Essay / Theology

Review of Peter Leithart’s Deep Exegesis

In 1841, John Henry Newman wrote the following in his Tract 90, Remarks on Certain Passages in the Thirty-Nine Articles: “Two important questions, however, [the 39 Articles] does not settle, viz. whether the Church judges, first, at her sole discretion; next, on her sole responsibility, i. e. first, what the media are by which the Church interprets Scripture, whether by a direct divine gift, or catholic tradition, or critical exegesis of the text, or in any other way; and next, who is to decide whether it interprets Scripture rightly or not;–what is her method, if any; and who is her judge, if any. In other words, not a word is said, on the one hand, in favour of Scripture having no rule or method to fix interpretation by, or, as it is commonly expressed, being the sole rule of faith; nor on the other, of the private judgment of the individual being the ultimate standard of interpretation.” The issues this observation elicit remain an ongoing question today and not only for Anglicans. Who interprets the Scriptures? The individual Christian? The church together? What is the role of the Holy Spirit in the interpretation of Scripture? These questions, and many others concerning biblical interpretation, are alive today and are receiving a lot of attention. One of the latest additions to this literature is Peter Leithart’s Deep Exegesis: The Mystery of Reading Scripture (Baylor University Press, 2009).

In this work Leithart begins by insisting that the letter of written texts (including the Scriptures) is as important, if not more important, than the spirit of the text. Showing that figurative, typological exegesis depends on the letter as well as the spirit, Leithart divides his argument into six chapters:

  1. The Text is a Husk: Modern Hermeneutics;
  2. Texts are Events: Typology;
  3. Words are Players: Semantics;
  4. The Text is a Joke: Intertextuality;
  5. Texts are Music: Structure;
  6. Texts are about Christ: Application

In short, Leithart believes that the meaning(s) of texts is always open to discussion since the text is being interpreted in light of subsequent history, use of words, structure, etc. That is, texts are not frozen documents that are unaffected by subsequent events and later readings: “Meaning, in short, is not only personally variable but culturally mutable. It depends on the way things turned out. Like events, texts not only can but must be read in relation to later events and texts. The original text and its meaning change with time, and our understanding of it must change accordingly” (p. 67). As well, words themselves are also not frozen in time but are multivalent. Thus, exegesis of a Pauline passage is not made easier by Paul’s choice of words but made more difficult since the words Paul employs have been used in other texts (both biblical and non-biblical). Thus, these words do not have fixed definitions gleaned from a dictionary but can have multiple shades of meaning dependent on prior usage.

Using William Shakespeare and T. S. Eliot as examples, Leithart aptly demonstrates that words can have allusions that are lost on the reader if she simply relies on a dictionary. Readers need to bring a whole arsenal of tools to the interpretive task: “In certain kinds of texts, the author makes his intention or the logic of his arrangement explicit. But in poetry, fiction, and more literarily minded nonfiction, this is not the case. So the interpreter attempts to discern the logic of the pattern of words on the page from the words on the page, bringing into play his or her knowledge of the author, the historical period of the writing, other literature, and so on” (p. 135). Leithart argues that what is true for a Shakespearean or Sophoclean or Homeric text is also true for a biblical text, and I am convinced he’s right.

Leithart makes a persuasive case and does so by employing elements from linguistics, philosophy, literary studies, Christian history, theology, Biblical studies and music, to name a few. Deep Exegesis is truly an integrative study and strives to make relevant to the task of Biblical studies insights gleaned from other areas of learning. Using John 9 as his ongoing focus of exegesis, Leithart provides a very illuminating study on the multi-layered aspects of the Johannine text of a man born blind while also proving his point that figurative, typological exegesis holds real promise for the Christian church today. Everyone interested in understanding the Bible (and what Christian isn’t!) should read this book, but especially those with the specific, weekly task of preaching. Leithart’s clear writing style also makes the book a joy to read. Leithart is to be commended for his work and though he writes is a non-confrontational tone, those exegetes used to a more so-called historical-grammatical method will certainly be the most challenged by Leithart’s text.

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