* Address at the graduation exercises by Graduate David Engelsma.
We view this topic as a proposition to be defended. There are other conceivable methods of treating this subject. One might, for example, explain what this theological discipline is or analyze the mode of its operation or relate its development in the history of the Christian Church. We will not concentrate on answering the question, What is the significance of exegesis, or, How does exegesis operate, or, What linguistic, textual-critical, and Biblical-historical abilities must an exegete have. Rather, our concern is to answer the questions, Is exegesis fundamentally important, and, Is exegesis important in distinction, say, from a knowledge of the eminent theologians of the day, in distinction from an awareness of the “mind” of the modern Church-world, in distinction from a thorough familiarity with even the best of dogmatics. To deal with the subject in such a way is justified, first, because of the prevalent disregard for and active opposition to exegesis. Churchmen do not contest what exegesis is nor do they dispute the operation of sound exegesis but they deny that exegesis has fundamental significance. They replace it, especially in their preaching, with past decisions of their church federation and substitute for it that which a majority of their congregation seems to like. Secondly, a solid conviction that exegesis is of fundamental importance is the basic defense against false methods of exegeting. One who believes that the matter of one’s friends is extremely important is well on his way towards a good choiceof friends. Finally, to view the topic as something to be defended is justified because this is highly relevant to the Church as a whole. The congregation has a stringent calling to insist that her preachers and teachers maintain the priority of exegesis.
For our purpose, the meaning of exegesis can be the literal translation of the word, “a leading out” or “interpretation.” To the question, “A leading out of what?” the answer is, “Out of Scripture.” Exegesis is the interpretation of Scripture. Although one might, in other circumstances, speak of exegesis of poems, novels, and essays, we refer to exegesis of Scripture as is implied by its being described as “fundamentally significant.” But we may limit the sphere of the topic still more. All believers interpret Scripture. They do it in their preparation for societies, in their individual meditations, and in their instruction of their children. We, however, are concerned only to stress the significance of exegesis in respect to the preaching of the Word. This limitation is not quite arbitrary since the interpretation of Scripture by believers generally, depends directly upon the exegesis of the proclamation of the gospel.
In the light of this limitation, it appears all the more clearly that exegesis and nothing else has the preeminence. One must preach, not merely read Scripture. How is he to know what he must say? Simply by leading out of the passage of Scripture the meaning of the Author. From this it becomes apparent that exegesis is not identical with preaching but is rather the indispensable requisite for preaching. To find the meaning of the Author is not the same as to preach that meaning but the latter is impossible without the former. Exegesis owes its importance to the utter gravity of the preaching which is based upon it. To distort the meaning of Scripture carries fearful consequences. Destruction is for the prophets who come in God’s name, who preface their sermons with “Thus saith the Lord,” but who, in fact, are neither sent by God nor preach what “He saith” at all (cf. Jeremiah 14, 23). And the people that suffer themselves to be deceived reap the bitter harvest. In order to speak one must interpret and when this is done according to the Spirit, the Author of Scripture, the minister is the proclaimer of the power of God unto salvation (Rom. 1:16).
The Word that is preached is Gods. For this reason exegesis is significant. The exegete, the interpreter, therefore listens. All who would interpret Scripture must be silent. “The Lord is in his holy temple: let all the earth keep silence before him” (Hab. 2:20) certainly includes in its scope, the exegete. Anyone who runs to Scripture jabbering his own words precludes the possibility of exegeting. In silence, the interpreter attends to the whole of God’s Word. This has been expressed in one of the cardinal rules of the method of exegesis, tota scriptura, the whole of Scripture. Closely related to this is another maxim, scriptura scripturae interpres, Scripture interprets Scripture. In silence, the exegete listens to God’s Word exclusively. His ears are closed to all other words. The relevant principle, here, is sola scriptura, only Scripture. Only then may the exegete become the preacher for only then may he say, “Thus saith the Lord.”
Where the word of man, the thoughts of man, the good intentions of man impinge upon the Word of God, there is demonic chaos. This is not to be understood as hyperbole. It is demonic because man’s word is fallen man’s word which has the devil as source and hell as end; and it is chaos because the word of fallen man is always the disruptive, disintegrating word of the lie. As its root, the incessant attempt to impose man’s word upon God’s has arrogance. Man may doubt the wisdom of something God says. Proud man may suppose, for example, that it is more conducive for morality to preach salvation by works than to preach salvation by grace. Arrogating to himself a higher wisdom than that demonstrated by the Holy Spirit, such a one replaces exegesis with his own imaginations. Or man may soften the thunder of God’s Word as he strives to do, for example, when he minimizes and explains away eternal, double predestination.
