The Canonical Exegesis Movement

The “Canonical Exegesis Movement” is not a term in use by anyone, but it is a description of something real that is going on in our time. For most of the 20th century, dispensationalism reigned supreme among evangelicals. This led to a lot of problems with our hermeneutics — because it was “hyper-literal” and because it wrote off the Old Testament as being “under Law” and therefore not applicable. The more academic types mixed this with higher critical assumptions about the books of the Bible being independent units which had to be read atomistically.

By the early part of the century, most of the evangelical options for Seminary education had disappeared as the “modernists” or liberals took over the denominations. This happened at almost the exact same time as the rise of dispensationalism. It was like a double tidal wave erasing our heritage and leaving us with a shell of the remainder. With time the fundamentalists and later the evangelicals regrouped and founded their own seminaries. There are now many of them an always new ones forming. However, most of them are relatively young. Not to overstate Westminster Theological Seminary may in some ways be the only direct connection we have with earlier heritage of Christian thought in our country going back to the Puritans. It was founded by J. Gresham Machen in protest over over the liberal slide of Princeton, and in preserved for us a non-dispensational heritage. Perhaps this is why people associated with it and its daughter seminaries (WTS California, and Redeemer) are among the leaders in bringing back the “old ways.” Among these is the procedure of looking at the whole Bible for truth, including a careful use of images and types.

Two major shifts happened over in the liberal world which also signaled an open door for evangelicals to pursue this avenue — Robert Alter did literary analysis which obseleted some of the old JEPD theory stuff, and Brevard Childs of Yale changed the discussion about Biblical Theology among some liberals to be about what is actually in the Bible. The generation of scholars just coming of age now are riding on these developments. On their shelves however are the classic books by Geerhardus Vos (Biblical Theology), Patrick Fairbairn (Typology), and Meredith Kline (Kingdom Prologue) which do not look through the dispensational lens.

Suddenly we’re seeing a whole new set of things going on. We have dictionaries such as the “New Dictionary of Biblical Theology” and the “Dictionary of Biblical Imagery” which are designed to look at themes as they develop in the Bible. We also have a major series of theology books released by IVP on Biblical Theology topics. There is also a major commentary now on the use of the old testament in the new, headed by perhaps the leading evangelical scholar in this area — Greg Beale. Beale said it rightly that his recent move to Westminster was a kind of coming home theologically. Westminster has never been a place just about “Calvinism” or I wouldn’t even pay attention to it. It’s a place about continuing the tradition of Reformed thought in all areas. Reformed Arminians like myself need to listen when these guys talk about stuff other than the TULIP. After all Calvinists get to spend their lives thinking while we Arminians feel compelled to actually do something.  🙂

The point however though is that a quiet revolution is taking place in Biblical Exegesis. The dry commentaries we’ve all gotten used to are going to be on the out, and the deeper, richer, Matthew Henry type stuff is going to come back in. It goes under different names “intertextuality,” “Canonical exegesis,” “Biblical Theology,”  “Imagery,” “Typology,” but really all of these things are related — they are looking at how the Bible interprets itself from front to back.

As Charismatics we can get a smile out of this since George Warnock layed it all out in his seminal work “Feast of Tabernacles” where he basically explained that we needed to follow the types, and connect the testaments, and do what the apostles did if we wanted to get the real meaning of the Bible out. All of the Charismatic preaching and teaching goes back to this simple insight that others have then built on. This was all taking place while the rest of the evangelical and pentecostal world was doing the dry dispensational thing. No one has been able to articulate clearly the theory under which Charismatic practice rested, however. You just kind of hear it, watch it, do it. And some are more interesting than others. A bunch of Reformed guys who don’t even believe in the Charismatic are about give us a basis for what we do. By showing how the apostles exegeted the Old Testament text, they will show us how to exegete New Testament text and apply it to now. For those of you who think this is an esoteric topic, it’s not. The entirety of Church practice rests on how we read the Scriptures. Reopening the Scriptures, except this time with significant academic firepower behind it is going to be an awesome thing. When we start reading the Scriptures the right way, hold on to your hats.

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2 Comments

  1. “By showing how the apostles exegeted the Old Testament text, they will show us how to exegete New Testament text and apply it to now. For those of you who think this is an esoteric topic, it’s not. The entirety of Church practice rests on how we read the Scriptures. Reopening the Scriptures, except this time with significant academic firepower behind it is going to be an awesome thing. When we start reading the Scriptures the right way, hold on to your hats.”

    This is interesting. Please ,give more insight here.
    Is this along the lines(or where does it fit) of those that want to discount historical books(Acts) as “not theology”? How ’bout the “out of context” Day of Pentecost? Peter refers to Joel. Joel said nothing about tongues, yet Peter interpets “this” as “that”.

  2. Jerry, Nice to see you. I think I got a little over-excited with that statement, but the key thing I’m focusing on is that right now the “context oriented” methods you are talking about limit us to a very one dimensional reading of Scripture. OR people will ignore them, and then you have an “anything goes” reading of Scripture, which makes for fascinating preaching but maybe with no real solid basis. These typological and image-oriented readings of Scripture lead to a deeper fuller reading of the Bible.

    It probably does help a little with the acts issue you speak of (although there will always be these critics) and it definitely helps with the Peter-Joel issue. Those in this camp would look at the reading not as “out of context” but for the explanation of the connection which makes it a logical quotation.

    At a practical level learning how Peter quoted the OT teaches us how to quote and apply the Bible in a richer way.

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