Yesterday, I cited Christianity Today’s interview with Carson and Beale about Commentary of the NT use of the Old Testament. Here are some further quotes about methodology and some of the limitations of historical-grammatical exegesis.
Beale: Historical-grammatical exegesis traditionally has been used to exegete a Hebrew or Greek paragraph. You try to interpret it contextually in the book, using word studies, grammar, and syntax. You try to understand the logical development of thought within the paragraph, historical background, and theological or figurative problems. You check for parallel texts. It’s a whole array of things you bring to bear on a particular paragraph.
Eclectic and literary [method] extends grammatical-historical exegesis from just looking atomistically at the paragraph in the context of its book. In my view, part of exegetical method has to do with how the passage fits into the corpus of the author, how it fits in the New Testament, and how we relate it to the Old Testament. One would especially want to pay attention to Old Testament allusions and quotations, going back to see what’s happening in the Old Testament. You might call that a biblical-theological perspective that really goes beyond the traditional understanding of grammatical-historical.
I like to use the phrases “narrow-angle exegesis” and “wide-angle exegesis,” letting Scripture interpret Scripture, or “canonical-biblical exegesis.” This lets later texts in the Old Testament interpretatively develop the earlier texts, and traces how the trajectory finds further development with the New Testament writers. They tend to be sensitive, when quoting one text, to other developments of that text in the Old Testament. That’s a wider consideration than just looking at your paragraph in the New Testament book. You have to do both.
The limitations of historical-grammaticial exegesis are evident. The problem with any form of communication is that you need the context in order to fully understand its meaning. (Tip of the hat here to the Relevance Theory of Linguistics, which like the Bible is easy to understand in broad strokes but quite complicated in detail.) It’s hard enough when we try to communicate with our own loved ones. Understanding the Biblical context is further complicated by an interval of 2000 years and several layers of culture.
While we are on the subject of historical-grammatical exegesis. I liked this reference by DJA Clines who described it more of a way of life than a method.
From On the Way to the Postmodern: Old Testament Essays 1967-1998, Volume 1
(JSOTSup, 292; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998), pp. 23-45
i. Historical-grammatical exegesis. This is in fact not so much a method, but more a way of life to most biblical scholars. The term refers to . . . the endeavour to interpret any passage according to the natural sense of the words (‘grammatical’) and according to the probable meaning of the author in his own time (‘historical’). As a method, it functions first as a warning against arbitrary or fanciful interpretations, such as were often (but not invariably) to be encountered in pre-Reformation interpretation. Thus, while an allegorical interpretation of the Old Testament often saw in the name Jerusalem a veiled reference to the pious Christian soul or to the heavenly city, the historical-grammatical method insists that ‘Jerusalem’ in the Old Testament always refers to the ancient city of that name, unless there is good evidence to the contrary. Or, whereas the commentary on the prophecy of Habakkuk composed by members of the Dead Sea scrolls community at Qumran apparently interpreted the ‘righteous’ and ‘wicked’ referred to by Habakkuk (in the late seventh century bce) as persons contemporary with the Qumran community, in the first century bce, the historical-grammatical method insists that these words should refer to those persons intended by the prophet. (In this case, it is clear that Hab. 1.4 refers to ‘righteous’ and ‘wicked’ men of Habakkuk’s own time.)
Such an approach may seem obvious enough to us, but we may note that it may lead to apparent loss of understanding rather than gain. Thus, the statement of God in Gen. 1.26, ‘Let us make humanity in our image’, was readily interpreted by early Christian scholars as an address by God the Father to the other persons of the Trinity, since God is speaking of ‘us’ in the plural. As exegetes of the historical-grammatical school, we ourselves would deny that the author of Genesis 1 knew anything of the doctrine of the Trinity, since Genesis was written well before the advent of Christianity and the formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity; so we would deny that such can be the meaning. Nonetheless, we seem to be no better off than the early Christian scholars, for though many suggestions have been made, no entirely convincing interpretation of the plural can be offered. In such cases, we can only plead that to understand less is not necessarily to understand worse. Again, the historical-grammatical method can create problems which do not exist if its rigours are not applied. So references in the Psalms to the king, especially to the king as God’s son (Ps. 2.7), were traditionally interpreted by Christian scholars as references to the Messiah, Christ. If the historical-grammatical method is followed, however, the king must be seen as the contemporary Israelite king, and some explanation must be found for references to him as God’s son and for the address to him as ‘God’ (Ps. 45.6-if that is what the Hebrew actually says).
Despite such problems, the historical-grammatical approach is universally accepted, principally because it offers a criterion for judging between rival interpretations. It is not so clear to all scholars today, however, as it was even a few decades ago, that the meaning of a passage should be restricted to ‘the meaning intended by the author’. This doubt arises partly because authors (especially poets) do not always intend one meaning and one meaning only, and partly because re-applications of a prophet’s words (for example) to later situations-a process that was going on already in the Old Testament period and that is clearly evident in the New Testament-can be argued to draw out fresh, legitimate, meanings from those words which the prophet himself never intended. Even more important, it is also commonly argued today that the meaning of words is whatever they mean to readers and that authors have no control over what their words are taken to mean. This is an truly radical issue; but it is doubtful whether the historical-grammatical approach can ever be dispensed with, and the meaning we presume the author intended will always be an important constituent, though not the sum total, no doubt, of our interpretation of a passage.