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Mystical and Rational Approaches to Extracting Meaning

Biblical exegesis is the fancy term for extracting the meaning of Scripture. Throughout the last two millennia, methods of exegesis grew in various directions. The ancient tradition generally involved slowly praying the Scriptures, savoring them in humility and silence, as one would enjoy a cup of quality coffee or tea, savoring every taste, pausing between sips, paying attention to the delightful fragrance, feeling the steam caressing the face each time the cup is lifted to the lips.

This approach to enjoying a cup of coffee or tea imparts a different knowledge than analyzing the drink for it ingredients, temperature and pharmacological effects. That is the counterpart of rational or empirical exegesis, which has gained popularity in the denominations that are more reasonable than mystical, more practical than ritualistic or ascetic, more scientific than artistic.

Grasping the meaning of poetry with the intellect is like squeezing a handful of fine sand. A calm, still, open hand can hold much more sand than a closed, grasping fist. There is a good reason why the biblical books known as "wisdom literature" are written in poetic language. To impart wisdom, write poetically (and that does not mean make your sentences rhyme!) The cadence of a gurgling stream of water flowing over rocks is profound poetry, not to be dissected by the mind. In the Greek language of Paul's letter to the Ephesians, he writes that Christians are the "poiema" (poem) of God. So few of us in the West merit that honorable title. To impart knowledge, write analytically and factually, as in a thesis. (However, I would want to read a classic novel before reviewing an analytical thesis of it.) 

Write a song to enter the heart of a listener, or make up an intriguing story, as Jesus liked to do. To someone whose intellect is more open and alert than his or her heart and soul, read an encyclopedia or dictionary definition. He or she won't criticize your poetic renditions and believe to have obtained the truth. The Truth however, as Jesus called Himself, cannot be transmitted that way.

So with what kind of exegesis shall we ponder the Scriptures? They are popularly called "The Word of God." When someone tells us, "Spend time in the word," we know what is meant: "Study your Bible."

Yet the Scriptures declare: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" (John 1:1). In the book of Hebrews we read, "In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word" (Hebrews 1:1-3a, NIV).

There is only one Word. All the thousands of words in Scripture reflect that One Word. As a kid, I enjoyed focusing sunlight into a small point with a magnifying glass and burning holes into paper or wood. This concentrated light would often start a flame. Interestingly, fire is a metaphor for the power of Holy Spirit. One of the poorest definitions of exegesis I heard was, "Keeping the word in your heart," which really means, "Memorize Scripture in your mind."

To explain a bit what I mean, I quote from Tortured for Christ by Richard Wurmbrand: "In solitary confinement, we could not pray as before. We were unimaginably hungry; we had been drugged until we acted like idiots. We were as weak as skeletons. The Lord's Prayer was much too long for us -- we could not concentrate enough to say it. My only prayer repeated again and again was, 'Jesus, I love You.'" I once heard Wurmbrand speak. He explained how in his torture and confinement, he forgot all Scripture quotes and memorized prayers from the Psalms. Such memorization, now lost, did not sustain him. But all the words he ever studied and memorized from Scripture were concentrated like a magnifying glass concentrating light into his soul into one point: The words condensed into one Word, and he loved that Word as that Word loved and sustained him. At that time, that is all he needed. He spent lots of time "in the Word" and now is residing forever in the Word's Presence.

There are a couple of books on the market written by former atheist lawyers and investigators who took on the challenge of forensic analysis to prove Christianity is a hoax and ended being converted to the Christian faith. Then we have the ludicrous claims of the "Da Vinci Code". Many theological scholars have written less perverted theses, but, nonetheless nonsense. Handing out Bibles to those who don't want them yet promise (or we hope they will) read them does not seem to be an especially effective evangelical approach. The Bible is both revered and profaned, by those who are well acquainted with its contents. Spiritual exegesis seems to elude even sincerely interested people.

Three notable examples are found in the New Testament. "Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures" (Luke 24:45). "And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself" (Luke 24:27). "Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. 'Do you understand what you are reading?' Philip asked. 'How can I,' he said, 'unless someone explains it to me?' So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him" (Acts 8:30-31).

Luke was so emphatic and in awe of the wondrous event of "the word of God" that "came to John, son of Zechariariah, in the desert" (Luke 3:2b), that he marked it with exquisite detail: "In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar - when Pontious Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Itureah and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene - during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas" (Luke 3:1-2a). Do we share Luke's exuberance underscored by his detailed description of when this Word of God came?

The Bible, of course, is not "a" book, but a bibliography (bible) of books. Some of them are historical and documentary records. Most are best regarded as personal letters from God to us. While books can be relegated to literary archeology, letters always communicate personal messages. Letters are to be personally embraced and acted upon, treasured as heart to heart union.

If you do not believe a personal letter is addressed to you, you will discard it. That is why the Scriptures speak so much about belief being a prerequisite to understanding, rather than the opposite.

This suggests several conditions for biblical exegesis that lead to spiritual enlightenment. The first is knowing how to discern the presence of the Word (Logos, the Christ) in "the word." The second is perceiving "the word" as a personal message to each of us, a message that will suit our ability to understand and our need to incorporate it into our daily living, in accordance with our spiritual development. (That's why Paul writes about his frustration with having to continue to provide "milk" instead of "meat" to the early converts.)

