.

Bernard B. L. Low 



By the grammatical-historical method of exegesis is meant a certain method of discovering the one sense, or meaning, of a particular passage of the Bible. The grammatical-historical method seeks to arrive at the meaning of the text by means of the right understanding of the words themselves in their connections and by means of the right understanding of the historical setting of the text (when, where, and why the words were spoken, or the event took place).

If the words “grammatical-historical,” as describing the method of interpreting the Bible, are taken strictly and exclusively, this method of interpreting the Bible is inadequate. Indeed, it is a bad method. For it leaves the exegete—the one who interprets the Bible—and the people whom he teaches without any Word of God in the passage. A strict use of this method ignores that the Bible is the inspired Word of God in Jesus Christ to the church and believer. 

The right method of interpreting inspired Scripture, the method required by the Scripture itself, seeks also, and above all, to discover the doctrine of the Holy Spirit in the text—the Spirit’s (spiritual) Word to the church. Good exegesis is spiritual (I Cor. 2:10-16). Since the Spirit always testifies to Jesus Christ, in the section on the old covenant as in that of the new covenant, sound exegesis seeks and finds Christ in the passage (John 5:39; Luke 24:44-49; I Pet. 1:10-12). Spiritual exegesis is Christological exegesis. But Christ is mediator and head of the one covenant of grace. Therefore, good, spiritual, Christological exegesis will be covenantal exegesis. Rightly are the Holy Scriptures known as the Old and New Testaments, that is, the book of the old and new covenants. The ultimate purpose of the covenant Christ is the glory of the triune God (John 17:1; Rom. 11:36). The glory of God is the “canon within the canon.” Accordingly, we could call spiritual exegesis “theological exegesis.” 

As a method, spiritual exegesis operates by means of sound, sober analysis of the words, grammar, syntax, and historical setting. It does not bypass these elements. It does not minimize these aspects of the task of interpretation. But it is not content with them. It cannot stop with these elements and with these aspects of the task. Words, grammar, syntax, and historical setting stand in the service of the Word of God in the passage and express the Word of God. This, this is what exegesis is after. 

Herman Hoeksema advocated the “grammatical-historical-spiritual” method of exegesis. He wrote:

The grammatical-historical interpretation is not adequate to give us the sense of Scripture.

Scripture is a unity, and . . . we must not rest before we have discovered the one meaning of the . . . author of Holy Writ. The grammatical, logical, historical interpretation of Scripture is not sufficient. Words and sentences are, after ail, but vehicles that convey the one, central significance, the Word of God, which must be discovered by the spiritual interpretation. 

The grammatical-historical method . . . is undoubtedly sound in as far as it purposes to ascertain the precise meaning of the so-called secondary authors. It aims to arrive at the sense of the authors according to grammatical and historical rules. But although this method is effective in so far, it is nevertheless not sufficient. For Scripture is more than the mere aggregate of its books. It is an organic whole. Its one Author is the Holy Spirit. To the grammatical-historical interpretation, by which we may enter into the meaning of the human instruments, must be added the spiritual interpretation of faith, by which we may enter into the meaning of the Holy Spirit (unpublished seminary notes on “Hermeneutics,” pp. 9, 10, 60).

Louis Berkhof had the same thing in mind when he recommended, in addition to the grammatical and historical interpretation, a “theological interpretation”: “It is not only perfectly warranted, but absolutely necessary, to complement the usual grammatical and historical interpretation with a third. The name ‘Theological Interpretation’ deserves the preference”(Principles of Biblical Interpretation, Baker, repr. 1983, pp. 133ff.). 

More recently, Old Testament scholar Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. has been urging what he calls the “syntactical-theological method of exegesis.” He does not fault the traditional “grammatico-historical exegesis except that it fails to go far enough in describing the main job of exegesis.” According to Kaiser, it fails to discover the one Word of God in the text. Kaiser describes the failure this way:

Nothing could be more frustrating and discouraging to the interpreter than to have a message fall flat and lifeless on an audience after the interpreter has met all the requirements of investigating the grammar, syntax, literary structure, and history of a given text. After the exegete has invested all those hours conscientiously translating the text, parsing the verbs, investigating the historical backgrounds, and tracing the syntactical relationships, there is a feeling of betrayal when all that labor fails to deliver a credible message that will speak to modem men and women. Clearly, something further is needed. But what is it? The missing ingredient in most sermon preparation is theological exegesis.

Kaiser wants the exegete to find the theology in the passage. He even suggests what the “center” of this theology is: “God’s word of blessing . . . or promise . . . to be Israel’s God and to do something for Israel andthrough them something for all the nations on the face of the earth.” That Kaiser, committed to “biblical theology,” restricts the exegete to a consideration of the theology revealed in Scripture prior to the time of the text with which he is working is not our co& tern here. Kaiser, like Hoeksema and Berkhof, pleads for a spiritual, or theological, method of exegesis, and for the same reason (see Walter C. Kaiser, Jr.,Toward an Exegetical Theology: Biblical Exegesis for Preaching and Teaching Baker, 1981, especially, chapters 4 and 6).