If the root is pride, the fruit is desolation. Either there is exegesis or there is the word of man which no matter how wise, how eloquent, how understandable, indeed, no matter how successful, is always foolishness with God.
The people of God, desiring to hear God in Christ, have the obligation to insist that exegesis is fundamentally important. It is not farfetched to conceive of apostasy working from the bottom up rather than from the top down. Disdain for sound exegetical preaching on the part of the preacher may simply be his response to the itching ears of the congregation. The sophists in old Greece taught that no truth of dogma or morals was absolute but that all was relative, dependent upon the whims of each individual Greek. Socrates pointed out that these sophists were merely the result, not the cause, of what the Greek people already believed and wanted to be taught. This process of deterioration also threatens the church. Not only does Paul inveigh against heretical preachers who enter the sheepfold of Christ as devouring wolves (Acts 20:29) but also against slack congregations who “will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts . . . heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears” (II Tim. 4:3). Especially ought the people of God to demand that sermons in their entirety be led out of Scripture, that is, exegetical. Not talks on the. happenings of the week, not expressions of the preacher’s feelings, not dissertations on dogmatics, but the living Word of God must be sought after and esteemed.
For the preacher, submission to what the Word says is of the essence. For, strictly speaking, exegesis cannot be done when faith is absent. Only faith listens; unbelief is always speaking. Faith alone says “Yes” to the Word of God; unbelief opposes with its resounding ‘No.” He who understands that the cause of the faulty explanation of Scripture by proponents of false doctrine is not natural ignorance but rebellious unbelief has no difficulty with the sharpness with which the great Reformers castigated their opponents on this score. Luther compared the Roman Catholic efforts to prove justification by works from Scripture to the rooting of swine in a sack of feed. Calvin, in a similar vein, complained that Pighius trampled Scripture like a pig tramples the muck in his pen. To be sure, such men propound errors but they are condemnable first of all for their careless and profane handling of the Word. The reverence of faith lets Scripture speak, each passage in the specific context of the chapter, in the general context of the book, in the context of the whole of Scripture, each passage with its own unique revelation of God’s counsel according to the meaning of the Holy Spirit, each passage as infallibly inspired and, thus, in harmony with the one revelation of the God of our salvation in Christ.
At this juncture one can speak of the significance of exegesis for different parties, inasmuch as diligent and continual exegesis in the Church bestows benefits. The preacher profits because he daily seeks and finds new pearls in the treasure chest of Scripture. In the way of faithfully interpreting Scripture, he obtains the unshakeable assurance of the apostle Paul, “I am pure from the blood of all men. For I have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God” (Acts 20:26, 27). And through exegesis, the minister develops and becomes more and more attuned to the perfect knowledge of God. The Church, coming under exegetical preaching and teaching, radiates God’s glory as her members confess what is taught. Her members are equipped to live and to die in the power of the only unchanging Word. Besides, the confession of faith, the credo, of the Church deepens and broadens throughout the ages as she advances in the wisdom of God to which there is no end. Last and (for once) least, although not unimportantly, seminarians profit from the impression on their souls that exegesis has fundamental significance. They are sent out to learn, in every case, before they teach and to listen before they speak. They are sent out to ask themselves, under the judgment of Scripture, in regard to every proclamation, “Who says this? Do I, do other men, or does God?”
“Where thou must believe, thou must not cling to what thy thinking or feeling telleth thee, but what the Word of God telleth thee, however little thou feelest it.” So Luther. And that, I venture, expresses the central beauty of our seminary, teaching fledglings to listen to the Word of God, the Word with all its “rough” edges, the Word in all its power, the Word alone, to the shutting up of the mouth of man. When men speak, they deny God. When men speak about God, they create a puny god in their own image. But when God speaks of Himself, He reveals Himself, majestic, glorious, and mighty to save. Listening to Him speak defines both the task and the significance of exegesis.
Perhaps, Rev. H. Hoeksema will not mind my quoting this charge of his, made in class, not soon to be forgotten: “You must preach the Word and for that you must have exegesis. Let nothing stand, to the detriment of exegesis, between you and the Word, not your likes or dislikes and not my dogmatics, nothing. And if this means that our churches some day put you out as a heretic, let the Word stand.”