If such messages do come from the heart of our Creator, how can they not call out a "cry from the depths" of our hearts? And if they don't, can you rightfully conclude, based on your personal response to the Scriptures, that they are not from the Creator's heart? This suggests a third condition of exegesis, humility. Arrogance in the heart is fatal, the arrogance that dismisses what is Truth because that heart believes it can discern truth on its own human and very limited ability. This is the arrogance of Satan, who deemed he could transcend Truth and be like God. Like Humpty-Dumpty, he took a great fall, and no one in authority could put him back together, though they succeeded, in Satan's case, creating the illusion they did, for which others will fall. 

I once thought how blessed Moses was with his face-to-face encounter with God. "The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend" (Exodus 33:11). Then I contemplated what Jesus said to His followers, "I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master's business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you" (John 15:15).

We now can experience the same privilege of Moses! God speaks to all of us today as a friend! All of humanly conceived and invented mythology regarding gods and goddesses (and I am thinking primarily of the ancient Greek and Roman cultures as I write this) could not produce a more outlandish and wondrous depiction of our Creator as provided in the Judaic-Christian traditions and Scripture. (And let both Jews and Christians keep in mind that, except for the books of Luke and the Acts, all Scripture, Old and New Testaments, is of Jewish origin.)

Biblical study as scholarly science is vital and I, for one, enjoy its discipline. Wisdom, however, teaches me biblical exegesis that leads to conversion, sanctification and growth far transcends scholarly or scientific approaches. The same Spirit who inspired people to write the Scriptures is the same Spirit who inspires the Church (the body of Christ, that is made of individuals) and the individuals themselves.

God spoke to us long before we sought to speak to Him. Thus the cry of the Shema, "Hear, O Israel" (Deuteronomy 6:4). And thus the cry of Christ, "He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches" (Revelation 3:22).

The hearing comes first, the understanding later. This is the exegesis that brings life and truth into our hearts.

Our forefathers would read the Scriptures aloud, or, when alone, with moving lips. Books and scrolls were rare and treasured in their days. Today, most of us in first world countries have hundreds of books sitting on our shelves, needing frequent dusting. Many of us subscribe to one or more newspapers delivered to our homes every morning, along with many more magazines. Our local bookstores are stocked with thousands of literary works, supplanted weekly by the publishing industry.

This overwhelming abundance of reading material, both in print and electronic formats, and the overwhelming time needed to consume them, produced the popularity of speed-reading techniques. More information enters our homes through television, to the point that many of us practice channel surfing with our remote controls and watch several broadcasts simultaneously.

While these ways of assimilating information are useful in keeping up with the explosion of news and knowledge, they become spiritually deadly when applied to the reading of the Scriptures. The relatively new programs of "Reading the Bible in a Year" with the reward of a certificate or inscribed coffee cup would have been so strangely incomprehensible to the ancients. Their first problem, I believe, would be "reading."

The Bible cannot be read like other literature. What our Creator has provided must be savored in the context of our personal needs and spiritual development, not in a goal of accomplishment in time. Reading the Bible following a daily schedule has little to do with understanding it, and less so with praying through it. Unless it is understood and incorporated as prayer, reading it is just a prideful accomplishment, I believe.

While it is not popular to admit it, we all talk to ourselves. We can talk to ourselves better than anyone can talk to us. Likewise, only God knows best how to talk to God. That's why Jesus' apostles asked Him, "Lord, teach us to pray." They did not ask Him, "Teach us a prayer." They already had many prayers memorized and were not interested in another one. So Jesus taught them how to pray, not providing another prayer, yet we took His teaching and turned it into a memorized prayer rather than a format or teaching on how to pray. Furthermore, we say it much too quickly. (Take a look at our Reflection on "The Lord's Prayer" which you'll find in the Subject Index of the Weekly Reflections on our web site.)

The Psalter was Christ's (and His followers) prayer book. Too much misguided theology have been devoted to the meaning of "Christ's Seven Last Words on the Cross." Another Reflection, that can be found in the Subject Index of our web site, documents how every one of His last words were prayers and quotations from the Psalms, including the physical sounding statement, "I thirst." Like Christ, His predecessors, His disciples, and the monastics after them, I love praying from the Psalms. There are no needs in my life that are not already expressed in them. There are no praises and thanks that I can give our God in greater eloquence than is already provided in the Psalter.

I believe and experience that the Psalms are inspired ("the breath of the Holy Spirit"). So when I pray them, I am praying God's own words to Him. Can I pray any better words to Him, He who knows all my words before I utter them, along with the number of hairs on my head?

I end with a sixth century document quotation written by Pope Gregory of the Roman Catholic tradition: Since one who loves more risks more, I must reprimand my most illustrious son Theodore. He has received from the most holy Trinity the gifts of intelligence, well-being, mercy and charity. But they are forever stifled by profane questions, by constant comings and goings. Thus he neglects to read the words of his Redeemer each day. What is Scripture if not a letter from almighty God to his creature? If Your Excellency lived somewhere else and received mail from an earthly monarch, he would have no peace, he would not rest, he would not shut his eyes until he had learned the contents of that letter. The king of heaven, the Lord of men and angels, has written you a letter that you might live, and yet, illustrious son, you neglect to read it with ardent love. Strive therefore, I beg you, to meditate each day on the words of your Creator. Learn to know the heart of God in the words of God. Thus you will long for the things of heaven with greater desire, and your soul will be more eager to for the joys that are invisible...May the Spirit fill your soul with his presence, and in filling it make it more free. (Gregory, Epist. IV, 31 [PL 77, 706ab])

John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
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